"My dad is a very conservative pastor, and I'm very gay."
In the wake of fire and brimstone, Nœlani Manami rises from the ashes as herself, more honest and true than ever before. With a visceral journey through music and identity—a single entity, as far as she's concerned—she's returned to her raw, emo roots with her latest single, "Amazing (Dis)Grace."
I met Nœlani during her time at music college, where she shared her songs with me, and I graded them. Even in the asylum of student-teacher conversation, the world waiting to unravel in the years to come was more than I could have assigned.
This time, years later, I talked with her about her new release, her origins, and the reconciliation between truth and grace.
Let's start from the beginning. Tell me about this music adventure.
Well, I've taken a pretty long break when it came to producing and writing. I feel as artists, we're always coming up with ideas and grabbing inspiration from every spark of genius that comes our way, but I really got depressed after releasing a few of my very first debut tracks into the world back in 2020—so a couple of years ago. And it just, I don't know, wasn't received well. I got a lot of criticism, even some death threats from people and it really, really affected me in a way I didn't expect. I thought I had pretty tough skin and was able to take criticism at this point. But yeah, some people can be pretty cruel out there. This world can get ugly. So I fell into a sort of depression when it came to music. I could not even touch my guitar for about 10 months. I didn't play anything. I didn't do anything music-related and just stepped away. I wrote a lot more.
With this song—I actually just wrote it at the end of November—I got into a big, I wouldn't say argument, but I guess, a conflicting conversation with my dad. He and I have different opinions and I just wish that we could be both more understanding and empathetic toward each other.
I don't even know how to start this but you know, I'm just going to say it. I'm really not straight when it comes to the sexuality spectrum. I have a lot of questions, and I've learned to be able to sit in that tension and that dissonance and kind of find peace and beauty in all of the uncertainty when it comes to what's right, what's wrong, and your our own ideas about what's acceptable to both God and society.
So how did you find that peace? What was that process?
It's still an ongoing process, I would say, because it's taken many years to get to this place. I guess my idea of peace is not trying to proactively destroy myself (Laughs). That's my idea of peace—not trying to disintegrate my being.
But I definitely grew very accustomed to the ideas of normalcy and keeping the status quo of not being different and just conforming with what I was taught, and thinking that any view outside of a man and woman heterosexual relationship is evil. So, I struggled a lot with that growing up, but am learning to find this peace in the dissonance. I've been realizing the fact that there is no absolute, concrete answer with complete factual evidence that I can rely on when it comes to these matters of humanity.
The morality of it all, you mean? Yeah, and I think, even humanity in general. Being human, what is that? What does being human even mean? It's a very gray area. It's not black and white. Humanity is a spectrum. And there's no way to create this dualistic idea of it and make it in a healthy and sustainable way.
"You weren't allowed to make mistakes...You weren't allowed to fail. And if you did, you were crucified."
I know you, so obviously, I don't really need to ask this question for myself, but just for the sake of this interview, can you talk about where that struggle is rooted in your upbringing?
Well, my dad is a pastor. Growing up, there was a lot of indoctrinating and not actually believing in something for myself but whatever doctrine and dogma I was taught. And with my dad being a pastor, there was a lot of pressure, being a pastor's kid and conforming with the church and being what was acceptable to the congregation. There was this dualism to just always putting a face—a whole other character—and presenting yourself in a way that was only pleasing others, and not authentic and real to who I believe God made me to be.
So that struggle was always there, even not even in terms of being queer and gay. Just the fact that you weren't allowed to make mistakes...You weren't allowed to fail. And if you did, you were crucified.
Yeah. Obviously this plays into your music a lot because it's a huge part of your identity—not the whole, obviously—but what else plays into that identity that comes out in your music that you can see?
Yeah, you know, it's interesting about that (Laughs). You know this too... going to music school, you kind of get nicknames and people create these personas of your character. You know, you had one of being kind of that dark, mysterious musician.
And I mean, it's pretty much my fault for the kind of art I was creating back then too. There's a couple songs. I'm like, Oh, my gosh, what was this girl thinking?
