Tag Archives: diaspora

With BTS’ AMAs debut, America finally wakes up to the power of the Asian pop star 

It’s been a long time coming for K-pop fans, especially the ardent fans of boy band BTS. In May, the group snatched up the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, beating out stateside mainstays like Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. Their win served as a prelude to their biggest moment in the American spotlight yet–a full performance at the American Music Awards this past Sunday.

When I watched this performance live, I felt like the reaction the entire crowd had must have been what it was like for audiences to see The Beatles for the first time in the 1960s. There was a different energy building up to the performance, and that energy kept building throughout. It was eye-opening for me, and it should have been eye-opening to any concert promoters, stadium owners, and record labels. BTS is ready to explode onto the American scene.

But, despite BTS and other K-pop groups and solo artists having intense fans that span age groups, social classes and racial lines in America, American mainstream music coverage has largely steered clear of giving these artists press. Now, thanks to the electric AMA performance, America has to reckon with the power of not only BTS, but Asian pop stars as a whole.

The musical glass ceiling 

The boys of BTS on the AMAs red carpet. ABC/Facebook

K-pop and Asian singers in general have had it tough finding success and respect in America. Even when BTS won their Billboard Award, there were viewers (seemingly mostly superfans of the losers) who delved into racist, xenophobic rhetoric because their fave lost. The general consensus of these superfans, according to Paste Magazine‘s Martin Tsai, was that BTS stick to Korea.

“Of course, the two Canadian nominees in the category (Bieber and Mendes) have eluded this knee-jerk outrage and xenophobia, as has just about every Brit in American pop history from the Beatles to One Direction,” he wrote. “It’s the type of blowback that ensues whenever a person of color upsets the cultural status quo—as when Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, when Jeremy Lin first played for the Knicks, or when Takuma Sato won this year’s Indianapolis 500 and prompted the now-fired Denver Post sports writer Terry Frei to tweet how that made him ‘uncomfortable.’ Indeed, the American soundscape has proven to be a final frontier for Asians and Asian-Americans to find their footing.”

Tsai writes about how many Asian and Asian-American singers have tried their turn at breaking into America’s discriminatory music industry with varying degrees of success. Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” for instance, is the only Billboard Hot 100 chart topper by an Asian singer, and that was in 1963. (The song later became a hit for the group A Taste of Honey, who covered it in 1981, yet another chapter in the push-and-pull between black and Asian diasporic experiences in America.)

The crossover hit most people remember with some freshness is Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” became a viral sensation. However, his follow-up single didn’t do near as well, and for many in America, “Gangnam Style” was always seen, as Tsai describes, “a novelty song.” Psy’s appearance, for better or worse, also helped him gain short-lived success in America; unlike BTS, who are young and look and behave like living Ken dolls, Americans saw Psy with the same stereotypical lens used on most Asian men–Psy is goofy, funny and, to the audience, seemingly unaware of why he’s seen as such, which makes him more of a target for racial stereotypes. (However, Psy a bad boy jokester-critic in Korea, is the complete opposite of “unaware”; he was America’s Favorite Asian until word got out about how Psy had performed songs protesting the U.S. military, particularly over the beheading of a Korean missionary by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Even “Gangnam Style is a protest song of sorts, criticizing the upscale Seoul neighborhood Gangman’s needless opulence and materialism.)

Psy’s success in America does, sadly, hinge partially on the goofy stereotype he was able to fill. Think back to American Idol–out of the number of Asian contestants that have tried out, how many do you remember as being 1) actually good 2) actually handsome and 3) actually taken seriously? The closest to ever reach the level of being taken as a legit artist was Anoop Desai, and even then, the judges (and the coaches, quite frankly) weren’t ever sure of what mold he should belong to. When he did sing his preferred genre, R&B, it was often taken as a surprise or even a joke. The cover he became known for, Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” was looked at as part-sideshow, part-participation trophy. Despite the crowd (and Anoop’s hormonal fans) screaming for him, his performance was still seen as “Can you believe this Indian kid is gyrating and singing black music?”

Interestingly enough, I’ve actually interviewed Desai way back in 2009, sometime after his season’s American Idol tour ended. Back then, he said he had actually quit his degree in college and moved to Atlanta to pursue music full-time. I’d hoped we’d be able to see Desai on the big stage soon, promoting his own album. So far, not yet.

For what it’s worth, it seems like Asian artists are taken way more seriously on The Voice, in which your voice, not your looks, are what goes into you being picked. Take for instance Tessanne Chin, a Chinese-Jamaican artist who was able to release her second album and major release Count on My Love and sing for President Barack Obama. Or Judith Hill, a biracial Japanese-African American artist who had not only sung with Michael Jackson and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, but was able to release Back in Time, a CD produced by Prince after her stint on the show.

