meta-scriptFrom Fanny To Madam Wong's & The GRAMMYs: How The Asian Community Has Impacted Rock | GRAMMY.com
June Millington of Fanny performing black and white
June Millington of all-female rock band Fanny performing in 1973

Photo: Ian Dickson/Redferns

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From Fanny To Madam Wong's & The GRAMMYs: How The Asian Community Has Impacted Rock

While K-pop is Asia’s most dominant musical export today, the continent and its diaspora have a rich rock heritage. GRAMMY.com takes an in-depth look at guitar heroes of Asian descent who have made a significant impact on Western soil.

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2023 - 03:33 pm

While K-pop is Asia’s most dominant musical export today, the continent has a rich rock heritage that has traveled much further than you may imagine. Indeed, while the genre is the result of a cultural interplay between Africa and America (with fruitful trips to the UK), its history encompasses numerous important names whose roots trace to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and beyond. 

Who can forget the impact Yoko Ono had on John Lennon and his post-Beatles career, for example? And then there's the unsung heroes: the Californian restaurant owner who played a vital part in the rise of punk and the little-known '60s singer who single-handedly brought the sounds of the West to Vietnam. 

With the likes of Mitski, Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som now steering a new revolution in rock, what better time to take an in-depth look at the guitar heroes of Asian descent who have made a significant impact on Western soil? 

The Beginnings 

While first- and second-generation Asian artists had previously enjoyed crossover success in the fields of jazz (Toshiko Akiyoshi), doo-wop (the Kim Sisters) and teen pop (Eden Kane) in the first half of the 20th century, the burgeoning rock 'n' roll scene remained out of reach. That is, until a band of Filipino American brothers paid tribute to the post-war era's version of Tony Manero. 

The Rocky Fellers reached No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1963 with "Killer Joe," named in honor of "King of the Discotheque" Killer Joe Piro, and later worked with Neil Diamond on the song "We Got Love." But their sole album on Scepter Records got lost as attention switched to the first British Invasion, and it would be another seven years before a predominantly Asian rock act graced the U.S. singles charts. 

Formed by sisters Jean and June Millington nearly a decade after their family moved to Sacramento, California from the Philippines, four-piece Fanny also broke barriers. As the first all-female outfit to land a major label deal, they paved the way for the Runaways, the Bangles and the Go-Gos (Fanny  drummer Alice de Buhr would later serve as theGo-Gos' publicist).   

Reprise Records reportedly signed Fanny without hearing any of their music — presuming the novelty of four women playing their own instruments was enough of a selling point. The original quartet proved they were far from a mere gimmick, though, with four albums of anthemic rock which inspired David Bowie to hail them as one of the genre's true unsung heroes. Incidentally, the Thin White Duke was the subject of Fanny's biggest hit, "Butter Boy," while Jean was briefly wed to his regular guitarist Earl Slick.  

Bowie was just as enamored with Vodka Collins — a Japanese rock supergroup fronted by native New Yorker (and future Arrows frontman Alan Merrill). The cult favorites are rumored to have inspired one of his many alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust. Sadly, a major financial dispute led to their disbanding shortly after the release of their 1973 debut, Tokyo – New York.  

That album's producer, Masatoshi Hashiba, however, would also steer a more enduring group to the fringes of the mainstream. Fronted by married couple Kazuhiko Katō and Mika Fuku, Sadistic Mika Band supported Roxy Music on their mid-1970s Siren Tour, while drummer Yukihiro Takahashi later co-founded the pioneering Kraftwerk-esque Yellow Magic Orchestra.  

Sadistic Mika Band's name was actually intended to parody the Plastic Ono Band's, the conceptual project co-founded by arguably rock's most prominent Asian crossover artist. Ono helped to push the boundaries of rock music while simultaneously paying homage to her East Asian heritage, drawing upon everything from hetai, a vocal technique hailing from the kabuki form of Japanese theater, to the ancient classical style of Gagaku.  

Released on the same day (and with a similar title) as husband John Lennon's solo debut in 1970, Ono’s debut solo album charted 176 places lower on the Billboard 200. Yet it unarguably had the bigger impact: Its uncompromising avant-garde sound credited with ushering in the birth of punk, alternative rock and no-wave (Sonic Youth, tUnE-yArDs and the Flaming Lips are just a few of the artists who have since acknowledged Ono's influence through collaboration). Ono has occasionally flirted with the mainstream — see 1981 Top 40 single "Walking on Thin Ice" — but it's her fearless experimentalism that positioned her as an icon.  

