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One Year In: Beggars Group's Risa Matsuki 'Can't Shake' COVID-Related Brain Fog

Risa Matsuki
Paul Davidson

Risa Matsuki

Since contracting the coronavirus, the executive has struggled to fully recover. Now, she fears for her safety amid a rise in anti-Asian violence.

As the coronavirus pandemic enters its final phase in the U.S., Billboard is catching up with individuals we interviewed at the beginning of the crisis to see how they’ve weathered the past year.

This installment is with Beggars Group vp of promotions Risa Matsuki, who contracted COVID-19 last March and has been struggling with the lingering after-effects of the virus ever since. She is currently prepping tours for artists including Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.

I definitely am about 85%, 90% [recovered], but the brain fog was something I could not shake. I didn't feel comfortable having very long conversations with people, because I couldn't figure out what words to say. For a promo person, being so unconfident of what I'm saying is the worst.

I spent a lot of time not speaking to people but emailing them, because I could take longer emailing. And that way I could spend time looking up words. I feel like that's gotten so much better, probably in the last couple months. But I don't feel smart anymore, which really sucks. And I'm not as combative. It's probably a little bit of just being so hesitant and unsure of myself.

I had some psychotherapy. When you lose such a huge part of your personality like that, you get pretty depressed. I also have a really amazing partner that is so supportive. I would express these terrible feelings and he was always open to having these conversations with me about it. It's not that [my coworkers] didn't take me seriously, but when you really don't know, it's really hard to be empathetic. I'm like, "Yeah, my brain doesn't work." And they're like, "What?"

I didn't get my taste or smell back until end of summer, almost September. I'm a first level sommelier, and I pride myself in knowing wine and enjoying wine. I can't drink wine [now]. It tastes so bad to me: Really acidic, really sour. It hurts, and I get a ginormous headache. Also, I was a huge spice queen, like I could eat anything spicy and it wouldn't affect me. And now even the mildest boneless [spicy] wings, I'm like, "Oh my god, it's so spicy!" It's crazy.

[COVID-19] made me really, really self-aware of many things. Now I'm extremely careful with my words, which I definitely never was before. It's not that I had some crazy garbage mouth, but I would say anything that's in my brain. Now I really think about what I'm saying, how it affects somebody. I feel like my sense of sensitivity has been so heightened. I'm just not quick to everything anymore. I think that makes me a better person, though.

The pandemic slowed everybody down, but I really slowed down. I see everything, I take in everything, I experience everything. That whole taking everything for granted thing doesn't happen anymore. Especially with my daughter. She was sick too. She wasn't as sick as me, thankfully, but I would never want to lose her like that. And so everything that we do together now is so important.

Through the pandemic, my company has been incredibly supportive of every single person that works at Beggars in whatever they need. If they need time, if they need space, if they need a mental health day. You know, Zoom fatigue. They're so accommodating with things like that. With me, in just knowing that I was sick, the care and concern and questions have come from many people throughout the year. It's been nothing but supportive.

I don't know that we will fully go back to the way it was before [at work]. We just had a meeting, and they were talking about how business travel has a huge impact on sustainability. But with COVID, no one's traveled, and actually we've learned that we don't have to travel as intensely as we did before. That helps the environment, but it also helps us. I mean, I was traveling anywhere between 10 to 15 to sometimes 20 days out of a month. And that's not going to ever happen ever again as far as I know.

They projected September 7 [to come back to the office], with it being a very open day…not necessarily 100% capacity. They understand that maybe some people will not come in. Separately, I have a huge concern right now about what's happening with the Asian community. I feel really uncomfortable. For me to get to work, I have to take the Long Island Railroad an hour, and then I have to get on the subway, stand on the subway platform for 25 minutes. And as of right now, I just don't feel comfortable doing that. In September, who knows.

If it was just me in this world and it was me that was getting hurt, fine. But I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. So if I get hurt, or if I die, I leave her, and I cannot do that. My company's definitely being super sensitive and going like, "We understand. Maybe coming back to work for you looks like two days a week.” It’s an ongoing conversation.

I know that everybody's different in how they're taking it. You ask my mom about this, she doesn't even want to talk about it, she's completely ignoring it. Now it's in such a heightened crisis place that we should talk about it, instead of pretending like it doesn't exist. To come to this level of hate, it's so alarming and so upsetting for me.

The music industry was part of the first wave of true support and standing up and going, "This shouldn't happen." They were also very much in the front of [Black Lives Matter] as well. It's wonderful to feel support from my colleagues. I definitely have heard from a lot of other people that work at other places, kind of checking in, going like, "Hey, how you doing?"

But it doesn't feel as tangible as Black Lives Matter, which I get was a completely different type of movement. The music industry stepped up, and appointed different executives of color and had specific HR resources within companies specifically for black people. Those are real changes, and they're amazing. I wish that there was something like that, maybe not to that scale, but something similar that just made [Asian people] in the music community feel like the support isn't just vocal but tangible.

When I came to America, I purposely whitewashed myself. I know that's a really terrible thing to say. But I did, one, because I wanted to fit in, but two, because I didn't want to stand out. I didn't like standing out. I'm gonna turn 50 this year, and I regret that thought process. I wish I could tell myself back then, "What do you mean you don't want to stand out? You're a human being, you are who you are, why would you hide?" But that's what's happening right now, is they're making us feel like we have to hide again.

As told to Chris Eggertsen.