“Whack Until Proven Real”?: The Plight of the Asian American Artist

Over the course of my last 3 blog posts, I have attempted to unpack some of the most overarching themes (in my opinion) of Asian American music as we have been studying it. I have tried to succeed in this endeavor through the lens of particular Asian American musicians and their particular artistic works, both musical and literary. In doing so, with my limited Asian American studies education, I have only grazed the surface of this deep well of talent and accompanying critical analysis and inquiry. However, with what I have touched on in my writing from the first blog post to the last, I have found generally investigates the concepts of appropriation and ownership, authenticity, and intention respectively. Though I will never be an expert on this subject, I feel as though I have deepened my understanding of how Asian Americans navigate this country in general and the realm of music in specific through their interaction with these three core principles.

So this was completely on accident but the order in which I posted my blogs and discussed their corresponding themes (ownership, authenticity, and intention) is the same order in which I would draw my conclusion for this course (which, if you read my previous blog, is a meaningful occurrence however unintentional it might have been). However much Asian American musicians think about these concepts explicitly or implicitly, they have to deal with them in this order as they begin to make a way for themselves in the music world and will more often than not be confronted with issues surrounding these concepts as they continue in it. The crucial point here is not that they are the only racial group to have to deal with this, in fact all musicians no matter their ethnic background must interact with these themes to some extent, but Asian Americans, by virtue of the fact that they are Asian in America, must deal with it more and often more openly and/or publically.

Beginning with ownership, I pose the question what do Asians or Asian Americans “own” in America? If I were to ask the same thing about black people in the U.S. and you were forced to answer, you might say soul food, or hip hop, if about white people, maybe country music or corporate America. This is a very simplified point, but it is only to say that most would not be able to attribute much to Asian Americans that they would be able to say is as intrinsic to American as soul food or country music. As referenced in my blog “The Right to Jazz” Asian Americans have long been “othered” and named the foreigner. As such, whatever they claim and can be traced to their heritage is similarly “othered” and considered an attribute of somewhere else, not America. In music then, when Asian Americans participate in other classically American musical genres which they are seen to not be a part of, there tends to be a general discomfort and Asian Americans are perceived as appropriating a style that is not their own. The example I gave of Ryan Higa is almost the opposite of this idea. His K-pop parody was largely accepted because as an Asian (American) musician, he was “appropriately” associating himself with other foreign (Korean) music, even though this was in itself a case of appropriation. In the current state of American in which Asian Americans are still viewed as foreigners, their presence in music will continually confront this issue of ownership.

Which leads me into my next point of authenticity which stems from ownership. People tend to believe that if someone belongs to a group of people that started a new phenomenon, then if they choose to participate in the phenomenon, their membership to that group automatically marks them as authentic. Along these lines, for most other ethnic groups in music it is kind of a “real until proven whack” approach, whereas for Asian Americans it’s a “whack until proven real” kind of deal. Asian Americans being perceived as “alien” and the history of many popular American genres coming from ethnic minorities other than Asian Americans perpetually poises them as members of the out-group and thus they must (at least initially) prove their authenticity in American music..

Then there is the intention or the intentions of the musician or musicians. For Asian American musicians, these artists navigate these themes of ownership and authenticity through their intentional (or unintentional) choices and decisions. Though I have so far only talked about the former two concepts from an external perspective (that is, how America generally views these artists), the intentions of the artist themselves (answering questions like why they make the music or write the kind of lyrics the way that they do or even why they became musicians in the first place) clue us in to their endogenous views on their personal ownership and authenticity and what those mean for Asian American musicians in general. As I said before all types of intention (and even “in-intention”) have a significant impact on how Asian American artists (and musicians in general) present themselves to their audience and the world. For Asian Americans artists, intentions are often critically examined more so than other artists but they can also be a tool that they can use to interact with the ideas of ownership and authenticity as they confront them more often than others and navigate the music industry.

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