Every year, May is designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s a time to celebrate the journeys and contributions of members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and a moment for everyone to focus on learning more about the rich tapestry of Asian American cultures.
In 2020 and 2021, a sharp spike in incidents of hate crimes directed against people of Asian heritage made it more meaningful than ever to shine a light on the prejudices against Asian Americans, and on the many gifts that performers who blend Asian and American cultures have given to the United States.
Here are just three of the many gifted Asian American musical performers who have graced orchestras, bandstands, and virtual stages across decades of American history.
The Kim Sisters: Singing for Their Lives
Long before there was K-pop, there were the Kim Sisters.
In the 1960s, when “girl groups” were popular around the world, sisters Sue (Sook-ja) and Ai-ja Kim, with their cousin and adopted sister, Mia (Min-ja), landed in the United States and became almost an overnight sensation. With an enormous fan base in their native South Korea, the Kim Sisters took Las Vegas by storm, belting out pop rock lyrics in English, although they had not even learned to speak the language.
They were the first Asian group to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, with the impresario actively promoting them through regular guest appearances. Immensely appealing to American audiences, they could sing, dance, and play multiple musical instruments, and were soon selling out theaters on a par with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
The Kim Sisters came from a family of seven children. Their father was a revered composer who was executed by Communist forces from North Korea. Their mother, a famed singer, put the three girls together as a musical act in order to earn enough money to keep the family from starvation. They performed on American military installations before they were even in their teens.
In the United States, they became “the face of Korea” as cultural goodwill ambassadors at a time when the U.S.-South Korean alliance was critical to American foreign policy. Their upbeat bubblegum-pop style and covers of standard American classics, along with what audiences of the time saw as their “exotic” origins, fueled their rise as a national phenomenon.
Ai-ja died in 1987. Mia married a Hungarian musician and moved to Hungary, where she continues to be active in the performing arts world. After a long performing career, Sue Kim built a successful real estate career in Las Vegas, where she remains, now in her 80s, a pillar of a thriving Korean American community.
Yo-Yo Ma: Comforting the World with the World’s Music
Yo-Yo Ma, born in 1955 in Paris to Chinese parents, is perhaps the world’s best-known and most beloved cellist, renowned for his ability to coax an extraordinary range of emotional tones from his instrument. His performances and many cross-genre collaborations have helped to educate the public about classical music and to open up the genre to new generations of fans.
Ma has received an unusual number of commissioned works from contemporary composers, and frequently performs in ensembles with other noted performers. Ma’s recordings span a range of classical and pop genres, and include the unaccompanied cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, and the soundtrack for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His 1984 recordings of the Bach pieces earned him the first of 18 Grammy Awards.
In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Project, now called Silkroad, to assemble musicians from a variety of backgrounds to bridge cultural traditions. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
In 2020, Ma continued his emphasis on using culture to bring people together by presenting “Songs of Comfort,” a series of socially distanced mini-concerts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The videos of Ma playing solo versions of beloved classics, recorded on his phone, have given solace to millions around the world.
Mitski: A Musical Poet Laureate for a New Generation
Mitski Miyawaki performs as “Mitski.” The biracial Japanese American singer-songwriter was born in 1990 and grew up all over the world, trying to fit in as her family traveled for her father’s State Department job. She has become known worldwide for her forthright, psychologically and socially aware lyrics and distinctive style within the genre of indie rock.
Mitski recorded her first two albums while still a student at SUNY Purchase. Since then, she has garnered critical praise, including a comment from the legendary Iggy Pop that she is “probably the most advanced” of any American songwriter he knows.
Mitski’s first album for a major label was Bury Me at Makeout Creek. It centered themes of personal identity and finding an emotional home, set against a raw guitar background in place of the classical piano that had previously been her main means of musical expression. Her later albums, Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, continued her production of music that is, as an interviewer for The Fader wrote in 2018, “easy to lose yourself in.” That same year, NPR called her this century’s “Poet Laureate of Young Adulthood.”
Mitski’s self-reflective chords and words reflect her generation’s grappling with building their lives in a world that often doesn’t make sense. Her song “Your Best American Girl” has become particularly meaningful to a generation of youth of color and Indigenous youth, who often see themselves reflected in its lyrics. The song hints at the demise of a going-nowhere relationship even as it deconstructs the longing to be fully accepted by the majority culture, while also affirming the validation and comfort found in one’s own heritage.