AS a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Mr. Lee has sung R & B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.
Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show “Fame,” gaining national attention and another record contract. Mr. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turn 40 this year and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.
Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Mr. Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.
“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” said Mr. Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. “You don’t fit.”
There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the “Asian thing” is what Mr. Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars. People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.
Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.
Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his MySpace.com page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”
Some in the music industry note that there is no dearth of Asian-Americans or Asians of mixed race in the ranks of successful record producers (Chad Hugo of the Neptunes), rock bands (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park) and pop and hip-hop groups (Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls and Allan Pineda Lindo, whose professional name is Apl.de.Ap, of the Black Eyed Peas), and musicians in general.
But where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake, Prince or Christina Aguilera?
Asked to name the most recognizable Asian-American pop solo singer today, older generations might say the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, but younger Asian-American artists agreed on one person: William Hung, the “American Idol” castoff who became an overnight sensation in 2004 for his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.”
“By and large the music industry hasn’t done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent,” said Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe magazine. “Because there’s no significant tradition in the mainstream, it becomes that much harder to become that breakthrough artist.”
Scores of young Asian-American singers are trying to become that artist. Like aspiring musicians of all stripes, they have created their own parallel universe, and many are writing songs and putting out music on the Internet, playing shows in small clubs and Asian festivals and sometimes starting their own labels. Some get play for their songs and videos on niche cable television channels and a few are even performing abroad and recording in Asian languages. In fact, some South Korean entertainment companies regularly hold auditions in cities like Los Angeles to scout for Asian-American talent.
“There are very talented Asian-Americans out there,” said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian-American artists. “The only problem is nobody is signing them.”
Some are being signed, but the roster tilts heavily toward mixed-race Asians whose looks are racially ambiguous, like Cassie, an R & B singer of Filipino and African-American descent whose song “Me & U” was one of last year’s hottest summer hits, some Asian-Americans artists noted.
In this parallel universe, there is even an Asian-American Idol contest in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large Asian population. The contest has been held by Element, an event production company, for as many seasons as the national show has run on Fox.
Christine Joy Villano, whose professional name is Christine Joy and who won this local Idol contest four years ago, said she tried out for “American Idol” in 2004 with her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” but didn’t make it past the auditions. Last fall, she moved to Atlanta to pursue her music career more seriously.
A compliment she often hears, she said, is that “You sing like an African-American woman.” But she does not want to hear that. “You want people to say: ‘She can sing!’ ” Ms. Joy said. “ ‘Who cares what she is? She needs to be a star!’ ”
Phil Chen, 23, the lead singer of an all Chinese-American alternative punk rock band, 8PAST, in the San Francisco Bay area, said: “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after we play and they say, ‘I didn’t know what to expect with an Asian band.’ But they’re impressed. We’re not just kids who do math very well.”
Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up soon.
Written by: Mireya Navarro
March 4, 2007