If someone were to ask you to list your top five favorite mainstream music artists, the name of an Asian-American musician probably wouldn’t be the first to come to mind. This isn’t because you intentionally ignore Asian-American artists, but because most styles of mainstream music have not always provided opportunities for Asian American success. Rappers, classical musicians, and singers from various Asian backgrounds have faced failure within the constrictions of stereotypes and public portrayals. Asians are often just not viewed as “being able to be a rap/hip-hop artist; they are looked at as the successful ‘nerds’ in school."
When we think of “mainstream” media - film, music, art - we often ignore Asian-American names. Many successful Asian musicians have not found a popular place in American music, because the public often discredits their work as being “too Asian.”
Kina Grannis is a Japanese American singer/songwriter whose musical success grew rapidly through all of her online support both from Asian communities as well as colleagues from her educational path. Her music was featured during the Super Bowl in 2007, and she was offered a major record deal with a big-time record label, Interscope Records. Although this deal could’ve been the chance of a lifetime, Grannis turned it down because the label required that she scrap her own song album and make a new one with songwriters of their choosing. Grannis always believed in making music about her own experiences, and she felt that this record label would just erase her story and rewrite their own. One that was designed specifically for a Whiter American audience.
According to a study on Asian-American representation in the music industry, Asian Americans are generally underrepresented because major record labels do not know how to market Asian music in America. Image and marketability are such big factors into why Asian Americans are not very successful in the mainstream; society automatically disassociates Asians from anything really publicly popular.
I personally know from experience that some people turn away when they see an Asian-American person enter the same room as them. Many strangers will give us a dirty look and automatically disapprove of our presence. But these minor encounters pale in comparison to spending years creating something so personally valuable just to be told “it’s just too Asian to be popular. People won’t like it.”
Many Asian musicians similar to Grannis choose to express their natural Asian experiences through song, and by doing so, remain independent artists rather than joining a music label or band that would strip them of these freedoms. According to Forbes in 2014, “YouTube has plans to expand their music business,” but the systems intended for this purpose hinder independent Asian artists and promote their white counterparts. As people demonstrate their whiter popular preferences through media, they heavily influence the stigma around Asian presence in pop culture.
Additionally, many Asian men struggle to make their music widely known because Americans naturally dissuade Asian-American men from pursuing careers in music. People tend to associate Asian men with science and tech; they were the nerds in school, the ones growing up to become engineers. This discourages aspiring male artists from creating any considerably more delicate art.
Kevin Lien is an Asian-American singer/songwriter from California who grew up fitting many of the Asian-male stereotypes. He was good at math and science, and he was preparing to become an engineer. But he was also very musical when growing up. He first put himself out onto music platforms such as Myspace, college shows and YouTube while he was attending school at Cal Poly. However, when he later moved to Florida, he was greeted by an overwhelmingly different society. Many of the social events Lien went to in Florida were full of diverse groups of performers. There were many campus-wide events at his university, and through these, he was able to raise awareness on Asian-American experiences.
While his friends always supported his musical endeavors, Lien did face some public criticism about jumping into the music industry. Though he continued to take rigorous classes to pursue his goal of becoming an engineer, he was questioned about “wasting his talent on art rather than science.” Lien responded with “be practical and keep on doing what you love as well.” Nothing can really stop you from doing what you love, regardless of what other people think.
I have a friend who is immensely talented and loves to make his own music through rapping or playing his drum set. He keeps his songs private though, for only his friends to see. When I asked him why he wouldn’t consider bringing his work to a more public audience, he said, “people are used to Asian boys being nerdy and unartistic. Nobody would really take [his] music seriously.” These social standards that we are “used to” need to be changed. Why do we support a system that subconsciously builds barriers, preventing people from doing what they are passionate about?