Cat Zhang on the true identity of Asian American music

‘If we say a piece of music makes us ‘feel seen,’ then we also owe it to ourselves to parse what about it is so invigorating, what it reveals to us about our own subjectivities.’

For Pitchfork, Cat Zhang wrote about the “fragmented, disparate musical tradition” of Asian American music:

In recent years, Asian and Asian American musicians have moved to prominence in certain scenes, from Mitski’s cathartic indie rock to Yaeji’s rewiring of house music to 88rising’s attempts to market global Asian hip-hop. This year Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast released Crying in H Mart, a memoir about rediscovering her Korean heritage through food, which became an instant New York Times bestseller. Still, I can feel an absence of language with which to think about Asianness in the music industry beyond the dry terms of representation politics. In 2018, NBC Asian America ran a year-end essay proclaiming that “Asian-American music shined”; tellingly, in this case “Asian American music” simply meant “music by artists who have Asian heritage”—anything from MILCK’s empowerment anthems to songs off Drake’s Scorpion, produced by Filipino-American Illmind.

The strategy of aggregating and promoting music based on artists’ common racial identity has been adopted widely by publications; streaming platforms have done the same while attempting to show solidarity to the Stop Asian Hate campaign and during AAPI Heritage Month. It is an efficient, even understandable tactic, one that often yields laughably unimaginative results: Some of the first selections on Apple Music’s “Celebrating Asian American Voices” playlist include “Leave the Door Open” by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, “Deja vu” by Olivia Rodrigo, and “Taste” by Tyga feat. Offset—a selection that illuminates more about the current Billboard charts than the “different traditions, histories, and points of view” within a “vast AAPI family,” as Apple suggests. (And what about the songs that are not by Asian artists, but have become anthems for Asian American communities nonetheless?)

Hi, it's Luke, the editor of Sampleface! Why not subscribe to my Patreon and support the blog?

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