Great article in The New York Times about Asian American singers and musicians. The article mentions artists such as Charice, David Choi, AJ Rafael, Kina Grannis, Gabe Bondoc, Cathy Nguyen, JR Aquino, Dawen, Jennifer Chung, and more. The entire article posted after the jump.
OVER the last few months the four Filipino-American R&B singers from the San Francisco Bay Area known as Legaci have appeared on some of the biggest stages of American pop. There they were, belting perfect four-part harmony on “Saturday Night Live,” finger-snapping and line-dancing like the Temptations on “The View,” “Ellen” and “Today,” and crooning to a hysterical, sold-out crowd of 15,000 at the annual KIIS-FM Wango Tango blowout in Los Angeles. (They took the stage just after Kesha and Adam Lambert, just before Ludacris and Usher.)
If you’ve never heard of them, chances are you have heard of their boss, the teenage pop heartthrob Justin Bieber. Legaci’s members are his backup singers, which means that their camera time comes in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashes. Onstage they live between bursts of spotlight and the shadows of their perch at stage right. As they performed behind Mr. Bieber on “Saturday Night Live” in April, Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the drummer for the hip-hop tastemakers the Roots, singled them out on Twitter. He gave Mr. Bieber “cool points” for having “the Asian New Edition” as his backup singers.
They just might be the most visible yet invisible pop figures in the world.
Before joining Mr. Bieber’s touring group, they were rising stars on YouTube, now a crucial launching pad for Asian-American artists seeking the kind of exposure rarely afforded them by the mainstream recording industry.
“The stereotype is that we’re violinists or mathematicians,” the cultural critic Oliver Wang said. “So for a lot of industry executives there’s this disconnect when they see an Asian-American singing R&B. But YouTube is chipping away at that. It’s becoming a much more common sight.”
Micah Tolentino, 30, started Legaci with Jason Atencion (who has left the group) under the influence of R&B acts like Boyz II Men and Shai, in 1997, while in high school in Vallejo, Calif.
“Even if most people just know us as Justin Bieber’s Asian backup singers,” Mr. Tolentino said, “we’re proud to be out there, to show the world that Asian-Americans are talented.”
While the pop charts are a familiar home to African-Americans and Latino-Americans, they’ve been less hospitable to Asian-Americans in the United States.
“Asian-Americans are locked out,” said Phil Yu, who runs the pop-culture blog angryasianman.com. “There are definitely elements of racism, but it’s also that audiences are not used to seeing Asian faces on the pop charts or on music videos, and record labels won’t take a chance on that.”
Legaci can list its fellow travelers on one hand. There’s the Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (her father is Filipino), the fledgling Filipino pop star Charice (who sings a duet with Iyaz on her first United States single, “Pyramid” ) and most famously, Allan Pineda, a k a Apl.de.ap, of the Black Eyed Peas.
“Mostly when you see Asian artists, it’s as D.J.’s or producers,” said Mr. Pineda, who was born and raised in the Philippines and immigrated to Los Angeles when he was 11. “You don’t really see people up front as singers or musicians. We’re always part of the background scene. We’re like the quiet storm.”
Mr. Pineda has sneaked two songs in Tagalog, “The Apl Song” and “Bebot,” onto Black Eyed Peas albums. “It’s going to be hard for a Tagalog song to ever be a single for the Peas,” said Mr. Pineda, who has started his own Asian-focused record label, Jeepney Music, and recently recorded “Take Me to the Philippines” under the auspices of the Philippine Tourism Department.
Christine Balance, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, points out that while Latin and black music have longstanding currency in the industry, there’s nothing comparable for Asian-Americans. “How do you market an Asian-American star?” she said. “African-Americans are foundational to U.S. popular culture, and for Latinos there’s the adjective ‘Latin’ music that’s used to describe a variety of musical forms. But Asians are still seen as foreign or alien to mainstream America.”
Yet the one place where Asian-American artists flourish in contemporary pop is on YouTube. The ninth-most-subscribed YouTube musician channel — basically a video home page that fans can subscribe to — belongs to the Korean-American pop singer David Choi (one spot behind Taylor Swift and 12 ahead of Beyoncé). Of the 50 most subscribed music channels at press time, 4 belong to Asian-American artists: AJ Rafael (178,117 subscribers), Kina Grannis (177, 560), Gabe Bondoc (143, 881) and Cathy Nguyen (140, 904). Since posting her rendition of “Airplanes,” the hit collaboration between the rapper B.o.B. and the Paramore singer Hayley Williams, a little over a month ago, Ms. Nguyen’s version has been viewed well over a million times; her take on Jason Mraz’s “Lucky” from a year ago, which begins with her declaring “My nose itches,” has topped five million.
“I never imagined for anything to happen when I posted my videos,” Ms. Nguyen wrote via e-mail. “Although I did secretly want to be a YouTube star.”
Other Asian-Americans with a notable presence on YouTube include singer-songwriters like Melissa Polinar and acoustic soul aspirants like Jr Aquino, Dawen, Jennifer Chung and Melvin Gutierrez.
“Asian-Americans want to see people who look like they do, who reflect their lifestyle, who speak English the same way they speak English,” Mr. Yu said. “Now for a kid growing up the most famous personality for them is not necessarily Lady Gaga but David Choi. That’s a big shift that wouldn’t have happened without YouTube.”
