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4 Asian American Austin artists on music and being seen as 'the perpetual foreigner'

Betty Soo, seen here performing at 3Ten in 2018, is known for performing Americana music, but she says the cadences of her grandmother's Korean folk songs sometimes infuse her sound.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic demographic in Austin. Visibility in the city's music scene, however, remains minimal. 

Census data from 2019 indicated that about 80,000 of Austin's nearly one million residents are of Asian descent. In April, Eastern soul artist Nagavalli became the first Asian American to serve on the Austin Music Commission, a citizen-led body that advises City Council on matters related to the music scene. 

As a native of Mumbai, India, it took time for her to adjust to the term Asian American. It’s “a construct from here” that lumps together a diverse group of people from vastly different cultures, she says. She is committed to the Music Commission’s vision of diversity, equity and inclusion as strong pillars of the group’s work in ways that are “broader than our particular community,” she says. 

And she believes conversations about building a more diverse music scene need to move beyond adding more artists of color to the bill of any given show. There are “large diasporas that really don't come and engage” in Austin’s scene, she says. 

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Austin musicians G. Michael Pendon (aka DJ Jester the Filipino Fist), Betty Soo, Nagavalli and Mars Wright (aka Honey Son) joined me May 26 for an Austin360 roundtable discussion about music, culture, the challenges of being Asian in America and the recent uptick in violence against Asian Americans. 

Here are some excerpts from the conversation. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Find the full conversation on our Facebook page.

On being Asian in America

Pendon: I'm Filipino. Born and raised in Texas, (in a) small town outside of Houston called West Columbia. My parents were immigrants from the Philippines. ... They were part of the first, like, 100 Filipinos that arrived in Houston in the ‘60s. We were honestly the only Asians. It was a small town, like 5,000 people, outside of Houston. There's probably, like, two other Asian families.

Soo: I grew up outside of Houston, in a little town called Spring. ... My folks both emigrated from Korea in the early ‘70s. I was born in the States, raised in the States. There were some other Asians around when I was young. When I got to high school, there were a lot of Vietnamese Americans who I became friends with. But when I was younger — I'd say elementary school, middle school — it was not uncommon for me to be asked by my friend's parents, people who are not undereducated by any means, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” You know, those are the two choices and like, “Oh, well, actually, I'm not either of those.” ...

(My folks) were so afraid of me being put in ESL, that they really only raised us with English in the household. And so I never really learned to speak Korean. That's one of my lifelong regrets. I've tried lots of times. 

Mars Wright: I am half Filipino and half Black, but my dad's also a smattering of other (ethnicities), so I've always just considered myself a mutt. But my mom is from the Philippines. She came over in the ‘70s, and I was raised by her, mostly. Culturally, I identify on that side of things. I grew up in San Antonio, which is very, very Hispanic. So I'm ambiguously brown in San Antonio. I just sort of flew under the radar as being Mexican of some sort. ... 

My mom had friends, you know, they were all Filipino. So I knew all their kids. They would speak Tagalog in the parlor while the kids play games. Pretty much my entire youth.

In April, Nagavalli became the first Asian American to serve on the Austin Music Commission, a citizen-led body that advises city council.

On the sounds of your culture in your music

Soo: My grandmother, who lived with us since I was very young, was kind of known for having this very strong Korean singing voice. She was always singing in the house. And we would watch these documentaries and musical programs that had Korean folk songs, but especially ones that were from countryside villages, either from what's now North Korea, or very far South Korea, far south in the peninsula. That kind of folk singing was kind of strong — emphatic. To be honest, I don't even remember what the whole translations mean anymore, but sonically and phonetically, I have some of those songs that will never leave my head. ...

They're always there as part of my musical vocabulary. If you're not Korean, or if you're not familiar with Korean folk singing, you're never going to pick up on that. But if you (are familiar), and if I mentioned it, then you're gonna say, "Oh, yeah, I hear that there." ... I love that it's seeped in there in ways that people might not recognize.

