As Asian American artists gain prominence in the American music scene, there continues to be conversation about reclamation of identity, racial authenticity, and the struggles of being recognized as musicians. Whether by listening to Yo-Yo Ma in the realm of classical music, The Blue Scholars in hip hop, or Mitski in indie, Asian Americans find their icons in a multitude of genres, and follow artists that resemble themselves. The theme of struggle and resistance is a common one amongst Asian Americans, and the music composed by prominent figures reflects this struggle, illustrating the inventive ways in which Asian Americans express their desire to be free of a white-centered hegemonic society. Through classical music, Asian Americans reclaim a primarily Western style of music and use it to gain social, and perhaps economic capital. Hip hop, a genre that exposes social ills and the hypocrisy of certain groups in society, functions to help Asian Americans express their will to move forward in society, and break through boundaries into places reserved for the white elite. Indie, a genre that is still far from being broken into, helps to convey more messages of protest, and help Asian Americans understand their own identities.
“Heart and Soul” is a familiar melody, both comforting and warm. The singers croon “you’ve got me loving you, madly,” as an assortment of Asian instruments play in the background, a distinct blend of Asian and American music. It is music like this that helps Asian Americans break into western-style music: Through the usage of classical music, Asian Americans claim a style of music that originated with dead white men (although they were not dead at the time). In a way, Asian Americans are proving that they can break into any music scene, whether or not their predecessors were white European men. The same type of mindset it true for indie music, which is largely dominated by white hipsters. As more and more artists (especially female artists) such as Mitski burst onto the scene, there is the continued expansion of Asian American identities in traditionally Western styles of music. Hip-hop, too, lends itself to expressions of Asian American resistance against oppressive structures present in society. Whether by claiming or reclaiming these styles of music, Asian Americans prove their versatility within the music world, continually creating music that functions to redefine and/or reclaim Asian identities.
There is also the continued conversation about authenticity in relation to Asian American musicians. With classical music, there are always the oft-repeated criticisms that Asian Americans are merely commodifying the notes for their own profit. However, these types of comments are never levelled at white artists to the same extent, and inherent biases present in a society lead to the dismissal of Asian American musicians. As Yoshihara states, these musicians achieve what they do through an “industrious commitment to years of rigorous training”, and are still discredited by the white elite. Mitski sings of the rejection of her Asian-ness, as her American identity stands in stark contrast to her Japanese half. Looking at American artists such as Halsey, who started out “indie” and gradually made her way into the mainstream, tells a different story—many of her songs sound the same, conveying the same messages about having her heart broken, etc. Mitksi is able to take this a step further with her own take on rejection—a rejection much more deeply rooted in her identity as an Asian American. When it comes down to it, who is truly more authentic to themselves? The same is true of rap—a rapper who does not go through any social ills, such as Drake, etc. may not be able to convey the same messages of oppression and resistance as artists such as Blue Scholars, who emphasize supporting Asians, a group often forgotten by the American music scene.
Lastly, Asian American music may function as an expression of resistance against the power structures inherent in today’s society. Blue Scholars makes this point using hip-hop, the traditional language of dissent, expressing the hypocrisies of a society centered around expanding the power of the white elite. In indie music, there is a certain resistance to being commodified and becoming merely another profit-based group, which is why this genre, when utilized by Asian Americans, also serves to highlight social ills and their detrimental effects on Asian Americans over time. Classical music, while not traditionally associated with social protest, also helps Asian Americans to take ownership of a new style, proving that they too can participate in a music that is predominantly white on the outside. Not only do Asian Americans participate in classical music, they tend to dominate in it as well, a triumph for the group as a whole. All of these instances of Asian Americans using music as a tool for social leverage and expansion help to demonstrate the impact of Asian-American artists within a society that tends to ignore the group as a whole. The whiteness of most social institutions is difficult to get past, but is worth it when Asian Americans begin to show that they too can excel in such fields as music and the performance arts.
All in all, this course taught me much more than about each individual artist in the field of “Asian-American music”. As artists such as Mitski and Blue Scholars demonstrate, there is great importance to be had in rebelling against the dominant social order and structures that prevail today, and to carve out a larger space for Asian Americans. There is also the question of racial authenticity, and whether Asian Americans are being genuine to themselves when participating in genres predominantly based on white roots. My answer to this question is that yes, there is a genuineness that comes from being an oppressed group in society, and many Asian American artists, such as those mentioned above, show that their own struggles can be translated effectively to music. The repeated theme of struggle and resistance functions to show that Asian Americans can and will resist being boxed in by a society that suppresses their expression. Perhaps the final goal of Asian Americans in music is to erase the label “Asian American music” and default to just “music”.
“Heart and Soul”