We’re wrapping up Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and there’s a lot to celebrate! We’re highlighting a few of our favorite Asian and Pacific Islander women musicians and putting their songs on loop.
Grammy-award winner H.E.R aka Gabriella Samiento Wilson started her musical career incredibly young. The multi-instrumentalist was only 10 years old when she performed live on the Today show, playing the piano and singing Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You, demonstrating her rich vocal chops and setting the stage for what would later become a full-fledged musical career.
H.E.R is a Black and Filipina American, who was recently on the cover of Vogue Philippines, talking about her family’s history, favorite Filipino foods, and how she tries to connect to her culture in unique ways. While reprising the role of Belle for the live-taped performance of Beauty and the Beast (alongside Josh Groban and Rita Moreno) she paid tribute to her Filipino heritage by having an artist write out the name “Belle” on her costume, using the Filipino pre-colonial writing system called Baybayin.
Indie-pop sensation Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, took the music world by storm with the release of her debut studio album Psychopomp. The Korean-American artist has not only gained critical acclaim for her music (she won Record of the Year at last year’s Libera Awards for Jubilee), she also penned the #1 New York Times Bestseller memoir Crying in H Mart, chronicling her experiences growing up in a Korean-American household, the death of her mother and the “reckoning with her identity that brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.” The incredible dream-pop artist is going on tour this summer, so check out her website to see if she’s performing near you!
Disney-darling and queen of teenage angst, Olivia Rodrigo, has made herself a household name over the past few years. The Filipina-American musician has won over 60 awards across the country for her music and is only just beginning. Her debut album Sour is the longest-running debut album in the Billboard 200 Top 10 in this century! Not only is she a songwriting prodigy, she’s also an inspiration for other young Asian American girls looking for more representation in their media. “I sometimes get DMs from little girls being like, ‘I’ve never seen someone who looked like me in your position,'” Rodrigo shared in an interview with VMagazine “And I’m literally going to cry, like just thinking about it. I feel like I grew up never seeing that.”
Hoku, born Hoku Christian Ho, is the soundtrack of every 2000s girl’s stroll down memory lane. The Native Hawaiian pop singer was responsible for some of the era’s most persistent ear-worms including her debut single, Another Dumb Blonde, that was released in 2000 and was the theme song to the Snow Day.
Hoku’s most iconic tune Perfect Day was the introduction song on Legally Blonde, it was the background to Elle Woods getting ready, the start of one of the most important films in cinematic history. While her singing career was short lived, her impact lives on!
Bedroom-pop baby Melina Mae Cortez Duterte aka Jay Som rose from her DIY roots into stardom after the release of Everybody Works in 2017. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Jay Som cites her culture and family history as an influence on her music. “I am Filipino-American, both of my parents moved from the Philippines to live here. I grew up in a very obviously Filipino household with those cultural customs because my mom is just like that,” she told She Shreds, “I was supportive because I knew they understood their position in the US, like everything wasn’t going to be handed to them, they knew they had to work hard and they did work very hard when I was growing up. At a young age I really understood that, it definitely tied into my views of music.” Jay Som’s dreamy vocals are always backed by a dreamy mix of electric and slide guitarlayerd with other sparse elements that create her addicting cinematic soundscapes.
Raja Kumari, born Svetha Yallapragada Rao, is an Indian-American rapper and classical dancer, trained in Kuchipudi, Kathak, and Bharatanatyam styles. After discovering the Fugees’ album The Score in fifth grade, the world of hip hop opened up to her. By the age of 14, she was a recognized freestyle MC and has blossomed an incredible career in the years since. She has collaborated with musicians such as Fall Out Boy, T.I., Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony as well as solo career. In 2020, her single Attention Everybody was released, where she performs in her native language, Telugu. And if that wasn’t incredible enough, last year she started her own independent record label, Godmother Records.
It’s hard to get more iconic than Karen O, the Korean-American lead vocalists of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Born in Seoul, Karen O moved to New Jersey and later attended Oberlin College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she and her future bandmates formed the band that would go on to be colleagues with legends such as The Strokes, The White Stripes, and other aughts garage/post-punk revivalists. With hits from every album including Heads Will Roll, Maps, Gold Lion and Date With the Night, Karen O is responsible for some of the era’s most memorable tunes.
While interviewing Japanese Breakfast for Interview Magazine, Karen O stated, “There was no one out there I could relate to in that specific way. There were definitely a few mega inspirations and influences, and I was trying to think of some who aren’t white, because the entertainment and music industry is highly populated by white folks. I remember seeing Kazu Makino, from Blonde Redhead perform, just whipping herself across the stage, and I felt this envy, like, ‘Man, I want to be able to do that.’ There were no Korean or Korean-American rockers I could turn to, but there were a few Japanese girls, like in Cibo Matto, that were pretty awesome. But what really drove me towards music was the misfit mentality.”
Lesbian queen Hayley Kiyoko, started her career off strong– with pop-star Vitamin C asking her to join an all-girls singing group, The Stunners. That band created a number of songs, including Let’s Hear it for the Boy which was featured on the iCarly soundtrack. After an impressive stint in acting, the Japanese-American singer released her debut EP A Belle to Remember, kicking off her solo musical career. Hit singles including Girls Like Girls, Demons, Cherry, and What I Need has cemented her role as a pop star.
“Growing up biracial — my mom’s Japanese Canadian and my dad’s Caucasian — it took a long time for me to really connect and embrace my Asian heritage,” Kiyoko told PEOPLE. “I was never white enough, I was never Asian enough, but I also was never straight enough. For most of my adolescence, my sexuality kind of took over my struggle with fitting into society, and then as I was able to learn and accept myself, later in life, I started to unpack my culture and my roots.”
The hypnotizing Raveena released her second album Asha’s Awakening last year, a concept album from the perspective of a Punjabi space princess. The album received a lot of critical and mass acclaim– with Eric Torres from Pitchfork describing her sound as “like slipping beneath a down blanket at the end of the night.” Raveena’s parents are Indian Punjabi immigrants who moved to Connecticut to raise their family. Raveena’s ethereal vocals are so stunningly crisp, her recordings sound like they’re being played right in the room with you. Just last year, she became the first Indian woman to play at Coachella, stating “absolutely nuts that it took that long for an Indian to be invited to play there.”
“I hope I can push the ways in which South Asian artists are received in the West,” said Reveena in an interview with SheThePeople. “ We are sensual, beautiful, and talented and have so much to offer in high art spaces. Our art is truly magnificent and so many of us need more chances to shine on the world stage. I hope I can be a small part of that eventual cultural shift.”
Mitski Miyawaki, known by her mononym Mitski, is a Japanese and American singer-songwriter that has climbed the ranks in the last decade. After releasing her first two albums while studying at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music, she graduated, moved to the city and released her third album Bury Me at Makeout Creek on Double Double Whammy records in 2014. That album, and the next album Puberty 2, garnered critical acclaim from around the world. Just last year she won “Best Live Performer” at the AIM Independent Music Awards. While talking to Dead Oceans, she reflected on feeling “half Japanese, half American but not fully either” – an idea she confronts on the clever ‘Your Best American Girl’ – a super-sized punk-rock hit created to deconstruct and poke fun at that genre’s surplus of white males. “I wanted to use those white-American-guy stereotypes as a Japanese girl who can’t fit in, who can never be an American girl,” she explained.
Stream These and Other Incredible Asian and Pacific Islander Musicians Below
Top photo: images from the instagram pages of: H.E.R., Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som, Olivia Rodrigo, Hoku, Raveena, Hayley Kiyoko, Raja Kumari, and Karen O