Last week, Roc Nation, the label that artists like Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Grimes, J. Cole, and others call home, announced its latest signee: Korean American artist Jay Park. Park’s Roc Nation deal is definitely another indication that K-pop is finally breaking into the U.S. market, but it could also signal a turning point for Asian American artists trying to make it work stateside.
While he may be a new name for most Americans (though he just appeared in Charli XCX’s “Boys” music video), the Seattle-born Park has been a huge celebrity for years in South Korea, where he’s known as a dancer, singer, rapper, actor, model, and producer.
He’s also received international acclaim for being a hottie with a body:
Park has been doing the music industry hustle since he was first scouted by Korean label JYP in high school. In 2005, he was recruited as a K-pop trainee, and made his K-pop boy band debut in 2008 as the leader of the group 2PM. After undergoing a pretty big scandal (someone leaked some personal MySpace messages of him expressing frustration adjusting to life in South Korea), he got back into the country’s good graces as a solo artist, released a few albums, made several TV appearances, joined the cast of South Korea’s version of SNL, and founded a K-hip hop label, AOMG.
In other words, he put more than enough time and work into his career and certainly deserves to be a part of Roc Nation. But it would be even better if his signing proves that the American music industry is ready to open up to Asian artists.
Over the last few years, K-pop has become increasingly popular in the US, as the catchy tunes, nearly supernatural choreography, and addicting music videos are far too difficult to resist. So it’s easy to see Jay Park signing with Roc Nation as simply the next step in K-pop’s imminent global domination.
But his deal is also a spark of hope for Asian American artists trying to break into the U.S. industry. Asians have been almost entirely excluded from the American music industry. When I googled “Asian American singers,” this is what came up:
There are some exceptions—Bruno Mars, who is of Filipinx descent, indie icon Karen O, and more recently, indie singer-songwriter Mitski—but the few that do break through and find success are often pigeonholed. For example, the LA hip hop and electronic group Far East Movement—who gave us the 2010 hit “Like a G6” and became the first Asian American group to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart—were told by Interscope executives that they were “too Asian” and therefore “too hard to market.” They eventually left the label. In general, Asian American artists have had to carve out a space for themselves, as evidenced by the Asian American showcase at this year’s SXSW festival.
A number of talented Asian American artists have dealt with the lack of opportunity in America by traveling to other countries, namely Korea, to try to break into music there. In an interview with NPR a couple years ago, Jae Chong, an American-born Korean powerhouse of a producer discussed how music industries in Asia are more welcoming to Asian American artists:
“Aside from all the discrimination they get in the US entertainment industry,” Chong says, “They feel like, okay, maybe I’ll have a better chance out here, where I’m actually accepted a little more.”
Artists like f(x)’s Amber, an LA Native, Atlanta-born Eric Nam, New Jersey’s Ailee, and countless others have all made their way to Korea to find the acknowledgment and success they weren’t being offered in the US. Even Asian American rappers like Dumbfoundead and Rekstizzy who have been gaining more and more recognition in the US are also experimenting more in Korea with Korean-language tracks.
Which brings us back to Park. He most likely faces an immense amount of pressure to succeed, as other labels could be looking to him to judge the viability of Asian American artists in the industry in general. But hopefully, Roc Nation’s latest signing will bode well for him, as well as both Asian artists looking for crossover success and Asian American artists just trying to overcome racism in the U.S. music industry.