Black and Asian singers who are bridging genre, culture, and audience
In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Black Lives matter, Michelle Yuen is highlighting the work of four incredibly talented Black and Asian singers, whose creative work speaks to and is informed by their mixed identities.
Guest post by Michelle Yuen of Chartmetric
GIF Source: 88rising’s Asia Rising Together live stream
Editor’s Note: The focus in the US this past month has been on highlighting Asians, Pacific Islanders, and their heritage, but in general there has also been a lot of discussion lately both within and around Black and Asian communities as individual and united entities. In light of these ongoing conversations, we wanted to spotlight several artists that are of — and continue to represent their identities through — both of these diasporas.
So, in recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Chartmetric continues its year of honoring Black artists in the context of what we normally do: nerd out on music, data, and culture.
Never let nobody tell you that you can’t do it because it can be done. — Thomas Jeff Reid to Natasha Shanta Reid, aka Yoon Mi-rae
Culture can be defined as a group identity based on a shared set of values and behaviors, but it is also a dynamic concept that evolves over time according to social and environmental changes. For example, Jazz is considered to be a distinctly American genre, Reggae is practically synonymous with Jamaica, Afrobeat was coined by its pioneer Fela Kuti in part to distinguish his distinctly West African sound, and Grime is heavily influenced by the Black British experience. Ultimately, each of these genres all stem from and speak to various representations of Black culture.
This should be no less true for those who are biracial or multiracial than for those who are monoracial. People of mixed races and heritages can face challenges regarding identity due to both external and sometimes self-imposed feelings of inadequacy. Belonging to multiple cultures can often leave biracial people feeling like they belong to none.
However, just because there has traditionally been less awareness and representation of biracial identities doesn’t mean that Black and Asian artists aren’t there. In fact, Crystal Kay, Yoon Mirae, UMI and Joyce Wrice are just a few who continue to blaze trails while championing their mixed heritage.
If you enjoy R&B and Japanese Pop music, you may have already heard of Crystal Kay. Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, Kay is the daughter of a professional singer of Korean heritage and a Black US Navy sailor who was stationed directly south of Yokohama in Yokosuka. Growing up, Kay attended school at a military base in Yokosuka and was generally surrounded by children with similar backgrounds to her. However, as her image became more public after her 1999 debut in the Japanese music industry, 13-year-old Kay was increasingly subjected to online bullying and racism as she neither looked nor sounded like the local J-Pop acts that were popular back then.
Despite the negativity and discrimination, Kay continued to face throughout her career, she soldiered on. Today, Kay has released a total of 13 albums with songs in both English and Japanese. Three of her albums have reached the Top 5 on the Japanese Oricon Chart, and her seventh album, All Yours, debuted at No. 1 in 2007. Though Kay hasn’t been enjoying quite the same career highs recently, she is clearly still very well-loved in Japan with 38M plays ranking her at 82nd on local streaming service Line Music. Her Top 5 cities by Spotify Monthly Listeners (MLs) are unsurprisingly all in Japan, while 61.1 and 26.9 percent of her Instagram and YouTube followers, respectively, are also located in the land of the rising sun.
Kay may not have been what the domestic music market thought they wanted, but she nevertheless cemented herself as an inspiring figure to follow. While she is clearly a Japanese artist, Kay also has every reason to take pride in being a Black woman, as she stated in her fourth most-liked Instagram post on June 7, 2020. Her successful breakthrough has since lit the way for more multiracial artists in Japan including J-Pop/R&B songstress Thelma Aoyama and the more traditional Enka singer Jero.
Born in Fort Hood, Texas, to a South Korean mother and a Black father, rapper and singer Yoon Mi-rae was also given the name Natasha Shanta Reid. Though her family often moved around due to her father’s military service, when they eventually settled in South Korea, Yoon had a hard time fitting in. Ostracized in Korea for being too dark and too foreign, just as she was discriminated against in the US for not being Black enough, Yoon nevertheless found her place through Hip-Hop/Rap and R&B — music from the culture of her African-American father.
