Curatorial Statement: Contradictions in Asian American Music and Identity

Over the course of a quarter spent diving into Asian American history, art, and politics, it has often felt like we are only talking in circles, hitting the same walls with the same questions over and over again. While it has been heartening to be surrounded by other students who bring different perspectives and fresh analysis to these issues, and while I highly value the conversations and contributions my peers and professors have given, at the same time it is difficult to dig into recent artistic works by Asian American artists, only to find them facing the same creative challenges Asian Americans faced over two decades ago. As we have seen demonstrated throughout our lives of constantly absorbing American culture, whiteness is seen as a default, a blank canvas on which to paint any identity one may choose. A white artist may attempt to break into any genre and never have to mention identity – a fact I have noticed many times when hopefully listening to a new artist, only to be disappointed upon googling them and finding only white faces in the lineup. However, the theme I have noticed again and again, and written about again and again, is the fact that Asian Americans always face “the pressure to either centralize Asian-American identity, or to completely erase it,” as I wrote in my first blog post.

I have already written several times about Oliver Wang’s work, “Rapping and Repping Asian”, in which he discusses the different schools of rappers in the nineties. In his essay, he quotes an interview of Hana Choi, member of the rap group “Fists of Fury”. “Fists of Fury” fell into the category of Asian rappers who wrote about the Asian American experience and politicized their work through the inclusion and emphasis of this racial identity. Choi says that her group was “more interested in spreading our political message” and that they “knew that our material was not commercially viable.” In the same vein, rapper Awkwafina’s most recent music video, “Green Tea”, in which she exaggerates and parodies stereotypes about Asian women, received only about a third of the views received by Awkwafina’s previous hit, “NYC Bitche$”, which is not centered around Asian identity.

Awkwafina (left) and comedian Margaret Cho collaborated to write and film “Green Tea”

Both in the nineties and in the 2010’s, Asian American artists who centralize their identities in their music face lesser popularity than non-racialized music. The fact that non-racialized music garners more popularity is an enormous disadvantage to racialized people, who even when creating art which erases their own identity, still face racialization against their will. Wang notes that Southstar, a Chinese Filipino American rapper, presents this difficulty in an interview about his rap career. In response to one question about his race, he claims that he “doesn’t even notice it most of the time”, but within the next couple of questions admits that “being Asian…I had a lot more to prove”, and that he wants to be the first Asian in rap the same way Ichiro Suzuki was the first Asian in baseball. Still, he clings to the idea that his goal is to present non-racialized rap, insisting that “hip hop is for all”. Southstar’s interviewer asked questions based around Southstar’s racial background, even though it is not mentioned in his music. Many Asian American artists want to write music that is not tied to their race, but still face the challenges of the identity placed upon them whether they wish to embrace it or not.

Asian American artists can attempt to escape the boundaries placed upon them, but often even when their music follows these lines, their audience and peers will still see them in a racial light. However, when Asian American artists write about their racialized experiences, they receive less accolades than when their music is not racialized. It’s an impossible contradiction to navigate, and also leaves me wondering: do Asian American musicians have the right to leave our identities behind? Will we ever be allowed to? In an interview with Angry Asian Man, Awkwafina says that with “Green Tea”, she hopes to invite women of color to “to embrace their quirkiness, their sexuality, their inner-child and their creativity with passion.” Even with an extremely racialized work, the ambitions of the artist are not necessarily based around race, but based around a desire for those who are racialized to simply be able to catch up to those who are not. It doesn’t seem that there is yet a solution to this contradiction. I have found hope in the works of Mitski, who seems to toe the line between flaunting Asian identity and sweeping it under the carpet. Unlike many other Asian artists, she is able to subtly pay homage to her Asian upbringing (for example her lyric, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me” from “Your Best American Girl”) as well as use Asian faces as main characters in her music videos, while maintaining enough relatability and familiar sound to appeal to larger audiences.

Lisa Maley stars in Mitski’s “Happy” Music Video


Perhaps the answer to this navigation is simply that the aesthetics of her music allow the lyrics to be somewhat lost in the noise, so the meaning can be more variable if the listener wishes it to be. Perhaps Mitski’s brand of ambiguity is what we need for Asian Americans to first become familiar faces in the field, to get a foot in the door before making our experiences heard. After all, Awkwafina rapped around her Asian-ness for years before bringing it to the forefront. Although it may seem as though the situation has not changed, at the same time I’d like to hope that we are in fact in that stage of transition – and hopefully one day Asian American artists will be free to express as much or as little of their identity as they wish. 

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