Tell me what I need
To stay safe on the streets
Asian American musicians are used to being on the margins of popular culture. Researchers and critics have erased the historical involvement of Asian Americans in the development of so-called American genres of music, such as jazz and hip-hop. Lisa Lowe frames this exclusion of Asian Americans as part of a U.S. national culture that denies racialized bodies access to political and cultural citizenship. Since “the Asian is always seen as an immigrant, as the ‘foreigner-within’” (p. 5), Asian American musicians are not seen as authentic performers of American music. However, Asian Americans’ position of marginality in popular culture gives them the opportunity to create alternative cultural productions that resist political and cultural hegemony. Using the music of the band Aye Nako as an example, I argue that art created by Asian American musicians in non-commercialized, community-owned spaces is a crucial form of radical resistance.
While heavily influenced by ‘90s pop punk, Aye Nako challenges the white, cisgender, and heterosexual norms in the indie/pop punk scene by featuring the faces and voices of queer people of color (QPOC). Started in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010, Aye Nako describe themselves as “a queer punk band comprised of four weirdos that write disorienting, but highly melodic punk songs while carving out a space to co-exist in the fold between art, music, and politics.” The “weirdos” are Mars Ganito (vocals/guitar), Jade Payne (vocals/guitar), Joe McCann (bass), and Sheena McGrath (drums). Mars is Filipino and Black, transgender, and gay. Like Filipin@ hip-hop artists and jazz musician Fred Ho, Mars purposefully aligns himself with Blackness on the racial hierarchy. He thereby challenges the assimilationist narrative of the model minority myth, which erases the experiences of Asian Americans who live at the intersection of marginalized identities, including Asian Americans whom people racialize as Black (despite being Asian or mixed raced) due to their phenotype.
Aye Nako enact radical resistance through the production, distribution, form, and content of their music. Through the medium of music, they reimagine the cultural margins as an alternate reality in which they can center the voices of QPOC, rather than reinforce a capitalist system that relies on exclusions based on race, class, and gender. Despite their growing mainstream acclaim (see reviews of their music at Pitchfork, NPR, and The New York Times), they continue to perform in the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) music scene and to make their music available to stream for free. The production of their music centers on the QPOC band members, Mars and Jade, who share a black identity. Each wrote half of the latest album, SIlver Haze (2017). The album cover is an image of Jade and Mars sitting together on a rooftop. Demonstrating the importance of visibility for the identity consciousness and acceptance, Jade revealed in an interview that “Mars wanted other black punk weirdos to not only see us, but hopefully see themselves too.”
The form and content of the music itself is a form of counter-hegemonic resistance because the lead vocalists, Mars and Jade, speak openly and honestly about their experiences of racism, erasure, and sexual violence and abuse. Their ability to share such painful experiences of racial and gendered violence might not have been possible had they not performed for the sake of creating a space for QPOC rather than in response to commercial demands. Each song tells a personal story, revealing how one experiences trauma surrounding racial identity in every day, personal relationships. For instance, the songs “Half Dome,” “Particle Mace,” and “The Gift of Hell,” narrate Jade’s journey of healing after a toxic relationship. Meanwhile, “Muck” and “Nothing Nice” touch on Mars’ experiences of anti-blackness and sexual abuse growing up, and “Spare Me” declares the end of a childhood friendship due to the friend’s disrespect. The lines from the beginning of the post, “Tell me what I need/To stay safe on the streets,” appear in the chorus of Mars’ song, “Sissy,” in which he writes about the danger he faces for his femme/effeminate gender expression when walking down the street. The lines have a simple structure but, when repeated over discordant guitar riffs, they powerfully convey how structural violence can translate into interpersonal violence that polices the gender expression and sexuality of racialized bodies.