Melissa Polinar is a Filipino-American singer-songwriter originally from Fort Worth, Texas. Earlier this year, she was invited by Kollaboration — a non-profit supporting Asian American creatives — to play at the first all-Asian-American showcase at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Polinar’s music career began in the early days of Youtube, where she stood out as an original songwriter among other popular singers who primarily covered pop songs. Her songwriting talent would later take her to Nashville.
Polinar possesses a unique identity within the music industry. In her interview with NPR at SXSW, she talked about a guy coming up to her after a performance early in her career and saying, “’Okay, so, you grew up in Texas and you’re an Asian that sings like a black girl that is now writing in Nashville.’” Statements like these have acted as obstacles to mainstream success for Polinar but they have also catalyzed the creation of her musical identity. For Polinar, her musical identity does not include her Asian-American identity which brings up the question of the authenticity of her musical identity. However, despite her deemphasized racial identity in her musical identity, Polinar is still an authentic Asian-American musician.
It’s clear that Polinar isn’t bothered by the lack of overt Asian-Americanness in her musical identity. At her SXSW performance, she said, “Tonight is just kind of like a cool little thing. A lot of people have backed me and believed in me and what I do — not because I’m an Asian chick, but because I sing and write songs.” Throughout her musical career, Polinar has demonstrated authenticity in her songs and collaborations that would arguably be hampered by restricting focus to her Asian-Americanness. In Polinar’s case, her authenticity exists independent of her race.
Polinar gained the respect and fandom of many mainstream artists and critics because of her unique soulful vocals, heart-bearing lyrical content, and passionate musicianship. She’s earned the praise of Questlove and has collaborated with several other Grammy-winners, including India.Arie and Adam Levy on her newest album Rise at Eventide. Polinar’s strengths as an artist are showcased in Rise at Eventide, which embraces the themes of love, reflection, and self-empowerment and draws from her musical experiences in Nashville to blend elements of genres ranging from soul to blues and folk.
Polinar’s music features nearly universal themes with which listeners can easily connect. Her authenticity as an artist is maintained because she sticks to the themes that she and her listeners know best. Her identity as an Asian-American is put to the side and her poetry skills further clarify her original authentic message. In crafting a musical identity focusing on universal themes, Polinar has also made herself available to work with mainstream collaborators in a wide variety of styles. On Rise at Eventide, Polinar works with India.Arie, a Grammy-winning R&B singer, and Adam Levy, a jazz guitarist who’s also worked with Norah Jones and Tracy Chapman.
Polinar’s musical authenticity and identity as an Asian-American are intertwined, albeit looser that those of other artists that we’ve talked about in class. Whereas Chris Iijima’s lyrics featured direct references and political statements inspired by his Asian-American identity and Awkwafina satirizes her Asian-American identity in “Green Tea”, Polinar has deemphasized her racial identity in order to succeed in her desired niche. In Nashville, the center of country music, racial discourse is often pushed aside in favor of music emphasizing shared universal experiences and Americana values. Drawing attention to race relations would be like prodding a lingering bruise: uncomfortable, irritating, and not something that country music consumers want. In an environment where racial politics aren’t easily discussed, Polinar must recognize and stay subdued about conflicts involving her racial identity.
Polinar’s combination of musical authenticity and subdued racial identity is unfortunately becoming more and more common among Asian-American artists trying to break into the mainstream. In Polinar’s case, the effectiveness of this strategy is demonstrated by her collaborations with India.Arie and Adam Levy. At SXSW, Polinar was joined by another Asian American group following a similar mantra. Alex Hwang, the lead singer of indie-rock band Run River North, said “Our Asian-ness is something that we can’t not be, but as a band, that shouldn’t be what we’re about. We should have good music for you to listen to.” Asian-American musicians can maintain their authenticity without mentioning their racial identities, so long as their inspiration stems from experience. However, the deliberate obscuring of the importance of their racial identity by Asian American artists is a sad prerequisite of white-dominated genres into which Asian Americans have yet to break. Once the first major Asian American artist comes out of one of these genres, it is up to him or her to set a precedent and become comfortable engaging in discussions about race.