The Globalization of Diasporic Asian Youth Culture: A Study of Music

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The diaspora of immigrant-descended Asian youth has a culture that reaches far beyond national borders.Young, multi-generational Asians face unique prejudices and marginalization, and in the face of such, find camaraderie with those in similar backgrounds and situations across the world. In particular, young adults in settler nations like Canada, the US, and Australia have found ways to share a distinctive culture outside the mainstream popular culture in their respective countries. Art, and more specifically music, has always provided a glance into the inner machinations of a culture. Therefore, the transnational quality of Asian diasporic youth culture can similarly be observed through the production and consumption of Asian music.

Background

The diaspora of second-generation and above Asians across settler nations are caught in a middle ground between their ancestral heritage, and the culture they are raised in and live in both culturally and physically. The history of displacement of people from China, Japan, and the Philippines to North America is a history of violence, trauma, and racial segregation. From the Canadian Pacific Railway slavery, to the immigration head tax, to internment camps, the Asian North American has been fraught with racism and “othering” and all aforementioned tragedies have one common message — one can never truly American enough, or Canadian enough despite what one's location and citizenship may dictate. Lisa Lowe states in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics that the Asian American experience is persistently “driven by the repetition and returns of episodes in which the Asian American, even as a citizen, continues to be located outside the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation".[1]

However, the space that this group inhabits is becoming larger and transgresses any traditional borders. In 2018, a Facebook private page called “Subtle Asian Traits” was started by a group of Asian Australian students[2]. Currently, this page has over 1.8 million members worldwide[3], and the members share content and “memes” that are uniquely humorous to this group of diasporic Asian young adults. One post on the page with thousands of responses joking asks group members in a poll to vote which item they were beaten with most as a child[2]. Other popular, more light-hearted posts include summer cocktail recipes using Korean soju alcohol, and jokes with references to commonly experienced microagressions (i.e the dreaded "where are you really from?" question). It is this type of niche, possibly trauma-processing humour that makes “Subtle Asian Traits” a digital space to develop the culture of diasporic Asian young adults who, despite being scattered around the globe, share the common struggles of being children of immigrants and being perceived as a foreigner in both their heritage land and hometown.

Musical Culture

The music produced for and/or by immigrant-descended Asian people is a niche genre that is slowly growing in popularity and diversity. Su Zheng writes that Asian music, either hybridized or traditional, is circulating with or without diasporic musicians and is distributed globally through transnational markets and media systems[4]. This phenomenon is evident through the explosive popularity of K-Pop worldwide, with musicians such as the boyband BTS selling out Wembley Stadium as the first Korean act to ever perform at that venue.[5]

This is not to say that music is not also produced by and for diasporic Asian listeners as well. The music industry of neither one’s country of residence or country of ethnic heritage may provide an accurate reflection of culture for many people. For example, 88Rising is a well-known American hip hop record label founded by Sean Miyashiro primarily for Asian American and Asian artists.[6] Their website describes them as “on a journey around the globe to share all of our peoples’ stories, artworks, creations and capture it all in one place.”[7] And by looking at their website, it is clear through the collective language— “we grew up on the streets of night markets” and “our people”[7] — that the target demographic of the record label is mostly geared towards fellow diasporic, Asian, young people.

However, the content of these Asian artists also makes them stand out from the crowd; the unique trauma of the Asian diaspora experience is funnelled into fuelling song and art for many singers/songwriters. In the song “Safe” by Korean-American rapper, Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park[8], the musician describes watching the Oscars and seeing Hollywood’s whitewashing because “the roster of the only yellow men were all statues”[9]. He goes on to address the namesake of the song— the common stereotype that Asian people are the “safe”[9], submissive, and model minority group in Western countries. At the end of the music video for the song, the meta scene widens to show the video shooting site where the director replaces him with a Caucasian actor instead[10]. His grievances are not unfounded either; a study in California shows that American Americans and Pacific Islanders make up only 4% of American TV show characters, and over half of the shows have been cancelled[11]. Park’s work both illuminates and contends with many contemporary Asian American issues in ways that are enjoyable and relatable for his Asian-diasporic listeners. And clearly his methods are effective; on the Spotify streaming service alone, Dumbfoundead has over a million streams on many of his songs, most of his listeners located in Los Angeles where he operates[8].

