Asian American Community in Music

In my Common App essay for college applications, I wrote about how I appreciate music as a community in which I can not only contribute to as a classical musician (I was applying to music schools as a viola performance major) but a means by which I can communicate with others despite outward and physical differences. Who knew that four years later, I would be writing about the impact and significance of classical music and Korean pop music in one of my last distribution credit classes of college. What’s different now is that because I have actually received the formal education – read more about the nuances of each genre and researched about specific case studies – so I can reflect on what it means to be Asian American within both the classical music and K-pop music realms and how these relate.

Although the majority of class discussions on classical music and the involvement of Asian Americans in this genre were focused mostly on the problematic “tiger parenting” of Asian parents on their Asian American children as well as the hegemonic structure of Asian Americans being restricted only to performing the music of established, white composers (both of which I mentioned in my first blog post), I want to bring up the other side to these issues.

Having experienced the struggles of studying piano since the age of four and then viola until sophomore year of college, I understand the problems which surround the classical music world, and how Asian Americans are so often forced against their own will to conform just to live up to the stereotype of Asian Americans’ success in the classical music world. However, the community which is built throughout the course of childhood and oftentimes beyond is one that should not be easily overlooked. Yes, the study of classical music and success in the field requires hours of practice and investment in music programs so that there can be minimal recognition achieved. But the urging of Asian parents to participate in these youth orchestras, auditions, and masterclasses also leads to communities built through mutual striving for the same goal.

The classical music community is one that is built on the ability to recognize that others in the community have also been through similar tough experiences, obstacles, and considerations to get to the current point. The financial burdens are all felt, as are the fears of finding success in a future in classical music. American kids of Asian descent are therefore able to find common ground and ownership of their shared endeavors throughout all of this, which is so important in a world which rarely allows Asian Americans to feel personal ownership.

From an outside perspective, the relevance of world-renowned artists such as Yo-Yo Ma (cellist, Chinese-American), Sarah Chang (violinist, Korean-American), Alan Gilbert (music director of the New York Philharmonic, Japanese-American), and Midori Goto (violinist, Japanese-American) must signify some type of upwards mobility of Asian Americans in the classical music world. Although composers will always be those of European descent, it’s important to note that even most white American musicians today don’t compose, and certainly don’t become as recognized as composers. Classical music is mostly made up of performers. To aspiring Asian American classical musicians, this is a huge step of representation and relevance. It creates belonging in a world of structured power and disregard for Asian American talent.

Despite the fact that there is always room for growth and for important issues of bias and assumption of the Asian American role in classical music and how this plays into the adolescence and development of Asian Americans, I find some comfort in the fact that just in my 21 years of living, I have seen the rise and acknowledgement of Asian Americans in the classical music world into main stream culture.

Similarly, Korean pop music is inherently built with the acceptance of Asian Americans. Consumers of K-pop in America are mostly Asian, and Asian American audience accounts for an immense part of Korean pop culture. In my presentation digital archive and second blog post, I discuss the dissemination of K-pop into America through social media and targeted marketing specific to Asian American populations. The recognition of Korea’s purposeful marketing to Asian Americans shows that they are also aware of the effectiveness of forming pan-ethnic communities. Korean entertainment companies know that many of its audience doesn’t understand a word that their artists say, but are able to continue to support and find commonality and comfort in K-pop.

The strong presence of community within the Asian American population is present in Korean-pop, but at the same time, the rejection of non-Korean artists in the K-pop industry is very apparent. In the studies of Alex Reid and other artists in groups which include singers of other ethnicities to generate attention, the blatant racism which they endure points to the lack of Korean culture’s ability to extend the acceptance beyond those who are Asian.

Our discussions in class pointed to elaboration of how Korean-pop has struggled to really break through into mainstream American pop culture, but the fact that it is able to create a community which transcends language and encompasses pan-ethnic similarities means that it is successful in its own right. The inclusion of Asian American members in K-pop groups and English lyrics is a direct contribution to this community.

Just as in classical music (and perhaps even more so), the Korean-pop entertainment world still requires discussion and change in the acceptance of other minority and hegemonically controlled ethnic groups as well as the issue of normalization of capitalist exploitation. But the fact that K-pop artists such as Ailee (born Amy Lee in Denver, Colorado) and Eric Nam (born in Atlanta, Georgia) have been trying to bring back their Korean-American roots to America through their success in K-pop means at least something. Although they haven’t hit mainstream, they represent solidarity in the Asian American community and allow the community to be built up even stronger across the world.

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