The Asian Pop Stars Taking Center Stage
CreditCredit…Angel ZinovieffThe Asian Pop Stars Taking Center Stage In the West, Asian musicians have long been marginalized. Now, though, a …
The Asian Pop Stars Taking Center Stage
In the West, Asian musicians have long been marginalized. Now, though, a new generation of women are transforming their respective genres.
By Ligaya Mishan
Photographs by Collier Schorr
Styled by Matt Holmes
Aug. 11, 2021
IN THE FALL of 1959 — 14 years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and released Japanese Americans from its domestic internment camps; 13 years after the American territory of the Philippines gained independence; six years after the end of the Korean War; and two months after American soldiers were killed by the Viet Cong just north of Saigon, among the first U.S. casualties in Vietnam — three young women from Seoul appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS. The show was an institution, a live cabaret every Sunday night that reached more than a quarter of all American households with a TV set. The women called themselves the Kim Sisters — evoking the beloved Andrews Sisters from Minnesota, who sold 50 million records in the 1930s and ’40s — but were in fact a cousin, Min Ja (Anglicized as Mia), 17, and two sisters, Sook Ja (later Sue), 21, and Ai-Ja, 18.
Sue, coached by her mother, started out performing on American military bases during the war. She sang “Candy and Cake” — in English, a language she didn’t speak — for G.I.s in tents thick with the black smoke of oil stoves, earning her first chocolate bars and Coca-Colas, along with whiskey that her mother traded for essentials on the black market. Only 14 at the time, she was too young to be allowed in venues with beer bottles toppling off tables, but the bookers turned a blind eye. Soon, Sue joined forces with her younger sister and cousin and pragmatically began wearing form-fitting dresses slit to midthigh. They learned to tap dance; they stopped going hungry.
When they got a chance to come to the United States in 1959 — just the three of them, since visas for Asians were limited — their mother told them to steer clear of boys and not to return “until you have become a success,” Sarah Gerdes recounts in a 2016 biography of Sue. They arrived in Las Vegas that winter, penniless, unable to read enough English to tell shampoo from Mr. Clean (with disastrous results) and relying on the kindness of their white male handlers. They gamely mounted the stage at the Thunderbird Hotel as part of the China Doll Revue, one of a number of Orientalist nightclub shows in big American cities stocked with supposedly foreign women (many actually American-born) in slinky cheongsams, twirling parasols and fans.
Read T a Poem | Ruby Ibarra
The rapper Ruby Ibarra reads the poem “Track: ‘A Little Bit of Ecstasy,’ Jocelyn Enriquez (1997)” by Barbara Jane Reyes.
“’Track: ‘A Little Bit of Ecstasy,’ Jocelyn Enriquez (1997)” by Barbara Jane Reyes Every single thing our titas cannot bear to see. Every single bit of native skin flashing, island warm, hella not Castilian, hella not Eskinol, every single bit of not Euro nose, and not Anglo eyes. Every full hip sway, every long braid whipping around, every body piercing gleaming golden, every lush stroke, every raised eyebrow, every dark full lipsticked, bronzed as bourbon and beaming, glorious nape and clavicle bared, every bit of high-heeled wide stance, fists to open hands. Every single thing our pearl clutching titas wished us not to be.
The rapper Ruby Ibarra reads the poem “Track: ‘A Little Bit of Ecstasy,’ Jocelyn Enriquez (1997)” by Barbara Jane Reyes.CreditCredit…Angel Zinovieff
But the Kim Sisters, although relegated to the same costumes and accessories, somehow stood apart. Was it because they fit what would become the paradigm of the Asian in America, displaying a model minority’s work ethic by mastering more than a dozen instruments, including the saxophone, bagpipes and upright bass, along with tortuous choreography in high heels; or because they both exploited and resisted the hypersexualization of Asian women, opening sets wearing traditional Korean hanbok and then shucking them off to reveal floofy little polka-dot dresses, all the while assuring interviewers that they didn’t drink or date, making themselves unthreatening to their white female rivals; or because their isolation and seeming innocence suggested helplessness, inspiring the same protective impulse that led white Americans to adopt thousands of Korean children over the next decade; or because they had the savvy to cover contemporary hits like Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” (first recorded in 1957) and borrow the bobby socks and perkiness of ponytailed American teens, displaying both a willingness to assimilate and a tacit acknowledgment of the imagined superior appeal of Western culture; or because, as one critic wrote approvingly, they proved that, surprise, surprise, Asians could “have swing”?
That fall, when they greeted America on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” they might have been the first Koreans — the first Asians — whom Americans could accept as pop stars, and even want to claim as their own. They went on to perform for Sullivan 22 times, received spreads in Newsweek and Life and released an English-language album through Monument Records. They became American citizens in 1968, when more than half a million American troops were deployed in Vietnam. Then their style of music fell out of favor, and they disappeared from sight.
My mother is from the Philippines; I was born in Los Angeles. For years I have combed American history for Asian women ascendant, maybe out of desire for an ancestor, however distant, or to discover if such public recognition were possible, or to take comfort that in my muddled, uncertain ambitions I was not alone. I had never heard of the Kim Sisters.
