REI AMI filmed the visual for her breakout single “Snowcone” with a budget of $50. “I edited that bitch all by myself,” she tells Billboard of the clip, which was posted in October 2019. “I uploaded it. I brought on management. We did a simple roll-out, and I f–king dropped it. The YouTube algorithm picked it up at 150k views, and that’s when s–t went off.”
The “Snowcone” music video has racked up more than 7 million views to date, and has propelled the Maryland native’s professional outlook as one of Visionary Records’ newest signees. With the support of her label, REI AMI — who toes the line between alternative, pop and rap — has enjoyed a transformative year. The singer has gone from working a corporate job to moving to L.A., walking Rihanna’s Fenty runway show in October, and on Friday (June 25) releasing her debut mixtape, FOIL.
With a sound as colorful and unpredictable as the artist herself, FOIL was led by “Do It Right” featuring Aminé, which was released in March. To tease the project’s release, the singer recently dropped “Ricky Bobby,” “F.R.A.,” “That’s On You,” and most recently, a collaboration with Lolo Zouaï titled “Cherry Chapstick.”
While most of the tracks were created during the pandemic, recording “Cherry Chapstick” became a standout moment for the pop star: she booked a session pre-pandemic with producer Stelios, who also produces for Lolo Zouaï, in New York City, and recorded the first verse and hook but left the song unfinished. Fast forward to last November — REI AMI gets a text from her Internet friend Lolo Zouaï with a DropBox link to the finished song.
“She kills it, and I’m freaking out because we’ve always talked about collaborating,” she says. “It was so easy. Thank you, Lolo. I didn’t have to do s–t for that!”
REI AMI chalks up her success to luck and serendipity while narrating the highlights from the last couple years. “There are things you can’t just control,” she says, adding in a whisper, “You can’t hate on a bitch because she got lucky! I’m sorry that the universe chose me, and not you.”
Born Sarah Yeeun Lee, REI AMI learned “Part of Your World” from the Little Mermaid soundtrack before learning English as a 4-year-old living in South Korea. But beyond singing along to Disney movies, Lee’s parents did not want her to become a singer. While she took piano, guitar and flute lessons when she immigrated to Maryland, she recalls how her conservative parents “refused to pay for singing lessons because they did not want me to pursue anything in that realm.” However, the lack of formal training didn’t stop her from singing everywhere: “I sang in my house, church, school. I sang so much that my sister would be like, ‘Shut the f–k up!’”
Performing in high school plays helped her break out of her shell — an experience that partly inspired the track “Ricky Bobby” off of FOIL. “The more I got solos and leads in high school theater, I was like, ‘Holy s–t, I have something going on in here that’s worth polishing. There’s a skill in me that can be marketed, and that people are f–king with,’” she says.
Meanwhile, she was drawing influences from R&B, hip-hop and rap, and artists such as Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey and Lauryn Hill. As an artist, REI AMI cites Rihanna as one of her biggest influences, saying that the superstar “has done more for me than therapy. She’s the ultimate businesswoman. I saw her [at the Fenty show], we made eye contact, and my soul left my body — almost like I met Jesus Christ that night.”
As a communication studies major at the University of Maryland, REI AMI was interning at Live Nation when she met fellow student/future A&R executive Brandon Kraut at a Big Sean show. “I was working social media for the venue when I had to go to the VIP area, where Brandon was working. We briefly had a conversation then. Two years later, we met again, but with him as an A&R and me as an artist,” she recalls.
But before Lee and Kraut’s second meeting after college, Rei hit a low point after graduating in 2018. “I was out of college. I got out of a really bad relationship. I was depressed as f–k. So I was like, ‘You know what? F–k it! Who cares?’ Nobody knows who I am. If I drop a song, no one would care.” So she dropped “Snowcone.”
“I literally think that ‘Snowcone’ blowing up really carved the way,” she says. Following her breakout single, REI says “that’s when the conversations became more serious. I was getting more inquiries from labels.” One inquiry — which came in 2019 before “Snowcone” debuted– was from none other than Visionary Records’ A&R Brandon Kraut, who signed REI AMI to the label last July.
After being on Visionary’s roster for nearly a year, the singer says that signing with the label was the best move for her career. “I just wanted a partner who was gonna support me, believe in me, and fight for me,” she says. “That’s what I got [with Visionary].”
With three previously released music videos and a mixtape out today, REI AMI is looking forward to finally meeting her fans in person. While she remains tight-lipped — but visibly bursting with excitement — about specific plans, she’s hoping to go off the grid for a while. “Shows and merch are all happening this year, but the first thing I’m gonna f–king do is take a well-needed break. You will not hear from me, bitch!”