Bad Perms, Yellow Fever Dreams and Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling in Pop

Charlene Kaye (KAYE, San Fermin) talks Asian American visibility in the music industry.

When I was sixteen, I secretly permed my own hair at home [PSA: NEVER DO THIS]. My mom wouldn’t let me spend the money at a proper salon to have a professional do it — so I did it myself, thinking it couldn’t be TOO hard. It was an unequivocal disaster — the curls at the front were tight and rigid like Shirley Temple’s, and the curls in the back were flaccid at best. I had a mullet, not unlike A.C. Slater’s from Saved by the Bell. I remember throwing myself onto the tiled bathroom floor and crying in frustration. The $10 perm kit was tossed aside, the pretty windswept model on the box tilting her head back in a silent judgment of my DIY fail.

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Although I never would have admitted it at the time, perming my hair was just one symptom of many attempts to gloss over my “Asian-ness” in my youth. I had gone to elementary schools in Singapore, Hong Kong and Hawaii, all of which had significant Asian representation — but as one of the only Asians at a mostly white middle school in Arizona, I became aware of stereotypes, from the first time I was called “chink” to the time a boy tried to get my attention by yelling, “Hey, China girl!” across the hall.

At that, I did a double take. Could it be that even though I was born in America and spoke perfect English I looked like I was from China?

I realized that I was different, and I desperately wanted to fit in. I curled and dyed and crimped my hair — anything to keep it from looking straight and black. I applied copious amounts of eye makeup in an attempt to make my eyes look bigger, only it had the unfortunate effect of making me look like a raccoon. Unsurprisingly, no boys liked me, and I had trouble making friends because I was so concerned about how others perceived me that I had muffled any true sense of myself. My mom, a first-generation Chinese American, balked at my self-sabotage. “Have you no pride for your culture? You should be grateful for what you’ve got!” she’d say.

After high school, I went to college at University of Michigan. I made strong friendships with people from all walks of life — not only other Asian Americans, but kids who were East Asian, South Asian, black, white, Hispanic and more. People who, like me, dreamed of being artists and making an impact with our work. I had fallen in love with music at an early age and played guitar for hours in my bedroom as a kid, but at college, it became obvious that music was all I wanted to do. I became enveloped in a vibrant community of musicians, wrote and recorded my first album, and played shows constantly.

‘So, do you play electric or acoustic violin?’ is a question I’m often asked by sound technicians

After graduation, a handful of musician friends and I caravanned from Michigan to New York City, and I reveled in starting the next phase of my life in such a multicultural and progressive place. I released my second solo album in 2012, Animal Love, and I joined the band San Fermin on lead vocals, touring all the while. Those years traveling around the country made it apparent that my experience growing up in Phoenix — being a minority in a predominantly white culture — was just a microcosm for what the broader perception of Asians in pop music was in America.

“So, do you play electric or acoustic violin?” is a question I’m often asked by sound technicians when they see our stage plot, much to the amusement/chagrin of my band mates and me.

Another time, a man came up to me in a bar, grabbed my hand and said warmly, “I saw your show tonight. You’re a fantastic singer. I just wanted you to know that you bring GREAT honor and glory to your people.” That actually happened.

When someone immediately assumes I am the violin player of the band, it tells me that it didn’t even occur to them that an Asian person could be the lead singer — they must be the classically trained violinist who trained for hours as a child at their Tiger Mom’s behest. And when someone shows me that their knowledge of Asian people comes solely from what they saw in Mulan, it speaks volumes about our invisibility. Their minds jump to stereotypes.

But how can I blame them when the examples of Asians they see in pop music are of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls, who followed Gwen everywhere and only spoke Japanese in public? Or of Katy Perry’s geisha-inspired dancers at the 2013 AMAs (some of whom were white women in kimonos and makeup that made their eyes look more slanted), ordered to giggle behind their fans and shuffle around daintily behind her?

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Margaret Cho lamented how few portrayals of Asian culture there were in popular culture in a blog post from 2005, which is still sadly relevant:

“America is supposed to be for everyone, and people are supposed to treat me like I belong here, and yet you would never know that from watching tv or movies…I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.”