IN THE WINTER of 2021 — a year into a pandemic whose origins in China spurred verbal and then physical attacks against people of Asian descent in the United States, and a few months before six ethnically Korean and Chinese women spa workers in Georgia would be shot by a white evangelical man who allegedly told the police that he wanted to eliminate sources of sexual temptation — everyone, or at least much of the measurable globe, was listening to the Filipino American singer Olivia Rodrigo, who turned 18 in February. Her first single, the fragile yet anthemic ballad “Driver’s License,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and clung there for eight weeks while racking up No. 1s from Belgium to New Zealand. By summer, shortly after the release of her first album, she’d surpassed Ariana Grande in a feat of ubiquity, landing the most songs (four) on the Billboard Global 200 at once, and she’d been recruited by the White House to urge young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
While Rodrigo had already proved herself as the lead in a Disney+ musical TV series, her fellow Filipino American Bella Poarch wasn’t known as a singer. She nevertheless dropped her own single in mid-May, the tinkly, nursery rhyme-like “Build a Bitch,” whose Barbie-meets-Frankenstein video was reported to have racked up 10 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours. In the video, Poarch (who has not disclosed her age but appears to be in her early 20s) is explicitly framed as a product: just a head perched on an assembly line, missing everything from the neck down, until plucked by robot hands and locked onto shoulders to make a living doll for men to purchase. This initial disembodiment is slyly self-referential, as Poarch’s head is arguably what catapulted her to fame, bobbing and nodding in a TikTok clip from last year that shows a few seconds of her in close-up, lip-syncing a rap with a twisty mouth, a faux sunburn across her cheeks and dark wings of lashes. Thanks in part to this mesmerically innocuous performance, as of July, Poarch had the fourth largest following on TikTok, around 76 million fans, enough to make up the 20th most populous country on earth.
By these metrics, Poarch and Rodrigo are among the most watched and listened to Asian women in the Western world. Certainly they are the first Asian American pop stars to ever command such audiences. Yet their ancestry has gone unremarked upon by the media, beyond cursory biographical references. Instead, Poarch in particular has been whitewashed by critics who dismiss her success as a matter of “conventional attractiveness” and her being “extremely pretty in a very social media-specific way,” arguing that her popularity is the result of an algorithm that rewards the utterly generic. But in a Western context, there’s nothing conventional about Poarch’s appearance. She doesn’t physically resemble the white girls next door who rank above her in the TikTok hierarchy, nor does she share their experience: She is an immigrant who came to the U.S. as an adolescent and has spoken in interviews about how she was bullied for the way she looks. Asian faces vary greatly, but there are certain features that I always seek out when I scan a crowd, as if hoping to find myself, and I see them in Poarch: the petal-shaped, shallow-set eyes so brown they’re almost black; the flat brow; the faint duskiness that, as the historian Michael Keevak has noted, the 18th-century Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus classified first as “fuscus,” “dark,” and later “luridus” — “ghastly; yellow.”
Four of the many Asian American women who are at the vanguard of pop, including, from left, Audrey Nuna, Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast and Ruby Ibarra. Audrey Nuna wears a Balenciaga jacket, $4,050, (212) 328-1671; Rick Owens knit, $1,590, rickowens.eu; and her own earrings, necklace and ring. Nguyen wears a Kwaidan Editions top, $560, hlorenzo.com; vintage Jil Sander by Raf Simons pants, courtesy of David Casavant Archive, david-casavant.com; and stylist’s own earrings. Zauner wears a Simone Rocha top, $1,195, simonerocha.com; Tom Ford pants, $890, tomford.com; rings (from left, worn throughout) Bottega Veneta, $760, her own, and Bottega Veneta, $810 each, bottegaveneta.com; stylist’s own earrings (worn throughout); and her own nose ring (worn throughout). Ibarra wears a Hood by Air jacket and pants, price on request, hoodbyair.world; Jennifer Fisher earrings, $490, jenniferfisherjewelry.com; stylist’s own top (worn underneath); and her own necklace.Credit…Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes
Hers is the kind of face that was historically excluded from Western pantheons of beauty, with the few exceptions explicitly framed as exotic and essentially unknowable. The first Chinese woman on record as an official visitor to the United States, Afong Moy, arrived in New York in 1834 at age 19 as part of an exhibition of Chinese goods arranged by American merchants, in which she sat silently on a throne and displayed her bound feet for gawkers who paid 50 cents each. One commentator labeled her “a perfect little vixen.” Nearly a century later, in 1932, the Hollywood fan magazine Picture Play ascribed a “fatalistic acquiescence” to Anna May Wong, the first and for many years only Asian American female movie star, routinely confined to dragon-lady or slave-girl roles: “Animation scarcely ever ruffles the tranquillity of her round face.” To Western audiences of the time, the unfamiliarity of Asian features made them almost illegible, part of a psychological phenomenon called “own-race bias,” in which members of one race have trouble distinguishing among members of another, leading to the false notion that all Asians look — and are — alike. (As the Korean American singer Audrey Nuna raps on her new album, “Never seen a face like mine in the cockpit.”)
