This article is based on interviews the author conducted with two rising Asian DJs: Manila Killa and Robotaki. Check out the interview with Manila Killa and the interview with Robotaki. Interview transcriptions have been shortened for clarification.
It’s difficult to find a space, to find an experience, quite like it.
We are a thousand young, carefree individuals in a state of euphoria.
There’s nothing that can steal us from this moment or feeling.
Between the dancing neon lights that cut across the dark sky in dazzling formations
And the near-deafening beat drops and electronic rhythms reverberating through our beings,
We share a sense of immersion and belonging.
Some come for the music, to appreciate its sound and the creative thought behind it.
For others it’s the people, the connection that’s felt in the crowd of unbreakable smiles and people singing at the top of their lungs.
Or maybe it’s the mesmerizing lights show, the positive energy, and the entire experience in itself.
Either way, raves and EDM, or electronic dance music, have a mutual understanding of peace, love, unity, and respect.
It’s no surprise that this space promoting love and acceptance has extended to different demographics. Among the rave and EDM community, there has been a noticeable rise in Asian American presence, in both attendees and producers, that has contributed to shaping a part of the Asian American identity. The idea of an Asian American identity is still a fluid concept and is cultivated by the words, actions, and ideas of the generations that go by. Unlike like other ethnic groups, Asians in America have had a modern wave of immigration with 73% of Asian adults in the current population born in another country . As a result, there exists a large number of first and second generation Asian Americans, making their influence on Asian American identity only stronger. There is no solid definition of what it means to be Asian American, so the opportunity to build a foundation for future generations arises.
One way that has been taken to heart is through EDM.
With electronic dance music, artists have been able to develop a larger creative space for Asian Americans. Although the EDM industry is heavily dominated by white males, the nature of EDM has led way for others to gain recognition. As online streaming and internet resources grow, so are the opportunities and places for Asian American DJ’s to make an appearance in the realm of EDM.
A contributing factor could be that electronic dance music is not centered around a stage presence of singers and dancers, rather, EDM focuses on the music itself in the DJ’s set. Often times, when listening to EDM on popular platforms for electronic music streaming like Soundcloud, what a person hears is what they get- that’s the baseline for first impressions. It doesn’t quite matter how flashy or ravishing the music video is or what a person looks like while singing. It’s all about the music, which can help deter a listener’s possible unconscious bias. Once a listener is interested enough, then they might go search up a video of the DJ’s live set or a music video and try to find out more about the person behind the music.
Manila Killa and Robotaki are two Asian DJ’s who can attest to this advancement. As a Filipino American producer, Manila Killa has almost reached a million listeners on Spotify, has over a million plays on multiple songs, and is now on tour follow his new album release. Robotaki is a Chinese Canadian producer who has toured with popular DJs such as Porter Robinson, has over a million plays on multiple songs on Spotify, and is currently on his first headline tour.
Manila Killa is one of many who is now able to speak of this on a personal level. When asked about why he thinks there is a rise in an Asian American presence within EDM, Manila Killa mentions, “I also have to thank the internet, for sure, because I was also like very inspired by the internet when I was just starting out and to see that it’s actually possible to pursue your dreams like that, that's kind of what kick started it with me so just being aware and being encouraged by other people ,I think, is the reason why we are seeing a lot of Asian Americans get into music and the arts.”
In addition to being an easy way to start sharing music, the internet has allowed other Asian Americans to discover people similar to them and are making a career out of music. It’s difficult to take what feels like a leap of faith, for many, when transitioning to music, especially when people like themselves are not represented in an industry. Producers have also been able to connect to others on similar journeys as them and find new support networks.
For example, Manila Killa noticed that when he moved to the United States from the Philippines for college, he felt as if he was the only person who enjoyed creating and listening to electronic music around him. Although he was not initially looking for companionship, as soon as he met others like himself, he made sure to stay connected with them and even had a collaboration with Robotaki.
Elaborating on this, Manilla Killa states, “I think it’s a very innate thing, a very subconscious thing to stay close to the people around you who are similar to you...because we kind of have similar stories, we have the same background...so I think that's kind of pulled us together....And with like Robotaki, he was like a special case because I've been listening to his music for years before we met and so like when we finally met, we like hit it off I was like ‘yo this kid is cool as shit’ and from there on I made it a point to just stick with him and that’s how all of this happened.”
