Surface vs. Tension in Asian American Music

Expos, Writing

by Emma Trone

On Mitksi’s fourth studio album, Puberty 2, critical favorite “Your Best American Girl” is a standout in part because it’s the rare, empowering, Mitski song. While the seething anger that drives most of the album usually ends in despair, “Your Best American Girl” subverts that anger into Alanis Morissette-esque empowerment. Quiet strumming and a meek expression of pained love gives way to an unexpected swell of electric guitar, and a defiant statement: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I finally do”. The internet went wild, declaring that the song was an attack on the patriarchy, institutional racism, the fetishization of white indie rock, and the permanent “otherness” of Asian-Americans. 

Mitski, however, has downplayed these interpretations. On Facebook, she posted: 

A lot of reviews have agreed on the narrative that ‘she wrote this song to stick it to the white boy indie rock world!’ but I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it…I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love.

Mitski’s reluctance to make herself a symbol of a larger cultural shift in the music industry is understandable. In an era where young women like boygenius and Snail Mail are at the forefront of indie rock, there is still an expectation that women are merely the musical vessels for forces larger than themselves, rather than the authoritative tellers of their own stories. But the fact that the idea of a Japanese-American woman “sticking it to the white boy indie rock world” appealed to so many can partly be attributed to a renewed desire for Asian media representation. 

In recent years, representation has been, arguably, the most visible Asian American issue. The biggest success story in recent years, both in terms of social impact and ticket sales, is indisputably Crazy Rich Asians. But for many, the movie was merely a shallow victory for representation. Mark Tseng-Putterman, in The Atlantic, lamented that the movie stages “a certain kind of respectability politics for a presumed white audience,” by simply transposing Asian faces on a white American story. In another vein, Singaporean activist Sangeetha Thanapal criticized the erasure of non-Chinese Singaporeans, noting that the only “Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese.” 

These criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians also apply to many of the Asian representation “success stories” of the past few years, like Searching, Fresh Off the Boat, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which all feature East Asians in stories that are familiar to white audiences. Each of these projects individually aren’t responsible for telling every kind of Asian story. But it’s painfully obvious that the multitude of stories contained within the Asian experience still aren’t being told on screen, even as people celebrate recent gains.

Asian musicians are often considered only peripherally in these conversations about representation, despite the attention that Mitski attracted with “Your Best American Girl”. In many ways, the focus on on-screen representation makes sense; both underrepresentation and representation based on stereotypes on TV and in movies can have lifelong impact on the self-perceptions of Asian Americans (Sun et al. 305). However, despite the effort and attention that many in the Asian community give solely to representation in Hollywood, the emerging Asian music scene is actually far more representative of the breadth of the Asian, and Asian American, experience. These musicians deserve far more credit for producing work with the diversity, nuance, and depth that still eludes Asian stories in film and TV.

Puberty 2 is one of the most prominent examples of how effectively musicians can articulate their stories in the context of Asianness. Much of the power in Mitski’s music stems from her ability to express universal feelings; shame, pain, love, and alienation. At the same time, her Japanese background intrinsically shapes the way she approaches those feelings in her music. Beyond “Your Best American Girl”, much of Puberty 2 is evocative of classic Americana; gazing at a secret lover through a rearview window, the lilting 60s-era style of Timi Yuro and Bernadette Carroll in “Once More to See You,” fireworks filling the sky on a warm summer’s evening. But embedded in each of these images is the repeated reminder that Mitski’s participation in this culture is at best marginal, and at worst destructive. The “all-American boys” she chases ignore or sideline her, and by the end of the album in “A Burning Hill,” she has no choice but give up the chase, and simply “love the littler things.” While “Your Best American Girl” is a momentary, bittersweet victory, she ultimately comes to the conclusion that “how [her] mother raised [her]” has formed a cultural gap that will never be fully bridged.

For Raveena Aurora, an Indian-American R&B singer, the melding of cultures is a more celebratory process. In the legacy of genre- and culture-mixing jazz-pop singer Asha Puthli, Raveena confidently balances her roots with new narratives. In the music video for “Temptation,” she evokes the lushness and romanticism of Bollywood movies, while adding a twist of her own; a queer romance, that she used to come out as bisexual to family members and fans. In an Instagram post announcing “Temptation,” she wrote, “Growing up, South Asian culture and queer culture felt like oil and water.” Yet, with “Temptation”, she presents a world where both are compatible. With her music, Raveena illustrates the process of both embracing and challenging cultural norms, and how the Asian American experience is often one of balance.