Continuing the Beatles-adjacent theme, Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar informed much of George Harrison's work, both as a member of the Fab Four and as a solo artist. The pair worked together on several albums and essentially paved the way for Live Aid with 1971's legendary The Concert for Bangladesh, a star-studded benefit show boasting performances from Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan

Of course, some of Asia's most culturally significant artists had to wait decades before receiving their dues. Phuong Tâm, for example, was pivotal in bringing the sounds of the West to the East in the early 1960s Saigon. During her late teenage years, she spent up to eight hours an evening performing Vietnamese compositions heavily inspired by the growing presence of American GIs. 

Tâm's music career was cut short when her army doctor husband landed a job hundreds of miles away. Remarkably, she kept this past life a secret from her own children until a film producer requested the use of her recordings, much of which had been misattributed. Two years later, a compilation assembled by daughter Hà, Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul 1964-1966, finally showcased Tâm's youthful grasp of the genre to a wider audience.  

Formed by brothers David and Romeo Bustamante in San Francisco's  Mission District, the largely Filipino collective Dakila prided themselves on bringing a pan-continental flavor to the early '70s rock scene. They were the first U.S. major label signing to perform material in Tagalog and made a conscious effort to align themselves with various Asian-American causes. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Epic didn't exactly handle such an outlier with the utmost sensitivity. Not only did they instruct producers to meddle with Dakila's self-titled debut behind the group's backs, they also released first single "El Dùbi" with a patronizing spoken word instructional on how to pronounce their song titles. Luckily, the double whammy of a more faithful 50th anniversary reissue and forthcoming documentary Searchin' for My Soul is set to give the first true Asian American rock album some long overdue props.  

The Venues 

The artwork for Dakila's eponymous LP also featured a wicker chair originating from what would become an unlikely hub of the punk scene. At the time, the Mabuhay Gardens was a Filipino restaurant but within  a few years, owner Ness Aquino had joined forces with promoter and punk magazine publisher Jerry Paulsen to reinvent the struggling business as a thriving venue.

The Mab, as it would become known as, attracted some of the West Coast's rowdiest bands including Black Flag, the Nuns and the Dead Kennedys while also welcoming further afield acts such as the Damned and Sex Pistols, hosting one of the latter's final ever shows. Thanks to another sideline in stand-up comedy, the once-flailing business stayed open until 1987.  

This San Francisco joint's pivot into the world of mohawks and safety pins appeared to inspire other Asian proprietors in Southern California. In 1978, promoter Paul Greenstein and owners George and Esther Wong helped to transform Madame Wong's into a haven for West Coast punk. The Chinatown venue had  a strict policy on vandalism: Rumor has it Esther once confronted two of the Ramones about their bathroom wall graffiti while they were still performing on stage.  

Frustrated with such defacing, the Wongs decided to focus on a slightly more "civilized" genre when they opened up a second venue. Madame Wong's West helped put new wave on the Santa Monica map, giving early gigs to the likes of the Police, the Motels and the Knack. But the original remained their bread and butter, which is why a major rivalry — problematically dubbed the Wonton Wars by the local press — started when another nearby struggling eatery muscled in on their territory.  

Barry Seidel, who'd rented out the upstairs banquet hall of Cantonese immigrant Bill Hong's family restaurant Hong Kong Cafe, was much less discerning when it came to wanton destruction. When Madame Wong's prevented anyone under 21 from entering the premises, for example, Seidel made his punk nights all ages.  To placate Hong, Seidel agreed that performers would pay for any damage caused, a much-needed stipulation as  punks with a disregard for crowd capacity regularly broke  in via the roof and air conditioning ducts. 

But by the dawn of the following decade, the punk boom had given way to hardcore, a style too aggressive even for Hong Kong Cafe who called time on its musical endeavors in 1981. Madame Wong's closed its doors for good following a fire six years later, but its West branch stayed open until 1991 having added the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. to its impressive resume. Esther's standing in the community was confirmed in the wake of her 2005 death when the Los Angeles Times dubbed her the "Godmother of Punk."  

The GRAMMY Winners 

Although Larry Ramos of the New Christy Minstrels and the Association, singer/songwriter Yvonne Elliman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma had been nominated at Music's Biggest Night, it wasn't until  1992 that an act of Asian descent won a GRAMMY in a rock category.  

Born to an Indonesian mother, guitar hero Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex picked up Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal for their eponymous group's ninth LP, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Their victory which appeared to open the floodgates. 

Just three years later, Indian American lead guitarist Kim Thayil and Japanese American bassist Hiro Yamamoto helped Soundgarden land Best Metal Performance and Best Hard Rock Performance for their album Superunknown. It was the latter category that Smashing Pumpkins, featuring Japanese American guitarist James Iha, also triumphed in at the 1997 ceremony thanks to "Bullet with Butterfly Wings." In 2002, the same award went to Linkin Park for "Crawling," a track boasting the turntablism skills of Korean American Joe Hahn. And let's not forget Tony Kanal, a child of Indian immigrants, whose basslines steered No Doubt to Best Pop Vocal Album for Rock Steady that same year. 

