Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is every May in the U.S., and we usually celebrate the occasion with Sofar shows featuring performances from amazing AAPI artists. This year looks a little different (...that whole pandemic thing) so while we can’t gather together physically, we got in touch with some of our AAPI alumni to chat about what the month means to them, their music, and the AAPI creatives you should know.
To address the elephant in the room, how are you doing right now? What’s your new normal during the pandemic, and how have you been affected as an artist? (This will be our only COVID-19 related question, we promise!) Have you started anything new like livestreams during this time?
Micah Manaitai, Los Angeles: You know, all things considered, I’m doing well. For better or worse, not that much has changed for me. I think the big thing to get used to was not playing shows. It’s something that gives me so much energy and it’s one of my favorite ways to meet folks, so my band and I really miss that. I’ve done a couple of livestreams but my phone doesn’t give me the same feedback an audience does. Instead, I’ve used this opportunity to do some learning and practicing.
Rachel Andie, Philadelphia: Doing quite alright given the circumstances. Although I’ve had lots of extra time to hone in on my music, I’ve also had the pressure of feeling as though I have to constantly be working on my craft because I have so much time on my hands. I’ve been taking this quarantine as a time to really work on my creative writing more than the music itself, and it’s felt like a wonderful release.
Paul Yoon, Houston: I am somewhat of an extrovert, so the beginning of the pandemic took some getting used to. Quarantining at the start had been difficult because it broke my regular routine. I’ve been one of the lucky ones who still had a job and an income, so I’m thankful for that. But I decided to embrace the new normal and learned to put in more time with recording the album that I've been working on! I’d say the past three months had been some of the most productive moments of my life as an artist, so if anything good came out of this global pandemic, there’s that! I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials and learned so much about audio production, so wrote a number of new songs and even released a few singles leading up to this album that I’m finishing up.
I have done a few livestreams here and there — I think it’s so great how much people who are concert-deprived seem to enjoy them. Whenever I feel a bit down or feel the need to interact with friends or family, I’ll randomly go live on Instagram and I usually feel a bit better.
Shelly Rollison (aka Our Daughter), Denver: The new normal in this strange time has been both a challenge and a gift with lots of questions. I find questions can be frustrating and confusing, as well as revelatory and clarifying. How do we hold the hardship and trauma of what this means for some, while also holding the opportunity and gift this time is for others? It’s odd to be having the same collective experience as a globe, while each of us is having our own unique experience in the time of COVID. There have certainly been challenges for me as an artist working in live music, both as a musician and a sound engineer, who can't work in those spaces at the moment, but this time has also been an invitation to deep aloneness and transformation. My new normal has been practicing each day how to work well and live slow. I initially was doing a lot of livestreams and offering whatever music I could, but now I’m in a rhythm of stepping back and going a little slower. I'm spending more time writing in my studio to give space for that inner work to find expression through the music I'm creating, and I'm eager to eventually give that music as an offering to the collective in this time.
It’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, which started in the ‘70s but might not be as well-known as it should be to many people. What’s your relationship with the month (if you have one)? Did you traditionally mark the occasion?
Paul: I really didn’t have much of a relationship with the month, but over the years, thanks to social media, my AAPI activist friends and more well-known AAPI celebrities/artists, I’ve learned to really embrace my culture and be proud of my being Korean. I’ve lived in Korea for three years (in 2011-2014) and learned a lot about the culture. I’ve learned a lot about my family and their hardship of being immigrants to America, and it makes me feel so inspired in so many ways. I’ve really learned to appreciate my role in society as a product of immigrant parents and I’m so glad AAPIHM is celebrated and hope that it continues to be better known to people as time goes on.
Micah: More than any marker of progress, I view this month as a great opportunity to educate. Folks post all sorts of cool oral histories and bring to light a lot of relevant issues via social media. I tend to come out of this time knowing a lot more than before, and I hope other people take some time to read those kinds of things. I appreciate it as an opportunity to connect as well. For example, last year we played one of the Sofar AAPIHM shows, and I had a blast getting to share space with the other artists, telling stories I might not otherwise have.
Shelly: In the past three to four years, I’ve been in a deepening conversation with myself of trying to understand better where I come from as a bi-racial Korean American woman. I was fortunate to have been able to grow up in Korea and learn the language, so I have experiences attached to that heritage, but so much of that was lost when I moved to America. Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month wasn’t something that was even on my radar until I started this journey of understanding my story more. The month is something I’m finding becomes more and more meaningful each year, but the conversation still feels new in some ways.
Rachel: I haven’t personally developed any traditions for this month over the years, but have always felt really connected to my heritage during this time. Just having our culture recognized in an appreciative way is very inspiring. Learning about Asian & Pacific Islanders in history who have made all types of contributions to our society was also very inspirational for me as a child.
Who is an Asian or Pacific Islander American artist that you think didn’t (or doesn’t) get enough credit?
Micah: Aw man I got a list, but I think within my network it’s writer/director Cara Flores. She’s someone who I know works tirelessly to update and reframe efforts to preserve CHamoru language and culture (Northern Mariana Islands native people). Besides directing documentaries and comedies, she runs the only CHamoru children’s educational show I know. A really incredible creative thinker.
Rachel: Hmm that doesn’t get enough credit, I’d say Yukimi Nagano from the band Little Dragon. She’s my favorite Japanese female musician, she’s been such a huge inspiration for me musically as a fellow Japanese artist, and I wish more people knew about her craft and their music!
