Asian American and Pacific Islander musicians are tremendously under-represented — and often left out of the musical conversation. We’re here to help change that.
Let’s try an experiment.
How many Asian American and Pacific Islander musicians can you think of?
Go, on… we’ll wait.
Chances are, unless you are of AAPI descent or an extremely well-versed music fan, you probably only thought of one or two. Possibly.
Folks in the United States regularly appropriate the fashion and other visual aspects of many cultures. But it rarely offers the opportunity for artists of these ethnic backgrounds to actually present their identity and art on their own terms.
Asian and Pacific Islander musicians are tremendously under-represented — and often left out of the musical conversation.
“There has been a very long-standing history of invisibility and narrow representations of Asian Americans in media,” Christine Minji Chang, Kollaboration‘s global executive director, says in an interview with NPR. Kollaboration is an organization that worked to create space for Asian American musicians at this year’s South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
At a 2015 music panel at SXSW, Chang had the opportunity to speak with record executives. Once the Q&A portion of the panel came about, she asked execs if had ever signed an Asian American artist. “And there was a bit of an awkward pause,” she says.
Through cultural identity and individual stories, these artists are creating gorgeous music that has mostly yet to be discovered by the mainstream.
While celebrating AAPI Heritage Month, put these 9 talented musicians in your rotation.
1. Low Leaf
Los Angeles, California-based musician Low Leaf makes a brand-new kind of soul. The Filipino-American musician creates transcendent, organic sounds imbued with her harp playing as well as piano, flute, strings, and other instruments.
“I’ve lived by ‘create or die’ since 2007, and since then it’s evolved into ‘Creator DIY.’ I felt this heavy responsibility and fire to create a new sound, to open up portals on earth. I still thrive off this momentum, but now with a more refined awareness and intention,” Low Leaf tells Further Future. “Also, I love hands … my hands, ancient grandmother’s hands, my mother’s hands, children’s hands … Handmade pieces. Hand-sculpted frequencies. Homemade food. Anything made with love, anything that can be done ourselves, we ought to do it, because … create or die. As we evolve ourselves, we evolve each other.”
New Yorker Nora Lum is Awkwafina. A comedian, actress and rapper, Lum writes irreverent songs about pot, vaginas, Asian identity and more. A classically trained trumpet player, Lum learned GarageBand when she was in high school. From there, Awkwafina began writing hilarious raps while studying Mandarin and business in college. After college, her acting career flourished alongside her musical fame.
2. Run River North
This Californian folk band is composed entirely of Korean-American musicians. With a Mumford and Sons vibe, Run River North‘s members are all classically trained. The band writes songs that reference their heritage as Asian Americans, but they do not want their identity as a band to solely be a reflection of their ethnic and cultural heritage.
“Our Asian-ness is something that we can’t not be, but as a band, that shouldn’t be what we’re about,” says lead singer Alex Hwang in an interview with NPR. “We should have good music for you to listen to.”
3. Clones of the Queen
No longer together but every bit worth hearing, Clones of the Queen were a three-piece band from Honolulu, Hawaii, with the talented Ara Laylo on vocals. A favorite of The Cure’s Robert Smith, the band created ethereal, synth-heavy, shoegaze/dream pop over the course of three EPs.
4. Paul Kim
Paul Kim makes catchy, modern-soul-infused tunes in the vein of John Legend. Hailing from Los Angeles, the Korean American musician was a contestant in season 6 of American Idol, and happened to sing barefoot during all of his performances. The musician said that his motivation for auditioning was to get rid of the cartoonish Asian caricatures that William Hung perpetuated during prior seasons. Idol or not, Kim still makes excellent music that shatters stereotypes for Asian American men, allowing them to take center stage as soulful, sexy men.
5. Asobi Seksu
The name of New York-based shoegaze band Asobi Seksu translates to “Play Sex” in English. The spacey indie-rockers create beautiful sonic dreamscapes in songs like “New Year,” “Stay Awake” and their cover of The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.”Asobi Seksu features Yuki Chikudate’s beautiful high vocals, which oscillated between Japanese and English, often within the same song.
6. Blue Scholars
Hip-hop duo Blue Scholars is composed of Filipino-American vocalist MC Geologist and Iranian-American musican DJ Sabzi. They rap about political topics like classism, racism and immigration issues, both domestically and around the world. Their projects include the Stop The Killings Tour, in which the duo teamed up with organizer/emcee Kiwi in order to fight human rights violations in the Philippines.
7. Kishi Bashi
It is nearly impossible to listen to Kishi Bashi’s music without a smile on your face. A former member of the impossibly upbeat psychedelic indie-rockers Of Montreal, Kishi Bashi’s music reflects a beautiful optimism and playfulness that’s perfect for life’s joyful moments. Stop everything you’re doing and watch this lovely video!
Mitski Miyawaki is a New York-based indie musician. Japanese-born and half-Japanese by ethnicity, Miyawaki grew up moving around the world with her family until they settled in the States, where she attended the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music. Since then, she has become the darling of music critics everywhere, creating fuzzy indie rock with honest lyrics.
9. King Khan
King Khan cannot be missed. This hilarious retro-rocking Canadian is the frontman for King Khan and The Shrines as well as being one half of King Khan and BBQ Show. Known for enthusiastic live shows and stage antics, King Khan is a favorite among those who enjoy fun punk and retro rock.