Remarkably, the most famous rock star of Asian descent never got the chance to make an acceptance speech. Freddie Mercury, whose parents hailed from western India, received four nominations as frontman of Queen. The band was honored with a Lifetime Achievement in 2018, 27 years after his untimely passing.  

It also took decades for another rock giant to hear their name read out. Co-founded in 1985 by Korean American bassist John Myung, prog favorites Dream Theater won Best Metal Performance for "The Alien" in 2022. Also nominated that same year for Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist were Japanese Breakfast, the indie-rock outfit fronted by Korean American Michelle Zauner, and one of several artists spearheading a new wave of Asian American indie rock.  

The Indie Scene 

The first wave of Asian American alternative guitar acts signed to independent labels began to blossom in 1995. It was here when the palindromic Emily's Sassy Lime released their one and only album, Desperate, Scared But Social, through Kill Rock Stars while still at school. One of the few Asian American acts to align themselves with the riot grrrl movement, the all-female trio had to write, record and perform on the odd occasion their parents allowed them a break from their studies. And although they split shortly after graduation, Yao sisters Wendy and Amy remained regulars of the DIY art scene. 

That same  year, Satomi Matsuzaki joined noise-pop experimentalists Deerhoof, another Kill Rock Stars act, in the same week she emigrated from Japan to America. Obviously not averse to throwing herself in the deep end, the bassist/singer headed out on tour with the band just a few days later, too. Having since tackled everything from tropicalia and conceptual prog rock to sheet music experiments and classical ensembles, few contemporary bands have been so brazenly audacious.  

Blonde Redhead, the similarly creative outfit co-founded by Japanese art students Maki Takahashi and Kazu Makino, also released their self-titled debut in 1995. Produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and released through his indie label Smells Like Records, one of the no-wave scene's defining records was followed by equally atmospheric excursions into shoegaze and dreampop, while a guest appearance from Ryuichi Sakamoto on her 2019 first solo effort Adult Baby cemented Makino's status as an icon of the avant-garde. 

A year later, Korean American Mike Park founded Asian Man Records, a predominantly ska/punk label run from his California garage. Park and his label helped kickstart the careers of Stateside cult heroes such as Less Than Jake and Alkaline Trio,  while also giving a platform for acts of Asian heritage including India's Nicotine and Japan's Yoko Utsumi.  

Asian and Asian American indie artists have remained in the public eye through the mid 2010s, crafting devoted followings across the globe. With eight GRAMMY nominations to her name, South Korean-born Karen O has kept the flag flying over the following two decades as the frontwoman of garage punks Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Osaka's Shonen Knife, the one-time Lollapalooza regulars championed by Kurt Cobain, did as much alongside Tokyo's Buffalo Daughter — the Shibuya-kei pioneers who signed to the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. Meanwhile, the music of Cornelius, a.k.a. the  "Japanese" Beck" has graced everything from NFL ads to Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  And then there’s David Pajo, the Filipino American guitarist whose journeyman career has incorporated everyone from Slint and Tortoise to Zwan and Gang of Four.  

The Asian American rock scene has further coalesced in the last few years with women leading the way. Whether it’s the dreamy indie of Leslie Bear's alter ego Long Beard, intimate bedroom pop of Filipino American singer-songwriter Jay Som or, perhaps most notably, the sonic adventurism of Japanese American Mitski.  

Indeed, Mitski's  2018 LP Be the Cowboy was named Album of the Year by both Pitchfork and Vulture, and she received an Oscar nod for her contribution to the soundtrack of Everything Everywhere All at Once alongside New York post-rockers Son Lux, two-thirds of whom are also of Asian descent In another landmark in Asian American representation Mitski had also previously invited Som and Japanese Breakfast to provide support on her North American tour.

And with indie chameleons such as Korean Canadian Luna Li, American Korean Deb Never and Chinese American Sofya Wang all emerging in the 2020s, the future seems bright, too. Indeed, despite concerns the convergence of artists with Asian heritage would be dismissed as a passing fad,  it’s clear that rock grounded in this community is thriving stronger than ever before. 

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Alex Ritchie, Emily Vu, Myra Molloy, Alex Aiono, Brooke Alexx in collage
(From left) Alex Ritchie, Emily Vu, Myra Molloy, Alex Aiono, Brooke Alexx

Photos: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images; Robin L Marshall/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images; Disney/PictureGroup; Sam Morris/Getty Images

list

10 Exciting AAPI Artists To Know In 2024: Audrey English, Emily Vu, Zhu & Others

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, get to know 10 up-and-coming AAPI artists — including Alex Ritchie, Curtis Waters and others — whose music spans geography and genre.

