How Asian Artists from Western Countries Find Global Audiences
by Michelle Hyun Kim, a Third Bridge Creative contributor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Teen Vogue, and Pitchfork
Historically, Pop artists of Asian descent have struggled to be fully recognized by the Western music industry. Hikaru Utada, one of the first Asian American musicians to attain global popularity, was born in the United States to Japanese parents in 1983 and grew up fully bilingual, but initially struggled to find a place in the Western market. Though they became a superstar in Japan with their 1999 album First Love at age 16 (which is still the best-selling record in the country to this day), Utada expressed hesitancy that they could cross over into America when they landed a U.S. record deal with Island. “I don't think it’s the music that I’m concerned about,” they told MTV in 2004. “It’s obviously that I looked really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people [who are popular singers in the U.S.] right now.”
Nearly two decades later, and not only are they going viral thanks to a Netflix sync, but there are also more such singers, but still not many visibly Asian pop stars in the West—due to many overlapping factors, including discrimination, pigeonholing from record labels, and lack of previous representation. Like Utada, many Asian diasporic musicians have set out to further their music careers by moving to Asian countries, where their English-speaking abilities and Western influence can serve as building blocks in a new market. But things are changing. Thanks to global platforms like Spotify and TikTok, emerging artists of Asian descent who are based in the West have increasingly found success both at home and abroad.
Billboard Charts: Then and Now
To see where we are now with the relative popularity of Asian American Pop artists, it helps to examine where things stood just a short time ago. In the past five years or so, the Western music industry has seen a small explosion of musicians of Asian descent finding mainstream representation and success. When looking at Billboard charts of the past two years versus the mid-2010s, there’s a marked difference in not only the number of Asian artists represented, but also their breadth and diversity.
For example, 2016 saw only two artists of known Asian heritage enter the Billboard 200 singles, including Pakistani British singer Zayn who released the No. 1 hit “Pillowtalk.” Indian American singer Daya also made a splash with multiple singles, two of which peaked in the Top 30, and scored her first Top 5 hit with her Chainsmokers collaboration “Don’t Let Me Down,” which peaked at No. 3 and spent 50 weeks on the chart overall.
This year saw Steve Lacy, the Alternative R&B musician of Black and Filipino heritage, making chart history with his viral hit “Bad Habit,” which topped the Billboard 100, as well as fourth on other Hip-Hop/R&B and Alternative Rock charts at the same time. Japanese American singer-songwriter Joji also topped the Alternative Albums chart with his third project to debut in the Billboard 200 Top 5, while Vietnamese American artist Keshi peaked at No. 16 (Gabriel initially sold 23K+ copies, becoming the highest first-week sales for a debut album at the time). Over in the UK, emerging British Japanese Pop star Rina Sawayama became the highest-charting Japanese artist with her sophomore album Hold the Girl, which debuted at No. 3.
These accomplishments come on the heels of last summer, when the Top 10 of the Billboard 100 chart was dominated by multiple tracks by artists of partial Asian descent, including Olivia Rodrigo and Silk Sonic’s Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars. Their songs were joined by BTS’ “Butter,” which earned the No. 1 spot for 10 weeks in total. Further down the chart saw entries from Filipino American singer Bella Poarch, a breakout TikTok star whose debut single “Build a Bitch” peaked at No. 56, and Saweetie, a Los Angeles-based rapper of Filipino, Chinese, and Black heritage, whose highest charting Hot 100 hit, “Best Friend (feat. Doja Cat)" peaked at No. 14.
While the diasporic Asian artists who topped the U.S. charts in the past usually did so with songs that had relatively standard Pop structure and high energy electronic production, today's artists are able to gain inroads with “Pop songs” that survey multiple genres—sometimes within the same song. This shift signals that the kind of music that is seen as “acceptable” for Asian artists in the West to make is broadening.
Developing Asian Diasporic Artists Find International Fans
While many of these artists of Asian descent have been able to climb the charts using traditional means like radio and Grammy campaigns, there’s an exciting, emerging subset who have become stars in the West by first developing a fanbase far from home.
For example, while Keshi, the major label-signed singer-songwriter who was born and raised in Houston, Texas, to Vietnamese immigrant parents, is not technically a household name in the U.S. (he hasn’t performed on late night television and doesn’t get radio airplay), it doesn’t seem to hinder his reach as an artist. He’s garnered 262M+ YouTube channel views in the past year, and now boasts 6.2M Spotify monthly listeners. Many of his fans reside in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, but there are also sizable contingents across Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Without the American music industry’s typical avenues of success, how did Keshi and other fellow Asian pop artists create a foothold in so many international markets?
The Coveted K-Pop Co-Sign
Though Keshi was seeing organic growth in SoundCloud and Spotify listenership through 2017 and 2018, one of the defining moments in his early rise was when BTS leader RM posted a screenshot of a Keshi song through the group’s official Twitter account on Aug. 7, 2019. As a result of this exposure to BTS’ widespread fanbase, Keshi gained nearly 1.9K new Spotify followers (bringing him to 90K+ in total) and saw a spike in his approximately 26K SoundCloud followers in just one day.
While this development might seem somewhat negligible, the boost from RM, who is known as a tastemaker in the K-Pop sphere, set off a chain reaction that spread Keshi throughout the idol world.
