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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

March 13, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Lack of Asian American Superstar Musicians

Although Asian Americans are becoming increasingly prominent in several high-profile public positions such as TV and movie actors, government officials, that level of success has eluded Asian American musicians. As the New York Times reports, that situation is not because of a lack of talent. Instead and unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination still plague many Asian American musicians trying to make it big:

People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.

Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”

The article goes on to note that of the few Asian American musicians who have achieved some level of success, they disproportionately tend to be mixed-race, multiracial Asian Americans, such as Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, Allan Pineda Lindo ( of the Black Eyed Peas, and Cassie (singer of the R & B song “Me & U”).

At the same time, a few Asian American musicians say that part of the reason for why there aren’t Asian American superstar musicians out there is because Asian American artists haven’t really developed their own sound in the same way that Blacks and Latinos have, nor do they have major media marketing outlets such as BET or Telemundo to help them. Many also note that the Asian American population is still relatively small and fractured across ethnic and language differences.

And of course, many Asian American musicians are rather resentful that the one Asian American “musical act” that received so much media and public attention in recent years was William Hung, who many critics charge is a comic caricature of traditional stereotypes of Asians as nerdy, “fresh off the boat,” and socially inept.

I think these are all valid points and each seem can be one plausible explanation for why Asian Americans have not achieved musical superstardom. But I also think that this situation also presents a sociological paradox — Asian Americans are frequently seen as being “perpetual foreigners” and not “American” enough but at the same time, some are saying that we have to develop a more “Asian-esque” sound to differentiate us from everybody else.

Is that a contradiction? I would say so. But then again, America is full of contradictions, so this situation really isn’t new. Frequently American society says one thing, but can respond in their actions quite differently. So where does that leave Asian American musicians? I actually think that Asian Americans can use this paradox to their advantage by broadening their style to include both Asian and American styles.

That is, as the world in general and American society in particular become increasingly diverse, globalized, and transnational, Asian American musicians can leverage both sides of their identity to expand their appeal. In that sense, they have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this new globalized identity as we move — and boogie — forward into the 21st century. Keep up the good fight, y’all.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Lack of Asian American Superstar Musicians" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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