“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.”