According to a New York Times article, it may be a long time before we see an Asian-American music artist become a superstar, based on stereotyping:
Trying to Crack the Hot 100 (click to view original article)
By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: March 4, 2007
Where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake? Asian-Americans cite the “Asian thing” as keeping them from pop-star status.
As a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Mr. Lee has sung R & B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.
Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show “Fame,” gaining national attention and another record contract. Mr. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turn 40 this year and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.
Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Mr. Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.
“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” said Mr. Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. “You don’t fit.”
There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the “Asian thing” is what Mr. Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars. People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.
Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.
Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his MySpace.com page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”
Some in the music industry note that there is no dearth of Asian-Americans or Asians of mixed race in the ranks of successful record producers (Chad Hugo of the Neptunes), rock bands (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park) and pop and hip-hop groups (Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls and Allan Pineda Lindo, whose professional name is Apl.de.Ap, of the Black Eyed Peas), and musicians in general.
But where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake, Prince or Christina Aguilera?
Asked to name the most recognizable Asian-American pop solo singer today, older generations might say the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, but younger Asian-American artists agreed on one person: William Hung, the “American Idol” castoff who became an overnight sensation in 2004 for his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.”
“By and large the music industry hasn’t done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent,” said Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe magazine. “Because there’s no significant tradition in the mainstream, it becomes that much harder to become that breakthrough artist.”
Scores of young Asian-American singers are trying to become that artist. Like aspiring musicians of all stripes, they have created their own parallel universe, and many are writing songs and putting out music on the Internet, playing shows in small clubs and Asian festivals and sometimes starting their own labels. Some get play for their songs and videos on niche cable television channels and a few are even performing abroad and recording in Asian languages. In fact, some South Korean entertainment companies regularly hold auditions in cities like Los Angeles to scout for Asian-American talent.
“There are very talented Asian-Americans out there,” said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian-American artists. “The only problem is nobody is signing them.”
Some are being signed, but the roster tilts heavily toward mixed-race Asians whose looks are racially ambiguous, like Cassie, an R & B singer of Filipino and African-American descent whose song “Me & U” was one of last year’s hottest summer hits, some Asian-Americans artists noted.
In this parallel universe, there is even an Asian-American Idol contest in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large Asian population. The contest has been held by Element, an event production company, for as many seasons as the national show has run on Fox.
Christine Joy Villano, whose professional name is Christine Joy and who won this local Idol contest four years ago, said she tried out for “American Idol” in 2004 with her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” but didn’t make it past the auditions. Last fall, she moved to Atlanta to pursue her music career more seriously.
A compliment she often hears, she said, is that “You sing like an African-American woman.” But she does not want to hear that. “You want people to say: ‘She can sing!’ ” Ms. Joy said. “ ‘Who cares what she is? She needs to be a star!’ ”
Phil Chen, 23, the lead singer of an all Chinese-American alternative punk rock band, 8PAST, in the San Francisco Bay area, said: “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after we play and they say, ‘I didn’t know what to expect with an Asian band.’ But they’re impressed. We’re not just kids who do math very well.”
Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up soon.
Natalise, a 22-year-old pop singer of Burmese and Chinese descent whose single “Love Goes On” was a local radio hit in 2002 while she attended Stanford University, has been able to parlay her forays into YouTube, MySpace and her own Web site (www.natalisemusic.com) into bigger exposure. She has had some of her songs, which she also writes, featured on local commercial radio and MTV shows like “Next” and “My Super Sweet 16.”
“I feel that we’re on the brink of something huge and it’s just a matter of time and effort,” said Natalise, who lives in Los Angeles and is recording her third album on her own label.
A talent executive with a major label who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for his company said he knew of no “inherent bias” against singers of Asian descent and said he was at a loss to explain why so few make it to the top. “It’s a matter of who contacts you, who gets representation, who builds a following, who’s out there playing clubs that people hear about,” he said.
Natalise’s manager, Andy Goldmark, said that Asian-Americans have lagged behind not because of discrimination but because they have yet to create their own popular music sound the way African-Americans and Latinos have.
“Asian-Americans have tended to follow what’s going in the pop world rather than use the Asian-American path to invent new things,” said Mr. Goldmark, a songwriter and music producer and a former vice president for talent at Jive Records.
He said many artists are beginning to find their voice and are incorporating Asian instruments into their music or writing lyrics that address issues like how Asian men feel about Asian women who date Caucasians.
But Asian-American artists face other challenges. Making up only 4 percent of the country’s population, they are too small a market, and too fragmented in language and nationalities, to offer a solid springboard for its aspiring stars the way other ethnic groups have done, said Oliver Wang, a music journalist who teaches about race and popular culture at California State University in Long Beach.
Similarly, there are limited marketing mechanisms at their disposal. “We don’t have BET,” said Mr. Hong of ImaginAsian. “We don’t have Telemundo, to have these artists be taken seriously.”
That is why the case of William Hung stings, some artists admitted. Of all the Asian-American singers trying to make it, the one who seemed to have no trouble finding the limelight was a comic figure. “For Asian-Americans it was a collective cringe,” said L. S. Kim, a professor of film and television studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
But Mr. Hung, 24, a Hong Kong native and an only child who lives with his parents in the Los Angeles area, takes exception to those who think he is a joke. And if he is a joke, he is at least a profitable one.
Since his brush with “American Idol,” he has put his engineering studies on hold to record three albums (with sales of 200,000, 35,000 and 7,000 units respectively) and perform at concerts, events and private and corporate parties. “I think I represent a symbol of hope,” Mr. Hung said in a telephone interview, explaining his appeal. “I tell people all the time to never give up and keep trying until they succeed.”
That is also the philosophy of the rapper Jin, who already has a name in hip-hop circles but is still aiming for the hit song that will propel him into the stratosphere. A 24-year-old who gained fame about five years ago by winning freestyle rap battles on BET, Jin (whose last name is Au-Yeung) was signed to the label Ruff Ryders but his album did not sell well. So he went back to basics, growing his fan base through the Internet and his own label. Recently, he released an album in Cantonese, “ABC,” in which he raps about being an American-born Chinese man.
“I just need to prove ‘This guy is hot,’ ” Jin, who lives in New York, said during a stopover in Los Angeles on his way to Beijing for a Chinese New Year’s performance last month. “If the music is incredible, it’s not tough to market it.”
Mr. Lee, who has found success elusive for more than 20 years even though he won “Fame,” is also hopeful. He still gets fan mail and takes dance classes three hours a day. “I’m just one story,” he said. “We need to keep knocking on those doors.”