Music as a Cultural Pillar of Engaging and Breaking barriers with Asian Americans

Jungwon LeeApr 28, 2021

With the recent xenophobic sentiment towards Asians out of the COVID19 crisis, it is essential more than ever to reduce cultural barriers and celebrate the rich diversity of AAPI culture.

Despite the prolonged presence of Asians in the country, we are unfortunately not the ones when people think of "Americans." Today, we are dealing with the weight of hate crimes worldwide with the rise of COVID19. According to Stop AAPI Hate org, there were 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents since last year, with many unreported. One of the most recent and disheartening stories includes the shooting attacks in Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta that took away 6 Asian women, who left their loved ones and hardworking sacrifices behind. Today, AAPI communities feel that the country needs so much to do and have to repeat the effort over and over again.

With the upcoming AAPI Heritage month in May, it is time to challenge the bias and see Asian Americans as a critical audience. There are so many different and diverse cultures to learn about within Asian Americans that we shouldn't narrow our viewpoint to just one or two cultures in Asia. We are a whole spectrum of beautiful cultures. I want Asian Americans to be part of all spheres of life and industry, especially in music, and highlight those voices. Whether it's K-Pop, Japanese reggae, or Bollywood melodies, Asian Americans are passionate about music. It doesn't matter the race or what language we speak in. Through music as a lens, I would love to highlight some opportunities to brands and advertisers to engage Asian Americans in meaningful ways.

1. Understand the Duality and Multiculturalism within Asian Americans

The AAPI community does not want to be narrowly viewed under one big umbrella term. There are many sub-cultures within one big culture that Asians have multicultural and bi-lingual tastes in music. The racism perpetuates what music others think we listen to. To share my story, I am a 1.5 generation American, a third culture kid, and an Asian American. I was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Seoul and Manila, went to college in Minnesota and London, and most recently have lived in Honolulu. While classified as Asian American, I am a rainbow of places I've been and constantly evolving as an individual, and other Asian Americans are too.

The bias perpetuates in the music space that people often put the music genre as a cage around us. When people learn of my ethnicity, they often assume I would only listen to K-Pop and BTS. In fact, many 2nd generations of Asian Americans are not familiar with popular artists or singers from their families' countries of origin. One of my close friends, a Filipino American who grew up in NJ, shared that she feels guilty that she doesn't know some Filipino singers or actors, especially when she encounters Filipinos who recently immigrated.

While I am proud to be of Korean heritage, I listen beyond K-pop, and that is an integral part of who I am. I refuse to be defined by others, especially when it comes to music. My favorite genre, by default, is indietronica, which is indie music within the electronics space, James Blake and Caribou, to name a few. I love how their ambient and dreamy tones in the downtempo portray the deep emotions. At the same time, Frank Ocean's "Thinkin About You" could be a life music choice. At the playlist level, I'd love chillwave like Toro Y Moi playlist and French electronics like Polo & Pan.

With this in mind, it is essential to recognize there isn't a single genre that encompasses all Asian Americans, just like how it cannot for the rest of Americans. Among Asian Americans, the ones from bay area culture skew higher in EDM/techno,[1] while Southeast Asians like Indonesians, Vietnamese and Thai would skew highly in K-Pop. Then there is another subgroup like me who listens to indie/chillwave/instrumental sounds.

Therefore, brands and advertisers need to be aware that not all Asian Americans are created equal, and being aware of one's uniqueness is particularly important. There are so many of us within that we can't be categorized into one identity, one genre. Brands could increase resonance by making honest efforts to differentiate cultural cues among many sub-Asian cultures and represent their culture in a nuanced and right way.

2. Asian Americans are Highly Engaged with Music

Music and audio are highly ingrained in my daily life. Not only am I engaged with music in various activities from walking in Central Park to running SQL queries, I even love using the music purposefully on social media. Even when I post something on Instagram, many songs go through my mind like reels. I love feeling like a "main character" through hearing background music in my mind. I love getting feedback and comments from my friends who explicitly say, "You always choose the best music!" or even ask, "Do you have a playlist? I want to follow you!"

Before COVID broke out, I analyzed the concerts I attended in the year 2019. I went to 23 single artists' live shows, including Pandora events and free events in the park. I roughly spent about $380 on tickets, which is above what average consumers spend $112 per year. This is aligned with the Nielsen Music 360 study that Asian Americans spend more on live concerts than any other multicultural segment at an average of $44 per person.

Separately, we love to create music beyond consuming. We may have learned the piano, violin, and cello when we were young (forced by parents), but we find music on our own in adulthood. Personally, I enjoy playing the piano and have improved more as an adult than as a child. I've started uploading my playing to SoundCloud as a practice log and finding new ways to connect with alternative rock and hip hop by narrating the melody in the piano form. Using AI technology, I can disseminate a song into separate instrument files, then let drums/keyboards play while I will recreate the keyboard/piano part. It has become an enjoyable one-person band pandemic activity. I would love to connect with other musicians who do the same. Like myself, Asian American audiences are deeply engaged with music in their own way, both on and offline. Advertisers would benefit from expanding the AAPI targeting definition to improve the engagement of this audience.