If others couldn’t read us, it had to be our fault for denying them access to our inner selves, and so we’ve been cast as inscrutable, withholding, even devious. To this day, the image persists in the West of Asians as ciphers who are adept at calculating and competing but lack the emotional complexity and vulnerability of our white counterparts; who are, in other words, not fully human. I remember in 2004 watching the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model” and feeling my insides knot as one of its first Asian contestants, April Wilkner, got axed after judges described her as “mechanical” and said, “She thinks too much.” A lawsuit filed in 2014 against Harvard University — which was decided in Harvard’s favor and is now awaiting consideration for review by the Supreme Court — alleged discrimination in the admissions process and presented evidence that Asian applicants were consistently given lower ratings on character traits such as “likability,” “kindness” and “integrity.” When we achieve, it’s often discounted as rote proficiency instead of innate talent — rigor and mimicry, at the expense of heart and soul.
In “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now,” by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang, forthcoming in January, the authors keep a running tally of “Undercover Asians”: artists and public figures whose Asian heritage was once intentionally, desperately hidden, as with the Depression-era actress Merle Oberon (whose mother was later revealed to be of South Asian and Maori descent), or mostly passed over in silence, as with the guitarist Eddie Van Halen (whose mother was Indonesian). It’s a parlor game, the writers acknowledge, “grasping at rumors” to see ourselves reflected in pop’s mirror, to find “some kind of connection to celebrity” and thus — belonging?
We scoff at the logic and still we do it, thrilling at the triumphs of those we imagine are our compatriots and most gleeful when they demolish the stereotype of Asians as quiet and accommodating, from the holy wildness of the Korean American singer Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the insurrectionist chants of the British Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., among the earliest Asian women to break through to the musical mainstream in the West, less than two decades ago. We do it even though we know that representation is the lowest-hanging fruit, the bare minimum we should expect, and that these anomalies are largely irrelevant to the mundanity of most Asian lives, even more so to the struggles of the many Asians in America who are isolated by limited English and access to education (the high school dropout rate for some Southeast Asian groups is as high as 40 percent), subject to job discrimination and invisibly subsisting at the poverty line, the model minority myth notwithstanding — or those who have been assaulted in the recent spike of anti-Asian violence. As the 30-year-old Filipino American rapper Ruby Ibarra told me, “We have K-pop on the radio and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the theaters, but Asians are still being attacked.”
Read T a Poem | Audrey Nuna
The singer and rapper reads the poem “I Put on My Fur Coat” (2021) by Jane Wong.
“I Put On My Fur Coat” by Jane Wong I put on my fur coat and leave a bit of ankle to show. I take off my shoes and make myself comfortable. I defrost a chicken and chew on the bone. In public, I smile as wide as I can and everyone shields their eyes from my light. At night, I knock down nests off telephone poles and feel no regret. I greet spiders rising from underneath the floorboards, one by one. Hello, hello. Outside, the garden roars with ice. I want to shine as bright as a miner’s cap in the dirt dark, to glimmer as if washed in fish scales. Instead, I become a balm and salve my daughter, my son, the cold mice in the garage. Instead, I take the garbage out at midnight. I move furniture away from the wall to find what we hide. I stand in the center of every room and ask: am I the only animal here?
The singer and rapper reads the poem “I Put on My Fur Coat” (2021) by Jane Wong.CreditCredit…Angel Zinovieff
But even though seeing ourselves onscreen doesn’t materially change our lives, it can haunt the way we navigate the world. The first Asian woman I ever saw in a music video was the model Geeling Ng, a Chinese New Zealander, in David Bowie’s 1983 “China Girl.” The story framed Bowie as Ng’s lover-savior-destroyer; at the climax, he seized a giant bowl of rice from her hands and threw it in the air so the grains rained down, like at a Western wedding. I’ll ruin everything you are. In the West’s conception of the East, “women are usually the creatures of a male power fantasy,” the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said has written. “They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid and above all they are willing.” Bowie had said at the time of the video’s release that he wanted to use the format consciously, “for some kind of social observation”; he intended critique, not celebration. And still, when he kissed her, I stopped breathing. I wanted to be exotic and elusive, too. I am ashamed to say that for years I dreamed a white boy would hear the song and think of me.
Does it matter that performers like Rodrigo and Poarch are Asian? There’s nothing in their songs that is culturally identifiable as such — for what is Asian but a catchall for a clamorous region of more than 17 million square miles, about five times the size of the United States, and dozens of countries often at odds politically, whose customs are not monolithic even within their own borders and which have their own ongoing histories of colorism (favoring those with lighter skin) and suppression of minorities? More to the point, these young women aren’t Asian but Asian American, a term that, however clumsy and inadequate, carries freight. Because the American default is whiteness, there is still a sense — be it latent or wholly denied, whether by us or by those who insist they don’t see race — that our Asian heritage makes us forever guests, even if we were born here, even if we are Asian only in part, or hapa (a Hawaiian term, originally a transliteration of “half,” for the children of marriages between islanders and whites, which has been taken up as a banner for people of mixed Asian and other ancestry). That we are invited in but never wholly of.
