Asian-American Artists Break Into Soul Music

African-American icons like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Mary J. Blige are often associated with soul music. Even some white artists have found success in this genre. But Asian-American soul artists have yet to break through into the mainstream. Host Allison Keyes talks with culture and music critic Oliver Wang about a number of soulful Asian singers who are trying to reverse that trend.

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(Soundbite of music)

ALLISON KEYES, host:

Say you're bopping around on YouTube and you might come across this.

(Soundbite of song, "Trust You")

Ms. HEATHER PARK (R&B singer): (Singing) I can't trust you. You are too smooth. So smooth. I can't be with you. No.

KEYES: That's Heather Park. She's sexy. She's soulful. And she just happens to be Korean. She's the latest in the tradition of Asian-American soul singers who are trying - so far, unsuccessfully - to break into mainstream music. That's her new single "Trust You."

Here to tell us more about what Asian-American singers face in the music business is Oliver Wang. He's a cultural critic and a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach. He joins us from member station KPCC in Pasadena.

Welcome, Oliver.

Professor OLIVER WANG (Sociology, California State University, Long Beach): Hey, good to be back.

KEYES: So tell us about this Heather Park and this sort of poppy reggae thing she has going. What kind of reception is she getting?

Prof. WANG: Apparently pretty good. I mean, at least in terms of an artist who has penetrated into the YouTube and Internet part of the market. She's gotten I think pretty good write-ups. She's definitely one of the names floating out there when people are looking for some new talents and that she's already at work with a new album.

KEYES: Well, Heather is certainly not the first Asian-American soul star hopeful. Back in the '80s there was Gerry Wu. Let's hear that "How Long" song of his.

(Soundbite of song, "How Long")

Mr. GERRY WU (Singer): (Singing) Why don't you tell me how long? I want to know. I can't wait forever. Tell me. How long, my love, must I keep holding on?

KEYES: Why am I thinking Tevin Campbell?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WANG: It was the '80s. That kind of R&B sound is certainly very distinct. And if you see the video that goes with it, then it absolutely has the '80s fashion on lock.

KEYES: I did. I was kind of amused by that. But is he still out there and is he still doing this?

Prof. WANG: He is, maybe not sounding still like Tevin Campbell but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WANG: Gerry's an interesting case because he originally won "Star Search" back when "Star Search" was that generation's "American Idol" and was signed to a major record deal and was able to put out a full-length album, which was really really unprecedented at the time. But his career never really got started. The album flopped. But he renamed himself as Harlemm Lee. That's Harlemm with two M.

KEYES: Come on. Really? Really?

Prof. WANG: And then went back on to another reality talent show, I forget which one, but won that show and then was able to sort of re-relaunch his singing career again. So he's still out there trying to do his thing.

KEYES: Okay. I don't even really have much to say about the whole Harlemm first name choice, but was he trying to appeal to the black audience there?

Prof. WANG: I'm not completely sure. If you know anything about Chinese-American and naming conventions, our parents oftentimes give our kids somewhat unconventional names, so I wouldn't necessarily say it...

KEYES: Well, so do we.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WANG: Yeah. Well, yeah.

KEYES: Meaning black people.

Prof. WANG: Yeah. I'm not sure if the Harlemm part was a utterly conscious attempt of appealing to black audiences, but it certainly was I think a way to get away from Gerry Wu and perhaps find a slightly more marketable nom de plume.

KEYES: I wonder if you think that Asian-American singers who are trying to break into soul feel that they have to appeal to an African-American audience. I mean thinking, well, if they're listening to Beyonce and I sound Beyonce-ish, will, they listen to me?

Prof. WANG: Well, I think it must be in the back of their heads on some level. I mean obviously, if you're trying to appeal to an R&B audience that audience has always had a crossover appeal. It's never been monoracial. That said, you are going to have in the back of your head that you are engaging in, you know, a black music form and that part of your audience is going to be African-American. And I think those considerations for any artists: black, white, Asian, you know, Latino or otherwise would be on their mind.

KEYES: You know, I'm reminded that there was the fabulous En Vogue, the quartet, back in the '90s and at the same time...

Prof. WANG: Yeah.

KEYES: ...there was that Pinay group bringing in a slightly more of a vanilla kind of vibe. Let's listen to their song, "I'm Going to Be Just Fine."

(Soundbite of "I'mma Be Just Fine")

PINAY (Group): (Singing) 'Cause I don't give a damn what they might say. Ain't no body gonna take my pride away. Ain't nobody gonna tell me how to live this life. I'm gonna find my own way. So go ahead and try to knock me down. Ain't nothing gonna keep me on the ground. I'll just pick myself right up and let my soul resound. So here I am and from...

KEYES: What kind of success did they have?

Prof. WANG: I first heard about them when they were first called the Pinay Divas and they later dropped the Divas part and just went to Pinay. I kind of liked it as the Pinay Divas. But any case...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WANG: You know, they were mostly local to the Bay Area, which is where they got their start.

KEYES: Okay.

Prof. WANG: They had, you know, a local following. But I think for like a lot of artists they start off with who they know and oftentimes that's trying to appeal to the community. Artists like Heather Park, there's another similar kind of more folksy soul male singer named Darwin(ph) and they have been very smart at using the Asian-American college circuit as a way to build an audience and develop some kind of outreach.

(Soundbite of music)

DARWIN (Singer): (Singing) Time will bring the real end of our trial. One day there'll be no remnants, no trace. No residual feelings within you. One day you won't remember me, yeah.

KEYES: Interesting. Who else is listening to them besides the college circuit?

Prof. WANG: Well, I think YouTube has certainly opened up the possibility of people and places outside of college campuses, outside of the U.S. even to get exposure to these artists. And they've certainly have been of the generation that have made good use of social networking in terms of space. But in MySpace is a way to develop the brand of putting music out there that otherwise wouldn't likely make its way to, you know, conventional radio or media outlets.

KEYES: In other words, the same thing that Indie bands are doing.

Prof. WANG: Yeah, exactly. And because and I think they realize that there is a certain kind of uphill battle for them. A, because they're new, like any new artist out and also because they are Asian and that there's going to be a certain amount of skepticism from mainstream audiences that these people can really sing, that they have the talent to be able to compete on the same ground. So, I don't think the Internet has quite equalized that playing ground, but it certainly has been an advantage that pervious generations of Asian-American singers have probably not have.

KEYES: Heather Park was saying, I read somewhere that she said she likes playing in front of Asian-American student groups because she thinks it changes the way that they themselves see artists so they don't think that they have to follow the unfortunate American stereotype that Asian-Americans have to all be doctors or lawyers or bankers. How much credence do you think that is?

Prof. WANG: I was having a conversation with the actor John Cho, who was in "Star Trek," is now on "Flash Forward."

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WANG: And he was remarking that for his generation of Korean-Americans growing up in the '80s - and John and I are the same generation - it was very unusual to see other examples of Asian-Americans performing. But for this new generation that someone like Heather Park would be a member of, you have exposure not just to sort of Asian-American media, but also for international media coming from Korea and Taiwan and China and Japan. That kids these days have so much more examples and role models of performers that it opens up this awareness that wow, there are these other paths that I can take. That entertainment can be a different kind of route and a different passion to pursue.

Whereas, I think for the people of my generation there just weren't as many, you know, role models out there to sort of inspire us or really just to give us that basic idea like, wow, this is possible. You can actually do this.

KEYES: Oliver Wang is cultural critic and a professor at Cal State Long Beach and the curator of the website Soul-Sides. Thanks a lot, Oliver.

Prof. WANG: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: That's our program for today. I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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