GRAMMYs/May 13, 2024 - 01:16 pm

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have made strides in the music industry for many years. Every year, more AAPIs enter executive roles in the industry, increasing their visibility and impact.

Artists in the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora — including Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak), Olivia Rodrigo, and H.E.R. — have graced the stage and won golden gramophones at Music's Biggest Night. During 2024 GRAMMY Week, the Recording Academy collaborated with Gold House and Pacific Bridge Arts Foundation to create the Gold Music Alliance, a program designed to foster meaningful connections and elevate the impact of Pan-Asian members and allies within the Academy and wider music industry. 

Yet, AAPI groups are significantly underrepresented in the music industry. Pacific Islanders are often forgotten when it comes to lists and industry due to their smaller percentage in the population.

Despite the lack of representation, social media and streaming platforms have introduced fans to new and rising artists such as Chinese American pop singer Amber Liu, Japanese American singer/songwriter Mitski, and Hawaiian native Iam Tongi. Others are showcasing their sound on the festival circuit, as San Francisco-based indie rocker Tanukichan and Korean American guitarist NoSo did at last year's Outside Lands festival. With AAPI-led music festivals, such as 88 Rising’s Head in the Clouds and Pacific Feats Festival, artists in this community are given opportunities to exhibit their talent and, often, their heritage. 

For many emerging artists, a like, reshare, or subscribe can help them gain the attention of mainstream studios and bolster tour attendance. So, in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, check out these 10 up-and-coming AAPI artists performing everything from pop to soulful R&B and EDM. 

Alex Aiono

Maori-Samoan American singer Alex Aiono moved to Los Angeles from Phoenix at 14 to pursue a music career. After going viral for his mashup of Drake's "One Dance" and Nicky Jam’s "Hasta el Amanecer," Aiono now has over 5.73 million YouTube subscribers. He was then cast in several popular films and television series, including Netflix’s Finding Ohana, Disney Channel’s "Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.," and "Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin."

But, for the 28-year-old R&B/pop singer, music has always been his calling. Aiono released several singles and, in 2020, a full-length album, The Gospel at 23. Inspired by his experience in Hollywood and his relationship with his religion (as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), The Gospel at 23 plays on the simplicity of a piano, drums, tambourine, and a choir, beautifully fusing modern soul with the old-fashioned gospel. Since then, the artist has released tender medleys – with his most recent heartbreaking single "Best of Me."

"I view this as a very, very lucky life that I get to express myself and that's my job," he told AZ Central. "My quote-unquote job."

Alex Ritchie

L.A.-based singer/songwriter Alex Ritchie has been honest about her journey as a queer mixed-Asian woman in the industry. The Filipino-Japanese-Spanish artist said she was constantly overlooked or told she wouldn’t be commercial enough in the American music industry.

"I’m the only musician in my family, and I came from a family of humble means; so even though I had conviction in what I wanted from a young age, it wasn’t realistic," Ritchie told GRAMMY.com in 2019. said. "Pursuing something like entertainment was so risky. I couldn’t afford to fail. We couldn’t afford to dream like that. BUT I had unrealistic dreams anyway, and after my first gig at the Whisky I knew that was it."

Ritchie has been thriving in the industry, becoming the youngest sitting committee member in the history of the Recording Academy’s Los Angeles Chapter, advocating for LGBTQ+ and Asian American representation in music. After her experience with GRAMMYU in 2019, the alternative rock singer released 404 EP and several sultry singles, including a melodious and fervent love song, "Blueprint," released this January. Ritchie plans on releasing more music and on her terms. 

"Time and people have finally caught up with the vision that I always had for myself, even if they didn’t see it before," Ritchie tells the Recording Academy. "One of the things I’m most proudest of is that I never really changed. I’ve stayed exactly who I am to the core. I think when you do that and when you realize there’s no one else like you, you become the most powerful person in the room."

Audrey English

**You may not have heard of Audrey English, but you have heard her music on "America’s Got Talent," "American Idol," and Netflix’s "Love Is Blind." Her songs are featured on the shows during the most prominent moments of the contestants’ lives on screen: In "AGT" and "American Idol," English’s rendition of "Lean On Me" played during golden buzzer moments and emotional arcs; er song "Mama Said" went viral after being played during Ad and Clay’s wedding scene in season 6 of "Love Is  Blind."

Inspired by Etta James, Nina Simone, and Amy Winehouse, the Samoan American artist swoons audiences with her soulful, powerful tone with songs that focus on relationships, empowerment, and love. English also showcases her culture in her videos; in the music video for her harrowing ballad "Happy," English featured the beauty of Samoa alongside a Samoan romantic love interest. She hopes one day to write a Samoan song. 

In her latest single "Unapologetic," released on April 25, English wrote the song as an anthem for others to live without shame. "In a world where we are so influenced by others, social media, and being our own worst critics - sometimes we need to take a step back to realize it all doesn’t really matter," English wrote on Instagram. "Regardless of your beliefs, background, and passions, this is a call to be authentically you, however, you define that!"

