Writing a New Asian American Narrative

Throughout this course, I set out to examine how Asian American music and identity was portrayed through mainstream media. I also wanted to see how Asian American viewed themselves and how existing media influenced those perceptions. I examined all types of music, from rap to classical, as a heuristic to more clearly understand and analyze how the hegemonic powers in the United States shaped the art of a wide and varied community.

Art created by bodies of color are often undervalued and do not receive acknowledgement for the amount of dedication required. When I looked into The Slants’ law suit against the U.S. trademark office, I arrived to the conclusion that the refusal to grant the trademark to the Asian American band resulted in the loss of revenue. They put time and effort into their music only to be denied all the fruits of their labor. The denial of their trademark request is based on the use of “slants” as a racial slur, despite The Slants being an Asian-American band, the group the slur is used against. The lack of a trademark undervalues all the effort and cost this band of color put into producing music. This sentiment of devaluation is echoed in the presence of Asian Americans in classical music. It takes decades of practice and thousands of dollars in instruments and lessons to become a top classical musician. The opportunity cost is extremely high, but their labor, as Mari Yoshihara puts it, is unproductive. They produce no tangible product that can be purchased for a price, so their investment often bears no significant returns. Only three top orchestras offer salaries over $100 thousand a year, so coupled with the cost of this profession, the starving artist stereotype has some truth to it. It is also extremely rare that Asian American musicians are promoted to the top positions within a symphony orchestra. They comprise a good chunk of the orchestra demographic but the higher power positions are not representative of that. They work extremely hard to only get to the middle.

Music is also activism, bringing to light the issues the mainstream has spent decades sweeping under the carpet. Ruby Ibarra, a Filipina-American rapper, writes and performs songs exposing the colonial efforts of the U.S. in the Philippines and the lasting effects that has oppressed people to this day. Mainstream media rarely acknowledges the unsolicited intervention in black and brown countries, but Ibarra is adamant in that this empire-building be discussed. She uses rap, born out of African-American struggle and oppression, as her medium to speak her truths. The Slants, in a way, are also attempting to bring awareness to their issues through their fame and notoriety. Both artists follow in the footsteps of Chris Iijima and the activist Asian American community, of which there is a long history of resistance.

Which brings me to where Asian Americans fit into the struggle for the American Dream and the American narrative. The model minority myth has thoroughly infiltrated the Asian American image, and it’s a difficult and ongoing fight to shake that off. That part of my own identity is something I’ve had to confront myself, so when I see all these musicians fighting that stereotype with art, it’s confirmation that I come from a community that is willing to speak up and has resisted hegemonic hierarchy. It’s the same with the music that Asian Americans produce. Ibarra refused to let decades of imperialism go unnoticed, Iijima spoke out against an unjust war, and The Slants went to the highest court in the land in an effort for equality.

Resistance can also take the form of self-expression. Asian Americans are often portrayed as emotionally-stunted or illiterate, unfeeling. A common criticism for Asian American classical musicians is that, though technically perfect, they are unable to capture the “essence” of the piece because they lack the emotional literacy to understand how the composer must have felt. Music is an inherently emotional experience, and the production of such counters the notion that Asians do not understand feelings. For me, Asian American music is more than just art. It’s the acknowledgement of the price of the American Dream and a path forward past that.

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