Tenzin Dekyi sits straight upright in a dark wood chair with a wine-colored velvet cushion (probably a church's celebrant chair), looking directly at the camera with her hands crossed on her knee.
Tenzin Dekyi at the Epiphany Arts Center for Kayo’s listening party in January 2023 Credit: Stuti Sharma

Tenzin Dekyi is a multihyphenate force in Chicago’s grassroots music industry: she comanages artists, she curates hip-hop and R&B playlists on Spotify, and she writes about rising musicians for outlets such as Complex and Pigeons & Planes. She builds community on Twitter (she posts as @newmusictenzin) and uses the platform of her playlists to create opportunities for up-and-coming artists to share their music. She’s ever curious, constantly exploring ways to grow as a creative, and she takes every chance to connect her management clients to opportunities for growth as musicians. Dekyi is of Tibetan heritage, and she often shares about it and how it inspires her.

I first encountered Dekyi on Twitter, and we met in person in January 2023, at a listening party for Kayo’s It Was Fun While It Lasted at the Epiphany Center for the Arts. Kayo is one of the musicians Dekyi comanages, and he was celebrating his debut album with a beautiful multimedia event—a gathering that embodied the kind of creative community Dekyi wants to build. The audience included many of the folks who make the Chicago music scene the force that it is, and the event engaged them in sharing their reactions to the work. It featured prayer, playful visual art installations, and a cluster of multimedia presentations, not just by Kayo but also by a poet and community organizer who was hosting the party. A DJ played the newest releases by Saba and Westside Boogie. 

In this interview, Dekyi and I talk about her creative process and how Tibetan culture has fueled her love for music. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Stuti Sharmi: What has been inspiring you lately?

Tenzin Dekyi: I think the inspiration is always brewing, because I’m away from it a lot of the time. I’m so passionate about what I do in music, and it’s so different from everything else I do. I look forward to getting the chance to create and strategize ideas, plans, and content and bring them to life. I also have been getting inspiration from the music community on Twitter. Seeing peers in the community doing amazing things always makes me excited to work.

You write about music, you curate playlists, you manage folks. How would you describe what you do in the music industry? 

I would say I’m a dot connector. A lot of the things I do is connecting people together, like connecting artists to press outlets, writers, or curators. In the past year and a half, I’ve been able to create a network of industry professionals through Twitter, and I noticed I was becoming the middleman, and that is where I’ve found a lot of success. 

That’s how I got into management, because I was like, “I feel like I can help you in these areas because of who I know. So let me be the middleman and help you get connected to those who can provide the resources and exposure you need to develop and advance yourself.” 

Could you link to one of your playlists and tell me more about the process of putting these together? 

Here’s my R&B playlist. I do R&B and hip-hop for now. I hope to expand to different genres, of course, and to playlists based on mood. The way it started, the goal wasn’t to curate playlists. It was to just get a foot in the door to have anyone to notice my work. I started off posting about rising artists’ work. That didn’t get traction, so I started making playlists and tagging the artists, because what’s special is rising artists enjoy engagement from anyone. And then I made a cover for my playlists and put one of my artists on it, and that did the best out of everything. 

Tenzin Dekyi’s R&B playlist

I had fun with the creative process behind it, and the artists were excited they were on the cover of a playlist. I have now found a love for curating and discovering new artists. I update it every two weeks. Most of the artists I’m already familiar with and believe they don’t get the recognition they deserve. I also ask for recommendations from the music community on Twitter, and I discover a lot of new music that way. 

You manage the artists Kayo and Mati. You’ve had a lot of success with this—like, Kayo’s listening party for his album was really great. What is it like to creatively understand someone’s path and how you can partner with them to help them shine? 

I want to preface by saying I comanage both, and that there’s an amazing group of people that stand behind and uplift both of these artists. It’s so inspirational to see the passion they have. You really want them to win in that way, ’cause you see everything that happens behind the scenes, behind the glitz and glam. It’s about understanding how they use their personal life experiences to create something so beautiful that resonates with other people. I help them shine by connecting the dots. 

Like for Kayo’s event, I researched all the platforms in Chicago, photographers and videographers, members of the community of the Chicago music scene, anyone in the creative spaces—people who can represent what we have created and how they can help grow the scene by attending. I just wanted it to be successful in that it represented the people of Chicago. It was homey in that way, like everyone knew each other. 

Kayo’s debut album

Yes, it definitely felt like that. 

That was a big intention, to bring up creatives coming together in a city that’s full of art and culture. I try to find the people who will help bring the vision to life and then help get eyes on the vision we brought to life.

[Spots an album cover behind Sharma on the video call.] Wait, is that Stevie Wonder in your background? 

Yes, it’s a Stevie Wonder record! What’s your favorite Stevie Wonder song? 

It’s probably “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” I really love that one. There’s something about it.

“As” is mine. That’s such a typical answer. 

No, it’s a good one. 

What introduced you to the world of music? 

It started at a young age, when my parents put me in Tibetan dance and Tibetan instrument classes, as do a lot of Tibetan parents, in hopes of preserving the Tibetan language and culture. I was seven or eight, learning traditional Tibetan dances and music at Tibetan dance class every Sunday. Then during the week, I would have two hours of Tibetan instrument classes, and I did both of those for about ten years.

There’s two major instruments that we use. One is the dramyin. It’s more guitarlike, with six strings, and the other one is called yangqin, which is a string instrument as well, but we use sticks to play the different notes. I loved it. I picked up on it very quickly, and I enjoyed playing both a lot. It felt so natural. I progressed more in music when my family bought an iMac.