I created a very, like, violent and raw music that very much unprocessed, and it stung a lot of ears. People called me the bloody songwriter or the violent artist or whatever. For me, there was so much gore happening within my mind and my heart when it came to these issues. It was like, we were fighting each other in a very Tarantino-esque capacity.
All this happened in my mind, and when it came to my art, it just really came out in this expression. So, throughout my college years, all my music very much showed that characteristic of my being—someone who was in constant conflict and strife with, I would say, truth and fabrication. You were struggling to find truth, or you were struggling with the dichotomy of what is true versus what is reality in the world?
I think it's actually more like there was something in me that knew what was true and what was real for me. I was being hindered from expressing that and was constantly struggling with hiding myself and creating a fabrication of my entire life, as opposed to something that is real and authentic.
I guess, it was wanting people in my life so desperately to know who I was, but not feeling safe enough to show those parts.
So it was just constantly fighting and there was just constant conflict within me. Do I trust this person enough to show myself, or do I continue manufacturing these lies? It was like manufacturing the lie every single day just to destroy it and create a new lie because I couldn't keep up with every person that'd come into my life. I kept having to create new fabrications of who I was to every new person that I met. Then it made me lose myself even more. Like, who really am I?
I'm sure a lot of people in their 20s and later teens, you know, we're all struggling with identity. It's something I still continue finding and shaping at the same time. I feel like it's an excavation process to find who you are. We have a core of who we are, but through the excavation process, it changes a lot. As you dig for yourself and as you find your identity and you search for authentic parts of you, it starts to change shape, the way that you excavate it.
So now let's transition into your name and who you are introducing yourself as, as you're excavating.
Yes, yes. I think too, that's one of the beautiful things about life and I feel we don't give ourselves enough grace to allow ourselves to change and continue to discover new parts of us. We don't allow ourselves to change whatever part of us isn't fitting anymore. To be able to, not just for ourselves, but to give other people grace and say "it's okay to change your mind," that's what's beautiful about life. If you change your mind, it simply shows you are continually growing and moving forward. You can't be like a stagnant lake.
So, I've been on such a huge journey with my name, and I finally feel very much comfortable. And that whole thing with identity since I was a kid—always trying to please people and manufacture something that was appeasing, a version of me that was appeasing to people—was always the struggle.
My full name is Noelani Rachel Manami Min. My parents couldn't even decide how many names they wanted to give me. 'Noelani' in Hawaiian means 'mist of heaven.' Being born and raised in Hawaii, having Hawaiian roots, my parents really wanted me to remember that. So that's my first name.
And then 'Rachel,' from the Bible, means 'Yule lamb.' 'Manami' is my Japanese name, and that came from 'Mana,' which is 'bread from heaven,' and the allegory of God's provision, and 'mi' in Japanese is 'fruit.' So the meaning for that name in Japanese is 'the fruit of God's provision.'
My mom's name is Tamami, and they wanted to take a portion of her name and put it in mine, also to preserve that identity. My mom is full Japanese, so my parents wanted to make sure I remembered that side of my name, too. And then my last name, 'Min,' is from my great great grandmother, who is from Korea. I'm just such an amalgamation.
I didn't even know all that.
Yeah. So, growing up, I have all these identities and influences to pull from and it's easy to get lost when it comes to feeling whole and at home. It's easy to view identity as parts, almost like percentages and pieces of the pie that made who I am. And as I've grown a lot more—we've talked about this—I don't see identity as parts but as layers. And I'm fully this. I'm fully that. I'm fully Japanese and fully Hawaiian, fully Korean, fully gay. They're all layers of who I am, and that has helped a lot in not viewing myself in these dualistic capacities that created an identity crisis. That has really helped me see myself as a whole person.
Growing up, I actually got the nickname 'Mana,' from my Japanese name and also, in Hawaii, 'mana' is the power and the energy of the Aina, which means 'land' in Hawaiian. It's a huge part of Hawaiian culture.
As I started getting older, I went to a certain church that had a lot of what we call mainlanders, who are not from the island. Whenever I went to this church, a lot of people would have a hard time saying my name—Nœlani. I'm sure they didn't mean to, but they would give me the impression that I was kind of...