Still, what’s holding Desai back is the same thing that has held back many Asian and Asian-American artists–the stereotypes many music execs still have when it comes to Asian artists and Asians in general. In 2007, The New York Times profiled Harlemm Lee, a Detroit native of Chinese and Filipino descent who was looking to make it big as a singer. However, after landing a spot on 2003 NBC singing reality show Fame and gaining a record contract–his second in his music career, Lee never achieved the success he was hoping for. As of the time of the article, Lee was working as a secretary. 

“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” he said. “You don’t fit.” On his MySpace page, he wrote, “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.”

Asian artists today: BTS and beyond

Microsoft Theater/Twitter

Thankfully, it seems like a groundswell of support for Asian artists has been building in America, possibly leading to BTS’ big AMAs moment. Buzzfeed’s Tanya Chen released a list of 21 Asian American artists music fans should know in 2013, including rapper Dumbfoundead, whose music video “SAFE” took on the movie industry’s whitewashing and discrimination against Asian actors.

NPR’s Mallory Yu wrote about this year’s SXSW Asian-American showcase, spearheaded by LA-based nonprofit Kollaboration. And last year, Splinter News declared K-pop star Eric Nam as the first K-pop artist to actually make it big in America. It’s important to note that Nam, like many American-born Asian superstars before him, had to go overseas to find fame back home; he’s originally from Atlanta, and as Isha Aran wrote, “has a cultural fluidity that–at least by American audiences–is rarely seen from K-pop stars.”

BTS is primed to be in a position to bust open the doors for all of the Eric Nams, Girls’ Generations, 21E1s, and Dumbfoundeads on both sides of the ocean, and the AMAs is just one of the biggest glass ceilings to crack.

I remember my mom talking about how she used to mark her calendar for video release dates by Britney Spears or *NSYNC, and wake up to watch MTV,” wrote Jordyn, a BTS superfan in Las Vegas, to The Fader‘s Owen Myers. “It was something I could never relate to, and I thought that it was lost on our generation. When I saw the first video from BTS, I finally understood what she meant.”

“They are terrific and the most popular K-pop band in the world right now,” said Susan Rosenbluth, senior vice president at Goldenvoice/AEG Presents, whose firm promoted BTS’ international “Wings Tour”, to Paste.

“I think if they wanted to cross over and do more, they will…I think it will take certain things like winning awards, being in the general-market eye, so to speak, by marketing their brand in the U.S. more, in Mexico more, in other parts of the world more than just on the internet, and by virtue of the music that they put out in the future. [If] they wanted to sing more in English, they could.”

From what the band has said in interviews, they are looking to put out more English-spoken content. And, if their breakout performance from the AMAs is any indication, we certainly haven’t seen the last of BTS in our neck of the woods.

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At the beauty salon, Dominican-American women conflicted over quest for straight hair

File 20170905 13783 vgjfdt.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A Dominican immigrant cuts the hair of a customer at her New York City salon.
Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Melissa Godin, New York University

When Chabelly Pacheco – a Dominican-American who moved to Long Island when she was five years old – walks into her favorite Dominican salon on Brooklyn’s Graham Avenue, it’s more like entering a home than a business.

The salon is filled with smoke, hair spray and women of all ages. Everyone in the room greets her: The hairdressers kiss her on both cheeks, while the other customers say hello. Daughters sit alongside their mothers with curlers in their hair, feet dangling from their chairs.

For first-generation Dominican women like Pacheco, these salons can serve as a place to bond with fellow Dominicans.

“I don’t really feel connected to my culture,” said Yoeli Collado, a friend of Pacheco’s who moved to Long Island from the Dominican Republic when she was three years old. “When I speak Spanish, I feel powerful… But other than that I don’t have much I can connect to. So going to a Dominican salon is part of my culture. For me, it’s one of the only ways I can identify.”

Other diasporas have a wide range of cultural public spaces. There are Chinese community centers and Indian music venues, Russian tea rooms and Ghanaian restaurants.

For Dominicans, the salon plays an outsized cultural role.

Fascinated by these spaces – and as a scholar studying women’s issues – I wanted to see how salons and Dominican beauty regimens influence female Dominican-American identity.

I found that although Dominican-American women I interviewed spoke warmly of the salons they frequent, Dominican hair culture is far from glamorous. In many ways, it’s a pricey, burdensome ritual steeped in a colonial beauty standards – a contradiction that young Dominican women are grappling with today.

‘The hair carries the woman’

As in many cultures, Dominican female beauty standards can be burdensome. Though most Dominicans tend to have curly, textured hair, the culture favors long, straight hair. Curly, frizzy or kinky hair is called “pelo malo,” which translates to “bad hair,” and many women feel pressured to treat it.

“I hear my mom say it all the time,” Pacheco said. “‘The hair carries the woman’ – that’s the mantra in my family. If your hair is fine, you’re fine.”

Despite the lively atmosphere of the salon, it’s not all fun. It can be costly, painful and time-consuming.