Nagavalli: I grew up learning (Indian) classical music, right from the time I was maybe 7 years old. ... I didn’t train in Western music or anything. My only exposure was through some records my late father had. 

When I came here, I had this aspiration, just craving to be out there singing in this scene. ... I started sitting in with (Austin artist) Oliver Rajamani. In the meantime, I started writing music of my own. And when I wrote the melodies, it's how they naturally came. I've never quite intellectualized fusion. I used to go play them to the jazz singer Susie Stern in town, and she kind of encouraged me, said, "This sounds good. Don't try to force anything else. Go with it." I did, and so that's how what I now call Eastern soul came about.

Wright: The only thing I can think of is that my mom's always been a karaoke fanatic. I think it's just rooted in Filipino culture. When I visited the Philippines, it was wild. Everybody had a karaoke machine, and they pull it out (regularly). 

On the way Asian faces are considered foreign

Soo: (As an Americana artist,) I've been asked more times than not in interviews, or on festival stages, “How did you get into this kind of music? You know, this kind of music?” And it's like, well, I grew up in Spring, Texas, and everybody listened to country music. I don't know what to tell you. 

If I was the daughter of German immigrants, nobody would ever ask me that, right? Because I would just look Western European/what people think of as American, right? It's just having Asian features, not being the original empowered immigrants in the U.S.

I don't have much hope of us overcoming the perpetual foreigner stereotype, because we're never going to have been the first, monied, empowered with political status. The British colonists, they're always going to have been first. The Western Europeans are always going to have been the first conquerors of the indigenous people and of their lands. I don't know that there is that much interest by those who enjoy that privilege to give that up.

Pendon: I think it's just kind of ingrained in our psyche as Americans, like Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles,” Mickey Rooney (in) “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” that song “Kung Fu Fighting.” When people see that comedian Tony Hinchcliffe (who recently came under fire for unleashing a tirade of racial slurs against an Austin Asian American comedian), part of how people perceive us will always be like that.

Wright: I moved from San Antonio to Austin and that change was drastic. The color of everyone around just got several shades lighter. In San Antonio, I didn't notice much because your doctor’s brown, your politicians are brown. Everybody in town is brown. It's not like white folks are a minority, but it's not as stark as it is here.

Everyone's been conditioned for years and years to expect, "Oh, Americana singers look white: blond hair, blue eyes, that's just how it goes." Which, more power to you, Betty Soo, because all it really takes is someone that's not that doing it, you know?

Soo: There are definitely times that sure, like in the folk or Americana world, I would probably be more anonymous if I wasn't Korean American. ... I'm not going to say that it has only hurt me, but I do think that there is a novelty aspect to how people see us that can hurt us, and that can discount how seriously we take our craft.  

Nagavalli: I did come in as a foreigner. It takes the first couple of years to make that adjustment yourself. I think there are so many layers to things like this, because at a broad level, I feel pretty accepted, pretty welcome in this society here. I can live a good quality of life. I can play my music. Overall, it's commendable how in that manner, the country is welcoming to immigrants. 

One thing that, in this context, very starkly comes to my mind, is my father wanted me to return to India. Just a couple of years before he passed away, he said that (based on his experience) here in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, that, “You know, even if you get a citizenship, you will never belong to the country. Your country.” I was a couple of years younger then and I fought that with him. I said, “No, dad. I feel good here. This is where I live. This is where I made friends. I play my music here.” I definitely think his experience in the '50s and '60s could have been different from what I experienced now. 

G. Michael Pendon (aka DJ Jester the Filipino Fist) was threatened in the North Campus area in 2020.

On violence against Asian Americans

Pendon: (One night last summer), I was riding my bike. During the summer, I ride at night just because it's so hot outside. I was (in the) North Campus area, like Speedway and 30th. I had just stopped to adjust my light or something, and there was a truck that drove by. And these two guys were like, “Hey, what's up, man? What are you doing? Why are you wearing a helmet?” I thought it was just like a buddy kind of clowning me or something. 

