#thetimeisnow

Room for more colour Popular music and Hamilton's music scene should be more open to Asian artists

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By: Sonia Leung

A quick review of the Billboard Top 40 hits would reveal the gaping lack of variety in repertoire on any given week. Homogeneity in popular music is not a new complaint, but a lesser acknowledged and comparably prevalent sentiment is the lack of diversity in colour.

Asian voices are hard to find in North American music. I lament my inability to name many notable Asian musicians, though I suspect that my inability to list them is a shared phenomenon among most of us. One artist who comes to the forefront of my memory is Bruno Mars, who is half Filipino.

If you strain harder, you might recall Steve Aoki, who is Japanese.

Where are they in the music scene, especially in Hamilton’s? Their lack of presence in the North American music is disproportionate to their presence in our world, and in our city.

If your upbringing was like my own, you likely grew up to Avril Lavigne and Simple Plan, then moved on to Metric and Arcade Fire.

These artists and their work were the pillar of my musical education, the core tenets of my identity. If music were a language, then these artists spoke mine.

Our one-way conversations were integral in my formative years.

Each song brimmed with teenage angst (not unlike myself) and made me feel heard. It is this nature in music that renders it such a powerful medium.

As a Hong Kong-born immigrant who was raised in Canada, there were no mainstream North American artists who sang about my narrative, no voice that fully described the reality I experienced. 

When you hear a song you can relate to, complete with your fears, worries and doubts, you know that you’re not alone in your struggle. Relatable songs are a comfort.

While I fully endorse the artists that comprised my teenage iTunes playlist, which was largely indie rock, and consequently monochromatically White, I am cognizant of not having a fully relatable role model.

My childhood idols sang about high school social dynamics, prepubescent awkwardness, suburban tedium and existential dread, all of which rang true with my world.

None, however, struck every string in the chord. As a Hong Kong-born immigrant who was raised in Canada, there were no mainstream North American artists who sang about my narrative, no voice that fully described the reality I experienced.

At present there is an unreached demographic of angsty Asian teenagers who are aching to hear angsty songs about the immigrant and model minority tropes, but have to settle for All American Rejects.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Emman Alavata, frontman of Post Romance, previously known as Detour.

Post Romance made their mark as the champions of last year’s Battle of the Bands, and have since released their EP Nowhere Land.

Unlike the archetypal indie rock band, Post Romance is headed by a Filipino frontman and Chinese lead guitarist. Alavata recalled that on stage at the 2017 Battle of the Bands, he was one of three Asian musicians who performed that night.

“I didn’t think we would win that night,” explains Emman, who cites the absence of Asian artists as the reason for not expecting to win.

His doubts aren’t unfounded. A common frustration the band faces is the confusion between Alavata and Victor Zhang, the Asian members of Post Romance.

The two are repeatedly mistaken for each other and are not taken seriously when they correct the misnomer. Another grievance is that people who meet the band usually expect the lead singer to be someone White, and greet the band with surprise upon realization that Emman was not White.

These encounters sound familiar to me. A year or two ago, my band and I played at a variety show at a local pub.

Our band’s sound was still developing, but took shape of ambient indie. I was the lead singer and the only person of colour on stage, and yet, we were introduced as “a taste of China” and “sounds from the East”. I am not from China, nor do I bring “sounds from the East”.

Change is on the horizon, however, and Post Romance is riding the wave.

Another notable Hamilton act is Union&Kay, comprised of Christopher Nguyen and Sheena Kay, an up and coming jazz-pop duo.

There is room for more colour in our palette and this is the proof and precedent.

“If you have a voice, it shouldn’t matter if you are male or female, or any skin colour,” explains Alavata,

“As long as you can connect with people, that’s all that really matters.”

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