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.