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With 'a bit of luck' and years of work, Asian-American music shined in 2018

"It’s amazing and incredible. More so, this year was long overdue for the Asian-American creative community."
Image: Mitski performs in London on Sept. 26, 2018.
Mitski performs in London on Sept. 26, 2018.Lorne Thomson / Redferns

With the successes of “Crazy Rich Asians,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Killing Eve” among others, Asian Americans have found success on the big screen this year. But 2018 was also a big year for Asian Americans in the music industry too: There's New York indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki, whose latest album "Be the Cowboy has been praised for resonating with thousands.

Then there's Jay Park, formerly of K-pop band 2AM and the first Asian-American artist signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation. His new project, "Ask Bout Me" features collaborations with 2 Chainz and Vic Mensa.

And Hayley Kiyoko, whose fans have called her “Lesbian Jesus.” The singer and actress released her debut LP, “Expectations,” in March. “Billboardnamed her this year’s “Rising Star” during the magazine’s Women in Music awards due in part to her by coining “#20GayTeen” on social media and directing music videos that spotlight same-sex relationships.

“It’s definitely a combination of multiple of things that happened in the same year,” Richie Menchavez, founder of Traktivist Radio, which spotlights Asian-American musicians, said. “It’s definitely a bit of luck, but it’s definitely the result of just years and years of people’s work here in the United States, Canada and just globally. It’s not like the music hasn’t been there before. And it’s not like Asian Americans haven’t been creating great content. … 2018 was just a big visible year.”

When music becomes more than just song

Like Kiyoko, Connie Lim’s music as MILCK has found a place in the women’s rights and mental health spheres. At the beginning of the year, Lim released “This is Not the End,” a single. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter said she often gets messages from fans about the song sharing their connection to its message about self-care and perseverance.

“Every time I get those messages, I find myself tearing up from the pain that these people feel, but also from the power of music,” Lim said. “I am honored to share music that comes through me to help people keep fighting in this dimension.”

Image: MILCK performs on stage during the 6th Annual Save the Children Illumination Gala in New York on Nov. 14, 2018.
MILCK performs on stage during the 6th Annual Save the Children Illumination Gala in New York on Nov. 14, 2018.Noam Galai / Getty Images for Save The Children

At The 2018 ESPY Awards in July, Lim performed her hit song, “Quiet,” as survivors of Larry Nassar walked onstage to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

“To be onstage with my sisters and brother who had been harassed by Larry Nassar was a career highlight for a lifetime,” Lim said. “As songwriters, we hope that our lyrics and melodies will be used to empower other people’s stories, and this was one of those pinnacle moments. It’s my dream come true to see 'Quiet' serve others in such a powerful and significant way.”

While Lim has inspired others, she said she looks at how other Asian-American artists, including Mitski, Awkwafina and Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, for inspiration.

Image: Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas on Oct. 6, 2018.
Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas on Oct. 6, 2018.Jack Plunkett / Invision / AP file

Among indie rock lovers and critics, Zauner’s music found acclaim after she released “Psychopomp” in 2016. The release of “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” last year landed the Philadelphia artist in prime slots on the 2018 music festival circuit, including at Coachella, Austin City Limits and Sasquatch in Washington state. She also published an essay about her experience with race centered around H Mart in The New Yorker in August, which she said she is expanding into a book.

“Every year I just keep waiting for the trap door to open and this industry to spit out, but things miraculously just keep on getting better,” Zauner said. “I'm just holding onto my career as an artist for dear life, working as hard as I can, producing honest work for as long as people will have me and are interested in what I do.”

When critical acclaim turns into award nominations

For many artists, longevity is the symbol of success. And with 15 years in the music industry, Ramon Ibanga Jr., who produces music as Illmind, fits that bill. He has produced hundreds of tracks for a variety of artists including J. Cole, 50 Cent and Lin-Manuel Miranda. 2018 was also big year for Ibanga, who received three Grammy nominations for his work on Drake’s “Scorpion,” the “Black Panther” soundtrack and “Heard About Us,” a song off Jay Z and Beyoncé’s collaborative LP, “Everything is Love.”

While he’s been part of the music industry for a while, he notes that being an Asian-American producer came with its own challenges.

“We are, by default, underdogs in a sense, especially in the arts,” Ibanga said. “I think we've always been hard working and creative and artistic. With the power of the internet and where pop culture is headed, more people are open minded to different types of art, whether that's in music, fashion or anything creative.”

Jennifer Lee, who produces music as Tokimonsta, also scored a Grammy nod in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category for her 2017 album, “Lune Rouge,” her first release since recovering from two brain surgeries in January 2016 after being diagnosed with a rare cerebrovascular disorder called Moyamoya.

“I woke up Friday morning a little hungover, extremely frantic because I had not packed for my show in Honolulu, and the flight was in two hours,” she said. “Then that’s when I saw my phone had a ton of texts congratulating me on my Grammy nom.”

Image: DJ TOKiMONSTA performs onstage at Coachella in 2016.
DJ TOKiMONSTA performs onstage at Coachella in 2016.Michael Tullberg / Getty Images file

The nomination makes her the first female and Asian American producer to receive a nomination in the electronic music category. And the Los Angeles producer is proud to be a part of Asian Americans’ growing visibility in music.

"It’s amazing and incredible,” she said. “More so, this year was long overdue for the Asian-American creative community."

“Artistic talent exists amongst all peoples, but success is where minorities can struggle,” Lee added. “This is not because of our lack of drive, but rather the society we are in. As we change the views of Asians in western society, we will have more opportunities to thrive.”

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