Brooke Alexx

**Brooke Alexx’s bubblegum pop personality is infectious, and her catchy hooks, including her latest pop-rock single, "Hot Like You," are fit for everyone’s summer playlist.

Alexx has never shied away from revealing intimate parts of her life. The Japanese American artist writes her music from her experiences as the oldest child, being best friends with her exes’ moms, and her connection to her Asian roots. 

In her 2022 gentle ballad, "I’m Sorry, Tokyo," Alexx reveals the shame she once felt for not wanting to learn about her Japanese heritage, as well as the guilt she feels for never learning the language and culture. "There’s so much about the culture that I don’t know and missed out on that would be so cool to be a part of my life now," Alexx told Mixed Asian Media. "So, I’m trying to return to those roots a little bit these days."

She is now making up for lost time. Alexx embraces her Japanese heritage and will visit the country in August with a select group of fans

Curtis Waters

Curtis Waters doesn’t care for commercial success. Despite going viral on TikTok in 2020 for his raunchy, satirical, catchy song "Stunnin," the Nepalese Canadian-American alt-pop artist was unhappy with his career trajectory.

"I made some songs that I don’t fully love, hoping they would catch the same success as 'Stunnin’," Waters told Atwood Magazine. "But doing that made me depressed, so I had to stop and remind myself why I started making music in the first place."

Water's new album, Bad Son, was released on March 27. His press release says it is "a true immigrant story, a reflection on a young, brown creative being thrown into the mainstream overnight while navigating deep issues of self-doubt and cultural identity along the way."  

Waters didn’t intend to share his immigrant story but struck inspiration as a way to cope emotionally and be honest with himself. Filled with high-energy beats, elements of indie rock, and experimental hip-hop, Waters reveals an ardent part of himself through his breathy vocals and introspective tracks.

Emily Vu 

Vietnamese American pop singer Emily Vu has accomplished much in her 22 years: She amassed over 1.2 million followers on TikTok, her song "Changes" was featured in the 2023 Netflix film A Tourist’s Guide to Love, and is part of the Mastercard Artist Accelerator program. Her catchy pop tunes, including the recently released single "Heartsick," are inspired by personal moments in her life.

Vu has always been open and sure about her identity as a queer Asian woman. She came out in her 2020 music video for "Just Wait," which featured numerous women symbolizing her previous relationships. "The music video reflects how my past relationships are still burdens to me and how I still carry those experiences with me wherever I am," Vu told Stanford Daily, "I see myself being really happy with my life in a few years. I want to be happy with all that I’ve been doing and all the people I’m around."

Four years later, Vu still releases music and captivating fans on TikTok with her earthy vocals and angelic covers. Vu tells her followers on TikTok, "I just want to let you all know that I’m back. I’m going to be annoying you all every single day until I get bored."

Etu

Fijian American artist Etu is ready for the new era of the island industry, which is expanding far beyond island reggae and into different genres. "We got artists who do pop, R&B, and country. We’re going to embrace the things we bring into this," the island pop singer told Island Mongul.

Inspired by artists like Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, and Fiji, etu's hypnotic and haunting vocals fuse beautifully with traditional island music. The dreamy track "Au Domoni Iko" ("I love you" in Fijian), from his 2022 EP Spring Break, lays smooth harmonies over Fijian beats. The EP itself is filled with memorable melodies, upbeat pop styles, and uplifting lyrics. 

Etu has released singles for the past two years, including island renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s "True Colors" and Rihanna’s "Lift Me Up" in February. He’s set to release his debut album, SZN I,this summer. 

Etu believes Pacific Islanders are on the cusp of greatness in the music industry. "This is our moment right now," he continued to Island Mogul. "We’re moving into this era, in this season, where we get to make history… Come join this part of history or they're gonna tell it for us."

Myra Molloy

Thai American singer and actress Myra Molloy was merely 13 years old when she won "Thailand's Got Talent." She continued working in Thailand on Broadway productions and landed in the Top 6 of ABC’s Rising Star. As she pursued a music degree from Berklee College of Music, she found her love for music production and songwriting.

In 2021, Molloy dropped the sweet acoustic "stay." During the pandemic, she decided to apply the skills she acquired from college to her EP, unrequited. Released in November 2023, the album blends Molloy's soulful vocals with organic and electronic dance beats. It also marks her producing debut. 

"The hardest part for me was overcoming this impostor syndrome that I couldn’t be a producer (who was taken seriously, haha)," Molloy told Melodic Magazine. "Or that I wasn’t good enough to put out music I self-produced. I always give myself a hard time. But I feel like once I got into this "flow state," things just kind of came to me very quickly and naturally, and I would come out of a producing trance. Top ten best feelings."

