Opening Image by De Wei Song
Written by Clarabelle Tan
The portrayal of Eastern and Southeastern Asians in Western media has long been rife with racial stereotyping and tokenisation. Often, there’s a lack of genuine representation when it comes to the Asian diaspora in the UK’s creative industry. There’s a tendency to exoticise Asia, a phenomena studied by Edward Saïd in Orientalism, which dates back to British and French colonies which focused on this “otherness” of Asian society. Yet, with the advent of social media, Asian musicians based in London like CHIYU, Kuma Overdose and ERES have begun reclaiming their own cultural identities, and what it means to truly connect with their Asian pride. In conversation with Neighbourhood Magazine, they explore the significance of their roots to their craft, and why uplifting Asian voices matter now more than ever.
Originally a DJ/Producer from Taiwan, CHIYU spent most of their life growing up in Taipei. “I was a massive music nerd growing up,” CHIYU recalls. “I started DJ-ing professionally when I was 17 around the industrial techno scenes.” All that changed when they went to their first hardcore music event ‘NO GING NO GAIN’ / ‘愛ㄍ一ㄥ才會贏’ in Taiwan. It was CHIYU’s first exposure to the genre and altered the artist’s musical trajectory. Since moving to London, they’ve become a familiar face in the city’s dance music/techno scene, releasing mixes for the likes of NTS and Balamii, alongside a slew of dance singles such as ‘NOWADAYS46’ and ‘Moulting’.
For CHIYU, navigating the UK music scene as an artist of Asian descent has felt isolating. “It can definitely be frustrating to be boiled down to a tokenisation booking- as almost all other POC artists experience in the scene,” explains CHIYU. Furthermore as a QTBIPOC artist, “representation to me is so much more than just diversity on a lineup, especially because they are the very people who pioneered electronic music and rave culture; I believe it needs to incorporate the fundamental values that rave culture started with.”
“From what I’d perceived growing up, the only Asian DJs I saw in the media that made it ‘big’ never really kept the artistic integrity in the way I’d always sought.” CHIYU continues, “finding the right parties/promoters has been absolutely crucial to feeling safe and valued as an Asian artist. Eastern Margins & GGI have done so much for the ESEA community in London, spreading & broadcasting art and music from both traditional and contemporary ESEA culture.”
With Beijing-hailing Sere Zhang, aka, ERES, her path to becoming a DJ was a little different. A trained choir singer, she developed an interest in DJ-ing on the cusp of the pandemic. “I have been in London for six years, and it has been a trying journey to learn the music scene and culture.” ERES’s sound is a concoction of old school R&B hits blended with amapiano and southern rap. After securing her first gig at Notting Hill’s Globe in 2021, Zhang’s identity as ERES has gradually solidified, having played sets at both Paris and London Fashion Week. Now working on her homegrown coffee brand, ‘A’wa’, Zhang has been heavily involved in curating events that bridge the gap between music and the food & beverage industry through promoting collaborations between Chinese and other POC creatives. Working with the likes of poet Phoenix Yemi and visual designer Omotuwanse Osinaike, businesses like hers aid in boosting infrastructures within multicultural creative communities.
After experiencing a lack of genuine ESEA representation in music, Asian-American artist and musician Kuma Overdose founded music collective Mélon Le Cartel in 2020 to gather like-minded Asian creatives worldwide and promote Asian talent. Now based in East London, the alternative R&B Musician of ESEA descent wants to bring Asian artists the recognition they deserve in the West. “Asian music is not just City Pop,” Overdose jokes, “for me, it’s the way my roots have shaped my lyrics and my truth told in its original way.” With vibey hits like ‘Mintia’ and ‘HIGH BG’ under his belt, Overdose strives to break away from the bland and monotonous stereotypes in which Western media tends to situate Asian faces. The dominant portrayal of Asian talent has traditionally been narrow; and in an age where many Asian-Americans don’t feel ‘Asian’ enough to be seen as ‘Asian’ or not Western enough to feel ‘American’ he believes “it’s the mutual support between fellow Asian creatives and business owners that bonds the community tighter.”
And what are their hopes for the future of music? Kuma Overdose believes exposure is crucial, but so is genuine representation. Collectives like his help elevate Asian musicians in a Western setting and give back to the very communities that support their growth. “The goal is to put us on the map,” he adds, “to get the recognition we deserve as hyper-globalised and multi-talented artists.” For CHIYU, it’s important to refuse performative antics and ‘play the game’ in order to grow their platform or stay trapped in streaming release cycles. “I definitely want to detach myself a bit from the industry so that I can focus on my artistry. Nothing is definite in my future, but I hope to continue pursuing what I love to do.”