After working for over fifteen years in the UK music industry, I decided to write out a list of fellow British East and Southeast Asian professionals in the industry. I struggled to come up with 10 people.
In September 2021, I co-founded ESEA Music: a community group led by and for ESEA (East & Southeast Asian) artists and music industry professionals in the UK, with my friend and fellow ESEA music industry professional Hiroki Shirasuka. A year on from the original list, ESEA Music now has over 180 ESEA members from all corners of the industry, including artists like Rina Sawaywama, Congee, Yunè Pinku, Lucinda Chua and Miso Extra, and professionals at companies like Spotify, Beggars, Sony and BBC.
'There are many reasons I wanted to set up ESEA Music, but underlying all of them was anger.'
Within the lexicon of ethnicity-based organising in the UK, 'ESEA' is a relatively new transnational identity compared to, say, 'South Asian' or 'Black'. Even within the 'British Asian' identity there is nuance – the word 'Asian' has traditionally stood for South Asian in the UK, whilst the 'Asian American' cultural identity has East Asian at the forefront. In a nutshell, the experience of ESEA folks in the UK (especially the middle class) can be described by the phenomenon of the 'model minority myth', where we are seen as palatable to the white majority only insofar as we are hardworking, studious and quiet. Dr Diana Yeh, a Chinese British academic, describes ESEA cultural practices as '"visible but unseen", present in the social and cultural fabric but rendered invisible within the social and cultural imagination.' ESEA Music therefore aims to not only offer a supportive network and sense of belonging for our community, but to push concertedly for meaningful ESEA representation and empowerment in the UK music industry.'
This September is ESEA Heritage Month, which our friends at the grassroots non-profit besea.n organised for the first time last year. Now, as we come into the second ever ESEA Heritage Month, it feels fitting to take stock of our community’s experiences in the UK music industry, and personally too, to reflect on my journey towards turning this idea into a reality.
There are many reasons I wanted to set up ESEA Music, but underlying all of them was anger.
'There was a critical omission of Asian people from the much needed discussions about racial inequality in this industry that were happening.'
After unsuccessful attempts to do diversity work inside the music industry, I went back to school. I took an evening class at Goldsmiths on gender and race in popular culture taught by Aditi Jaganathan, and took part in a series of teach-ins run by researcher Jemma Desai, who published This Work Isn’t For Us. These spaces changed me forever. Engaging with Black and brown feminist thinking in this way challenged me to move on from corporatised diversity and inclusion as a means to find equality, to more conscious notions of what liberation and freedom for all could be. I understood that it took something more, something external.
In the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, many across the music industry participated in Black Out Tuesday campaigns calling out racism. As I witnessed this necessary outrage take hold, taking part in diversity discussions only made me more angry. It felt like the music industry was only worrying about damage control – should we post a black square or not? Do we have enough Black artists on our roster? Should we say anything to our Black employees? It seemed like political posturing to protect reputations and, ultimately, power. Instead of being defensive, white executives and leadership needed to show the work of real self-reflection and care through concrete action and over time, not just read Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
These discussions were happening at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian racism. There was a critical omission of Asian people from the much needed discussions about racial inequality in this industry that were happening. The climate was hostile, with anti-Asian hate crimes becoming commonplace around the world. In March 2021, the Atlanta shootings happened. I was totally devastated. That tragedy felt like a real watershed moment for the ESEA community in Britain as well as the States – the outpouring of grief and anger was palpable. Adding insult to injury, the UK was (and still is) led by the least progressive government of my lifetime, that boasts about having an ethnically diverse cabinet. Kehinde Andrews warned of this diversity-washing: 'Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s "diverse" cabinet. Tory racism hasn’t changed.'
'I wanted to do something tangible with all I had learned – from my experiences in the industry, from therapy, and from my studies in colonialism and historical dynamics of oppression.'
Yet, as a woman of Asian descent, anger wasn’t something I was supposed to express. I learned from my Japanese immigrant mother and my upbringing in Japan to suppress angry outbursts, to stay quiet, to not rock the boat – especially with anything political. The stereotypes of Asian people – especially women – as passive and submissive have a long colonial history and continue to inform the 'model minority myth' today. I needed to do something about this contradiction inside of me, to let my anger out. I started therapy in 2021 and decided to pursue further study through an MA in Culture, Diaspora and Ethnicity at Birkbeck. I started seeing other second generation ESEA folks begin to organise for our community – Eastern Margins, ESEA Sisters, besea.n and other groups have blossomed in recent years.
I found a way to learn from my anger. Through my work I am now able to resonate with Korean-American artist Yaeji when she talks about having a complicated relationship with anger, a major theme of her upcoming album. She explains: 'The only way I can feel anger is because I believe in myself and believe that I was wronged, that the people I care about were wronged. Accepting the anger and facing it is a part of me loving myself.'
It all seemed to be building into something inevitable. I wanted to do something tangible with all I had learned – from my experiences in the industry, from therapy, and from my studies in colonialism and historical dynamics of oppression. I felt responsible to use the limited power I had worked to accumulate in the industry to propel my anger into something useful.
And so came the idea for ESEA Music. I knew there would be others in the industry who were angry like me – who wanted better representation, community, and to work and create space alongside other POC and marginalised communities. For the first time in my career, I was working with a predominantly Asian artist roster (Yaeji, Lucinda Chua, Rina Sawayama), and realised how important it is for them to be able to work with ESEA people who understand and lift up their unique stories.
'Still, we are reminded of racism everywhere – after the last ESEA Music social, two white men walked past us outside the venue and shouted 'Fukushima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki!' at us.'
From starting with 10 people on a spreadsheet to now having found so many others across the UK music industry, it feels like we have a means to tap into our collective power as a group. We have each other now. At our group meetups, I’ve seen and felt the joyful, sometimes emotional energy of all being in a room together. For some, it's their first time being in a room full of people that look like them. For others, it's a relief to not have to justify their varied and diverse identities within the Asian diaspora and to just feel understood. Still, we are reminded of racism everywhere – after the last ESEA Music social, two white men walked past us outside the venue and shouted 'Fukushima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki!' at us. The utopia of our beautiful shared experience was brought into sharp contrast with our London surroundings.
Nevertheless, we have more positivity than negativity to celebrate at ESEA Music. I can already see the ambitious creative plans springing up from getting artists and industry professionals in a room together – watch this space! For now, I can share that for ESEA Heritage Month, we’re hosting a showcase event with Spotify and taking over Foundation FM for an afternoon. We’re engaging with music industry trade bodies, having early conversations with the PRS Foundation and MMF about how they can fund and support more ESEA artists and managers. We are proud to have provided the first ever ESEA representatives to UK Music in Emma-Lee Moss and Lisa Young In, who joined this year’s diversity taskforce roundtable. Lastly, we’re so excited to have started SESAME, a mentorship scheme aimed at getting more ESEA folks into the industry. It has already kicked off internally and will launch publicly early next year.
We’re such a young group, but in many ways it feels like we’ve been ready for this forever. It’s been only three months since our formal launch in June, but we already have an abundance of ideas and initiatives up and running. It goes to show how much talent, potential and cultural richness we have to share – we’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity. In the end my anger has created something positive and, I hope, meaningful.