The Asian-American influence on YouTube has even been credited with bolstering the success of Andrew Garcia, a Top 10 finalist on this past season of “American Idol.” Mr. Garcia is Mexican-American, but he is married to a Filipina, and before the show he was on YouTube and had collaborated with Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Rafael. In early April, Legaci posted a video urging its fans to vote for Mr. Garcia.
“It was kind of like Andrew was repping for the Asians,” said Dominic Manuel, 28, of Legaci (Above picture). “The Asian community is very supportive. Once they’re fans, they are rabid fans.”
The members of Legaci contend that many Asian-Americans turn to YouTube because they are unable to break through to the mainstream music industry.
“It’s very rare to hear an Asian-American on the radio,” Mr. Manuel said . “So we all had to find somewhere to go. YouTube levels the playing field. It was our chance to have our voices heard.”
It’s certainly a strategy that has worked for Legaci. The group tried the traditional route when it emerged in the late ’90s as part of a larger Filipino R&B boom in Northern California that included groups like Pinay, DNH and Kai. It performed in clubs and on college campuses, and released two albums of polished throwback R&B that mixed its own songs with covers ( “Little Black Book,” from 2006, and “Sessions,” a year later). The group also auditioned for television talent competitions with open calls: “American Idol,” “The Sing Off,” “America’s Got Talent” and MTV’s “Top Pop Group.”
“We tried them all,” Mr. Tolentino said. “And they all said the same thing, ‘You guys are great, you have great voices, but you’re not what we’re looking for.’ The first couple times we were like, ‘O.K., maybe we didn’t hit it that hard,’ but the more we heard it, we couldn’t help wondering: ‘Is it because of who we are? Because we’re Asian-American?’ We decided that if TV wouldn’t give us a chance, and major labels wouldn’t give us a chance, we would turn to YouTube.”
The amateur aesthetic at the heart of YouTube — singing somebody else’s songs in your bedroom or living room — had long been part of Legaci’s own upbringing. Its members all grew up singing pop and R&B hits on the karaoke machines of their Philippines-born parents.
“Filipino culture is based on performing,” Chris Abad, 28, said. “In the Philippines there’s a cover band in every restaurant, in every club. Everybody knows how to play guitar. You are raised to have music as part of your life. Our parents put that into our minds at a very young age.”
In 2007, Legaci began posting videos of itself doing mostly a cappella covers of Top 40 pop and R&B hits in the living rooms of its members (or of their parents). They were encouraged by the success of another Filipino from the Bay Area, Jeremy Manongdo, known professionally as Passion, who in 2006 went from being an unknown to racking up thousands of subscribers in just a few months.
“We actually had a meeting,” said Delfin Lazaro, 28, of Legaci, who had been a member of another ’90s Filipino R&B group, Next Phaze. “And we said, ‘O.K., we want to be the first Asian-American group to really make it, so how are we going to do this, since we didn’t have any money?’ We dedicated ourselves to our YouTube videos.”
The group has covered a few Boyz II Men classics, slowed Jason Derulo’s sparkling hit “Whatcha Say” into a plaintive, heart-melting ballad, and when it took on Iyaz’s “Replay,” Mr. Tolentino recreated its rhythms and studio effects using old-school hip-hop beat-box vocal techniques.
But it was Legaci’s version of “Baby,” the ubiquitous spring smash by Mr. Bieber, that changed everything. Joined by Ms. Nguyen and the rapper Traphik (another YouTube mainstay), the group stripped “Baby” of its slick production and re-arranged it into a passionate slice of pop.
The video was barely up for one day when the group received a call from Scooter Braun, Mr. Bieber’s manager, who just three years ago had discovered Mr. Bieber in much the same way, watching him perform his own cover versions on YouTube. Mr. Braun was so impressed with Legaci’s take on the song that he invited the group to join Mr. Bieber.
“I absolutely loved what I saw,” Mr. Braun said by phone from the Bahamas, where Mr. Bieber and Legaci were rehearsing for a summer tour. “I really wanted someone to be in the band who was from YouTube, so that Justin could give something back to the community that gave so much to him.”
Only a week after receiving the call Legaci flew to New York for rehearsals and then joined Mr. Bieber live on MTV and on New York’s top pop radio station Z100. The group has been pleasantly surprised by just how much it has been embraced by Mr. Bieber’s fans, many of whom now follow Legaci on Twitter and subscribe to its YouTube channel. The connection is not lost on Mr. Braun, who is working with Legaci on a record deal.
“The amount of exposure they get on the road with Justin is more exposure than they’d ever get working a single with a major label,” he said.
During the tour, which begins on Wednesday in Hartford and comes to Madison Square Garden in August, Mr. Bieber has made room in his set for Legaci to perform one of its own songs. It’s the kind of support that Legaci hopes will help let a generation of young music fans see that it is not unusual for Asian-Americans to be in the spotlight.
“We know how long it’s taken African-American groups to be totally accepted by the mainstream,” said Mr. Lazaro. “That will happen for Asian-Americans too. We want to open that door, and then we’ll bring everyone with us.”