As a mutual agreement, Robotaki even calls their collaboration as something that just “felt like the right thing to do.” It’s evident that the current position of Asian Americans in today’s social climate is spearheading a new scope of potential.
Robotaki emphasizes that he doesn’t view being a person of color in the electronic music industry as a struggle. Rather, he sees it as an obstacle that will be overcome in order to demonstrate that people of all different races and cultures have amazing music and talent that deserves to be heard. He believes that it’s matter of change, a progression that may be happening slowly but surely. Robotaki is proud to be a part of the drive towards shaping the world of music to have room for other voices and sounds. Despite the challenges of entering the music industry, the feats of Robotaki and Manila Killa serve as examples of how the Asian diaspora can be artists and creators, as much as they are stereotypically portrayed as doctors and engineers.
As they continue to build their careers, Manila Killa and Robotaki both acknowledge the subtle but important influences of their culture and heritage in their music. Manila Killa mentions that while growing up in the Philippines pop music was extremely popular as a result of American influences such as MTV, which is where his passion for music originally stemmed from. He even adds that he has looked into the idea of producing a song in his native language, a suggestion from his mom and a way to return to his roots. On the other hand, Robotaki points out that the notion of culture and heritage lends a hand to a deeper question, which culture does he really associate himself with? Undoubtedly, culture and heritage play a role in his musical work, but he has yet to uncover its true impact.
Apart from the challenges of beginning a new career, for many Asian Americans, family and tradition often come into deliberation when exploring life paths, posing an additional hurtle. Considering the history and familial values of Asian Americans, it’s understandable that many of their parents only want a secure and stable lifestyle for their children. However, generational gaps turn this into added pressure on both sides, where parents and children are fighting to find balance on uneven grounds.
The feeling of filial piety, a subconscious debt to one’s parents for everything they have sacrificed and provided, is a real and even somewhat intense feeling experienced across a large amount of Asian American children. This feeling makes it harder for many young Asian Americans to compartmentalize and weigh the cost and effect of making personal choices that have an impact that extends beyond themselves. In other words, it’s difficult to break the news to your parents that you’re going to take a risk and pursue something different from what they expected. Rather than continuing to precariously stand on the uncertainties hidden in the cracks and breaks in the uneven ground, it’s about finding a smooth pavement to ground honesty and vulnerability.
Manila Killa and Robotaki have opened up and shared their difficulties and experiences in balancing the hopes and dreams of their parents with their own. Both producers had parents who made sure that they first completed college before following other aspirations and had reluctance in revealing and explaining their desires to pursue a career in electronic dance music.
Coming from a family without a history of artistry and parents who initially viewed his musical work as a hobby, Manilla Killa realized that telling his parents about his goals was not enough to convince them that his music was more than a hobby. For Manila Killa, it was a matter of show not tell that helped him communicate the power and passion behind his music and bridge together the value of his work with his parents’ perceptions. He shares, “I think for like a lot of conservative parents who have kids who are trying to pursue this kind of thing, it's really important for the parents to hear how their children are affecting other people, so that night when I brought my mom out to the show someone from the crowd, some random fan in the crowd had like a talk with my mom and she was talking about how my music has helped her through like really hard times, and after that night was when my parents like changed their mind. That's when they realized that I was actually like doing something and it wasn’t just like for fun and it wasn’t just like for my own enjoyment, but I was actually affecting other people's lives, that's kind of what showed them that this is was like serious.”
Along similar lines, Robotaki struggled at first to balance his dreams with those of his parents. He continued to take advantage of opportunities to tour and share his music and soon came to a self-realization about the significant role music played in his life. Only then, was he able to convey to his parents the depth of intimacy in the experience that his music created for others and the reality behind his success in the industry. Robotaki opens up by saying, “They [his parents] wanted me to pursue medicine...But the whole time my heart really wasn’t into it and it’s going to show immediately...I’m grateful now that they’re supportive of what I’m doing because I brought them out to a show, they saw the people who came out, heard the music, and they finally understood what it is that I do. But before that all they saw was just a kid in front of a computer making noises, and I understand there’s a huge distance between that and having a successful career, I guess. And in their sense, successful in life means to have a stable career so I guess once they saw money coming in it helped them settle their thoughts because okay like maybe he’s okay, we don’t need him to follow this path I had for him.” By putting the time and effort towards his passion for music, Robotaki was finally able to refine his parents’ understanding of his hopes and dreams.