I feel that hurt every time I see examples of our erasure in Hollywood. Like many Asian Americans I know, I was frustrated by white actresses Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone being cast as Asian characters (for Ghost in the Shell and Aloha, respectively) and too many other examples. This is why I was so happy when Fresh off the Boat arrived (finally, a family who looked like mine!) — the first primetime comedy starring an Asian American family as protagonists since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl, which aired for one season in 1994. Both Constance Wu and Aziz Ansari have used their platforms to be wonderfully outspoken about Asian visibility and whitewashing in Hollywood. Articles regarding Asian discrimination in the workplace, also known as “breaking the bamboo ceiling,” have been discussed at length in publications such as The Atlantic. So why not carry the conversation over to the music industry as well?

How many Asian American pop/rock artists can you name?

How many Asian American pop/rock artists can you name? Have any ascended the ranks to become a pop icon like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry or Beyoncé, or a rock icon like Jack White or Mick Jagger? Why is the prospect so unbelievable? Does white America find Asian faces less relatable, more foreign, more “other?” Korean, Japanese and Chinese pop stars are embraced within their own countries, but rarely find crossover success in America. Could it be that here, to a certain extent, we are viewed as that boy in middle school viewed me — nothing more than “China girl?”

President Obama, in a moving speech on feminism at the United State of Women Summit, encouraged the media to depict women more in positions of power and in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] because “it’s hard to be what you don’t see.” I recently gave an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition discussing how that idea is equally relevant to Asian visibility, and that as a young girl, I was excited about Asian musicians such as Michelle Branch and Mike Shinoda because it was encouraging to see someone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do. After the interview aired, I was promptly trolled by a user who dubbed himself “Concerned Patriotic White Guy” telling me to stop victimizing myself because “Asians are the strongest best stand-out sub-group today…who showed the first person to do anything how to do it? Is there an award for worst thing to cry about?”

If you never see any Asian people, all you may know are stereotypes in movies — which, unfortunately for us, are mostly negative ones.

But when you’re young, WHAT YOU SEE MATTERS. Visibility matters, because without knowing someone of a different race or background, the mind jumps to familiar molds and tries to formulate a perception of that person according to what you think you know. And if you never see any Asian people, all you may know are stereotypes in movies — which, unfortunately for us, are mostly negative ones. The model minority nerd/geek, the foreign exchange student whose accent is used for comic relief and the wise elder spouting fortune cookie wisdom are all-too-familiar Hollywood tropes that imply Asians are subordinate to the white characters and only exist to support their stories. Likewise, when Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry use silent, giggling Asian women (or, white women dressed as Asians) as props at award shows, it sends a message that we are an exotic novelty, meant to help tell the stories of white women — but not our own.

In a time when black people are being profiled and killed by police in staggering numbers, and when people such as Donald Trump aim to stoke fear and xenophobia between races and faiths, it’s never been more important to try to see each other as humans, the capable and complex creatures that we are, not stereotypes.

I’m fired up about Asian American musicians such as Awkwafina, Mitski, Jhene Aiko, Sameer Gadhia (of Young the Giant) and more who are redefining what it means to be a pop star in this day and age. But until the term “Asian American musician” is no longer a novelty, and I see more Asian Americans on the charts, in leading Hollywood roles, in music festival headlining slots, I remain determined as ever to fight for our visibility. I challenge those in power in the music industry to be more progressive with their festival lineups, with their label signings, with their playlist curations.

Because, otherwise, there will be more young Asian girls who resort to giving themselves cheap, awful perms in a secret attempt to erase their “Asian-ness.” And there will be more young Asian kids ashamed of their culture, feeling like they need to change who they are to fit someone else’s definition of “American.” In a perfect world, we could all do what that troll said, and just do it first without anyone showing us how. But how much more likely is it that we all could achieve our dreams, if we saw that doing so was possible to begin with?

As frontwoman of the critically acclaimed New York-based group San Fermin, Charlene Kaye has played network television and has toured with St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, alt-J and others. She recently released her debut solo EP Honey as —a five-song introduction to the next phase in her evolution as a songwriter and powerhousesinger. It earned praise from NPR, Stereogum, NYLON, Billboard and more.