KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Filmmakers and musicians and tech folks are back at home after last week's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. That's the huge international tech conference and film fest that started as a music festival 30 years ago. And just like every year, musicians played throughout the week. But for the first time in South By's history, one of this year's showcases featured exclusively Asian-American musicians. NPR's Mallory Yu was in the audience and brought home this report.
MELISSA POLINAR: (Singing) Still drink one more (ph).
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: It's a warm Thursday night in Austin. Filipino singer-songwriter Melissa Polinar stands on a small raised stage in the upstairs lounge of a barbecue restaurant playing her acoustic guitar for a small group of people.
POLINAR: Thank you so much.
YU: The atmosphere is warm and friendly as she finishes her midnight set.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We love you.
YU: People mill around the room, drinks in their hands, as they wait for the last band of the night to play. The singer-songwriter Reonda, who performed earlier in the night, walks around the room taking photos. This is her first time at South by Southwest. And she's really grateful to Kollaboration - that's Kollaboration with a K - for the opportunity to play. The group hosted the showcase.
REONDA: Without them, I wouldn't be here. Yeah. I mean, I think South By is diverse. Like, they had Japan Night, Taiwan Night. But there was never anything for Asian-American, which is kind of - I don't know why that was missing.
YU: That's not to say that Asian-American artists haven't ever performed at South by Southwest, it's just that they haven't been highlighted in this way. That's exactly what Kollaboration was looking to change. They're a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that supports Asian-American creatives, comedians, musicians, actors. Minji Chang is Kollaboration's global executive director.
MINJI CHANG: There has been a very long-standing history of invisibility and narrow representations of Asian-Americans in media.
YU: Chang says that in 2015, her first year at South by Southwest, she found herself attending a panel of music label executives. During the Q&A portion, she got up and asked a question.
CHANG: Have you ever signed an Asian-American artist? And there's a little bit of an awkward pause.
YU: She was told by one of the executives that he had noticed Asian-American musicians with huge followings on YouTube. But he said it ultimately came down to one thing.
CHANG: I don't know how we could make this work. I don't know what to do with them. That's the way it is in 2015, but it still feels like a risk. And then it was just like OK, I'll be back because we have so many amazing Asian-American artists. And this is bananas.
YU: Chang jokes that her goal is to work herself out of a job.
CHANG: It'd be nice if you don't look at an Asian-American artist and go, like, I don't know what to do with you. Like, you can just kind of say all right, perform for me. Let's hear what you got. And then we'll go from there. The art should be what it is.
ALEX HWANG: Our Asianness (ph) is something that we can't not be. But as a band, that shouldn't be what we're about it. We should have good music for you to listen to.
YU: That's Alex Hwang, the lead singer of Run River North, an indie rock band with members who all happen to be Korean-American. The band has a solid following. And as they set up their equipment and run through a sound check, the room gradually fills with both Asian and non-Asian fans like Josh Thomas and Andrew Ramirez.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Their sound is pretty unique. And I don't know, I just love the way they sound. We've seen them live twice. And they put on a great show.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Let's please give it up for Run River North.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR RIFF)
YU: It's past 1 in the morning when Run River North starts their set, but the crowd's enthusiasm never flags.
RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) I know the shadows are the only ones.
YU: By 2 a.m. as they're wrapping up, the focus isn't only on their identities as Asian-Americans. It's also, at this point, mostly about the music.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Encore. Encore. Encore. Encore.
YU: Mallory Yu, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "29")
RUN RIVER NORTH: (Singing) And my eyes were the first to find 29 in the middle of the night. Words in my head to sleep keep me up until the body disagrees, keep me up until the body disagrees, keep me up until the body disagrees, keep me up until the body disagrees, keep me up until the body disagrees.
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