On the hip hop night of festival ASIAN(SOUND)SCAPES, Thrillpvck Thari ත්රිල්පැක් තරි (Tharindu ‘Thari’ Bakmeedeniya) took to the stage with an ease that hid the heaviness of his past encounters of racism.
Thari is one of several musicians who performed at ASIAN(SOUND)SCAPES, a month-long Asian-led festival held in October.
Organiser Yee Yang 'Square' Lee says the festival was a way of bringing together a community of “insanely talented underground artists and musicians, to show Aucklanders that we’re right here”.
The festival was also a way to help tackle some of the problems that Asian New Zealand musicians experience - highlighted by a study commissioned by one of the festival’s organisers.
The study First Findings from Conversations with Asian New Zealand Musicians by University of Auckland PhD candidate Balamohan Shingade found that Asian New Zealand musicians are underrepresented, undervalued and often offered fewer opportunities in the music industry.
The study also found:
- Racism is an everyday experience for Asian New Zealand musicians, which can limit their work opportunities
- Challenges to work and wellbeing are significantly harder for LGBT+ Asian New Zealand artists
- Most Asian New Zealand musicians earn below the poverty line with their music
Re: News contributor Samantha Cheong spoke to musicians who performed at ASIAN(SOUND)SCAPES about their experiences. Here’s what they had to say.
Finding a voice through music
Club Ruby is an alt and punk rock band with dashes of pop and musical theatricality.
For Club Ruby’s bassist Hon Manawangphiphat, who went through the foster care system, his connection with his Thai culture is now occurring in adulthood.
Only when he joined Where The Asians At‽, the Asian collective who organised the festival, did he realise the lack of Asian representation in the New Zealand music scene.
“It’s funny because, not until I joined Square’s zoom meeting, I never thought about my culture at least…There haven't been that many Asian role models especially in the music scene or just in general on the Western side. Even the [rock] genre itself,” he says.
As Hon also supported sibling act Ersha Island 二沙岛 on bass at the festival, he says that moment made him feel like it was the beginning of major change in the industry.
“I feel like we’re finally reaping the benefits of not even our efforts but the generation before us of trying to uplift Asian communities.”
For Thari, he says the benefits he’s reaping are spiritual and emotional, stemming from simply showing up for himself.
“I finally found my voice in music. I’m incorporating more Sinhalese lyrics into it, more culture, more what I practise and preach.”
While he’s no stranger to the struggles of making a living as an Asian rapper, he doesn’t let his authenticity hinder his pursuit of any professional possibility either.
“In email tags I would put in brackets ‘Tharindu (Thari) Bakmeedeniya’. I started embracing my culture, like ‘Man, I’m proud of this’, and if people are going to be offended by it, that’s on them.”
DJ RNG†sus (Mariadelle ‘Abbey’ Gamit) wants to change the party scene for minorities—and for themself.
After they shared their potential setlist with co-headliners Ray Leslie and Romiin, they felt safer expressing their culture live.
“Some of them [were] original remixed Filipino songs, they loved it. I don’t know why I always doubt myself. I think that’s just part of growing up here halfway, you doubt your taste a little bit,” Abbey says.
They are a queer Pinay musician who mixes techno and hyperpop tracks about hyperreality and the post-digital, and helps break out songs ranging from Latin American beats to Filipino ballads.
“[People] expect DJs to stick to one genre. That’s the beauty of being open format. A lot of genres may share similar sonic elements that maybe I can blend together.”
With limited opportunities for Asian New Zealand musicians, people are paving their own paths.
Abbey co-founded the collective All My Friends in 2019 to bring together queer and creatives of colour in the club scene.
“It was born out of a lack of representation, mainly in the partying scene… it’s an Asian-Pasifika focused collective.”
Finding a sense of belonging
“Coming to New Zealand, we kind of expected to feel like we came home because we were shunned when we lived in China, but it was the same story,” says Danielle Hao-Aickin of sibling act Ersha Island 二沙岛.
Named after the island Ershadao of Guangzhou where they first learnt music, pianist Danielle and violinist Tee are Chinese-Pākehā sisters who grew up in China. Their songs often explore mental health and the tensions of being biracial.
Although they moved to Aotearoa as teens, the mixed-race pair felt like outsiders no matter where they were.
Danielle experienced racial discrimination as the only Asian girl at her boarding school. This led her to alter her appearance to try to assimilate.
Years later, their Back To Our Roots EP is a reference to embracing the Asian aspect of their identity.
Thari spent time in Pōneke and says it nearly weighed him down.
“There was just straight, blunt racism on the streets [of Wellington]. It was to the point where it was so unhealthy that I had to go seek counselling…understand where they’re coming from...and because of that I think I changed my mentality.”
It has resulted in a resilience that now shows in his music, he says.
His track ‘S.E.A (South East Asian)’, for example, focuses on empowering his own identity rather than calling out others’ bad behaviour.
“Brown skin, nice smile, South East Asian,” he says, pointing to himself while beaming at the crowd.
Samantha Cheong is a dedicated writer and musician from Tāmaki Makaurau. Since teaching guitar to hundreds of students, she has gone on to focus on uplifting musicians in other ways. Her work has been published in UnderTheRadar, NZMusician, Bad Apple Gay and MuzicNetNZ. She is an avid creator and fan of all things live performance, and is always on the lookout for diverse and exciting artists.
“It’s made everything even more deep and meaningful. You’re carrying an ocean inside you.”
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