A Quarter in Review: Asian American music and what it really means

As a form of expression that has evolved along with the times, music is essential to the human experience, generationally, culturally, and individually. The study of Asian American music garners a wide range – music made by Asian Americans, music with Asian American themes, music for Asian Americans. However, defining ‘Asian American music’ in the context of a cultural, generational, and individual human experience seems to mandate some sort of purpose and intention to its label. Through the research of Asian American musicians such as CL and Yuna, along with the classroom discourse of numerous scholarly sources regarding the study of Asian American music and culture, I have come to define ‘Asian American music’ as a musical portrayal of Asian American expression. The expression of love and the expression of art are just a few examples of the palette of emotions that manifests the Asian American experience – what it feels like to exist as an Asian American. Music that manages to encompass any aspect of that ‘feeling’ can be deemed as ‘Asian American music.’ Having that representation of existence, against systems that continually try to deny it, offers a bank of inspiration and an empowering sense of solidarity.

Appropriately, this definition of ‘Asian American music’ came with a grappling with the outlying idea of Asian American musicians who don’t necessarily produce or perform music that portray an Asian American-specific experience. Shouldn’t being Asian American be enough of an expression of the experience? The research of CL’s debut in America strongly denies this automaticity of the ‘Asian American music’ label to music produced by Asian bodies. The research, revolving around the question of her music’s authenticity and her appropriation of black culture, suggests a capitalist motive behind the musical expression; though CL is very clearly Asian, the artificiality of her musical expression – taking from another’s culture and presenting it as her own – prevents it from being any genuine representation of the Asian American experience. This differentiation between Asian American music and music produced by Asian Americans is supported by Greg Tate’s discussion of the intersection between race and music. In the same way that Tate distinguishes “Black Rockers” from “Blackies Who Rock,” my definition of ‘Asian American music’ distinguishes intent from identity.

This distinction ties a sense of responsibility to the creation of ‘Asian American music.’ In a way, then, the definition of ‘Asian American music’ as a musical portrayal of Asian American expression assumes authenticity. Throughout the course, I struggled with deeming some works as not ‘Asian American music.’ I realized, however, it is hard to portray expression of a human experience when the experience is artificial, or simply concocted to fit the mold of the mainstream expectation. As in Sharma’s discussion of authenticity in “The Appeal of Hip Hop,” the reason why hip hop has been so liberating for Asian Americans is because “hip hop [is] an appropriate vehicle for their immigrant perspective on local and global matters of inequality” (208), an expression of struggle “through Black music.” So, though I had a hard time deeming some music more ‘Asian American’ than others, it is clear with my definition that Awkwafina’s raps about “Yellow bitches in the driver’s seat” in Green Tea as a way to satirize the stereotypes of Asian American women carries more weight as ‘Asian American music’ than CL’s song about wanting to do drugs in Lifted in an effort to camouflage into the mainstream. In essence, the producer or performer of the music does not have to be Asian American to express ‘Asian American music’ so long as it is an authentic representation of Asian American expression.

Groups like the Silk Road Ensemble capture such portrayals of Asian American expression without all the performers having to be Asian American. However, my definition of ‘Asian American music’ places irreplaceable value in Asian American representation – the expression coming directly from Asian bodies. Because music captures the human experience, ‘Asian American music’ helps paint Asian Americans as human; in effect, there is an active or passive undoing of the dehumanizing stereotypes forced upon by the larger hegemonic system. Thus, when this humanizing of the Asian American experience through music comes from an Asian body, it represents a stand against hegemonic forces. My research of Yuna, and her intentional exposure of Asian American actors and dancers in her music videos, focuses on the musical portrayal of such Asian American expression. The artistic portrayal of love between Asian Americans, as defined by Fred Ho in “Where is the Asian American Love,” humanizes the Asian American experience as something larger than the immigrant experience (Ho). Artists like Yuna and Mitsky, and even the movie, The Crumbles, truly captures the essence of my definition of ‘Asian American music;’ the musical portrayal of Asian American expressivity humanizes the Asian American experience beyond existing narratives, like the model minority ideology, that often work against us.

Viewing Asian American music as a tool of solidarity and empowerment drastically changed not only how I view music but also the way I process different expressions of the Asian American experience. The range of ‘Asian American music’ is wide, evidenced by everything we discussed in class, but the intentions and the effects humanize Asian America. In vast and different ways, we love, we struggle, we feel, and we exist.

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