Asian musicians in the West have in turn had to navigate between self-Orientalizing and self-erasure.
To say I am Asian American is to say I want: to be seen, to belong, to share a bond with others — and not just other Asian Americans, but all Americans. It can be a statement of defiance, but it also feels almost embarrassingly hopeful. For if Poarch and Rodrigo now speak for the average American girl, surely that means America has changed?
THE GUITAR RASPS, barreling through reverb, at the start of “Temple,” the title track of an album released last spring by the Bay Area band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. The half-underwater twang recalls a strain of Vietnamese rock from the 1960s that took the surf music of Southern California and turned it into something louche and primal. Thao Nguyen, 37, the band’s frontwoman, grew up in Virginia, where her parents found refuge after the fall of Saigon. (In the song, Nguyen sings, “I lost my city in the light of day / Thick smoke, helicopter blades.”) Weekends she worked at her mother’s laundromat, teaching herself guitar in stolen moments between “endless folding,” she says.
Some nights her parents and their friends gathered in the basements of their suburban homes to dance. They were blue-collar workers who showed up “dressed to the nines, drinking Cognac — everyone’s smoking, doing the cha-cha, the rumba,” Nguyen says. “This life that they had before the war.” In the “Temple” video, Vietnamese elders move silently in a line through a lush garden, drawing great arcs with their arms and casting their eyes skyward. At the song’s bridge, they get a reprieve from choreography and cut loose: a little go-go, fingers in a V across the eyes, head banging and tossing their hair. “I asked that we just let them dance,” Nguyen says. “That there was this moment when they were free.”
“Temple” is Nguyen’s fifth album, and the first to bring her family background to the fore. “I had never addressed it in my work because I had never addressed it in my life,” she says. When Asian American organizations approached her to perform, she turned them down. She didn’t want to acknowledge her sense of shame about her background. “It’s so hard to admit that you’re not above that,” she says.
The Brooklyn-based singer Michelle Zauner, 32, of the band Japanese Breakfast (whose new album, “Jubilee,” came out in June), had hesitations, too, when she was starting out a decade ago. Her mother is Korean, her father white, but nobody asked about her identity, and “I wouldn’t have done anything to call attention to it,” she says. (The name Japanese Breakfast, which she came up with in 2013, at once teases her autobiography and obscures it.) Already feeling isolated as a woman in the world of rock, she played thorny guitar parts and always carried her own amp, and stayed silent on the matter of her heritage: “I masked certain parts of myself to command a level of seriousness.”
Only when she had given up hope of commercial success, in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer in 2014, did she make her biography public, putting a photograph of her mother on the cover of her album “Psychopomp” (2016). Theirs was a conflicted relationship, as chronicled in Zauner’s memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” published in April. Zauner doesn’t sing on the album’s brief, hushed title track; instead, we hear her mother, from an old voice mail, speaking half in Korean, half in English. “Gwenchana, gwenchana,” she says, which translates to “it’s OK.” Then, in a near whisper: “Don’t cry.”
In “Temple,” against the throbbing bass and drench of strings, Nguyen likewise gives us her mother’s voice, here channeled through her own. Her mother’s story isn’t limited to the war; she shares memories of when “my hair was so long” and swains wrote her poetry. Then she adds, “It doesn’t matter what I meant to be” — the pragmatism of the immigrant, brushing aside that life and those possibilities, all gone, to focus on the next generation:
FOR DECADES, THERE was little room in mainstream Western pop for women who were visually discernible as Asian. Of those who found a place on the fringes, the most famous and most demonized was the Japanese multimedia artist Yoko Ono, who in the 1960s chose abrasion over melody in collages of bird squawks, ululations and terrifying, wounded shrieks. She was accused of hitching her star to a white man, John Lennon, and of breaking up the Beatles — and, by proxy, undermining pop as a whole, its giddy sanctity endangered by this wailing banshee. Her legacy is disruption.
Later, in the 1990s, a few rock groups from Japan, including Boredoms and the female-fronted Pizzicato Five, gained traction in the United States. This caused confusion for the New York-based Cibo Matto, made up of two Tokyo-born women, Miho Hatori and Yuka C. Honda, who then lived on the Lower East Side and thought of their band as Japanese American. Critics conflated them with the Osaka-based and also all-female Shonen Knife, known for exuberant garage rock, but Cibo Matto’s music was freer and more protean, in keeping with their fluid sense of nationality and identity. They rummaged among genres, cross-pollinating heavy metal and bossa nova. “Maybe it’s scary not to have boundaries,” Honda says now. She was surprised at how often interviewers asked her about being Japanese or “being cute,” instead of asking how she made music. “I didn’t know we were that marginal,” she says. “I had this feeling the world was a more liberal place, more mixed.”