Paul: There are so many to mention! A lot of them being dear friends of mine who are doing their thing. But if I could name two, it’d be the band Run River North based out of Los Angeles or Big Phony, a singer/songwriter based out of Seoul, Korea. Such creative, talented and beautiful people who deserve more attention. I am inspired by them in so many ways, and they help me to stay authentic and true and to keep doing what I’m doing for the LOVE of it.
Shelly: Everyone should go check out Josin. She’s a musician out of Berlin who not enough people are listening to. I like her music because it doesn’t demand your attention. It’s thoughtful, haunting, and ethereal. Think poetry meets sunsets taking their time to unfold. Her song “Evaporation” is wonderfully devastating. It holds so much tension and truth about being human, as does all of her music really.
When you sit down to write a song or create music, what are your biggest inspirations or influences? What sources do you draw from?
Rachel: Recently I’ve been really looking to make more music that people can dance and release all types of emotions to, so I’ve been getting really inspired by indie artists like Adrianne Lenker from the band Big Thief. I’ve also been diving into older music from back in the day like Sam Cooke and Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. They’ve really helped me gotten the groove that I’ve been looking to make for a long time!
Shelly: I think the more you pay attention and really become aware of what’s unfolding in yourself and being honest with it, it allows you to show up more intentionally in the world because you’re owning your space and your truth. For me, music is such an extension of life and an expression of an internal conversation moving to find voice in an external conversation. The sources I draw from are all the things I’m in conversation with, i.e. people, poetry, music, movies, books, nature, and being honest with whatever is unfolding in those conversations. In that regard, I don't think I have a few big inspirations or influences, but everything about living finds its way into my music, whether overtly in the final cut of a song or somewhere throughout the process, but it's all circling around being honest about what it's like to be here and be human, which can be both simple and complex. We're all trying to figure it out, right?
Paul: I draw my inspirations from moments that made me experience tremendous “feelings.” More often than not, being an emotional person, they tend to be from breakups or rejection. Hence the reason why most of my songs are so sad! I really need to give credit to the emo phase of my life when I was a moody teenager, because I learned a lot about my feelings then, which helped me to process my feelings now as a full fledged adult in my 30s. But I find writing songs based on a time when I felt grief or shame or extreme sadness has helped me to become more aware of myself, which has been a really big part of growing up and maturing in life.
Micah: I try to start writing every song a different way. The goal is to have a different musical element drive the writing process every time I sit down to write so that I never feel like I’m re-hashing the same thing over and over again. I draw a ton of inspiration from Pasifika artists, though. So much of the music of the Pacific islands has a strong narrative element and almost an air of responsibility to share stories in the musical medium. Someone who has fundamentally shaped my songwriting is Johnny Sablan, a prominent artist from Guam. The core idea he had imparted to me was that the song is at the center of your attention, and the musical environment imbues the song with meaning.
What are your thoughts on Asian and Pacific Islander representation in the music industry at the moment? How do you feel like you fit into your local music industry? Does your culture and heritage set you apart?
Micah: I think it’s awesome that industry-wide, it’s becoming more of a priority to present an increasingly diverse array of artists. I see myself as someone who only takes actions that feel authentic to myself. My culture and heritage are a huge part of me, so naturally being CHamoru and trying new things are just going to be at the forefront as I navigate this whole weird thing where we try to make a living from music.
Paul: I definitely think we need more representation in the music industry. It’s gotten a LOT better in the recent years, but there are just so many musicians and artists out there that have denied their immigrant parents’ wishes of using their degrees in landing a “secure job” and instead are hustling and pursuing their passions only to not make it… and have to work multiple jobs just to support themselves. I do wish that more people in the music industry and just in general begin to want to see a bright future for the AAPI artist community, but in order to do so, they have to truly understand our culture and the past we come from.
As for me here in the local Houston scene, I don’t know of many AAPI musicians that are doing what I’m doing, which kind of sets me apart automatically. I’m usually the only Asian dude at the local open mic, or on a bill at the local venue. For Houston being such a diverse place, I do hope for a more diverse local music scene where AAPI musicians are featured and highlighted.
Rachel: I feel as though the representation of our cultures in all kinds of outlets is very minimal, at least from my perspective living in the states. In the local scene here in Philly, there are not too many Asian musicians, so it feels very special to me when I meet a fellow Asian American artist. It’s like you’re a fish swimming in the ocean of all these different creatures and beings, just feeling very on your own; and then suddenly you run into a school of fish that are just like you that you share so much in common with. Then you go off as the little fishy you are with more confidence knowing there are others just like you doing the same thing.
Shelly: I think the representation is better than it’s ever been, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Until the start of this year in 2020, I wasn’t as vocal about my Korean culture and heritage, but that has shifted with the launch of my new project and artist name, Our Daughter, which is the direct English translation of the phrase from Korean, 우리 딸. My culture and heritage is starting to set me apart now as I allow that expression of my identity to be more holistically represented in my expression as an individual. One of the coolest parts of that is seeing how it is creating space for expanding conversations with people, not only about their own culture and heritage, but also about identity and belonging. I’m eager to bring those conversations into the local music industry and beyond. We all want to belong. I'm learning how each of us owning and understanding our own stories and sharing them creates space for richer and more inclusive conversations moving forward.
Thanks Micah, Shelly, Rachel and Paul! Sofar's committed to creating and fostering an inclusive community that welcomes and celebrates everyone all year round, but it's also important to take time to recognize Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We can’t wait to have you back at a show IRL soon!
Header image of Micah Manaitai by Asha Moné.