In the years to come, members of K-Pop’s biggest groups like SHINee, EXO, ITZY, TOMORROW X TOGETHER, and the Boyz, as well as Jungkook of BTS, all began sharing Keshi songs during live streams, singing along, and recommending them to their fans. While it’s difficult to quantify the impact that each individual endorsement had on Keshi’s overall listenership growth, it’s safe to say that the continued interest in his music from idols eventually spread to their fanbases, which are global in nature due to the K-Pop industry’s particularly dogged marketing tactics.
Considering that Keshi has the highest percentage of Spotify listeners in Jakarta and Bangkok (338,363 and 187,848, respectively), which are also two Southeast Asian cities that are consistently among the top consumers of K-Pop, it’s probable that his listener demographic overlaps with those who engage with K-Pop.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds With Collabs and Playlists
Keshi also cemented his foothold in the K-Pop world by making multiple songs with artists eaJ, an Argentine-born Korean American who formerly led the popular K-Pop band Day6, and Seori, a beloved Korean R&B singer. Not only did he score these high-profile collaborations that would expose him to a predominantly East and Southeast Asian audience (as well as other global markets where Day6 and Seori have reach), but Keshi continued to build momentum in his home country by making songs with well-known US-based artists like electronic producer Madeon, Pop singer-songwriter Jeremy Zucker, and producer-songwriter Max Schneider.
The breadth of his collaborators shows that Keshi’s hybrid identity is actually advantageous for building a followership in multiple markets; on one hand, he’s an English-speaker who can easily build connections with fellow American producers and songwriters. On the other, his Vietnamese heritage might make him more likely to be championed among both Asians and Asian Americans who are working as musicians abroad.
This ability to tap into different markets also seems to be the case with Rini, a Philippines-born, Australia-raised R&B singer who is now based in Los Angeles and has 2.3M Spotify monthly listeners that are largely based in the Philippines and U.S. After collaborating with Wale last year, he released a song with thuy, another Vietnamese American R&B singer who has also been garnering a considerable audience abroad, as well as Abrina, a rising Mexican American singer.
Through his track with the latter artist, entitled “Pleasure,” Rini has been placed on a Spanish editorial Spotify playlist entitled “Latin R&B,” and with his own music, he’s also appeared on the Latin Pop and R&B-oriented playlist “Mixto” and in more generic Western playlists like “Alternative R&B” and “R&B Chill.”
Due to his popularity in Southeast Asia, his songs also maintain positions on regional New Music Friday playlists in the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Not only has his identity led to a flexibility in who he can work with, but it’s also led to music that seems to resonate with an incredibly widespread audience.
Japanese British Pop artist Rina Sawayama has also seen a huge influence in her Spotify listener demographic due to “Beg For You,” her collaborative single with Charli XCX. Due to the latter’s long standing predilection for teaming up with rising stars across the world, Charli has been able to gain solid fanbases in Poland, Germany, and Brazil, and those are the countries where Sawayama’s 4.4M Spotify monthly listeners reside outside of her largest fanbases in the U.S. and U.K. Sawayama also has built up an Instagram follower base in her home country of Japan, due to targeted efforts to do media there and perform, which she did for the first time this summer.
The TikTok Effect
TikTok is also now a viable way for Asian artists in the West to gain international standing, as evidenced by Bella Poarch, who made the most-liked TikTok of all time (a video of her lip-syncing to the UK rap song “M to the B” by Millie B) and went on to release “Build a Bitch,” which charted in dozens of countries across Europe and Asia and has garnered 361M+ Spotify streams and 3.7M+ TikToks. While her huge popularity and its accompanying expensive music video certainly aided in the song’s success, the dark Pop song that seems inspired by the sound of Billie Eilish and Ashnikko tapped into current Pop trends with its jingly music-box melody and spooky samples.
Instead of intentionally leveraging the platform, luck was on the side of dhruv, the London-born, Singapore-raised singer-songwriter of Indian descent who blew up from his TikTok megahit “double take.” The lovesick Indie R&B song, which the now 22-year-old released in 2019 went viral two years later because of its association with a filter-based challenge, eventually garnering 2.5M+ TikToks and 384M+ Spotify streams.
The Unlimited Possibilities of the Digital Age
Certainly not a fluke or a passing trend, the increasing proliferation of Asian artists in the West seems to be a natural outcome of today’s digital landscape. Global streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube, as well as the widespread popularity of TikTok, have allowed musicians to access and engage with fans around the world, sometimes even unknowingly tapping into markets they never aimed to reach in the first place.
While there’s plenty to criticize about the streaming economy—artist payout structures and algorithms are frequent sources of controversy—streaming platforms have also been able to break down language and regional barriers. This has led to an industry where genre-blending artists from outside of the U.S. and U.K.—like Bad Bunny, Rosalía, and BLACKPINK—are among the world’s biggest superstars. Their careers stand in contrast to that of Utada, who was making music in both Japanese and English back and forth between their two homes, but was instead ostracized for it instead of being celebrated.
Earlier this year, Utada made their first-ever festival appearance at age 39, performing as part of a special stage at Coachella curated by 88Rising, an American media company that has acted like a bridge for the Asian and American music industries since its inception in 2015. An artist who has gradually gained a cult following in the West for their theme songs for the Kingdom Hearts video game and Neon Genesis Evangelion anime franchises, they were somewhat in awe of their Asian American fanbase who had unknowingly been with them all of along.
“I haven’t really been in touch with my Asian fans directly outside of Japan…and even the Asian American people who are familiar with me, I didn’t know that there was so much support,” they told Billboard. “It was such a revelation to me and it felt so amazing too…for me also to come to get in touch with my Asian American side.”