Yet today there are suddenly so many Asian faces on stages and screens. In the West, women and girls of Asian descent are splicing rat-a-tat rhymes with ethereal R&B, sneering through dank electronic reveries, mauling guitars and smirking at mics, streaming brokenhearted lullabies from their childhood bedrooms to audiences of millions, making indie folk, bubble gum pop, club bangers, punk howlers and all the music outside and in between: Audrey Mika, Audrey Nuna, Beabadoobee, Caro Juna, Charli XCX, Chloe Tang, Daya, Deb Never, Dolly Ave, Emily Vu, Griff, Hayley Kiyoko, H.E.R., Jaguar Jonze, Jay Som, Jhené Aiko, Joyce Wrice, Krewella, Laufey, the Linda Lindas, Luna Li, Madame Gandhi, Milck, Mitski, mxmtoon, Nayana IZ, Niki, Priya Ragu, Raveena, Rei Ami, Rina Sawayama, Sanjana, Saweetie, Umi, Yaeji, as well as Ibarra, Nguyen, Poarch, Rodrigo, Zauner and more, an ever-lengthening incantation.
What do they share? They have roots in East, Southeast and South Asia, and different classes, castes, tribes and religions. They include recent immigrants, still adapting to their new home; the children of immigrants, go-betweens navigating two cultures; and third- and fourth-generation Americans whose parents are themselves Western-born and fully assimilated — or, as Chloe Tang, a 25-year-old singer born in Arizona, points out, “Not even assimilated: This is all they know.” They may be fully Asian or of mixed race; those with white ancestry are sometimes mistaken for Latina, and those with Black ancestry tend to be read exclusively as Black in a society anxious to slot people into neat categories and unnerved by the nuances of racial identity. (Remember the infamous “one drop” rule in early America, deployed to exclude those of Black ancestry from white privileges.)
They don’t conform to received notions of what Asian women look or act like. “Yes, I’m Asian, but I’m loud,” says Sarah Yeeun Lee, a singer from Maryland who performs as Rei Ami. “You will not talk over me.” Still, they must contend with Asian standards of beauty that prize the dainty, fine-boned and slender, as well as the Western co-opting of that image into a narrative of domination and dominion. This is both fantasy and historical memory, for although Asians have been present in North America since before the founding of the United States — Filipino sailors settled in the bayous of what would become Louisiana around 1763 — our numbers today derive in part from close to a century of American foreign intervention: the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898, the occupation of Japan after World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam that followed. American soldiers brought home Asian wives and had Asian children, and in the decade after Saigon fell, the United States accepted nearly three-quarters of a million Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong refugees. (In Europe, colonialism has likewise determined immigration patterns, particularly British rule of the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947, while in Canada and Australia, economic imperatives — the gold rushes of the 19th century, the need for cheap labor to help build railroads and clear the bush — have been a driving force.)
To some extent, then, Asian bodies in the West are perceived as still bearing the imprint of empire (whatever their actual origins), with West and East in an uneasy dynamic of conqueror and conquered, implicitly coded as masculine and feminine. It’s a heteronormative script in which the sexuality of Asian men is often overlooked or outright denied, and which may, troublingly, help explain why Asian women have finally managed to break through to Western audiences: because they are viewed as sex objects, often exclusively so, as reinforced by relentless depictions of pliant Asian bar girls in mainstream film and pornography alike. “Maybe I could play a hooker in something,” the Korean American comedian Margaret Cho joked in a 2002 routine, invoking her younger self as an aspiring actress practicing broken English in the mirror: “Me love you long time!” — a line from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket” that will forever haunt us. Sometimes our onscreen counterparts are not sex workers but nevertheless identified as such in spirit — demure, giggly women acting like little girls in public who turn out to be sexually rapacious and virtuosic in private, and afterward obligingly fold the laundry.
Anger is channeled into triumph, and even hope: “We rebuild what you destroy.”
It’s a dispiriting role to fill, and notably at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of female sexuality and power in pop music right now, which is a forthright celebration of voluptuousness and openly declared desire. Asian women whose bodies don’t necessarily match this fleshy model — or who identify as queer, as several of these artists do, challenging an industry still largely beholden to conservative constructions of gender and sexuality — need to find other ways to express that part of themselves without having to capitulate to stereotype. This may mean directly confronting the sweet-slutty binary by deploying the exaggerations of Japanese anime — like Poarch, with her waist-length ponytails set high on the head and her eyes of injured innocence, or Rei Ami, who in her latest video, “Ricky Bobby,” washes a red Camaro in a gaping-open, seemingly liquid-leather swimsuit under a spray of water — or else rejecting it entirely, mixing a pixieish demeanor with slashing riffs, delivering narcotized lyrics while wearing nerdy glasses or gearing up in ballooning avant-garde street style that hides the body.
Some of these artists are signed to prestigious corporate record labels (including one whose executives declared back in 1979 that “Asians don’t sing and Asians don’t dance,” as Dan Kuramoto, the Japanese American frontman of the band Hiroshima, has recalled) and shimmer in pixels on the 18-story digital billboards of New York’s Times Square. Others are backed by independents that focus on musicians of Asian descent, like Beatrock Music, founded in California in 2009, and 88rising, founded in New York in 2015, or go it alone, happy to keep a low profile and reserve their output for the most die-hard devotees. The decentralization of pop music is the backdrop, with the ease and accessibility of SoundCloud and Bandcamp, and YouTube and TikTok allowing everyone their shot (so long as you can master the algorithms). If you have a laptop, a crummy microphone and the internet, it can be enough: In 2015, a producer reached out to Audrey Nuna when she was a 16-year-old high school student in New Jersey and posting covers of her favorite songs on Instagram.