Sociologist Ginetta Candelario has found that Dominican women visit salons far more frequently than any other female population in the U.S., spending up to 30 percent of their salaries on beauty regimens.

Many Dominican kids don’t have any say over how to style their hair; their parents force them to get it straightened. This was evident in Pacheco’s salon, where young girls tugged at the tight curlers in their hair, complaining that the dryers were burning their scalps.

“You’re taught from a young age that your hair has to be straight to be pretty, to get a job, to get a boyfriend, to be called pretty by your mother,” Pacheco told me.

It all stems from a strict hair culture in the Dominican Republic, where young women can actually be sent home from school or work if their hair isn’t worn in the “preferred way.” Women with untreated, natural hair can even be barred from some public and private spaces.

Though discrimination against curly hair isn’t as pronounced in New York, many Dominican-American women told me that they nevertheless feel the same sort of pressure.

No such thing as black

The Dominican tradition of straight hair has it roots in colonial rule under Spain; it eventually became a way to imitate the higher classes and to separate themselves from their Haitian neighbors, who once occupied their country and championed the négritude movement, which was started by black writers to defend and celebrate a black cultural identity.

Dominicans believe that Haitians are “black,” while Dominicans – even those who clearly descend from African heritage – fall into other nonblack categories.

The process of differentiation is referred to as “blanqueamiento,” which translates to “whitening,” and hair straightening is simply one of many ways Dominicans try to distinguish themselves from Haitians. In fact, even though the Dominican Republic ranks fifth in countries outside of Africa that have the largest black populations, many black Dominicans don’t consider themselves black.

“[Blackness] is a taboo in the DR,” Stephanie Lorenzo, a 25-year-old Dominican-American from the Bronx, explained. “You don’t want to be black.”

According to Yesilernis Peña, a researcher at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo who studies race in the Latin Caribbean, there are six established racial categories in the Dominican Republic, and they tend to correlate with one’s economic class: white, mixed race, olive, Indian, dark and black.

Meanwhile, a light-skinned elite has consolidated most of the political power, while many of the country’s black people – who make up the majority of the population – live in extreme poverty. So straightening one’s hair can be seen as an attempt to climb the social ladder – or at least imitate those with money and power.

“When people relax their hair or bleach it, they do it because they want to be closer to the people who hold the power,” Dominican salon owner Carolina Contreras told the magazine Remezcla in 2015.

‘But I like it straight’

Given the fraught history of hair, it’s clear that Dominican salons, with the beauty regimens they perpetuate, are complex, contradictory places.

Pacheco – who grew up in America and loves spending time at the salon – is aware that she’s also tacitly succumbing to beauty norms steeped in racism.

“Obviously it’s a construct, and it puts pressure on women and sometimes I feel conflicted about getting my hair straightened,” she said. “That deeply rooted colonial oppression is still there. But then I’m like, ‘I like it straight.’”

In sociologist Ginetta Candelario’s study “Hair-Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production,” she wonders if beauty can be a source of empowerment, even if it means using time and resources, while suppressing one’s “blackness.”

Through her extensive research in Dominican salons in New York, Candelario did find that women can, in fact, empower themselves through these beauty norms. By physically altering their appearance, they could get better jobs and use their beauty as “symbolic and economic capital.”

But she points out that in order for this beauty regimen to exist in the first place, it requires “ugliness to reside somewhere, and that somewhere is in other women, usually women defined as black.”

Reimagining beauty, reinventing space

In 2014, Carolina Contreras opened up Miss Rizos, a natural hair salon located in the colonial city center of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital.

The 29-year-old Dominican-American wanted her salon to champion “pajón love” (Afro love), and to reimagine what a Dominican salon and a Dominican beauty regimen might look like. The salon, which caters to Dominican-Americans, encourages women to wear their Afro-textured hair with pride.

It was at Contreras’s salon where Stephanie Lorenzo decided to do “the big chop” in 2015: She cut off her chemically altered hair, leaving her with a small Afro.

“Around the same time, I was becoming more in touch with my African roots as an American woman,” she said. “[Cutting my hair] was part of acknowledging that we are also black.”

Back in Brooklyn, Chabelly Pacheco’s hairdresser said that during her 30 years working in salons in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and New York, she’s noticed more women asking for natural hair treatments. In fact, many older Dominican women are now starting to change the way they see their own hair. Carolina Contreras’ mother told me that she decided to go natural to be closer to the way God imagined her.

Contreras, however, is quick to note that the natural hair movement isn’t meant to shame women who do choose to straighten their hair. Instead, it’s simply about making textured hair accepted, appreciated and celebrated.

The ConversationPerhaps by embracing all different kinds of hair, salons – which bring Dominican women closer to their culture and to each other – can also bring Dominican women closer to their natural selves.

Melissa Godin, Rhodes Scholar Studying Development, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.