Music Music and Asian America
Lei Ouyang, Leigh Tooker, Lesia Liao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0319


Studying and researching music in Asian America requires simultaneous attention to people, process, sound, and place. The term “Asian American music” is embraced by some and rejected by others because of the limitations of the term and the questions that can arise from such labels. How can a term be utilized and understood if it speaks at different times and instances to the people making the music, the place where music making occurs, and the musical sounds invoked, and yet other times because of the processes involved in the music making? (See Deborah Wong, Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music [London: Profile, 2004] and Joseph S. C. Lam, “Embracing ‘Asian American Music’ as an Heuristic Device,” Journal of Asian American Studies 2, no. 1 [1999]: 29–50.) The first four sections (Theorizing Music and Asian America, Edited Volumes, Reference Works and Online Resources) are presented as one proposed entry point into the scholarship on music of and in Asian America and include a variety of content, theoretical approaches, and questions. The remaining sections are presented as merely one possible categorization of sources through the paths of landmarks, sounds, and communities. Landmarks in Asian America includes three examples of critical issues facing Asian American communities such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans, centrality of Chinatowns across North America as historical sites of cultural production, and diaspora as historical and contemporary sites across Asia and Asian America. Sounds of Asian America take specific musical genres into focus, and additionally, Communities of Asian America forefronts distinct ethnic groups within Asian American communities. These sections appear as such to facilitate access and inquiry but should be understood as fluid categorizations that can be moved around in endless configurations depending on one’s lens (and purpose) of inquiry. Sources are not intended to be comprehensive but representative and selected for this particular collection. Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and West Asians are historically marginalized or rendered invisible in many comprehensive works on Asian America; they each maintain distinct historical and contemporary positioning that merit independent entries and thus the current article is deliberately limited in scope with a focus on processes of East, South, and Southeast Asian Americans making music. The vast majority of sources are specific to the United States though discussions of Asian Canadian musics may also be found in numerous sources.

Theorizing Music and Asian America

Wong 2004 and Wang 2014 provide book-length inquiries that each include a wide range of diverse ethnic groups, musical genres, and theoretical questions. Journal articles Lam 1999 and Wang 2001 offer instructive entries to the leading questions in studying music and Asian America, with Wang 2001 providing keen entry into understanding popular music in particular. Roberts 2016 is an innovative examination of Afro-Asian artistic artists and their works. Chin, et al. 2000 provides a conceptual framework for understanding cultural production within a broader lens of Asian American studies that is directly relevant, but not limited to, the study of music.

  • Chin, Soo-Young, Peter X. Feng, and Josephine Lee. “Asian American Cultural Production.” In Special Issue: Asian American Cultural Production. Edited by Soo-Young Chin, Peter X. Feng, and Josephine Lee. Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000): 269–282.

    DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2000.0030

    Guest editors’ introduction to a special issue examining “culture as performance” through three case studies on theater, sports, and hip-hop. The inter- and multidisciplinary approaches vary in content and approach. Chin, Feng, and Lee ask, “Who is producing what for whom and why?” as a framing question to understand culture in 2000 as distinctly emerging, and diverging, from earlier periods in Asian American scholarship.

  • Lam, Joseph S. C. “Embracing ‘Asian American Music’ as an Heuristic Device.” Journal of Asian American Studies 2.1 (1999): 29–60.

    DOI: 10.1353/jaas.1999.0008

    Detailed examination of the term “Asian American music”; how/why/when it may be rejected and accepted. Consideration of both “sonic and non-sonic particularities” (p. 30) and clear outline of problems that arise. Ultimately considers the term “is needed” (though with careful consideration) to legitimize, bring visibility, and to better understand music and performance in Asian America and by Asian Americans. Five short examples as illustration of the proposed model.

  • Roberts, Tamara. Resounding Afro Asia: Interracial Music and the Politics of Collaboration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199377404.001.0001

    Innovative book with attention to Afro-Asian performances, interracial music, and inter-minority racial politics. Theorizes sound, race, the body, and interracial collaborations through concepts of “sono-racialization,” “sono-racial collaboration,” and “body-culture determinism.” Case studies all based in the United States and include musical genres of jazz, blues, Indian folk, Indian classical, reggae, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and Bollywood. Featuring artists Yoko Noge and Fred Ho and groups including Jazz Me Blues, Funkadesi, Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, Truth Hurts, and Red Baraat.

  • Wang, Grace. Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822376088

    Explores how Asian Americans use music to create narratives of self, race, class, and belonging. Racial difference as something that is not only seen, but also heard. Examines how race matters and operates in the practice, reception, and institutions of music making through focus on primarily East Asian Americans in Western art music.

  • Wang, Oliver. “Between the Notes: Finding Asian Americans in Popular Music.” American Music 19.4 (2001): 439–465.

    DOI: 10.2307/3052420

    Study of how analyzing popular music and popular culture are critical components in understanding Asian American history; social, political, and cultural identity; and its relationship to the national/cultural symbol of “America.” Music is a site where Asian Americans can negotiate the meanings of ethnic and personal identity. With a detailed history of Asian Americans, an informative starting point for further research and discussion of Asian Americans and music.

  • Wong, Deborah. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203497272

    Groundbreaking monograph presenting a theoretical framework for the consideration of Asian Americans making music with an emphasis on processes as opposed to categories. Wong raises new questions on what it means for Asian Americans to make music in interethnic environments, the role of performativity in shaping social identities, and the ways in which commercially and technologically mediated cultural production and reception transform individual perceptions of time, space, and society. Wide range of musical genres including traditional folk musics, hip-hop, jazz, and contemporary avant-garde; similarly broad range of ethnic identities featured through ethnographic case studies including East (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) and Southeast (Laotian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian) Asian Americans.

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