Inconvenient. Yeah, thank you. Like, pronouncing my name was just an inconvenience and they wouldn't take the time to learn how to say it correctly, and they would always say it wrong or they would always stumble on it. As an eight-year-old. You feel this sense of like, "Oh, I don't want to cause this trouble. So I'm going to do something about it and change it." So, from around that age, I started just saying my middle name, Rachel, was my name, because it was just easier to pronounce and there were no questions. I wanted to make it easier for society. When in fact, now it's like, forget that, I want to challenge society (Laughs).
In college, I had that grand revelation of going back to my first name, and being true to my cultural roots and who I am as Nœlani, and I've continued with that since my college days. For my released music in 2020, when I got a lot of criticism, I went with my name—just Nœlani Rachel Min, but I didn't go back to my Japanese name for a while.
Recently, in this time that I took a break from music and have had a lot more existential crisis, I've really come to the realization that I connect the most with my homeland and Japanese roots. And when it comes to my music—not just music, but my art and whatever creative expression that I bring to this world—I just want people to understand that I think it's a beautiful side of my being. I give a lot of credit to both the Hawaiian and Japanese cultures for making me who I am, and I want to honor both of those cultures. So decided to simply use my first Hawaiian name and my Japanese name as my signature stamp of any artistry in this world.
"Because of the choice I'm making now, to step forward and give other people a voice to feel empowered, I really want to make that move now. It's taken me long enough."
I think it's really interesting because, listening to you talk about this, I remember a lot of that journey and it feels like you were—at least as long as I've known you—very okay with pushing back in culture when it comes to the music. I mean, you wrote a song at a Christian college called 'I killed God.'
(Laughs) Only allowed because you were my professor. If you weren't then I really think they'd cut me out for that.
Yeah, I got a lot of shit for that. I'm not gonna lie (Laughs). But it's all right.
Do you remember you said, "You need to put in parentheses: (In a nightmare), or we're really going to get cut for this."
Yes, I did. I didn't want to get fired. I was willing to push, but I really don't wanna get fired. But you were always ready to push with music and I find that interesting that it started in music and then evolved into your sexuality, and then it was as personal as your name. It's interesting that it went in that order.
That's, that's really interesting. I love that you brought that up, because you've just given me a revelation. When it comes to art and creativity, I think that's why so many countries with the strictest laws and hardest governments and tyrannical environments sometimes create the greatest art. Especially look at Japan, from my cultural background. If you look at the culture itself, it's very monotonous. Everyone has to wear the same uniform, the city has a very black, white, and grey color scheme, and the rules are much more strict than America.
But when it comes to the art, you look at Japanese anime and music, it's amazing how contrasting it is. It's because in our daily lives, we're stuck in such standardized and critical environments that when it comes to art, when it comes to that moment of relief, we're able to completely engage and allow ourselves to be free and thrive in that piece of art. It really shows, and I feel that expression in us as opposed to someone who is able to express themselves freely in everyday life.
Yeah. I've talked about this before, too, but it reminds me of the imagination in general. It's the faculty of being able to make sense of something. I'm saying that terribly, but you remember the conversation we've had. It makes sense that music and the arts end up being so bold when it comes to any kind of oppression, whether it's personal, societal, relational, spiritual, whatever it is, you know?
Mmmm, yeah. So true.
So let's talk about the new song... So, with this song and with me being queer, I knew that living authentic and true would require me to have this whole kind of coming out conversation with my parents eventually. And I say "coming out" with air quotes right now because I really think coming out is almost a concept that, personally, grieves me because it's something that queer people have to do. You don't see straight people coming out, announcing, "I'm actually straight!" But so many times, queer people have this pressure to make such extravagant reports about their sexuality. For me, I wish I could maintain that as a personal, private issue. But because of the choice I'm making now, to step forward and give other people a voice to feel empowered, I really want to make that move now. It's taken me long enough.
Knowing that was the future I had in mind— to be able to speak for other people who are struggling with sexuality—I decided to have this conversation with my parents in 2019 and it did not go well.
I ended up sort of being cut off from them for half a year and not knowing what was going on in their minds. The last words that stayed with me from my dad were that I was tainted and I was a child of the devil. Hearing that from my dad who always, as a pastor, said that we were God's children, hurt me. And I just didn't bring it up again.