Though Yoon was talented, she faced racist and discriminatory challenges when she tried to get her start in the Korean music industry. As she rapped about in “Black Happiness (검은 행복)”, a song off of her 2007 album t3 YOONMIRAE, Yoon was pressured to wear white make-up and cover up her Black heritage to appeal more to the domestic public.
Today, however, Yoon has come to fully showcase both sides of her heritage and, in doing so, carved an unparalleled path for herself, particularly in South Korea. As Tasha or “T” and one-third of the Korean Hip-Hop trio MFBTY, Yoon is locally recognized as South Korea’s greatest female rapper and first female emcee. As the solo ballad crooner Yoon Mi-rae, her passion for soulful R&B intertwines with the emotional lyrics that so often underlie Korean Original Soundtracks (OSTs), creating a sound that is uniquely Yoon’s.
This has garnered her 100M+ streams on Spotify, one of the most-Shazamed (163K+) tracks from popular Netflix Korean drama Crash Landing on You, and an Instagram following that is 60.1 percent Asian, the majority (27.4 percent) of which are located in South Korea. On May 26, 2021, she performed “Black Happiness” at Asia Rising Together, 88rising’s live stream celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander heritage and fundraising in support of the Asian Mental Health Collective. Yoon’s Instagram posts on both her Korean OSTs and her Hip-Hop projects, as well as the different ways she presents herself, only emphasize how she continues to show up for both of her cultures and her fans love her all the more for it.
Joyce Wrice & UMI
Los Angeles-based 28-year-old Joyce Wrice originally hails from San Diego, and this R&B songstress also has Black and Japanese parents. Growing up, however, Wrice was constantly surrounded and embraced by both cultures and the open-mindedness that her upbringing fostered reflects in her solid connection with fans of all ethnicities — particularly her own. Her Instagram following is 32.4 percent African-American and 24.1 percent Asian, and the US and Japan are also in her Top 3 countries. While Wrice has yet to release any fully Japanese tracks, she did collaborate with UMI on a Japanese remix of her 2020 track “That’s On You” and has mentioned future plans to work with Crystal Kay and incorporate more Japanese lyrics in her work.
Known mononymously as UMI, Tierra Umi Wilson is a 22-year-old R&B singer born to Japanese and Black parents in Seattle, Washington. Though her music is often described as Neo-Soul and R&B, UMI also grew up listening to J-Pop and Japanese Jazz, both of which also influence her artistry today. Her 2019 EP Love Language — in particular the mostly-Japanese track “Sukidakara” — is the clearest example of an ode to her multicultural heritage. UMI’s belief that the emotions and energy of music transcend language and cultural differences is reflected in her 34.4 percent African-American and 18.4 percent Asian Instagram audience and her YouTube following that, though 37.6 percent are based in the US, also stretches around the world to Southeast, East, and South Asia (14.4 percent, collectively).
Both Wrice and UMI are part of a newer wave of artists that are more ready and able to embody their multicultural identities from the beginning of their careers. Through music, they are demonstrating that not only is it possible to be multiracial, but that we should celebrate the breaking down of barriers and the building up of cross-cultural connections.
Why Representation Matters
Crystal Kay, Yoon Mi-rae, UMI, and Joyce Wrice are just a few of the many Black and Asian artists — and people — out there. Multicultural identities do not automatically erase racism, but Kay and Yoon have shown that it is possible to embrace Black culture in countries that have been traditionally unwelcoming to it. Their perseverance and determination has not only paid off with commercial success, but also with influence and representation that has opened up pathways for newer artists like UMI and Wrice to make their voices heard in both, if not all, cultures.
As genres continue to blend and music grows progressively more global, the artists that represent these communities and the audiences they appeal to have rightfully also become more diverse. As long as culture and heritage is personified genuinely and organically, artists who are part of multiple, and especially marginalized, communities can and should be able to speak up for themselves and their backgrounds. Whether an artist is Black in a predominantly Asian culture or Asian in a predominantly Black culture, each ultimately contributes their unique experience to the overall fabric of Black and Asian heritage and should be embraced as such.
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