Indonesian rapper Rich Brian is producing some of the most explicitly Asian identity-centric music. His earlier, meme-ier work often strayed into problematic territory, most controversially with his use of the n-word. But with his two studio albums, particularly his most recent, The Sailor, he’s turned jokes into a serious exploration of his identity and his immigration story. In “Yellow,” he raps, with a Young Thug-like flow, about his aimlessness and anxiety after immigrating to the U.S. when he was seventeen. In the emotional climax of the song, he challenges the listener not to “fight the feeling because I’m yellow,” both a reclamation of a derogatory term, and an embracement of his outsider status. Rather than avoid the tension that his race poses to his career, Rich Brian has chosen to centralize it.

It’s hard to picture the Hollywood of the current moment depicting any of these stories, at least not with the same nuance that Mitski, Raveena, and Rich Brian, and countless other musicians have given them. It would be unfair to fault the hardworking actors, directors, and writers who are still fighting to increase representation in Hollywood for these deficits. After all, the structural barriers to getting a primetime TV show or a big-budget studio film are considerably higher than independently releasing an album. 

Regardless, today’s Asian musicians are undeniably at the forefront of depicting the tensions of the Asian American experience; shame and pride, alienation and celebration, respecting tradition and forging ahead as an individual. It’s about time that we listen.

The Rise of 88rising

Expos, Writing

by Judy Jiang

The American music industry has been so influential that you might find a store in China playing Ariana Grande’s “Thank You, Next.” Meanwhile, regardless of the broad Asian audience within America and across the world, Asian artists who release music in America have limited influence in the industry. In recent years, 88rising, an American mass media company, is gradually transforming the industry through its popularity as a musical platform and label primarily for Asian American and Asian artists.

This year in October, Brian Imanuel Soewarno, known by his stage name, Rich Brian, just completed “The Sailor” tour in support of his new album, where his fans filled every arena for him with their loudest love. Rich Brian has become one of the most well-known artists from the label, along with his fellow Indonesian, Nicole Zefanya, known by her stage name, NIKI. They have increased representation for the Asian communities worldwide through their success in the music industry and their activism.

88rising was founded in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma, both Asian Americans with a hip-hop dream, a genre that contradicts the image of the reserved, subservient Asian. 

Miyashiro grew up in San Jose, California, the son of a mechanical engineer from Japan, who had been a jazz DJ in college, and a stay-at-home mother from South Korea, who enjoyed listening to Michael Jackson and the Beach Boys. He went to San Jose State University without getting a degree, and was more interested in livening up the sleepy commuter school’s campus: he put on punk and hip-hop shows and organised events for black fraternities. 

On the other hand, Ma earned his degrees in Bible theology and business management. Meanwhile, Ma’s musical journey began in underground hip hop clubs in Northern California where he would compete in rap battle competitions. In 1998, he dropped his first mixtape titled “2 Sides 2 Everything.”

When they found each other and officially started 88rising in 2015, they began to contact up-and-coming artists that they found on the internet. The first was Keith Ape, the South Korean rapper behind the 2015 hit It My G Ma, whose real name is Lee Dongheon. The New York Times called Lee “a clear inheritor of Southern rap rowdiness that requires no translation.” Other inaugural artists includes Brian Puspos (Filipino American), Dumbfoundead (Korean American), Josh Pan (Asian American (cultural heritage unspecified)), and Okasian (Korean American). Miyashiro said that their music collective goal is “to become the most wavy, iconic crew” and “trying to represent not only Asian immigrants, but for all immigrants.”

88rising has achieved their goal of professional success and social impact. In the video of his 2016 hit, Dat $tick, Rich Brian deftly parodies American rap culture and Asian nerd stereotypes, talking tough and dancing menacingly in slow motion while wearing a pink polo shirt and a fanny pack. Today, the video has been viewed more than 135 million times on YouTube. Started with making comedic music, Brian has transcended his work to make more legitimate and serious music with a variety of styles, as well as his own role from an “angsty teenager” to a positive influencer that shares more personal stories through his music. In 2018, his debut studio album, Amen, was released and made him the first Asian musician to reach number one on iTunes Hip Hop charts and went on to peak at number 18 on the US Billboard 200. 

NIKI, relatively new to the label and being the only female face in 88rising, has been more active advocating for Asian and female empowerment. Her debut album, Zephyr, was released in 2018, with eight R&B-infused tracks largely produced herself. Her smooth and soulful voice has attracted broad attention to her songs.

