October 08

Anti-Asian-American Bias in Indie Music Journalism

The question I initially asked was whether St. Lenox had any competition in terms of critically acclaimed male Asian-American indie music acts in the United States. Hypothetically not a difficult task, since the indie category is so freakin broad as to render it not really a genre. In this case, the requirements are (1) Asian-American (i.e. not from Asia), (2) male (3) the act must be prominently Asian-American (as in it must be fronted by an Asian-American), (4) released a record in the past say three years, and (5) the album was reviewed in relatively prominent Metacritic or Album Of the Year (AOTY) outlets (a “premiere” or “interview” does not count – it must be an official bona fide review of the record).

I tackled the question with the help of several college radio DJs and some music writers who follow Asian-American music acts. The two names that popped up were St. Lenox (of course I had asked the question) and Kishi Bashi. And finally after some additional research, Dustin Wong (on Thrill Jockey). (please let me know if you can think of others who fit the above requirements!).

Other candidates were easy to exclude. BTS is neither indie nor Asian-American. Heem is Asian-American but is squarely a rapper. Anderson Paak is squarely hip-hop/rap. Some acts were both Asian-American and indie but have not had any real review in music outlets of note. There were a few acts (Seam and James Iha) who were prominent at some point but have not released any music in quite a few years. There were some acts that had been more prominently featured, but whose coverage has not been as prominent in recent years.

One writer commented, “Wow. I can’t believe how difficult that was.”

Of course there are a small number of Asian-American women that have had some success (and who undoubtedly deserve more). Most notably Mitski and Jay Som. And that is amazing, though there should be even more coverage of Asian-American women as well.

I think too often the sentiment – and it was even directly communicated to me by a music press industry person – is that if an outlet covers an act from Asia, that satisfies the diversity requirement, so that’s okay. Of course, this is just expressly a statement that it’s okay to define “American” as “white country”, an accidentally super awkward endorsement of American white supremacy. This awkward supremacy is what resulted in SXSW finally having an official showcase specifically for Asian-American acts.

I was trying to explain the contours of discrimination against both Asian-American men and women to someone, and pointed out how the pattern mirrors what happens in the movie industry. There’s probably somewhat more representation for Asian-American women, and the representation is skewed in interesting and deeply psychological ways. We all remember the live crashing of an interview on the BBC, where viewers inordinately assumed that the Asian woman who darted in to take the kids was a nanny instead of the interviewee’s wife. That indicated some really terrible things about white people’s conception of Asian-American (er Asian-British?) women. Asian-American men tend to be portrayed as doctors in commercials (though this is slowly changing), or via uncomfortable caricatures. Of course more recently, the disgraced Shane Gillis expressed his observtion that American audiences still consider it okay to ridicule Asian people as a form of entertainment. It is impossible for music writers to fully separate themselves from these biases, and they are responsible to actively monitor and address them.

Returning back to the original question, I won’t get into the full psychology of the American music media’s awkward racial stereotyping – though it’s pretty apparent through the history of indie music that the industry has internalized white male privilege and has difficulties shaking off that posture, no matter how many one-off self-calling-out articles it chooses to publish. I only add that the pattern of biases is ultimately an expression of the discomfort that white men and their institutions have with diversity. And they should get the fuck over it.

It just feels a little strange that the extent of white supremacy in music journalism is so great that a lowly attorney is required to emerge from his office every few years, a la Kung Fu Hustle, to help secure coverage for the male Asian-American contingent. Surely Kishi Bashi, St. Lenox and Dustin Wong deserve more coverage in prominent outlets, and surely there are many other Asian-American musicians, both men and women, who deserve the same coverage as well. The numbers speak for themselves.