As an AAPI advocate, Molloy has long called for more inclusion in television, film, and music. "I just want to see more. We are coming along slowly, but I want that to be faster. It should be more. I just want to see people taking more initiative." 

Shreea Kaul 

R&B singer Shreea Kaul embraces her Indian heritage by fusing her silky falsetto and soulful pitch with South Asian and Bollywood sounds. Her "Tere Bina" and its accompanying music video are heavily influenced by her cultural upbringing.

Kaul wanted to be a crossover artist for Western and Indian audiences but found the lack of foundation for South Asian music challenging. 

"There's so much power in community, especially in the South Asian community. We stick together. We support one another. The talent is undeniable. It's only a matter of time before people are going to catch on," she said on the "DOST" podcast. "What a lot of platforms are doing right now by bringing South Asian talent to the map is exactly what we need. So I've been trying to get myself into these spaces or just be around the community more because that's what it's going to take."

On her 2021 single "Ladke" (Hindi for "boys"), Kaul contacted fellow South Asian singer REHMA to collaborate on the song. The harmonious R&B track smoothly fuses Western elements with South Asian languages. Kaul received an overwhelmingly positive response for the song, which motivated her to keep going.

"There’s a spot in the market for artists like myself—for South Asian artists, in general," says Kaul. "Whatever degree of South Asian you want to be and incorporate into your music, there’s space for it."

ZHU

Chinese American experimental EDM music producer ZHU recorded his fourth studio album inside the historic Grace Cathedral. Released in March and fittingly titled Grace, it blends trap, gospel, dance, rock, and pop with synths, organs, and strings to create a sinister, sensual tone that perfectly complements his signature sultry vocals.

Grace pays homage to the legacy of the Bay Area and its impact on his life. "The recording of this project, as well as the whole purpose and design and visuals, has a lot of tribute to [San Francisco] thematically. I think a lot of people don’t even know that I grew up there," ZHU told EDM Identity.  

At the end of the recording, ZHU and his team donned black cloaks and held a concert in the cathedral, sharing the new album with thousands of lucky fans who could attend. Like the symbolism of the cathedral, ZHU’s album represented the themes of religion and his connection to home.

"I’ve never really shared a part of the city, but I think it’s time to pay some tribute to some of the great influences that have come through the area," says ZHU

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Sean Ono Lennon at 2024 Oscars
Sean Ono Lennon attends the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

Photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

interview

Catching Up With Sean Ono Lennon: His New Album 'Asterisms,' 'War Is Over!' Short & Shouting Out Yoko At The Oscars

Sean Ono Lennon is having a busy year, complete with a new instrumental album, 'Asterisms,' and an Oscar-winning short film, 'War is Over!' The multidisciplinary artist discusses his multitude of creative processes.

GRAMMYs/May 2, 2024 - 02:23 pm

Marketing himself as a solo musician is a little excruciating for Sean Ono Lennon. It might be for you, too, if you had globally renowned parents. Despite his musical triumphs over the years, Lennon is reticent to join the solo artist racket.

Which made a certain moment at the 2024 Oscars absolutely floor him: Someone walked up to Lennon and told him "Dead Meat," from his last solo album, 2006's Friendly Fire, was his favorite song ever. Not just on the album, or by Lennon. Ever.

"I was so shocked. I wanted to say something nice to him, because it was so amazing for someone to say that," Lennon tells GRAMMY.com. "But it was too late anyway." (Thankfully, after he tweeted about that out-of-nowhere moment, the complimenter connected with him.)

It's a nice glimmer of past Lennon, one who straightforwardly walked in his father's shoes. But what's transpired since 2006 is far more interesting than any Beatle mini-me.

Creatively, Lennon has a million irons in the fire — with the bands the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, the Claypool Lennon Delirium, his mom's Plastic Ono Band, and beyond.

And in 2024, two projects have taken center stage. In February, he delivered his album Asterisms, a genreless instrumental project with a murderer's row of musicians in John Zorn's orbit, released on Zorn's storied experimental label Tzadik Records. Then just a few weeks later, his 2023 short film War is Over! — for which he co-wrote the original story, and is inspired by John Lennon and Yoko Ono's timeless peace anthem "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" — won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

On the heels of the latter, Lennon sat down with GRAMMY.com to offer insights on both projects, and how they each contributed to "really exciting" creative liberation.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You shouted out your mom at the Oscars a couple of months back. How'd that feel?

Well, honestly, it felt really cosmic that it was Mother's Day [in the UK]. So I just kind of presented as a gift to her. It felt really good. It felt like the stars were aligning in many ways, because she was watching. It was a very sweet moment for me.

What was the extent of your involvement with the War Is Over! short?