I talked to them a few times throughout the year and Thanksgiving of 2021, I decided that I was going to bring it up a second time. It took a lot of guts, but one of the people I met during a friendsgiving dinner was the father of a gay son, and he would say how proud he was of his son. I told him about my situation and he was like, "All you can do is keep trying. You never know." He said it personally took him four or five years to really understand and come to a place of accepting his son fully. So I figured, well you know, I'm halfway there. I might as well get started now.
So I brought it up to my dad and that's when things, once again, went horribly wrong. The typical, "I love you but not your sin" continued eating at me. You know, it's really unfair to assume what love looks like for another person. I don't think that love is one standard, universal experience and that it's the same for every person.
Love is undefinable. Love is something that continually grows and changes and evolves over time. It can be messy, it can look clean. It can look beautiful. It can look ugly, and it's never the same. And when, mainly Christians, tell you that you're still allowed to love but only within these conditions, only within this confinement of behavior, I feel that it's very harsh and cruel—to limit one's own experience of love. It's like telling someone, "I only love you in this way," or "I care about you, but only in this way." That's not truth. If it's real love and real care, you're going to try and love them in a way that they feel loved and care for them in a way that they feel cared for.
"It was a huge conflict, thinking, yeah, grace is amazing as long as you're straight..."
And when my dad told me that, I heard the hymn "Amazing Grace" playing in the back of my mind out of nowhere. So after I got off the phone with him at 5 in the morning—we talked for four hours—I didn't sleep. I just spent the night crying, and I went to my guitar and started playing for the first time in 10 months.
It was in that moment of great pain and desperation that this song started coming out. I started singing the words of "Amazing Grace" over and over to myself, trying so desperately to believe in those words: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..." But I kept having that conflict, once again. Is it really sweet? Is it really amazing? Is it really grace? How can God have grace for someone like me if I'm just inherently evil for being gay? If I can never be as pure as a straight person, how can I ever accept grace?
And then I started thinking about that whole line: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind but now I see." Being found is great. Seeing is great. But if you can't experience love without questioning, I might as well stay lost maybe...Maybe it's better to stay blind if I can still love. It was a huge conflict, thinking, yeah, grace is amazing as long as you're straight...
But what is it if you're queer? If you're gay? Not even that, but if you're someone who struggles with addiction? If you're someone who is manic depressive? Does grace apply?
Amazing grace, tell me how sweet it sounds.
If I never love just to be found,
I don't think that's a sacrifice that I'm willing to make.
So how has songwriting—and even just exploring this idea in sound—how has it been different for you, as opposed to your previous music?
I feel like with this, since it was returning to a conflict from another era of my art, my music, my being, I went back to a lot of my college days. You know, with questions and identity—you were there, you knew what kind of sound I had back then. It was a lot heavier, darker, very influenced by the emo greats of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. But I feel because it was an old wound, I went back to that place, that familiar way of expressing myself.
Originally it started on the guitar but I transitioned to my keyboard. I wrote out the entire song on my keyboard and from there, I was trying to decide the direction of it. Do I want to go heavier? Or do I want to go with my newer sound, which is more alternative R&B meets jazz? But it didn't feel right, so I stuck with the emo sound and just kept layering. I layered like, five guitars and synths...
Yeah. Then I knew I just had to do a solo. And the first take—I swear, all the songs I record, it's always the first take. I can't beat how emotional and expressive the first take is, so I end up just keeping it.
At least you recorded it!
Yeah, I've learned, you always press record no matter what.
What's next after this? Where do you see this going?
You know, I have this double EP that I've been working on since 2017, so going on five years. The sound is definitely not my current sound. It tells the story of my one and only relationship, which was a complete disaster. But in a way, I feel like it created some great art, so I definitely want to release that eventually.
For now, I honestly am not going to put any pressure on myslef, especially after the death threats. I'm really trying to keep the sanctity of art, personally. The 10 months I didn't touch music was a good time to take a break, but I lost a lot of personal pleasure and enjoyment and healing. I don't want that to happen again, so I'm just taking my time with releases. I'd like to release the double EP, but who knows? Whatever music I feel not only can help me grow, but can bring some healing into this world, I want to do my best to responsibly share the ravaging, mangled pieces of who I am.