Eugene of Boston Progress Radio put up a neat post called “Intergenerational Love” (it’s not what it sounds like!). Read it

It was this bit that caught my interest:

Getting this kind of e-mail makes me think about why this blog and radio station got started. Initially, I wanted the radio station for selfish reasons. I wanted to be able to tune into a station and find awesome Asian American music. With the help of friends, we just did it. That’s it. Today, maybe BPR has a larger purpose. Maybe we’re here to spread the word about Asian American music to communities across this country. Maybe we’re here to make connections to Asian Americans who came before us… And to those who will come after us.

Ninja Pants was born of a similar gut (“selfish”) reaction; we wanted to have a space to talk about new Asian American music, and if other peple wanted to join in, so much the better. It wasn’t until we started the project in earnest that we had to start thinking about what it meant to look for “Asian American music”. After years of throwing events for our college API community, which inevitably included digging up API artists for concerts and such, we just kind of got used to thinking about the race of the musicians that we were listening to. Then we realized, roughly a month after Ninja Pants’ beginning, that we had created a new genre. Oops.

Thinking about “Asian American music” as a genre is a little bit unusual because it isn’t organized around a particular set of musical instruments or techniques, or even a general unifying style. Rather, it is a genre we have asserted into existence, through projects like Ninja Pants and Boston Progress Radio, and its central organizing theme seems, at first glance, to be the racial identity of its artists. It is “interdisciplinary”, since Asian American artists can participate in any genre or combination of genres. We have our Hip Hop artists, our indie rockers, plenty of singer-songwriters (…), jazz musicians, etc. Aside from perhaps an occasional reference to yellow fever or the model minority myth, there’s really no musical consistency that we could expect from browsing a hypothetical “Asian American music” section at our local Amoeba Records. Deborah Wong is careful to dismiss the discussion of “Asian American music” for precisely this reason in her book, Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music; the idea of Asian American music as a musical genre implies that the definition of the genre is located in music (beat, lyrical structure, etc.) or possibly the myriad practices of an identifiable geographic region (a la Hip Hop and its origins in the Bronx), and it isn’t, so she instead opts to study the music that Asian Americans make. Since it seems unclear exactly how an all-white band, for example, could participate in Asian American music in the way that they could participate in rock and roll.

On the other hand, simply being an artist who is Asian American doesn’t seem to be sufficient to participate in Asian American music. Editing a publication like Ninja Pants involves deciding who we let into our own definition of “Asian American music” on a daily basis, and we come across artists all the time who appear to identify as Asian American but aren’t really all that interested in making overtures to explicitly race-based music communities like ours – generally, I imagine, for the same reasons that people who check the “Asian” box might still be reluctant about participating in explicitly race-based non-profits, or student groups, or what have you. Putting your music out into an Asian American space says more than simply “My folks came from Asia” because the term “Asian American” is still an inherently political one. We expect a modicum of social responsibility from artists who participate in Asian American music, that they are somewhat literate with issues of power and privilege and how those play out in issues of race.

This, to me, is the reason we declare particular works, like Bayani by the Blue Scholars, or Sung Kang’s latest movie, The Motel, as “Asian American” works. It seems that denoting a subset of a medium as Asian American describes more of the thought process behind the art rather than a characteristic of the art itself. It’s like food that’s labeled “organic”; while an organic Fuji apple is essentially the same thing, materially, as a not-organic Fuji apple, the “organic” label (at least, ideally) specifies something about where the apple came from, and the process it went through to make its way into your stomach. Those who are drawn to Asian American music are drawn to it not necessarily because we’re drawn to a certain set of musical properties, but rather because we’re conscious not just of what music we’re consuming but who is making it and how. Presenting these artists in the context of an Asian American identity isn’t just a matter of convenience; that we care about the identities and processes of our musicians is a highly political statement.

pat m.