Through her music, Zefanya is trying to empower Asians and Asian Americans. During the Head in The Clouds music festival, NIKI, took a moment to address the more than ten-thousand people gathered in Los Angeles’ Historic State Park. “I just want to say, as an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted. My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all that you feel represented.” NIKI has made clear both on the stage and through social media her mission to empower young Asian artists under-represented in American music industry.

These Asian internationals have in turn impacted the Asian American community in America as well as Asians abroad. It is their perfect English, their engagement with the American music industry, their alignment with music genres usually associated with America, and certainly also the look — nationalities are harder to tell while one’s race/ethnicity is more visible — that highlighted their impacts. The pan-Asian identity emerged from these artists is one of strength and pride. This representation shows their potential to be a powerful mobilizing force for the Asian American community and to engage in the larger questions of belonging and prosperity.



An Asian American Perspective on Affirmative Action and Legacy Admissions

Expos, Writing

by Darren Jian

One of the most high-profile legal cases in higher education today is Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the lawsuit alleging that Harvard University unconstitutionally engages in racial balancing by keeping the number of Asian students artificially low in order to admit more black and Hispanic applicants. Students for Fair Admissions alleged that Harvard held Asian Americans to a higher standard than other students during its admissions process, disproportionately hurting their chances of acceptance. Last month, a federal judge ruled that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian American applicants.

Students for Fair Admissions claims its mission is to “restore the original principles of our nation’s civil rights movement.” However, its president Edward Blum — a white, conservative legal strategist— has a history of attacking affirmative action, voting rights and civil rights causes. In 2008, Blum orchestrated a challenge to race-based admission in higher education, helping a white woman to sue the University of Texas for rejecting her because of her race.

In response to the ruling, Blum said he “needed Asian plaintiffs” to continue his crusade against affirmative action. He knew that it would be harder to condemn an attack on affirmative action if it came from a minority group. Blum deliberately targeted Asian applicants, making calls and publishing online advertisements (see above) that read: “Were you denied admission to Harvard? It may be because you’re the wrong race.” Posing as a champion of equality, Blum was orchestrating a complicated racial chess game, using Asian Americans as a pawn to advance an anti-POC agenda.

This strategy echoes a broader historical pattern where white America pits minorities against each other, forcing them to compete over the few opportunities they are allotted. The resulting narrative frames affirmative action as a zero-sum game where black and Latinx students can only win if Asian students lose.

This narrative is both flawed and dangerous because it shifts focus away from the fact that the higher education system is stacked against all minority and low-income Americans––black, Latinx, or Asian American––due to institutions like legacy preferences that seek to propagate existing social hierarchies. Although the Harvard lawsuit sparked a conversation about the role of race in the college admissions process, unfortunately, there has been no similarly widespread discussion about how legacy admissions essentially serve as a form of affirmative action for the wealthy and white.

In connection with the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, Harvard was forced to disclose data on legacy preferences, revealing that the admissions rate for legacy applicants was five times the rate of non-legacy students. For the Harvard University classes of 2014 through 2019, the admit rate for legacies was 33.6 percent, more than five times the admit rate for non-legacies. Students without legacy status were admitted at an average rate of only 5.9 percent. In an analysis conducted by The Harvard Crimson, 28 percent of the class of 2019, 27 percent of the class of 2020, 29 percent of the class of 2021, and 36 percent of the class of 2022 was comprised of legacy students. 

This begs the question: what is the demographic breakdown of these legacy admits, who make up roughly a third of the Harvard student body? According to a study of the class of 2019, 70 percent of legacy applicants were white, compared to just 40 percent of non-legacy applicants. Among white applicants who were accepted into Harvard, 21.5% had legacy status. Only 6.6% of accepted Asian applicants and 4.8% of accepted African American applicants were legacies. Looking at the wealth of these disproportionately white legacy students, 43 percent came from households that earn more than $500,000 a year, versus 15 percent of the class overall.

This trend is mirrored at other colleges: according to a 2008 study by Duke, the university’s legacy students were significantly more likely to be white and to have attended private schools than the rest of the student body. In 2017, Georgetown’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Charles Deacon, admitted that legacy students tended to be whiter and have wealthier economic backgrounds than the university as a whole.

Factoring legacy into admissions disproportionately benefits white, affluent students, who already have an established presence at these universities. The system of legacy admissions––which was originally created in the 1920s to keep Jewish students out of elite colleges––exemplifies the institutional disadvantages faced by students from underprivileged and minority backgrounds. By ensuring increased socioeconomic privileges for white families, legacy preferences manipulate the system in favor of the wealthy, maintain racial hierarchies, and impede efforts to expand educational opportunities to historically-excluded populations, including Asian Americans.

