Before I took this class, I believed that music could be universal. I thought that a song would be judged primarily by the instrumentation, the lyrics, or the vocal performance, and that distinctions would be based on “personal taste” or “preference”. I hadn’t thought much about how the artists I listen to had been preselected by a music industry dominated by the same hegemonic powers present in business and politics. The idea that music is universal is challenged when markets for consumption outlined by the music industry are structured around race and identity. Additionally, since neoliberalism has closely linked market recognition to citizenship, the broader implications of Asian-American representation in music extend to the cultural citizenship of Asian-Americans in the United States as a whole.
Asian-American artists seeking to find mainstream success have two general challenges: making their music universally relatable and navigating limitations placed upon them by the music industry due to their race. The first challenge is often met with an artist’s own creativity and intentions. The two artists that I chose to profile, Melissa Polinar and Yuna, each approached the second challenge of taking on music industry hegemony with different strategies. For Melissa Polinar, attaining success meant that she had to deemphasize her race. She never mentions it in her music and rarely draws attention to it in interviews. Her subdued racial identity is a casualty of her work. In return for her sacrifice, Polinar is less restricted by her race in terms of genre and collaborators. Yuna takes the opposite approach. She makes her identity, racial and religious, take center-stage and attempts to capitalize on neoliberal multiculturalism’s diversity points. While she is able to quickly garner the attention of the music industry through her “unique” look, her career takes an unexpected detour away from mainstream pop and toward R&B.
It seems that for Asian-American artists, achieving success means that maintaining musical integrity and a strong racial identity are mutually exclusive. The argument for this that the music industry always falls back on is that there are no demonstrated markets for Asian-American artists. But what happens when Asian-Americans create their own market using new media like YouTube?
Mainstream music and entertainment are quick to appropriate and take advantage of new markets. CBS invited Kevin Wu (KevJumba) and his dad to participate on The Amazing Race and increase their viewership. TV and cable companies are beginning to use YouTube as a streaming platform. While this has caused Asian YouTubers to lose some of their market, they haven’t had an easier time doing the inverse and breaking into mainstream media. As a result, some YouTube stars have either left the US to break into mainstream markets in Asia or have begun redefining the meaning of success. As the old saying goes: if you can’t beat the hegemony and you can’t join them, then make a new game where they don’t know the rules and crown yourself champion.
Through YouTube, Asian-Americans created a market outside of the mainstream and, for a short time, experienced cultural citizenship with other Asian-Americans. However, markets created outside the mainstream are only temporary bubbles. These bubbles are necessary as a community space but should not be viewed as the permanent solution. Asian-Americans that found success in the system—record executives, agents, and mainstream artists who have achieved success by obscuring their Asian-ness (Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo)—need to advocate for change from within the system with the following message: The existence of a robust Asian-American market has been proven; now, use Asian-American artists to capitalize on it.
The mutual exclusivity of success and strong racial identity for Asian-Americans extends beyond music and entertainment and into almost all spheres of business and politics. As with the music industry, the responsibility and power lies with those Asian-Americans who have achieved success by downplaying their racial identity. It should not be enough that someone finds success despite being Asian-American; Asian-Americans should find success without hiding the word before the hyphen. Recognizing a mainstream Asian-American market and promoting Asian-American identities in business and politics are both giant leaps in the quest for Asian-American cultural citizenship.
I’ve recognized many of the themes mentioned in my own life. I’m especially guilty of suppressing my racial identity in favor of other identities attained through friends, athletics, or institutions like Greek life. But as a first-generation, Chinese-speaking Asian-American with immigrant parents, my identity is inescapable and must be readily embraced. For whatever reason I had to downplay my Asian-ness, I now have a responsibility to make the next generation of young Asian-Americans comfortable with their identity while also feeling a sense of cultural citizenship.