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How does Asian American music actually bear the cultural meaning and significance that we think it does?

By Celene Machen

With the rise in popularity of Asian American music, from the artists featured in popular record label 88rising, to the all-Asian soundtrack from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it is easy to say that Asian American music exists in a tangible and substantial way. However, when thinking deeply about what we consider Asian Americans music, it is hard to delineate an exact cultural underpinning that is commonly present in music from other marginalized groups.

When speaking of cultural music, and the conception of music from marginalized communities, it is important to understand intentionality. Music from Asian artists can be a unifying force, as they have undoubtedly found solidarity, and rallied behind songs that are quintessential to the community. However, when we attempt to find the ways in which Asian American music serves as a method and instrument for power, there is a fundamental deficiency.

Although music by Asian artists can become iconic anthems, this music as a whole falls short in terms of honoring cultural traditions, or responding to historical events and movements. This is not to say that Asian artists must produce and develop music with the motive of empowering and underscoring a larger movement, but this is where we must draw the distinction.

Let us take a look at Black music, as an analogy. Black music, at its roots, began as a reflection of their environments and societal conditions; musical expression worked as an outlet for social concerns, as well as a means of displaying pride in their culture. Practices of Black music went hand in hand with Black movements that combated oppression, with music becoming an instrument that provided power to the powerless.

Black music, with its cultural reflection and historical significance, is incomparable to that of what we consider Asian American music. This does not mean that there is a complete absence of music from Asian artists that bear social significance and supplement movements for the Asian diaspora. The musical group dubbed Yellow Pearl, recorded what is considered to be the first Asian American album in 1973, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America.

In the 1980s, many Asian musicians amalgamated their artistry with their activism, as Asian pianist Jon Jang stated, “We were playing music that sought to liberate us, and liberate our communities.” There has never been a scarcity of Asian American artists who utilize music as a meditation of their position in society.

However, there is no holistic understanding of Asian American music, because its overall purpose was never used as a collective cultural response to social plights or conditions, unlike that of Black music. What we consider to be Asian American music today lacks a unifying foundation that spans deeper than our identities.

The Asian American diaspora is one that is rich and vibrant with diversity; but, the heterogeneity of our communities may act as a barrier for unification and coalition, especially when it comes to defining a collective aesthetic. Because there is no solidified, distinctive idea of what Asian America is, there cannot be a foundational, overarching understanding of Asian American music.

As a result, we begin to correlate music created by those with Asian heritage as synonymous with the idea of Asian American music, when the former is merely representational, while the latter should refer to the musical expression of a culture as a result of and response to the material conditions that speaks to the community’s experience.

All of this is not to say that we should disparage music from Asian Americans; as we can see from our modern age and the rising popularity surrounding Asian artists like Mitski, Conan Gray, or Olivia Rodrigo, Asian American music is only growing and furthering our community. However, it is interesting to note the disjointedness of Asian American music, which speaks to a larger disjointed culture of Asian America altogether. After all, as Asian musician Julian Saporiti said: “The idea of Asian American musical tradition is interesting, because all it can ever be is a collection of scraps.”

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