Oh, South by Southwest! Where to even begin? After years of envying regular SXSW festival-goers, I finally decided to book my own ticket to Austin and see what all the hype was about. This ain’t my first rodeo (sorry, I just had to) – this wasn’t my first time in Texas, but it was my first time in the city of Austin, aka, the Live Music Capital of the World. The city definitely lives up to its title – not only because of SXSW. Almost every bar in downtown seemingly has a stage for local artists to perform on a daily basis. And of course, there’s the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival (another event on my bucket list).
As I walked the streets of downtown Austin during SXSW, I could hear music blaring in all the different bars and music venues, including Lady Bird Lake, The Mohawk and the famous Moody Theater. I felt like I was walking through a thick cloud of musical bliss. While many experienced SXSW-goers wore earplugs, I fully soaked in the glorious vibrations of loudness, despite the risk of being half-deaf by the end of the week. I was too darn excited to care.
One of my objectives for visiting SXSW this particular year was to support the rapidly growing Asian American music community. In fact, Kollaboration hosted the festival’s first official Asian American showcase. It was a historic night. Held at Lambert’s BBQ, the showcase boasted an impressive roster of performers including Megan Lee, Big Phony, St. Lenox, Melissa Polinar and Run River North. The artists didn’t disappoint. Each and every one of them delivered an explosive performance. Hopefully this will be the first of many SXSW showcases of its kind. Asian American artists are grossly underrepresented in the music industry, but it’s only a matter of time before their talent is recognized and further spotlighted.
Real quick, I just want to mention that there is a distinction between Asian American and Asian musicians. Sure, SXSW hosted Asian showcases before, including K-Pop Night Out and Japan Nite. But K-Pop and J-Pop are its own genres. These singers are – for the most part – flown in from their respective countries and mostly perform in their native languages. Asian American musicians were raised in the States, and just like any other American artist, possess some serious musical talent. They just happen to have an Asian face. Unfortunately, as Kollaboration Executive Director Minji Chang says in a recent LA 18 interview, despite Asian American artists having an enormous amount of talent, the American music industry still find it challenging to sign artists of Asian descent. This still baffles me, as it should baffle you.
We are definitely making strides, though. Take Run River North for instance. No one can deny that this Korean American folk-rock band, led by frontman Alex Hwang, is extremely gifted. I’ve followed them since their early days of filming music videos in their Honda, and watched in awe as they performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and toured with the Goo Goo Dolls. The band performed at multiple venues at SXSW this year, and I witnessed firsthand as people in the crowd – mostly RRN virgins – danced and bopped their heads to their music, exclaiming something along the lines of “they are AMAZING – who are they?!”. I saw dozens pull out their phones, not just to take videos and pictures of the band, but to Google them. They wanted to know more. They wanted to hear more.
Another phenomenal band at SX this year was the Oakland-based band Trace Repeat. The six-piece soul-funk band got people tapping their feet and dancing away on the night of St. Patrick’s Day in Darwin’s Pub on Sixth Street (aka “Dirty Sixth”). The band is fronted by two Asian Americans, Wesley Woo and Zach Hing. Trace Repeat aims to defeat the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in the media – Asian men in particular. Most Asian men in American media are portrayed as a “sidekick” or “geek”. Gotta say, they are doing an excellent job of steering away from these stereotypes. The band’s performance that night was sexy, captivating, powerful… and their presence on stage was definitely swoon-worthy.
I found myself still humming along to Trace Repeat as I exited the pub and joined the apocalyptic zombie walk on Sixth toward the Red River district. It was past midnight, but music was still blaring from every direction. My throat felt scratchy from all the screaming. There was a slight buzz in my left ear. My feet were probably hurting a bit. Despite all this, I never felt more alive. I felt an enormous amount of hope and contentment to witness Asian American artists shining their light and doing what they do best at SXSW. The talent is definitely there – it’s just waiting to be discovered. Again, it’s only a matter of time.
By Cindy J. Lee · Contributor