But they were just like, “What, are you scared? What are you doing?” They called me (an anti-Asian slur). Went around again. And then called me a (homophobic slur). 

I started filming them. And he's like, “Oh, you filming me?” He took off. Then the truck came back. The guy that was driving him around, he was chasing me down the street. I rode my bike toward the Drag, and I called my sister. She's like, “You need to call police.” So I called the cops, and they came out. Never caught the guys. 

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I don't know where that came from. ... That was stuff that happened to me when I was a kid. You know? (It) was just weird to experience that as an adult, just minding my own business. 

Soo: On tour, I've definitely faced some scary things. I've been driven off the road by trucks with Confederate flags or yelled (at). Lots of scary things. But those were, I hate to say it, in communities where you kind of expected it, little pockets of the rural, deep South or something. 

In Austin, I hadn't really faced (anything) that overt in the way of a racial attack until the pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, I had several pretty scary experiences, like just going to the grocery store, just sitting in a parking lot waiting for curbside delivery. And, you know, people pounding on my car. People yelling, “China, China,” or, “Go back, take your beeping virus,” all that kind of stuff. Very quickly, in the pandemic, I had everything delivered to my house. Not only that, I used somebody else's Instacart account so that somebody else's name would be on the account, so it wouldn't have an Asian name. I hadn't been scared like that in a long time in my own hometown, in my own neighborhoods. 

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Sengupta Stith: Right after 9/11, America really turned on South Asians in a similar way. 

Nagavalli: That's when there was violence that you saw. It's so visceral, right? How you feel in these situations. It's nothing that you're intellectualizing. During that time, I think, some of my male Indian friends were more afraid, in some ways, to venture out into spaces than I was. But still even at a park, at a traffic signal, if I had to stop, there was a sudden discomfort. Who knows how much of it was in my mind versus what was going on outside? The fact that you even feel that way, it's a very unfortunate place to be in when all you want to be is just a good human. You know, you are doing your thing. You're going about your life. You're paying your taxes. 

But then, there were incidents of violence again. Especially our friends from Sikh families, who are pretty traumatized when they hear things like what happened at that Fed Ex (at a facility in Indianapolis, where eight people — many part of the Sikh community — were killed in a mass shooting in April). 

On racism and colorism

Wright: (My family) would tell me stories about my dad being in Asia as a Black man in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those were wild stories. We're at such an interesting time as Asian Americans, because the country as a whole is tackling this issue, congealing around this issue of race once again, in a major way. It clashes so hard with the classic cultural practices in a way that I don't think America has necessarily been able to tackle effectively. I mean, that's part of the melting pot experience. Colorism in the Philippines, you've got the more Spaniard Filipinos and the Chinese Filipinos, and that's a whole internal caste system within their society. When you then have Filipino Americans, how much of that is inherent to the Filipino American culture?

Mars Wright plays soulful funk music as Honey Son. He is sometimes joined by his almost-8-year-old daughter, Olivia.

Soo: I think colorism is, unfortunately, a global phenomenon. There's hardly anywhere in the world where a lighter skin doesn't afford you some sort of privilege. Colonialism and light-skinned privilege being reinforced generation after generation for many thousands of years — it’s hard to undo that. 

I think one of the most heartening things for me was being reminded by so many of my Asian friends across the country, just over a year ago, that you saw so many marches that were Asians for Black Lives, or Asians standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, because everything that we have achieved in terms of gaining acceptance in the American culture has been built upon the shoulders of "blacktivism," right? It has all been in partnerships with other civil rights leaders from other communities. I think we're gonna have this kind of eternal gratitude toward their work.

It is our duty, I think, to continue to uphold the work of Black civil rights movements, not just for our self interest, but also because that's the only way that anybody else starts to receive any kind of parity and equal treatment. If not naturally, by culture, at least recognized by the law as having equal standing. 

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