Curatorial Statement: Asian American Artists On the Margins

“We don’t want a piece of your pie, we want to bake our own”

– “Free the Land” (1973)

Across the blog posts I have written for our class on Asian American music from the 1960s to the present, I have wrestled with the central question: how do Asian American musicians effectively resist a racialized capitalist system that denies and devalues their labor on the basis of race? The exclusion of Asian Americans from popular music genres like jazz, hip hop, and indie is tied to their broader exclusion from political and cultural citizenship (Lowe, 1996). Asian American artists occupy a liminal position, as audiences hold them “between the poles of whiteness and blackness, presence and lack, visibility and invisibility, subject and object” (Yang, 2013, 27). The three Asian American musicians I have spotlighted in my blogs – Mars Ganito, Yo-Yo-Ma, and Nomi – have each chosen different ways of responding to such exclusion and scrutiny. Their choices reveal that Asian American musicians seek to resist their marginality in their respective cultural genres, but, unless their labor as musicians is tied to the labor of collective struggle, they fail to directly challenge the racialized capitalist system.

In my first blog post, I wrote about how Mars Ganito and his pop-punk band, Aye Nako, enact counter-hegemonic resistance through their creation of an alternative space where queer people of color can voice their own experiences without being subject to the demands of a racialized capitalist system. Aye Nako’s music centers on the experiences of Mars and Jade, who both identify as queer people of color, and is independently produced, which allows the band to release songs like “Sissy” and “Muck” that honestly depict the structural and interpersonal violence inflicted upon racialized and gendered bodies. However, I now realize that Mars’ decision to claim an exclusively Black identity, as opposed to a mixed-race identity as both Filipino and Black, is telling. Identifying with blackness allows him to reject assimilation into whiteness, but at the expense of erasing his Asian American identity and reinforcing the black-white racial binary.

From left to right: Jade, Mars, Sheena, and Joe (Photo Credit: Ali Donahue)

Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, which I discussed in my second blog post, similarly downplay their Asian Americna identity by reproducing discourses of multiculturalism and universalism that appeal to the white middle class. Asian American classical musicians deal with racialization and the economic insecurity of their profession by talking about music-making in terms of passion and art rather than race and class (Yoshihara, 2008). The musicians in the Silk Road Ensemble demonstrate this when they talk about uniting people across cultures through speaking one “music-language” but do not address the unequal power relations among various cultural groups. By reproducing discourses of multiculturalism and universalism, they gain the global appeal to represent their identities in mainstream spaces; however, they end up reinforcing neoliberal capitalism, which “values” non-white, non-European forms of music only to the extent that it does not threaten existing relations of power.

The Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood
The Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood (Photo Credit: Magdalena Lepka)

Rather than aligning himself with either end of the black-white racial binary, Nomi, the MC of Power Struggle, claims a translocal Filipinx identity. In contrast to Yo-Yo Ma’s discourse of universalism, Nomi enacts a “global race consciousness” (Sharma, 2010) by connecting the struggles of working class Filipinx Americans with the struggles of workers in the Philippines. In the song, “Mr. Sagittarius…A Proletarian Path to Enlightenment,” Nomi’s lyrics and the images of the music video (at 2:27) evoke the massacre of picketing workers at the Hacienda Luisita plantation, which was responsible for Nomi’s own growing political consciousness. By positioning himself as a translocal Filipinx American aligned with global counter-hegemonic struggles, Nomi resists dominant discourses that confine hip hop artists to racial and national boundaries. In addition, Nomi directly challenges the racialized capitalist system that produces those dominant discourses by linking the labor of his music to the labor of collective struggle. His music is not about achieving success by the measures of capitalism (“making bread”) but about supporting the redemption of the Filipinx community, who deserve new and better lives.

“Singing like a seagull as the needle hits the edge,
Of a record that we made that made very little bread,
But the music is redemption, reflection of the life,
Collection of stories of Filipino lives” (“In Your Hands”)

While Mars Ganito, Yo-Yo Ma, and Nomi all challenge their positions of marginality as Asian American musicians by trying to represent their identities and experiences in either alternative or mainstream spaces, Nomi is the only one that uses his music-making as a means to directly challenge the structures that are built to exclude Asian Americans. Drawing inspiration from artists like Nomi, Asian American musicians who want to effectively resist structures of power will need to align the goals of their music with the goals of the collective struggles in their communities. If they erase their Asian American identity and seek to benefit from the system they are trying to resist, they will simply reinforce the mechanisms with which the current system bars Asian Americans from political and cultural participation.

Works Referenced

Lowe, Lisa. “Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique.” Immigrant Acts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 1-36.

Sharma, Nitasha. “The Appeal of Hip Hop, Ownership, and the Politics of Location.” Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 190-233.

Yang, Mina. “Yellow Skin, White Masks.” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, volume 142, no. 4, 2013, pp. 24-37.

Yoshihara, Mari. Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. Philadelphia, US: Temple University Press, 2008. ProQuestebary. Web.

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