“2018 was a great year for Asian representation.”
This is a message I’ve heard from sundry sources including friends and family, celebrities and strangers, thinkpieces and box office records. With such cause for celebration, though, is a concomitant reminder of how Western media has largely depicted Asians and Asian-Americans: As a role best portrayed by White actors, as reductive stereotypes, or not at all. 2018 thus served as a sobering reality check. In seeing people who looked like me onscreen and on stage, I became acutely aware of how my excitement was due in part to the rarity of such moments. “How long will it be,” I asked myself, “Until I’m no longer surprised? Until my praise for Asian artistry is decoupled from my praise for its mere visibility?”
The Grammys will broadcast today, and there are few Asians and Asian-Americans nominated for its 84 categories. Within the big four (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist), there is one Asian-American artist: H.E.R., the stage name of the half-Filipino, half-Black R&B singer Gabi Wilson. She’s stated that she identifies strongly with both sides, but listeners are unlikely to know her as an Asian-American artist. This is for reasons related to her skin color (alas, some Westerners forget that Asians can have darker complexions too), the historically Black nature of R&B music, and the fact that Asians aren’t typically understood as being associated with the American R&B industry. Look no further than other Grammy winners and nominees — Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, Kelis, Amerie, Jhené Aiko — to understand how mixed-race artists’ Asian ancestries are often unknown or unconsidered by the general public.
There are scant Asians and Asian-Americans in the other 80 categories. One of them is Jennifer Lee, a producer and beatmaker who goes by TOKiMONSTA. Her album Lune Rouge was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album, marking the first time a female Asian-American received the distinction. “It just didn’t seem like [the Grammys] would acknowledge me,” she told me over the phone. Lee was certainly surprised when she heard the news, but there was also a point in her life where even pursuing music full-time was unimaginable.
“I never thought it was possible, it was never even a thought that entered my mind.” While there were multiple factors that led to this mentality, one likely possibility is the lack of female Asian-American representation she experienced when younger. Raised in Torrance, she was a big fan of LA’s underground hip-hop scene. While she notes that there were Asian-American rappers and DJs present, they were virtually all male. “I could see [Asian representation] but not Asian female representation. Growing up, I didn’t focus on gender — I liked the music and I saw the person and I just accepted that there weren’t a lot of women in electronic or urban music.”
While Lee acknowledges that she’s not “really really famous,” she understands that her current platform is invaluable. Lee had once remarked that she didn’t put her face on album covers in order to avoid being tokenized. “It’s different now,” she says bluntly. “It’s important for people to know my identity. Some young Asian-American male or female might look at me and be like, ‘well she’s there and she looks like me, I can be where she’s at.’ It allows people to see that it’s possible for them, and I didn’t have that for myself, and that’s probably why I didn’t let people know what I looked like in the very beginning.”
This relationship between artist and audience isn’t just a one-way street, either. “No matter how obscure a city or town I play at, there’s always a little faction of Asians and Asian-Americans who come to my show.” Lee explained how these people are part of a greater Asian community that supports her, roots for her. “It’s palpable and I can feel it and it helps propel me forward. Even though I inspire them, they give me strength to be the person that I am.”
While there’s a small thrill in seeing Grammys recognize Asian artists, Lee’s words point to how validation and encouragement for minority groups don’t often come from White-centric Western establishments. I talked with graphic designer Mary Banas and photographer Bao Ngo about their work on Mitski’s Be The Cowboy, an album that received a nomination for Best Recording Package, and our conversation touched on this idea. “Maybe we don’t need to look at these institutions, they’re never going to show up for people who are underrepresented,” asserted Banas.
Ngo was reluctant to place much stock in them as well. “I do want Asians in America to feel like they’re represented, but I’m not sure if adhering to Western norms or seeking such representation through something as White and oppressive as Hollywood or the American music industry is the way to go about it.” For Ngo, a Vietnamese-American, American media didn’t have the representation she sought while growing up, so she looked to films made in Asia to find it. “If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, make your own table. Or in my case, I found another table — it was just elsewhere.”
Because of American media’s representation of Asians, there’s a prickly dialectic that sometimes looms over Asian-Americans and how they approach their art: The need to lean into certain stereotypes for success, and the opposing desire to make art that primarily fights against the same stereotypes. Ngo mentioned how she would like to see more Asian-Americans creating art that “just exists,” that isn’t bogged down by a need to “attract White audiences.” Mitski was one such successful example for Ngo. “Part of the reason I respect Mitski and her art is because it isn’t getting recognition because she’s Asian — maybe a little — but most of it genuinely comes from her making good, honest work that resonates with people.” And indeed, Be The Cowboy was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2018, landing third on music critic polls from Uproxx.
But an America in which Asian-Americans can freely make art without constantly fighting notions of who they are (and who they aren’t) doesn’t seem to be in its near future. Asian-Americans are still subject to assumptions of what they’re capable of, and this won’t change until they’re given more opportunities to succeed. Ngo told me that when she shows up on set to work, the hardest challenge is in “finding ways for people to take [her] seriously.” As a young, female Asian-American, she recognizes that this is something that’s ever-present. “I don’t doubt my own abilities, and I’m not a self-conscious person, but I’m very aware that I have to try so much harder than [men and White women] to be taken seriously.” In her candid response is an always-needed reminder that there are unseen burdens placed upon Asian-Americans — especially Asian-American females — because of ideas perpetuated by American media.
So what’s next, then? In America, the past few years have seen an increase in visibility for Asian musicians. From beloved indie acts (Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som, Haley Heynderickx) to the popular R&B and hip-hop artists signed to 88rising (Joji, Rich Brian, Higher Brothers) to the wildly successful K-pop groups making waves in the West (most notably BTS, whose Love Yourself: Tear received a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package), things are slowly getting better.
In talking with Jennifer Lee about the future of Asian-American art in light of its recent popularity, she was optimistic. “What I hope is by setting the precedent now, these younger artists coming up will be able to create music just like any other American kid makes music. We just need the next generation to do their thing and then they may be able to soar higher because they don’t have to deal with preconceptions of who they are.” The dearth of Asian and Asian-American artists who were nominated in tonight’s Grammys reveals that the results will do little, if anything at all, to usher in Lee’s vision. But what they will do is act as a signpost — that despite 2018’s “great” year for Asian representation, we’re still far from where we need to be, where we should be.