What is Asian American music, really?
In the decades since its creation, the term “Asian” has become depoliticized; Once a coalition that sought to mobilize collectively against injustice, it has evolved into a demographic – and marked by cavernous contrasts. After the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, an infusion of Asian immigrants arrived in the United States – both highly skilled workers like my parents, whose entry in the 90s was subject to admission to higher education, and less privileged refugees fleeing war and repression. “For me, it’s interesting how the early Asian American activists, mostly Chinese, Japanese, and sometimes college-educated Filipino Americans, created this identity by protesting the Vietnam War, and decades later, Southeast Asians still don’t really have a seat at the table, ”says Saporiti. Sometimes I wonder if it is even worth holding on to the ideal of Pan-Asian unity, yearning for another hymn like “We are the children”. Contemporary calls for a shared Asian American identity often invoke superficial signifiers – bubble tea, for example – to foster an artificial sense of belonging. Meanwhile, many artists I’ve spoken to don’t like the term “Asian American music” for fear that it might be essentializing or involve a unified aesthetic. There will never be a singular notion of who or what “Asian America” is, and that makes theorizing music so difficult.
On the one hand, it should be remembered that “Asian America” is a construction forged, to a large extent, by war and colonization. Due to the ubiquity of the US military in Asia, so much contemporary music, from the pioneering electronic music of the Yellow Magic Orchestra to the psychedelia-oriented Thai molam, could be considered to have both “Asian” and “American” elements. . The “Original K-Pop Stars,” a handsome South Korean trio known as Kim Sisters, began their careers singing American folk, jazz and country standards to soldiers during the Korean War. Years later, the Vietnam War would not only lead to the creation of Vietnamese rock’n’roll, but Cambodian rock as well, as US military radio crossed borders. “Asian American jazz is cool, but honestly the best ‘Asian American music’ is across the Pacific,” Saporiti says, citing favorites like legendary Indonesian songwriter Iwan Fals and Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea.
It is even more common today that music transcends national borders, is inspired by a mishmash of cultures and languages. Think of MIA, the cheeky Sri Lankan-British rapper who made ‘world music’ in the biggest sense of the word – recording in India, Trinidad and Australia, pulling on British grime, Bollywood, punk, soca, Missy Elliott, and more. Or think of Yaeji, who oscillates harmoniously between English and Korean in his relaxed club pieces; instead of feeling like a barrier, Korean adds an inviting textural element. At the corporate level, one of the most important transnational forces is 88Rising, which, for better or for worse, has tried to rebrand Asia as a brilliant business product, like an Adidas campaign for the East. . Despite the company’s many oversights and blunders, it has opened up unforeseen avenues for global artists, through flashy music videos and PR deployments, a global radio station and now a sister label focused on Filipino music.
There are also contemporary musicians who, like the aforementioned Asian American creative musicians, have adopted and reworked long-standing folk traditions, absorbing them into their own distinct perspectives. Pantayo, a Toronto-based queer and diasporic Filipino quintet, combines kulintang music – with eight gongs arranged horizontally, amid a larger ensemble – from the southern Philippines with pop, R&B and punk. (As one cheeky reviewer described it, it sounds like “Carly Rae Jepsen if CRJ had suffered generational trauma from centuries of colonialism.”) On Lucy Liyou’s recent album Practice, the experimental musician uses text-to-speech technology to awkwardly recreate the vocal patterns of Korean pansori, a type of folk opera storytelling. The awkward rhythms of the speech testify to a strained relationship with his family, a common theme in immigrant households. It reminds me of my childhood: the tedious hours of piano practice, the feeling that my elders will always be a little unknowable to me.
When I was younger, I felt that “Asian American” was an irritating and cumbersome legacy. I did not know the decades of activism and history; all I knew was that I didn’t like having strict parents or being subjected to the occasional racism. I wanted to be spontaneous and brash, to go to parties, to express my political beliefs, to indulge in the fantasy of making serious art – and I didn’t see that freedom as available to me. I thirsted for role models, one who could shake up the rigid and tyrannical ideas I had absorbed about what Asian Americans were allowed to be. Over time, I have become wary of the rhetoric that attributes too much radicalism to the existence of an artist – they are visible; we are of the same race; thus I am empowered. There is a lot of music by Asian American artists that I find uninspired and even embarrassing.
If we say that a piece of music makes us “feel seen”, then we must also analyze what is so invigorating, what it reveals to us about our own subjectivities. We should ask ourselves what new language it offers us, in the finer details of rhythm, tone, metaphor, phrasing. I want more art, and our treatment of it, to help stitch our personal experiences into something more than just isolated narratives. A lingering form of dehumanization against Asian Americans is the erasure of our long-standing involvement in this country, including its music. By looking to the past and to each other, perhaps we could strengthen our sense of collective belonging. We could recognize each other again.