What is Asian American music, really?


On the weekend that six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, I gathered with hundreds of strangers at a rally in Chinatown, silently crying as two dogs carrying “Stop the Hate” signs. the tail beside me was wagging around my neck without a clue. I had attended many similar events, but none felt so viscerally personal to me, and I was embarrassed to be there, glasses blurry, in such an open need for comfort. I wondered what it would have been like over 50 years ago to see the concept of “Asian America” as the float of something exciting and new. Driven by the rebellions of the sixties – the civil rights movement, Black Power, anti-Vietnam protests – some people of Asian descent have made a conscious decision to break free from the “eastern” marker and embrace a political identity. more proud and more united. “Asian American” broadcast not only what they were, but what they stood for. Following the lead of the black arts movement, Asian American activists have deployed their energy in artistic avenues, establishing their own cultural institutions and aesthetic priorities. They wrote poems, put on plays, choreographed dances and, of course, they made music.

At the rally, I couldn’t imagine what songs we would use to express our protest in the future and whether there was a body of music somewhere that could adequately reveal the complexity of our own experiences and identities. It is evident from the news and lived experience that many people cannot see Asian Americans as fully realized human beings, deserving of care, capable of passion and complexity. Instead, we are characterized as alien threats, soulless nerds, dumb seductresses, disease vectors. This extends to the music industry, which has a habit of assuming that Asian Americans don’t have the interiority to generate interesting art, or the sensuality to sell it. For decades, the number of Asian American musicians was so few that you clung to the few who broke through: Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tony Kanal of No Doubt, the partly Indonesian brothers Van Halen. It doesn’t matter how important the artists are, whether you really understand their connection to identity or whether you love their music. Far East Movement topped the Billboard charts sounded like a personal victory, even though my friends and I had no idea what it meant to be ‘go slizzard’.

In recent years, Asian and Asian American musicians have risen to prominence in some scenes, from Mitski’s cathartic indie rock to Yaeji’s overhaul of house music to 88rising’s attempts to market Asian hip-hop globally. . This year, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner stepped out Crying in H Mart, a memoir about rediscovering her Korean heritage through food, which for a moment became New York Times Bestseller. Yet I can sense an absence of language with which to think about Asianism in the music industry beyond the dry terms of representation politics. In 2018, NBC Asian America published a year-end essay proclaiming “Asian-American music was shining”; Tellingly, in this case, “Asian American music” simply meant “the music of artists who have an Asian heritage” – anything from MILCK empowerment hymns to Drake songs. Scorpio, produced by Filipino-American Illmind.

The strategy of aggregating and promoting music based on the artists’ common racial identity has been widely adopted by publications; Streaming platforms did the same while trying to show solidarity with the Stop Asian Hate campaign and during AAPI Heritage Month. It’s an effective, if not understandable, tactic that often yields ridiculously unimaginative results: Some of the early selections on Apple Music’s “Celebrating Asian American Voices” playlist include “Leave the Door Open” by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, “Deja vu” by Olivia Rodrigo and “Taste” by Tyga feat. Offset – a selection that sheds more light on current Billboard charts than the “different traditions, histories and perspectives” within a “vast AAPI family,” as Apple suggests. (And what about songs that aren’t Asian artists, but have nonetheless become anthems for Asian American communities?)

Again and again I see reports that extol the richness and diversity of the Asian diaspora, while not reflecting any true eclecticism or intentionality, neglecting artists who can rearrange cultural traditions and in so doing underscore a deeply rooted musical history. . , or those who cultivate anti-racist ideals in their music practice. I was upset to see the same obvious pop, R&B and hip-hop acts presented in place of someone like Arooj Aftab, the Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer whose sinuous and melancholy music reinterprets old Urdu ghazals. I’d rather listen to a Heritage Month playlist curated by ska-punk pioneer Mike Park, founder of Asian Man Records and frontman of bands like the Chinkees, rather than Hollywood actresses. Over the years, I have come to wonder how Asian American perspectives could be better articulated in a holistic way, especially considering that Asian instruments and musical styles have long been absorbed by music. Western music, and whether it is possible to dig a significant musical history of Asian America. .

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