Now that their representation on college campuses has increased, Asian Americans who stand to benefit from legacy admissions in greater numbers than before may have mixed feelings about abolishing these preferences that have benefited white families for generations. However, due to historical and ongoing inequities in education, the pool of legacy applicants from racial minority groups is disproportionately small, and this will remain the case until structural barriers to educational opportunity are removed.
Legacy preferences are “based on ancestry … yet offer none of the countervailing benefits of affirmative action, such as remedying past discrimination or promoting educational diversity,” according to Richard Kahlenberg, author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. Affirmative action is necessary to maintain a campus environment where students can interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Legacy admissions are not, and that’s where the focus of the Asian American community should be. In fighting these structures that disproportionately benefit the white and wealthy, Asian Americans can both support student diversity and advance their own self-interests.

Opinion: Vote YES on the 272 Referendum

Expos, Writing

by Natalie Kim

photo credit to Students for GU272

Growing up, I felt like I always occupied an in-between space. I never quite felt like my white peers, yet the label “minority” fit awkwardly—as if I were appropriating struggles that weren’t mine. But now I’m starting to embrace that the Asian experience is a minority experience, and I’m learning to be more comfortable with my identity. This means not fading into the background when I hear racially charged jokes or more blatant remarks like, “wasabi, wasabi! It means get the f*** out of the way!” It means not allowing my self-perceptions to define me while simultaneously acknowledging my positions of privilege. And it means acting in solidarity with other minority groups. While I acknowledge that I can never fully understand others’ experiences and that there is no consensus on the issue among members of the Georgetown community, I want to address the referendum on April 11th and urge others to VOTE YES.

The 272 Advocacy Team has put incredible amounts of effort and countless hours into this project. As a student who is not currently on the Advocacy Team nor in GUSA, I have been fortunate to see the development of this issue from its debate in the GUSA Ways and Means Committee to its current position of being voted on by the student body. I am not arguing that reconciliation is an obligation that falls solely on Georgetown’s student body, but I think that this could be a radical starting point for Georgetown and other institutions to address their complicated legacies and force institutional and national conversations about the less palatable aspects of the past. I do not believe that a financial contribution can reconcile this past debt on behalf of the university because nothing can truly rectify the fact that Georgetown’s actions damaged vulnerable populations such as the descendants living in Maringouin. But I do believe that this is a chance for Georgetown students to partake in reparative justice, making Georgetown the first of its kind to make this kind of direct investment. Georgetown hasn’t moved on this issue since the important work of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation during the 2015-2016 academic year, and the university still neglects to incorporate some of their suggestions. Real change always starts with the students, which is why I believe in the importance of this movement.

I’ve heard criticisms stating that reconciliation is Georgetown’s obligation not the students’, but this shifts the culpability in an unproductive way. As students, we are Georgetown. Our tuition helps sustain the school and this institution is nothing without its students, administration, and staff. I also understand that this proposition sits uncomfortably with some students of color and people whose families have been impacted by the legacy of slavery. But as Kendell Long said at the 272 Town Hall on April 3rd as a call to other students of color, “We have control over our own institution.” We can use this power to inspire other institutions, communities, and national conversation. Also, to put this fee of $27.20 into perspective, a Yates membership that is paid from student accounts is $222.08 per semester (and many don’t know they can request to get it back if they have not swiped in). Most students are already paying for a Yates membership, and while I recognize that these fees serve entirely different purposes and can’t be conflated, I still haven’t heard the same amount of reservations or concerns about this payment.

As a Georgetown student , I benefit from the sale of the 272 enslaved persons in 1838. Attending Georgetown is a privilege, and there is a certain amount of financial, social, and political capital that I receive. This institution would not exist today without the GU 272’s  involuntary sacrifice, and as a beneficiary of this university I must grapple with what it means to be at a school that’s rooted in the history of American slavery. In the words of Adam Rothman— professor of history at Georgetown, member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, and principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive—“read the history and fashion a response that is true to you.” This fee is not a punishment, but a way for us to show what we value as an institution. And while I want to urge others to vote yes, I also want to echo Rothman’s call to students to make their own informed decisions and act upon their convictions to vote on the Referendum on April 11th.

Tidying Up the (Racist?) Backlash Against Marie Kondo

Expos, Writing

by Gina Kang

Marie Kondo. She’s become a household name for decluttering your household. Although her famous KonMari method debuted in her self help book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in 2011, her practices have been widely popularized through original Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” released on the first day of 2019. In a matter of weeks, the whole nation was swept away with her philosophy that connects minimalism with happiness. Despite her sweet and innocent intentions, Marie Kondo has become infamous in the eyes of many–particularly, Western viewers that disdain her so-called upheaval of literature and subliminal promotion of goal-oriented burnout culture.

