February of 2015, I had just finished a gig at a battle of the bands event from my hometown in Virginia Beach. I felt good about myself as adrenaline rushed through my veins. As I walked backstage, one of the singers from another band came up to me and started complimenting my singing, my outfit, my makeup etc. Before she left, she threw out one final praise: “You were so cool, I didn’t even know you were Asian!”
While I’m sure she meant that as a compliment, her words instantly degraded my heritage and my ability to succeed as an Asian American. Left in shock, I realized she represents the majority of the Western population that views Asian Americans as people who are incapable of succeeding. Yet I refuse to submissively follow this racist misconception, which is why I joined this class with one question in mind: Are there Asian Americans in the music industry who are making a name for themselves by being Asian American, and if so, how?
Thankfully, I have found that there are some Asian Americans out there who are unapologetically true to their heritage (and why shouldn’t they be?) while paving their way to success, such as Japanese Breakfast, Yuna, and Mitski. These artists have not only presented music and appearances influenced by Asian culture but also have made it clear that Asian Americans can exist outside the stereotypical tropes in which they are often categorized in.
The mindset of Asian Americans being unable to succeed is the remnant of imperialism that still exists within Western media. Orientalism, which dates backs to World War II, emerged from the geopolitical division of the world into the “East” and “West;” this division was defined through the binaries of feminine/ masculine, passive/ dominant, and backwards/ modern. By presenting the East as a weaker subject, the West made imperialism easier and justifiable. Unfortunately, Western media is still dominated by those who believe this misconception of race and find the feminine, passive, and backwards Asian Americans incapable of success.
Rather than fight the Westernized view of Asian Americans, some artists have tried to erase race from their music and blend in with the mainstream, white culture. As shown in Mina Yang’s “Yellow Skin, White Mask,” for example, Far East Movement’s Prohgress and Kev Nish said, “We had a ‘Jabbawockeez’ type of mentality, where we didn’t want people to judge our music by our race or face, so we [originally] started with the name ‘Emcee’s Anonymous.’” The group would also often wear dark sunglasses that hid their almond-shaped eyes, which is a characteristic most often associated with “Asian-ness.”
[Far East Movement] simply bypassed such stereotyping and achieved mainstream popularity, it seems, by hiding from view any overt signifiers of Asian-ness.
From “Yellow Skin, White Mask”
Yet even Far East Movement acknowledges that one cannot erase his or her heritage when producing art, and Western culture should not expect this from Asian-American musicians either. Nish says so himself, “Emcee’s Anonymous is wack –that’s about being scared to own up to who you are. We respect and take pride in our culture,” and embraces the fact that the qualities of “hipness” and “artistry” exists across the spectrum of race. As noted in Greg Tate’s “Black Rockers vs. Blackies Who Rock, or The Difference between Race and Music,” musicians cannot ignore their ancestry because it seeps so deeply within their music. In a field where genuinity attracts the most listeners, a denial of identity ultimately can lead to the demise of a musician.
Despite such a problematic culture of isolation and sly discrimination, Asian Americans have been able to make their mark, while still being a proud Asian-American musician: Japanese Breakfast ranked 38th on Billboard Twitter Emerging Artists, Yuna ranked 8th on Billboard’s R&B Albums, Mitski ranked 32nd on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums.
It is important for Asian Americans to actively reclaim their identity in an industry that forces them to be white – or not succeed at all – because it challenges the underlying discrimination that undermines the ability of an entire race. Asian Americans will never be able to find success under the current hegemonic relationship between Asian Americans and white, mainstream media. Musicians who actively challenge the mainstream media and force the general public to accept Asian American culture are needed to change the status quo and reclaim the success that anyone should be entitled to. Without a collective effort to change the western domination of culture and society, an entire race can be swept under the rug.
Yuna, for example, unapologetically wears her headscarf and talks about her Muslim identity in a country where Islamophobia is rampant. Despite the criticism and unwanted attention she receives for her religion and choice of clothing, she continues to be true to her identity because she knows that discarding her headscarf is a submission to the racist values of the dominant white culture. Rather than finding success by assimilating into white culture, she proves herself worthy of success through her music.
Japanese Breakfast, too, proves that Asian Americans can be successful, while portraying herself as a strong female. As seen in the music video of “Everybody Wants to Love You,” she can be seen on a motorcycle and playing the electric guitar, two traditionally masculine subjects, while wearing a traditional hanbok; her point is further proven when the song ultimately ranks on Billboard. She actively breaks stereotypes that are connected to the reasons why Asian Americans cannot succeed, thus creating more room for Asian Americans to exist.
Yet it is important to note that while Asian Americans strive for more visibility that leads to success, stereotypical categories are not welcomed. For example, while the representation in “Flower Drum Song” is appreciated, the characterization of Asian Americans as foreigners further perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans lack the qualities white people have to succeed.
While Mitski fully embraces her Asian American identity, even using Japanese in her songs, she keeps the lyrics of music relatable. By doing so, she makes room for Asian Americans to exist within the industry without having to be a stereotype, which is groundbreaking for a field that has only supported “nerdy” or hyper-sexuaized Asian Americans. Her success with “Puberty 2,” which presents her experience with love, heartbreak, and growth, reaffirms that Asian Americans, too, can be complex beings – a much needed representation in the industry.
So please hurry leave me
I can’t breathe
Please don’t say you love me
胸がはち切れそうで [“my chest feels like it is going to explode”]
From Mitski’s “First Love/ Late Spring”
Plain and simple, Asian Americans can be successful, even when they do not fully assimilate to white culture. Young Asian Americans can look up to Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, and Yuna and believe that they, too, can succeed in a predominantly white and racist industry. Yet, the struggle to achieve recognition and success must be continued in order to eliminate the racist stereotypes against Asian Americans that deny them the right to succeed – a right that is not exclusive to white people.