Whoa, that opened the world!

Yeah, that came along, and I discovered GarageBand. I must have been like ten or 11. I was like, wow, if you click this, it makes a beat. You didn’t need an instrument; you just created it from the keyboard. So I started putting together loops on GarageBand and I was like, “This sounds good!” Honestly, they were probably trash. But it was still an expansion of my knowledge in music. 

It’s so simple, but beats, rhythm, having a chord and melody looped—creating something out of nothing felt so cool. I still use GarageBand, but instead of looping I create my own beats and melodies.

Further on, my Tibetan dance and musician teacher was so talented. He was an artist, producer, audio engineer, creative director—an all-around musician with a great passion for music. He knew how to play almost every instrument, and if he didn’t know, he would teach himself in a matter of minutes. He did it all and managed to teach hundreds of Tibetan kids Tibetan dance and music. I don’t think we realized how special that was in the moment, but more recently, I’ve been in awe and very appreciative of the talent he truly possesses. 

An event came up where we needed someone to play guitar. And so he told me, “I’ll teach you, it’s easy—it’s just four chords.” And that’s how I learned to play guitar. [Music] was a requirement in Tibetan school, unlike being an optional thing with American schools, where you can choose to join band. I wish I’d joined band. I know the basics of more instruments, but not something to the full extent. But yeah, my love for music comes down to Tibetan culture. 

Yeah, I used to play in an orchestra, and I really loved making music with people. It’s something I want to go back to. 

I’m so excited, because yesterday I was just looking up how much is a violin, because I want to learn violin. I want to learn to play the saxophone. I love music; I love playing it. I noticed it comes naturally to me—like, my teacher taught me how to play four chords, and I’ve played guitar since then. He didn’t have to teach me how to strum. It just came to me. I don’t have to force it. My parents put me in those classes to maintain our Tibetan culture, but it grew into a love for music.

I feel like being in the arts and the children of immigrants, of Asian immigrants, there’s a lot we have in common for a whole other conversation that I definitely want to have. What are some ways that your background and story motivate you? Being who you are—into basketball, into hip-hop, Tibetan—your story is so interesting to me. 

Being a first-generation Tibetan American, I think my background, culture, and religion play a huge role in being my source of motivation, if not the sole reason. As first-generation children, we are our parents’ wildest dreams. My parents left everything they ever knew and came to a whole new country, not knowing the language, little to nothing in their pockets, every odd stacked against them, and were still able to achieve the impossible by providing my brother and I a very fortunate life. 

Witnessing what hard work and dedication can do in a world full of endless opportunities subconsciously created my ambitions to dream big and achieve the unimaginable. In that same token, growing up in a Tibetan household as a Tibetan Buddhist has been a key source of my motivation and purpose in life. The importance of compassion and altruism was instilled in us at a very young age and was encouraged to be practiced as much as possible. It plays a huge role in every aspect of my life, especially when I think about what I want to do and achieve in this lifetime. 

It comes down to the fact that I want to be of service to as many people as I can and to leave a positive impact at the end of it all. I have learned that I can’t do that if my cup is empty, so that understanding drives me to my fullest potential and to strive to become the best possible version of myself, because only then can I pour into others. 

And in terms of music specifically, my motivation comes from the fact that there may be a lot of talented, passionate Tibetan artists and musicians out there without the opportunity to further their passions because of the lack of guidance and opportunity. There’s one or two Tibetan people that I’m aware of who do music seriously, but still, we’re all in our own little world, and our stories aren’t told. It’s cool that this is possible for someone who looks like me, who has the tradition and culture I do. Like we’ve talked about, it’s rare to pursue a career in art. We’re exposed to it but not encouraged to take it seriously. It’s a hobby.

Yes, same. I was put in music class when I was five and have played piano since, but I was always expected to study something like science and become a scientist. 

I also feel like I can be a guide for other Tibetan and Asian folks who might want to get into this but not know how to. I want to show them that they can do this, to create opportunities for others who lack guidance. 

Success is definitely opening the door. I’m gonna quote Toni Morrison and then Nicki Minaj. [Laughs.] So Toni Morrison has this quote:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”

And Nicki Minaj has this line in “Still I Rise”:

“’Cause every time a door opens, for me that means you just got a better opportunity to do you.” 

There was a period in Chicago comedy—I used to do a lot of stand-up comedy before the pandemic—there was a period where there were at least five other South Asian women actively doing stand-up comedy in Chicago. It was dope because I could go into most rooms, and I didn’t have to be the South Asian person™ who told you “chai” meant tea. I could just be Stuti and talk about my story, because there were so many of us that it created context for me in a way that opened up the door for me creatively to just be a comedian. When there’s more of us, everyone does better.

Yes, that’s another thing: community is very important to me. The Tibetan community is very tight-knit, and there aren’t many of us, so we as a community are very happy and proud of any Tibetan who succeeds and does good in the world, regardless of whether or not we personally know them. There’s a lot of Tenzins out there, and I’m proud to be one of them and have that name to represent my community. 

Something that you speak a lot about that is appreciated by the music community is how the work of DJs, managers, producers, and folks in the background are the backbone of the music world. What are some ways that you want these people’s stories to be told and appreciated?

By simply giving them the recognition and the space to speak and tell their story. That would be enough. I think about songwriters all the time—they don’t get any type of recognition, and their pay is really bad. Their stories can only be told if they are given the opportunity to tell it, to talk about the work that goes into what you all see, into the artists that you love.