But another factor in the breakthrough of Asian musicians is the embrace of Asian culture in general by the West, from yoga, matcha and boba to the intricate skin-care rituals of K-beauty, applying the likes of bee venom and snail snot to achieve a veneer as smooth as glass (and unsettlingly fair: whiteness ever cherished). While consumption of (often deracinated) products doesn’t always invite active engagement with their place and people of origin, the juggernaut of K-pop has succeeded in making young Asians the objects of mass, manic adoration in the West. The all-female quartet Blackpink took over the American charts last year as exemplars of the K-pop girl-crush concept, which dispenses with the cuteness so dominant as a cultural motif in East and Southeast Asian cultures and instead exalts a darker-edged glam and a kind of detached sexiness that is (at least theoretically) more about female self-actualization than attractiveness to men. Their precision-engineered hit “Ice Cream” features wink-wink English-language lyrics (“like it, love it, lick it”) that toy with the trope of duplicity in Asian women, outwardly innocent but secretly naughty — the “virgin and a vixen” ideal mocked in Poarch’s “Build a Bitch” — even as the singers stay aloof, their vocals never betraying a hint of lust.
In 1970, the Kim Sisters returned briefly to Seoul as American citizens. The public was wary until they recorded a song in Korean titled “Kimchi Kkadugi,” with lyrics about how much they missed their homeland (and native cuisine). It’s notable, then, that Blackpink, the carefully groomed product of an elaborate, well-funded factory system in Seoul, is not homogeneous: Its members include a Thai woman (who has had to learn Korean) and two ethnic Koreans who grew up partly in New Zealand and Australia. The group has savvily extended its reach by brokering cameos on their songs from global stars like Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and Cardi B; perhaps the future holds a matchup with an Asian artist from the West, the Korean American singer, D.J. and house-music producer Yaeji laying down extraterrestrial whispers or the British Indian rapper Nayana IZ swaggering in and taking names. Would this be proof that it’s a small world after all, or just a temporary bridge across the divide?
AUDREY NUNA SAYS she’s not a rapper, but her rhymes drop quick, short little bursts of words clipped close at the ends before she starts dragging out the vowels, letting the sounds loll in an almost macho slur at the back of her throat, and suddenly she’s outright singing, a diva soar, showing she can ache with the best of them. Born Audrey Chu — her stage name is what her younger brother calls her; “nuna” is Korean for “older sister” — she released her first full-length album, “A Liquid Breakfast,” in May, following her 22nd birthday, after a year of holing up with her family in New Jersey to wait out the pandemic. Such is her technical virtuosity, coaxing as many textures from her voice as possible, that her songs often come off as a collaboration in which one person just happens to do all the parts: Audrey Nuna, featuring Audrey Nuna.
A different kind of shape-shifting manifests in the split-identity songs of Rei Ami, who was born in Seoul and settled with her family in Maryland when she was 6. Her deeply religious parents tried to steer her away from secular music, wanting her to save her voice for the church; she had to fight them, although they’ve since reconciled. Now 26, she says, “I’m not American enough or Korean enough.” Her stage name mirrors this duality, uniting two characters from the Japanese anime series “Sailor Moon”: Rei, hotheaded and ever ready to speak her mind, and Ami, shyer and more interior. In her music, this takes the form of an often literal divide between confrontation and retreat, as with “Snowcone,” which begins with spooky beats and sullen braggadocio — “Call your sugar daddy cuz he blowin’ up my phone / I don’t need his money, bitch, I get it on my own” — then downshifts abruptly to wistful ukulele and a hushed confessional: “I’m Prozac-dependent / Attack when defenseless / I’m not such a bad bitch when I’m on my own.”
The predominant popular musical genres of our time have their roots in Black resistance in America: R&B, jazz, soul, funk, techno, hip-hop. (It’s a legacy that Ibarra, an M.C., keeps in mind; she speaks of herself as a guest in hip-hop and says, “If I’m going to be rapping, I better be saying something of importance.”) For the sprawling Asian diaspora in the West, with its internal divisions and ambivalent solidarity, there is no one type of sound to take ownership of or claim allegiance to. At the same time, non-Asian musicians have long incorporated Orientalist signatures like the pentatonic scale of East and Southeast Asia — whence the telltale chiming riff of Bowie’s “China Girl” — and the microtones and infinitesimal gradations of pitch of South Asia, as well as cameos by classical instruments from the Indian subcontinent, like the tabla and sitar. Entire songs have been built around borrowed grooves, like the hook from the 1981 Bollywood blockbuster musical “Ek Duuje Ke Liye” sampled in Britney Spears’s 2004 hit “Toxic.” Sometimes this is done in good faith, as part of a looking outward and learning from other traditions. Sometimes it’s just accessorizing and adding a whiff of the exotic, as with the pastiche of Chinese martial-arts films in the 2012 video for Coldplay’s “Princess of China” (featuring Rihanna in the title role) and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls of the early 2000s, a quartet of backup dancers of Japanese ancestry in poufy skirts and schoolgirl uniforms, often arrayed in subordinate positions around the white singer and even kneeling to bow to her, faces to the floor. And so Asian musicians in the West have in turn had to navigate between self-Orientalizing and self-erasure.
