Already a singing sensation, Emily Li broadened her academic horizons

Emily Li
Emily Li

Warning: once you start listening to “Late to the Party,” a single released last fall by Emily Li ’22, who performs as Emei, you may not be able to stop. With its ebullient beat, Li’s powerful voice, and an earworm of a chorus, it’s the kind of song you can imagine a roomful of college students singing along to at the top of their voices. And, in fact, Li’s TikTok of just that scene, filmed at Yale last October, has garnered more than 2 million views.

Li isn’t blind to the irony that the song is about feelings of inadequacy spurred by social media (she’s described it as “existential crisis pop”). She might not have had a Grammy by 21, as the lyrics go, but she did place third on “Chinese Idol,” a singing competition patterned after the American version, when she was only 15 — and went on to compete on the Chinese version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

She could have headed straight into a career in music, but when she came back from her time in China — she’d taken a year off from high school to do so — she threw herself back into academics. After the chaos of a showbiz lifestyle, she says, “I loved the fact that I knew that in 22 days I had a test.”

And while she considered conservatory, her first visit to Yale left her with goosebumps — “I just felt like something clicked for me.” She quickly found her major, too, in cognitive science.

The whole point of going to Yale was to learn things that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned about,” she says. “Cognitive science was a way for me to widen my understanding of people and widen my academic sphere as well.” (She also received a certificate in Education Studies, and took enough credits to earn her diploma early, in December.)

Emily Li performing with band members in New Haven

But while her academic focus was elsewhere, music still filled her life in New Haven. She joined the a capella group Mixed Company, started a band with some fellow residents of Timothy Dwight, and kept performing, often in the DIY concert space at 216 Dwight St., known as Radio House. (Her artistic pursuits were supported by a Tsai CITY (Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking) grant and a Timothy Dwight Creative and Performing Arts Award.) She also took two classes that helped push her songwriting into new spaces — “Reading Poetry for Craft,” with David Gorin, and “The Art and Business of Songwriting,” with Mike Errico.

Now based in Los Angeles, she’s focused on developing her sound and her artistic persona. Her stage name, Emei, isn’t so much an alter ego as a distillation of self (it’s a cross between her Chinese name, An Mei, and her English nickname, Emmy). “I am myself on stage,” she says. “I’m just me in capital letters.”

She plans to release a new single, her fourth, in June, and to have an EP out by the end of the year. She’s a perfectionist, she says, and with every song she tries to figure out what “makes people want to tattoo your lyrics on their body.”

The support she found at Yale and from alumni — especially the cohort who have also pursued music careers — has been crucial. “Yale is great,” she says. “It’s the tightest community and people are so willing to help. I feel really grateful to have my experience at Yale and what it adds to who I am as a person.”

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