Universal Music had talked to me about maybe coming up with a music video idea. I had been trying to develop a music video for a while, and I didn't like any of the concepts; it just felt boring to me.

The idea of watching a song that everyone listens to already, every year, with some new visual accompaniment — it didn't feel that interesting. So, I thought it'd be better to do a short film that kind of exemplifies the meaning of the song, because then, it would be something new and interesting to watch.

That's when I called my friend Adam Gates, who works at Pixar. I was asking him if he had any ideas for animators, or whatever. I knew Adam because he had a band called Beanpole. [All My Kin] was a record he made years ago with his friends, and never came out. It's this incredible record, so I actually put it out on my label, Chimera Music.

But Adam couldn't really help me with the film, because he's still contractually with Pixar, and they have a lot of work to do. But he introduced me to his friend Dave Mullins, who's the director. He had just left Pixar to start a new production company. He could do it, because he was independent, freelance.

Dave and I had a meeting. In that first meeting, we were bouncing around ideas, and we came up with the concept for the chess game and the pigeon. I wanted it to be a pigeon, because I really love pigeons, and birds. We wrote it together, and then we started working on it.

So, I was there from before that existed, and I saw the thing through as well. I also brought in Peter Jackson to do the graphics. 

This message unfortunately resonates more than ever. Republicans used to be the war hawks; now, it's Democrats. What a reversal.

It just feels like we live in an upside-down world. Something happened where we went through a wormhole, and we're in this alternate reality. I don't know how it happened. But it's not the only [example]; a lot of things just seem absolutely absurd with the world these days.

But hopefully, it points toward something better. I try to be optimistic. In the Hegelian dialectic, you have to have a thesis and antithesis, and the synthesis is when they fuse to become a better idea. So, I'm hoping that all the tension in society right now is what the final stage of synthesis looks like.

How'd the filmmaking process roll on from there?

Dave had made a really great short film called LOU when he was at Pixar; that was also nominated for an Oscar. He and [producer] Brad [Booker] know a ton of talented people; they have an amazing character designer.

We started sending files back and forth with WingNut in New Zealand; they would be adding the skins to the characters.

One of the first stages was the performance capture, where you basically attach a bunch of ping pong balls to a catsuit and a bicycle helmet. You record the position of these ping pong balls in a three-dimensional space. That gives you the performance that you map the skins onto on the computer later on. 

For a couple of years, there was a lot of production. David and his team did a really good job of inventing and designing uniforms for the imaginary armies that never existed, because we really didn't want to identify any army as French or British or German or anything.

We wanted to get a kind of parallel universe — an abstraction of the First World War. We designed it so that one army was based on round geometry, and the other was based on angular geometry.

It was a long process, and it was really fun. I learned a lot about modern computer animation.

Between Em Cooper's GRAMMY-winning "I'm Only Sleeping" video and now this, the Beatles' presence in visual media is expanding outward in a cool way.

I think we've been really fortunate to have a lot of really great projects to give to the world. I've only been working on the Beatles and John Lennon stuff directly in the last couple of years, and it's been really exciting for me.

And a big challenge, obviously, because I don't [hesitates] want to f— up. [Laughs.] But it's been a real honor. And I'm very grateful to my mom for giving me the freedom to try all these wacky ideas. Because a lot of people are like, "Oh, when are you going to stop trying to rehash the past with the Beatles, or John Lennon?"

Because the modern world is as it is, I feel like we have a responsibility to try to make sure that the Beatles and John Lennon's music remains out there in the public consciousness, because I think it's really important. I think the world needs to remember the Beatles' music, and remember John and Yoko. It's really about making sure we don't get lost in the white noise of modernity.

I love Asterisms. Where are you at in your journey as a guitarist? I'm sure you unlocked something here.

Like it's a video game. It's weird — I don't even consider myself a guitar player. I'm just, like, a software. But I think it's more about confidence — because it's really hard for me to get over my insecurity with playing and stuff.

For so many different reasons, it's probably just the way I'm designed — being John and
Yoko's kid, growing up with a lot of preconceived notions or expectations about me, musically.

So, it's always been hard to accept myself as a musician, and this was kind of a lesson in getting over myself. Accepting what I wanted to play, and just doing it.

This is my Tzadik record, so it had to be all these fancy, amazing musicians. It doesn't matter what your chops are: it's more about how you feel, and the feeling you bring to your performance.

Once we recorded, it sounded amazing, because we recorded live to tape. So, everything on that album is live, except for my guitar solos. I didn't play my solos live, because I had to play the rhythm guitar. I was just paying attention to the band and cueing people. Once we finished the basic tracks, it just took us a couple of days, and it was done.

It was the simplest record I've ever done, because there were no vocals, so there wasn't a lot of mixing process. We recorded live to 16-track tape, and it was done.