After dealing with family and risk taking, Manila Killa and Robotaki share their advice to other rising Asian DJs when it comes to wholeheartedly chasing dreams and approaching parents with honesty. The two DJs have graduated from college with degrees, but they both decided to change career paths once they were out of school. For some young Asian Americans, it’s not an uncommon occurrence to see individuals follow career paths that don’t always align with their true aspirations. The reasoning behind this varies for every person, whether that be the need to support family, the pressure to show respect and obedience to one’s parents, believing the predefined identities others have set for oneself, or just needing the time to be sure.
Manila Killa emphasizes that, “The biggest thing is involving your parents with your career, like tell them everything, show them how everything works. Like all parents want for their kids really is just the best for them, and I realized that I was trying to hide the music thing while I was doing school to show them that oh no I'm focused on school, but what I should have honestly been doing was showing them what I’ve been doing along the way. Because I think the most important thing parents need to do is just understand their kids and a lot of kids are turned off on showing their parents and being like ‘yo this what I do!’ You know a lot of kids feel very protective of that, but I think it’s really getting over that hump and being completely open with your parents is when everything will really change. Because I think like having your parents’ support is the most important thing if you’re trying to do something like this.”
A lot Asian cultures and traditions revolve around core family ideals, making it difficult to build a siloed career. In fact, Manila Killa names his mom as one the important mentor figures in his music career who helped him stay true to himself amidst the entertainment business. Although family support can help, some are more fortunate than others. However, Robotaki shares that while we must try to understand where our family’s viewpoints come from, there is also a need to find the resolve in oneself to put in the fortitude and genuine effort to work towards success in music.
He lets others know, “I’m an idealist, and, like I said, I have kind of a privileged experience myself where I had a lot of help to push me over the edge for music.But I’ve wanted for everyone to try for what they really believe in and maybe it will change in a year or even a couple of months, but to be able to live presently and to just invest yourself in something that’s just happening right at that moment, I think that’s the most important. Because I think a lot of having immigrant parents is that they plan everything because that was their life: they need to be very meticulous with how money was going to come in and obviously having a family, that needs to be stable. So obviously, a lot of obligations, there’s a lot of planning there. Our privilege, and my privilege is that they offered me the ability to try what I want to, but even though they might not understand, that’s the privilege they were offering me so I’m all for pushing someone to try whatever they think they’re passionate in.” It can be difficult to find that sweet spot when it comes to communicating across generational gaps, but it is a step forward to try.
As Asian Americans, we can come from very different backgrounds, yet there are still stories and lessons that we can share with each other that demonstrate how much we can all still relate about, learn from, and support each other on. When we open up to others similar to us about our experiences and let them know that they are not alone in their struggles and that their accomplishments are admired, we are growing and developing a stronger sense of Asian American identity through community.
Support can go a long way, something that both Manila Killa and Robotaki can relate to. Manila Killa expresses, “I surround myself with the right people to support me, so I’ve never felt discouraged as a minority.” On the other hand, Robotaki lets others know, “I’ve always been taught you need to do well in school so that you can do something else, but it seems like I just jumped into it and people are there to support me out of the blue, which is really nice, so grateful. It’s crazy how simple it is, you just produce it.” As much as both DJs share their advice and success with others, they fully acknowledge and appreciate all the help and support they received while working towards their goals.
More than ever, young Asian Americans have the ability and power to redefine what it means to be Asian American, whether that be in our presence in the music industry within EDM or beyond. This change in tone for Asian Americans comes with increased knowledge of the opportunities available, the acknowledgement of the work that will be demanded and the challenges that will arise, the support needed for other Asian Americans who are currently making strides in new roles and spaces, and the courage of others to follow their passions and interests, given the opportunity. In broader terms, when it comes to the next generation of Asian Americans, it’s become less about the American Dream of our parents and more about our own dreams.