Wait, how did we get there? First, let’s summarize the KonMari method as Kondo intended it.

What is the KonMari Method?

If you haven’t read the book or watched the show, Marie breaks down her process into 5 major steps:

  1. Clothing
  2. Books
  3. Papers
  4. Komono (miscellaneous items)
  5. Sentimental items

In each of these steps, Marie recommends that you hold the object in your hands and determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” If it does, you keep it and fold it or tuck it away neatly with other items like it.  If it doesn’t, you gently thank the item for serving you well and find a sustainable way to dispose of it (usually donation or recycling). The KonMari method has influenced families across the nation to be more mindful of the material objects that they surround themselves with.

The Controversy: Step #2

In episode five of the Netflix show, Kondo explains how to apply the KonMari methods to books in a way similar to how she had already described letting go of clothes, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental items with tender thought and care about how they make us feel. However, it was her message on books that catalyzed criticism and controversy in news and social media. It is believed that it was caused by her statements about tossing unread books or even ripping out pages that do not spark joy.

A violent backlash surfaced immediately on Twitter; novelist Anakana Schofield is one of many to criticize Kondo for problematically encouraging censorship from anything doesn’t bring us joy, arguing that our libraries are meant to challenge and disturb us, not bring us joy. Kondo has been likened to a “monster” straight out of Fahrenheit 451. Others have blatantly mocked her philosophy with “patronizing and vitriolic” language: “keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off of my book piles,” “finger-waving, woo-woo nonsense.”

Many have since responded to such criticism, arguing that they willfully, deliberately misrepresented Kondo without truly understanding her philosophy. Although she personally keeps less than 30 books, she strives to empower people to be mindful of their own possessions, and her suggestion to apply this method to books may not be for everyone, but it is misguided to consider it dangerous or malicious.

A Racist Caricature?

Writers also poignantly note that subtle undertones of racism that fuel the hateful portrayal of Kondo in social media. In the show, Kondo speaks Japanese and communicates with her clients (and the audience) with the help of her translator. Because Netflix is marketed towards a primarily Western audience, some believe that the language barrier and limited translations have contributed to misunderstanding and mockery of Japanese culture.

Buzzfeed dubbed her “weirdly dark” methods a “pseudo-spiritual animist-inspired system” that seemingly demonstrates the morally-righteous, anxiety-inducing perfectionism characteristic of the millennial “burnout generation.” This is a clear undermining of the Shintoist spirituality that influences her philosophy. The Shinto tradition “imbues objects with a sort of dignity,” and the “spark joy” aphorism associated with Kondo is rooted in the concept “tokimeki” which, rather than joy, means “throb, excitement, palpitation,” which doesn’t exclude books that mentally challenge us.

Still others explicitly charge white western audience (who have unsurprisingly been at the forefront of the anti-Kondo backlash) for constructing a stifling “duality of projected onto Asian women… either a fetishized exotic experience or embodiment of a yellow peril threat.” This argument states that the backlash stems from white expectations of Asian women’s role in the media. This article in Patheos intelligently explains how Kondo fits into the “century-old” icon of the Oriental Monk as a representation of the wise, gentle Asian sage that guides Western pupils on their life-changing quest of self-discovery or awakening. Among others, one key point the author makes is that the monk must be palatable for Western media consumption.

According to this article in Paper, Kondo “first achieved enormous virality likely in part because whiteness deemed her worthy of consumption to alleviate their own first world white capitalist anxieties.” One of the first things I had noticed when watching Kondo’s Netflix show was its stark contrast with shows like “Hoarders: Buried Alive” (that my mom and I used to be kind of obsessed with.) It’s no news that Americans are guilty of hoarding, a lot. There are many psychological theories about the hoarding phenomenon, but it is definitely linked to our culture of constant consumption.
If you want to see seriously problematic approaches to decluttering, you’re more likely to find it with the dramatic emotional distress and confrontation featured on “Hoarders.” Yet, it is the KonMari method that has been attacked for supposedly infringing on the right to own as many books as humanly possible. I don’t personally agree with ripping out pages or getting rid of books I’ve been meaning to get to, but people can mentally benefit from parting from booksthey find unnecessary. We are free to have as many or as few books or objects as we desire; Kondo just reminds us to be mindful of what they mean to us. In turn, let’s also be mindful of how we interpret and respect Kondo’s teachings.