Rina Sawayama at a 2018 performance at Schoolhouse

Another example is Japanese British pop star Rina Sawayama[12]. Her most recent album, “SAWAYAMA”, features tracks in both English and Japanese with one of the Japanese tracks named “Tokyo Takeover”. Sawayama explains through Twitter that “Tokyo Takeover” was written while she was struggling with her Japanese identity in the UK and trying to embrace both cultures. She further explains that the lyrics in both languages and “way the English and the Japanese play off each other shows that struggle in [her] head”[13]. As well, Sawayama’s music explores the intersections she inhabits— her Japanese heritage, pansexuality, and femininity are all topics that are expressed through her music for her listeners to interpret and connect with. For instance, “Cherry”’s lyrics are written about her experience as a pansexual woman[14], while “Comme des Garçons” tackles how her femininity interacts with toxic masculinity and how she adopts exaggerated masculine characteristics to appear more confident.[15] Sawayama's diverse musical subjects allows her to reach even more marginalized groups within the diasporic Asian community.

On Spotify, Rina Sawayama boasts an impressive 9.9 million streams on her song “Cherry” alone, and has 1.9 million listeners per month.[16] Despite her multinational success and widely-acclaimed new album, she is ineligible for the 2020 Brit Awards and the Mercury Prize due to the fact that, though she has lived in the UK since she was a toddler and shares most citizen’s rights, Sawayama is not technically a citizen and therefore cannot be nominated for the awards due to a clause in the award criteria[17]. The criteria for the awards hinge on the definition of "British", and Sawayama does not qualify under the awards' standards, although she has been a large influencer of British culture through her work as an artist and a resident of the nation. Hence this incident is a contemporary manifestation of “them” versus “us” nationhood, and what Jonathan Park refers to as a “bamboo ceiling”[9]. Rina Sawayama’s music indubitably serves as valuable representation for queer Asian-immigrant young people, and this unfortunate technicality shows the systemic barriers that prevent marginalized groups from reaching the same success as members of the dominant group.

These artists among countless others, whether they are aware or not, are part of a movement representing young second/multi-generational Asians across the globe. The creation of music which describes and challenges the “othering” of diasporic Asians helps in part to establish a documentative canon that young people can consume to find representation and solace in. Diasporic Asian content creators like musicians, artists, writers, and actors are articulating their unique identity and forging a space outside national borders for this emerging culture to grow. However, the relationship is a two-sided street; artists pave space for their culture through creating art, and consumers of the art also pave space in their selective support of artists who represent their identities. And thus, the transnational youth culture of diasporic Asians can be observed through the recognition of music as a window into a much broader and diverse community.

  1. Lowe, Lisa (1996). Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Duke University Press. p. 6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wu, Nicholas; Yuan, Karen (27 December 2018). "The Meme-ification of Asianness". The Atlantic. Retrieved 28 July 2020.
  3. About This Group. 16 Sept. 2018, www.facebook.com/groups/1343933772408499/about/. Accessed 30 July 2020.
  4. Zheng, Su (2011). Claiming Diaspora: Music, Transnationalism, and Cultural Politics in Asian/Chinese America. Oxford University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780199873593.
  5. Savage, Mark. “BTS Are the First Korean Band to Headline Wembley Stadium.” BBC News, BBC, 2 June 2019, www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-48487862.
  6. Leonard, Devin (December 5, 2017). "The Man Who Sold the World on Asian Hip-Hop". Bloomberg. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "About Us: WELCOME TO 88NIGHTMARKET". 88NIGHTMARKET. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Dumbfoundead - About". Spotify. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Safe Lyrics". Genuis. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  10. "Dumbfoundead - Safe", YouTube, uploaded by Dumbfoundead, 26 May 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmvqb9Uzu8k
  11. Chin, Christina B, et al. ASIAN AMERICANS AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS ON TV, Sept. 2017, www.aapisontv.com/.
  12. "Introducing: Rina Sawayama". Vibes of Silence. 4 November 2017. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  13. @rinasawayama_jp, "【SAWAYAMAリリースまであと 日】 デビューアルバム「SAWAYAMA」の世界同時リリースまであと1日 リリース迄の1週間、1日2曲ずつ、アルバム収録順にリナ本人が書いた楽曲解説をツイートしています 本日は、13. Snakeskin /14. Tokyo Takeover" Twitter, 15 April 2020, 8:05 a.m., https://twitter.com/rinasawayama_jp/status/1250439999260000256
  14. "Rina Sawayama Cherry Lyrics". Genius. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  15. "Rina Sawayama Comme des Garcons (Like the Boys) Lyrics". Genuis. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  16. "Rina Sawayama - About". Spotify. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  17. "Pop star Rina Sawayama 'not British enough' to enter UK music awards". BBC News. 29 July 2020. Retrieved 29 July 2020.