Today’s artists resist these oppositions. The euphoric, starry-eyed rock of the British Filipino singer Beabadoobee (born Beatrice Kristi Laus) owes something to both 1990s English bands like Lush (fronted by Miki Berenyi, who has Japanese roots) and the cathartic ballads of O.P.M., or Original Pilipino Music, a genre of pop that evolved in the Philippines in the 1970s and that her parents always had on rotation during her childhood. “I like the hopeless romanticness of it, the satisfying chord progressions,” she says. Still, when interviewers bring up her ethnic background, she cautions, “It’s part of me, but it doesn’t make me who I am.” There are singers of Asian descent who coolly slip from one language to another in their lyrics, as if subconsciously, in the middle of a sentence, the way immigrant families often talk at home. Chloe Tang winks at her identity in her forthcoming single “Chloe Ting,” inspired by a famous workout instructor on YouTube. “We’ve been confused before,” Tang notes, an experience many Asian women share (even those whose names sound nothing alike). But Tang loves Ting and follows her workouts religiously, and in the song, they become compatriots of a kind, with the line “Work you out, Chloe Ting” as a sexual innuendo. “It says who I am without saying who I am,” Tang says — although she’s also working on a song with a more explicit chorus: “Bitch, I’m Chinese.”
FOR NEARLY A century after the founding of the United States in 1776, America’s borders were essentially open. But in 1875, after Chinese laborers had started coming to the West Coast in large numbers, to mine for gold and later to build the railroads, Congress passed the first exclusionary federal immigration law: the Page Act, which targeted “any subject of China, Japan or any oriental country” and specifically “the importation” — as of a bundle of goods — “of women for the purposes of prostitution.” Any Asian woman attempting to enter the country was put under suspicion of harboring “lewd and immoral purposes,” which led to invasive medical exams and demeaning interrogations at the immigration processing station in San Francisco.
Part of this was to prevent Asian women from bearing children on American soil and thus to deny Asians a stake in the land. But as the Chinese American historian Sucheng Chan has written, there was also an underlying fear that these supposed sirens would seduce and debase white men and even boys, destroy white families and spread disease through white communities. The specter of Asian sex workers represented “a threat to white civilization.”
This trope has persisted, past the immigration reforms of 1965 and a half-century that has seen the number of Asian Americans rise from less than one percent to nearly seven percent of the country’s population. So embedded is the stereotype in the Western imagination, it hardly registered for me as a slur when the white comedian Amy Schumer joked in 2012, “It doesn’t matter what you do, ladies, every guy is going to leave you for an Asian woman” — because, she explained, of our (apocryphal) anatomical advantage. She almost made it sound like a compliment, although it’s not so nice to be reduced to a body, especially just one part of a body, when facelessness can kill us. In March, in the rawness after news broke of the shooting of six women of Asian descent in Georgia, the writer Mary H.K. Choi tweeted, “When you’re picturing six Asian women, what are you picturing? … Are their features distinguishable to you? Are our features ever distinguishable to you?”
In the video for the British Japanese singer Rina Sawayama’s “STFU” (2019), an oblivious white man prattles through a dinner date, telling Sawayama how surprised he is that she sings in English (“I grew up here,” she says gently) and that she reminds him of Lucy Liu — or is it Sandra Oh? “Literally either” — all while brutally manhandling a piece of sushi even as he pronounces it “authentic.” What follows is a snarl of metal and maddened dancing, Sawayama’s fantasy of rebellion, which ends with a return to the dining table and her date still midmonologue. The rage transcends borders: “Bet you think we’re all made in China,” the Thai electro-pop singer Pyra snaps alongside the Indonesian rapper Ramengvrl and the Japanese hip-hop artist Yayoi Daimon in “Yellow Fever,” released in March. Halfway through the song, the music halts for a simple spoken plea — “Please, stop fetishizing Asian bodies” — and in the video, Pyra presses her palms together in a half gracious, half sarcastic wai, the traditional Thai gesture of respect. Pyra and Sawayama bring a knowing weariness to these songs, but the dynamic is apparent even to the young Linda Lindas, a Los Angeles-based punk band of girls ranging in age from 10 to 16. “You are a racist, sexist boy / And you have racist, sexist joys,” they roar in a video released in late May. But here anger is channeled into triumph, and even hope: “We rebuild what you destroy.”