3. AAPI community feels pride for the artists with an Asian background

67% feel a sense of pride when they find out mainstream musicians are of Asian background.[2] This is personally true for me. I feel the allyship for my Korean femmes. To mention a few:

  • Peggy Gou, an international DJ based in Berlin, has become an international sensation with her song Itgehane (Translation: "Makes Me Forget"), and many Asian Americans look up to her because of her iconic fashionista style.
  • Yaeji, Korean American from New York, who became popular after remixing Drake's Passionfruit in a Boiler Room set, is another favorite artist and makes me proud that I'm keeping my Korean name, just like her. I am awe-spired by her creativity and love that she keeps Korean lyrics in her jams.
  • Tokimonsta ('Toki' means rabbit in Korean, it captures the duality of soft and monstrous things), a Korean American woman DJ hailing from LA, received a nomination in the Best Dance/Electronic Album in 2017 and I've always sought out the opportunity to see her live set.
  • Many people aren't aware of the fact that Anderson .Paak is half Korean, but that gives me another reason to love him. While he is not fluent in Korean, he truly understands the nuance and tone of the Korean language.
  • 88rising media company/record label is a perfect example of a connector. 88Rising bridges the gap between Asian and American music by bringing many young talented Asian artists like Joji, Niki, Rich Brian to the scene and creating pop-culture crossovers.

According to Pandora Soundboard, 49% listen to music that blends both their Asian and American culture. This highlights the importance of how connecting the artists and audiences at a comprehensive level is critical—which is why my team at Pandora created a unique solution to help advertisers incorporate this into their targeting strategy. Artist Affinity, Genres, and stations targeting allows for a custom selection of artists and stations based on what matters the most.

4. Nostalgia is a vital narrative when engaging Asian American audience

Last autumn, I had a rare special moment that evoked deep emotion. I was taking a usual "pandemic" stroll in Central Park with my mother. As we were passing by the Metropolitan Museum, we heard a very familiar tune. We stopped to listen carefully. A talented Black saxophone player started playing the South Korean national anthem. "How?!" But also "Why?"

I found Korean melodies narrated by the saxophone guy so beautiful and unique. It turned out the guy used to be stationed in South Korea as a US Army, so he picked up a few songs while he lived there. It reminded me of the beautiful past.

While I love listening to the indietronica from London and Brooklyn and whatsoever, I would revisit old Korean pop from time to time. A few months ago, I created a Seoul 1998 playlist, reminiscing my childhood time in Seoul in the late 90s. With this, I found a few other Korean Indie playlists, a mix of South Korean classic rock, alternative punk rock, which a lot of Korean Millennials and Gen Xers will likely know. This is true with what we found with Intertrend data. 51% say older or traditional Asian music makes them feel nostalgic. This is an excellent opportunity for brands to contextually target this audience based on the genre and the era of music born.

5. Challenge the Model Minority Myth

Behind the racial prejudice, the model minority, a reference for minorities on how to be successful, has been haunting Asian Americans as stereotypical quiet, well-behaved, law-abiding citizens. The model minority somehow aligns with Asian Americans as "whiteness" and further puts down the other Black and Brown minorities and creates division among minorities. Despite the success and overperformance in some job sectors, Asian Americans' attempted assimilation into white society and their protection are false. Asian Americans often remained silent when made fun of to avoid conflicts to stay safe. The peace is due to not talking, not inherently because we are in the safe zone. Asian American studies call it conditional citizens, who are sometimes embraced by America and sometimes rejected.

Half embraced; half rejected. Half loved; half hated.

This duality is our identities. We often feel that we belong neither in the white American society nor in the countries of our ethnic origin. But this also means that we can broaden our minds and expand the sense of connectedness with music.

Our dual identity is prevalent in music and popular culture. Asian Americans have the least representation in media and entertainment. Eddie Huang, producer of Fresh off the Boat, described in a recent interview with Apple Music that our way to be integrated into America was through education, law, math, which perpetuates the model minority and left us out of media and entertainment. Because of that lack of media representation, Asian Americans didn't see much of our own success figures in this industry. Steve Aoki, an internationally acclaimed DJ, a Japanese American, believes Asian Americans have the capacity to be part of the popular culture and influence outside culture. Our passion for music is intrinsically tied to our desire for more meaningful portrayals of Asian talent in mainstream media. Brands that reach us during these moments of pride will have the opportunity to build deeper cultural connections.

In Closing: Pivotal Time to battle the bias and integrate Asian Americans

The AAPI community has been sharing the stereotypes and judgments we have been facing. We are creative, authentic and bold, and want to confront the stereotype that we are submissive and deferential, which is a flawed perception.

And we want to be heard now.

Now is the opportunity to break the cycle. We have the opportunity today to listen to the stories of the AAPI community. Simply putting more police force for the task of hate crimes against Asians instead puts the other minorities at a disadvantage as systematic racism often police Black. Rather than relying on them, let's recognize the different experiences the AAPI community had and repeat the conversations. Asian Americans want to belong. We want to be heard. We want to be creatively inspired. We want to be part of music and entertainment more than ever. It would matter so much to them when brands and advertisers hear and include them in the conversations.

Music to me is a vibe maker, a creative pursuit, a life enhancer, and beyond. As an individual, I will always continue supporting AAPI artists and open a dialogue with friends and colleagues to bring awareness to our identities. And I would prefer brands and advertisers who carefully craft their message and reach us. AAPI heritage month is a perfect time to reopen a dialogue about what music means to Asian Americans and how we as advertisers become aware of the identities and authentically engage them in exciting ways.

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