I caught wind a couple of years back that you were working on another solo record simultaneously. Is that true?

I was working on a solo record of songs with lyrics. I finished it, and — I don't know, I think this speaks to the mental problems I have — but I didn't like it suddenly, and i never put it out. I just felt weird about it. I think I overthought it or something.

Then Zorn asked me to do an instrumental thing, and it was a no-brainer, because I've been a fan my whole life. The idea of getting to do something on his label was really an honor.

I got turned on to so many amazing musicians from Zorn, like Joey Baron, Dave Douglas, Kenny Wolleson, and Marc Ribot. Growing up in New York, that's always been my idea of where the greatest musicians are — Zorn and his gang.

Why'd you feel weird about the other album? Did it just not have the juice?

It's not that I didn't think it had the juice. I just got uncomfortable with the idea of putting out a solo record, and the whole process. I got nervous. I still think it's good. But I don't know if it's good enough to warrant me releasing it.

That's fine playing in bands, like the [Claypool Lennon] Delirium and GOASTT [Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger]. It takes a degree of unnecessary pressure off of making music. But as soon as your actual birth name is on the record, it starts to feel uncomfortable for me.

People are ruthless today, period. But they're especially critical of me with music. So, it's like, Do I really need to do that s—? It's a little more awkward: "I, myself, Sean Lennon, am putting out my art, and here it is." I'd rather be part of the band.

The Beatles' Final Song: Giles Martin On The Second Life Of "Now And Then" & How The Fab Four Are "Still Breaking New Ground"

AAPI Month Playlist 2024 Hero
(From left) ATEEZ, YOASOBI, Peggy Gou, Kanon of Atarashi Gakko!, Diljit Dosanjh, Laufey

Photos: KQ Entertainment; KATO SHUMPEI; Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Medios y Media/Getty Images; Presley Ann/Getty Images for Coachella; Lauren Kim

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Leap Into AAPI Month 2024 With A Playlist Featuring Laufey, Diljit Dosanjh, & Peggy Gou

Celebrate AAPI artists this May with a genre-spanning playlist spotlighting festival headliners and up-and-coming musicians. From Korean hip-hop to Icelandic jazz-pop, listen to some of the most exciting artists from the Asian diaspora.

GRAMMYs/May 1, 2024 - 02:47 pm

With spring just around the corner, it’s time to welcome AAPI Month in full blossom. From rising musical artists to inspiring community leaders, it’s essential to recognize AAPI members of the artistic world and their achievements.

While AAPI Month is a U.S. holiday, the Recording Academy takes a global approach in celebrating artists and creators from across the Asian and Asian American diaspora. This aligns with the Recording Academy's growing mission to expand its reach on a global scale and celebrate international creators outside of the U.S.  

Musicians of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage have not only helped establish the music industry, but have transformed it. From Diljit Dosanjh being the first artist to play a Coachella set entirely in Punjabi to Laufey winning a GRAMMY for her jazz-inspired pop, AAPI artists continue to influence music by both honoring tradition and reshaping modern standards.

It’s thrilling to see AAPI musicians continue to take centerstage — from Atarashi Gakko! to Tiger JK’s memorable sets at Coachella, to surprise appearances from Olivia Rodrigo, Dominic Fike, and Towa Bird. As festival season gets underway, examples of the AAPI starpower from every corner of the world abound.

As one of many ways to celebrate AAPI Month, listen to the GRAMMY.com playlist below — as a reminder to give AAPI musicians not just their May flowers, but their flowers all year-round!

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MAN WITH A MISSION

Photo: Michito Goto

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Global Spin: Japanese Rock Band MAN WITH A MISSION Tear Up The Stage With An Electric Performance Of "Fly Again"

The half-man, half-wolf Japanese metal band MAN WITH A MISSION throw down on stage in this live performance of "Fly Again," a track from their 2011 self-titled album.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2023 - 05:00 pm

Japanese rockers MAN WITH A MISSION don't reveal their aesthetic in dribs and drabs; within mere seconds, you know what they're all about. And that's getting hyped — in the wolfiest of ways.*

Donning their signature canine headgear, the heavy Japanese collective gets throngs of disciples turnt up as they absolutely lay into a rendition of "Fly Again." The feeling is so new/ Believe in what you do," goes one verse. "Don't you ever be afraid in losing/ That's the clue." A wolf's creed indeed!

In this episode of Global Spin, raise a glass to AAPI month with this hair-raising live performance by a group at the vanguard of Japanese heaviness. And if you'd like to join the thrilled masses in this video, MAN WITH A MISSION are in the midst of a North American tour.

Enjoy MAN WITH A MISSION's electrifying performance of "Fly Again" above, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Global Spin.

From Fanny To Madam Wong's & The GRAMMYs: How The Asian Community Has Impacted Rock