THEY STAND IN a row, women with butterfly sleeves, flattened and pleated in high narrow peaks at the shoulder. They sit in a low-slung convertible wearing camo and nylon jackets and stare you down. They unfurl lacy fans and dance between clacking poles of bamboo, tracing the footsteps of tribes of old. They spit rhymes in English and Tagalog, rhymes full of hard, clacking consonants, saluting Filipino women like Nieves Fernandez, a schoolteacher turned guerrilla commander during the Second World War, and invoking the native knife called balisong, which folds in half to disguise itself — a more dangerous kind of butterfly. “Island woman rise / Walang makakatigil,” the hook goes: “Nothing can stop us.” “Brown, brown woman, rise / Alamin ang ’yong ugat”: “Know your roots.”
Ruby Ibarra’s 2018 single “Us” is a declaration and literal in its title, bringing together the voices of her fellow Filipino American M.C.s Klassy and Rocky Rivera and the poet and spoken-word artist Faith Santilla, all based in California. In the video, directed by Ibarra, an assembly of elders and the young turn their faces to the camera in every shade of brown, wearing Indigenous costumes, aristocratic colonial-era Filipiniana dresses with translucent shawls, street clothes and a T-shirt by the Black New Orleans-based artist Brandan “BMike” Odums that says “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” For Ibarra, identity is the subject and the work. “My just being here is making history,” she says. She was born in Tacloban on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, on the coast, in direct line of the monsoons, and moved to the Bay Area at the age of 4, speaking neither English nor Tagalog, only Waray, her regional language. By day, she’s a scientist who for the past year has focused on Covid-19 test kits, a matter of particular urgency for Filipino immigrants, many of whom have traditionally pursued careers as nurses; more than a quarter of all nurses who have died of the virus in America are of Filipino descent.
In her music, Ibarra is uncompromising in her intentions: She speaks of Filipinos, for Filipinos. She wants no “story arc if it don’t involve no matriarchs,” she raps in “Us,” urging us to remember our forebears. In 2019, she met two of them, the sisters June and Jean Millington of Fanny, the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major American label, in 1970. They were the daughters of a Filipino mother and a white father who had served in the Philippines during the Second World War and stayed for love. When they arrived in Northern California in 1961, on the cusp of their teens, they quickly learned what it meant to be American, cringing when their mother tried to barter at Stop & Shop. “Whenever I tried to mention the Philippines, people didn’t even know what it was,” June says. In the documentary “Fanny: The Right to Rock” (directed by Bobbi Jo Hart), released in May, Jean recalls an early boyfriend whose father said, “I’ll buy you a Mustang if you stop seeing that half-breed girl.” He chose the car.
On the Covers
Their mother had bought them guitars inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the sisters started a band, eventually recruiting a fellow Filipino American, the drummer Brie Darling. “We felt like the music protected us,” June says. “Maybe the way that people in tribes will paint themselves.” They did local gigs at sock hops and on Air Force bases, then toured the country in the late ’60s, performing for audiences that included newly returned veterans from Vietnam. They met resistance — not to their race, but to “the shock of us being girls, actually playing our own instruments,” Jean says. When they were told that the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr had referred to Fanny as “that band with the oriental chicks,” they took it as a compliment, as if they’d been seen. Bowie, an early fan, rhapsodized to Rolling Stone in 1999, “They were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them” — because by the late 1970s, the Millingtons, like the Kim Sisters, had dropped out of sight.
Now they are in their 70s, June in Massachusetts and Jean in California, still lionesses with the same cascades of hair to their waists, only gone white, and the world, ready at last, has come looking for them. They reunited with Darling in 2016 and put out an album two years later under a new, grander name, Fanny Walked the Earth; their documentary is playing film festivals; and a musical about the band’s rise, by the Filipino Spanish American writer Jessica Hagedorn — who herself once fronted a punk-funk spoken-word outfit called the Gangster Choir — is in development with Two River Theater in New Jersey. This past May, closing the circle, June appeared with Ibarra (on Zoom) as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, honoring Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “There was no context for me to speak about [my ancestry] before,” June says. “Not one person asked me. The biggest, loudest feminists never asked me about my culture.”
It’s not too late. She says she’s looking forward to “this next part” of their lives — of being the people in public they’ve always been to themselves; of making new music — even as she braves chemotherapy and Jean recovers from a stroke. “It just came at the last minute,” June says. “Just in time for me to taste the nectar.”
At the end of “Us,” Santilla takes the mic and speaks directly to the Filipino women listening in, who, she says, have always been “part and parcel if not imperative and critical to the struggle.” Her voice is at once declamatory, intimate and matter-of-fact. She is calm. This is not a call to action, not an insistence, but an outreached hand — an invitation.
Hair: Tomo Jidai at Streeters using Oribe. Makeup: Yumi Lee at Streeters using Chanel. Set design: Jesse Kaufmann. Production: Hen’s Tooth. Manicurist: Elina Ogawa at Bridge Artists. Digital tech: Jarrod Turner. Photo assistants: Ari Sadok, Tre Cassetta, Andres Zawadzki. Hair assistant: Mark Alan Esparza. Makeup assistant: Mish Parti. Set assistant: JP Huckins and Corey Hucks. Tailor: Carol Ai Studio. Stylist’s assistants: Andy Polanco, Rosalie Moreland, Michelle Cornejo