Discovering Trace Repeat’s Identity as an Asian American Funk/Soul Band

Trace Repeat is a six-piece Oakland-based funk and soul band bringing “that old school funk… here to educate you on the science of soul.” The group, founded in 2015, has three Asian American members: the two frontmen, Wesley Woo and Zach Hing, along with percussionist Khrizia Kamille. They attempt to channel the likes of James Brown, Prince, and Al Green through their music, and believe in “reviving the sights and sounds of our [their] Motown forefathers.” Trace Repeat can be utilized to discuss Asian American identity through the Asian American presence in traditionally African American forms of music, the role of music in breaking or confirming Asian American stereotypes, and the intersections of cultural and economic systems in relation to music.

Trace Repeat (Kollaboration)

Funk/soul is one of many musical genres historically rooted in African American communities that has spread outside the traditional groups, similar to hip hop and jazz. The artists Trace Repeat labels as its role models are all black (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson), attesting to the heavy African American influence both internally and externally observed, as well as the fame attained. Historically, funk and soul originated in black communities of the southern United States in the 1960s, picking up more traction and steadily entering the mainstream in the 1970s. The music combines elements from other African American music forms, like rhythm/blues and gospel. Funk and soul’s primarily African American history begs the question: can other groups also participate in the creation of this music? Trace Repeat’s name could answer this – the band “traces” traditional funk and soul music as a semi-cover band and “repeats” it to their audiences, both through actual covers and the emulation of the style in their original songs. The band acknowledges the inspiration for their music through genre and artists, but not the racial community itself. In choosing to play to a historically African American music style as an Asian American band, Trace Repeat does as Fred Ho suggests in “Kreolization” and creates an “interconnected struggle to forge a common identification as oppressed peoples” (120).

The group draws more attention to their status as Asian American musicians in a conventionally un-Asian American musical genre, going as far to describe themselves and their music as “unapologetically sexy.” The musical stereotype most associated with Asians and Asian Americans, stemming from the model/silent minority label, is that of classical music. When audiences discover that the frontmen of the group are Asian Americans, listeners often say, “‘I can’t believe that you’re Asian and you’re making music like this,’” Woo recalls. To them, the sex appeal often correlated with funk music contradicts the emasculated Asian male stereotype, according to Woo. As Asian American musicians in a field and genre sparse with them, they also tend to draw Asian listeners solely, and initially, due to their identities. Trace Repeat has performed at the Asian Heritage Festival and Kollaboration concerts, organized to increase and promote Asian American representation in entertainment. Though they seem to play to widely niche audiences, the group’s original music glosses over issues of identity and seems to focus more on the very “touchy-feely…love songs” that Woo says they try to avoid. But Trace Repeats brings together their two different musical identities by combining these lyrics with the instrumentation of traditional funk/soul groups (heavy bass, tenor/baritone saxophone, trombone, guitar, drums). “When you’re Asian American, there’s a very specific thing that people are expecting,” Woo says. “When we get up on stage, it also speaks volumes about sounding different.” However, it is interesting to note that the band is not entirely Asian American, yet they tout themselves as an Asian American music group. Labeling themselves as such in an unexpected genre of music could grant them access to specific audiences that other groups do not. The other members of the group see Asian American empowerment as crucial to their identity as a band. “We’re not talking about it at shows, it’s not in the lyrics. It’s bold just by virtue of who the band is,” trombonist David Kaiser-Jones says.

The intersection of cultural and economic systems is best summarized in an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for Trace Repeat’s debut album. The campaign, the band said, is not just for financial assistance with their first album – it is to help the group combat the “dopey, emasculated, sidekick” stereotypes associated with Asian American men. As Ho touches on in “Asian American Music and Empowerment,” Asian Americans are subject to oppression in the U.S. economic and political systems, requiring that minority groups gain control of communities and institutions (215). Trace Repeat, though not fully grasping authority over an institution, is paving a way for themselves by actively raising money to explicitly combat a stereotype via their music and presence.

As a (partly) Asian American funk/soul band, Trace Repeat is unique just in its existence. The group’s presence as outsiders in a traditionally African American musical genre, toying around with Asian American stereotypes, and positions in the cultural and economic systems of the U.S. makes Trace Repeat useful to analyze the presentation of Asian American identity through music.

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