In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, below are recommendations from Music beat writers on their favorite artists belonging to the AAPI community who are creating a mark in AAPI representation and art expression.
Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast) — Kyla Figueroa ’24
It’s a rarity for a Grammy-nominated artist to be a New York Times bestselling author. Michelle Zauner, the lead singer and songwriter for the stellar alternative pop band Japanese Breakfast, is also the author of the phenomenal “Crying in H-Mart.” Zauner’s renowned memoir discusses the death of her mother, how she came of age as an Asian American and how she connects with her roots by cooking Korean. My two favorite albums from the band include “Jubilee” — its recent record with hits like “Be Sweet,” “Paprika” and my personal favorite, “Savage Good Boy,” — and the 2016 record “Psychopomp,” which, again, discusses Zauner’s mom’s death and her relationship with her identity. Zauner’s music is not only a necessity for May but for all months of the year, especially for summer playlists, thanks to the band’s groovy yet heartfelt tunes.
Oliva Rodrigo — Kyla Figueroa ’24
With her 2021 breakout hit “Driver’s License” and award-winning album “Sour,” Olivia Rodrigo is a star for Generation Z (Gen Z) and at the top of contemporary young artists. Her interview with “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang for V magazine details representation, her experiences being a role model for Asian girls and combating the image of all pop stars being white. Her music, while traditional mainstream pop, contains rock and Y2K influences, including from her idol Avril Lavigne and the band Paramore. My top three songs from the album are “traitor,” “jealousy, jealousy” and “happier.”
Conan Gray — Kyla Figueroa ’24
Originally known for his work as a YouTuber, Conan Gray has risen to stardom with his TikTok famous song “Heather” and hit 2020 album “Kid Krow.” Active on various social media platforms, Gray is in tune with current pop culture. His music covers a variety of key themes that resonate with Gen Z, including coming of age, love, loss, finding a place in the world and making space for yourself and others. Gray’s lyricism is phenomenal: while the subjects of his works are common, the songs themselves are phonetically pleasing, often using alliteration and internal rhyme. His next album “Superache,” from which he has already released 7 singles, is out this summer and will be perfect to accompany any occasional blues.
Anderson .Paak — Nick Sligh ’23
Silk Sonic has finally brought Anderson .Paak the mainstream love and attention that he has always deserved. The best-selling duo of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars has placed .Paak fully in the limelight; however, he has been making incredible music of his own for nearly a decade now. 2016’s “Malibu” — one of the best contemporary R&B albums I have heard — features a nearly flawless tracklist and is a true modern classic of a compilation. Anderson .Paak has any talent that you could ever want from an artist. The singer, rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist has brought wonderful contributions to R&B, pop, hip-hop and to the world of music as a whole. He is a truly special figure, and one that any fan of music should be thoroughly acquainted with.
Chad Hugo — Nick Sligh ’23
One half of The Neptunes — one of the most famous production duos of all time — Chad Hugo has been one of the most impactful figures in modern music production. Despite being Pharrell Williams’ closest collaborator and production partner, Hugo has never reached the same level of mass recognition and acclaim, although his talent warrants it. Following their duo’s inception in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1990, The Neptunes began to shift the sound of the music industry and never looked back. Hugo has produced songs for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears, Nelly, Ludacris and Usher, among many others. Few producers have ever had as broad and deep of an impact on the sound of pop music as Chad Hugo has had.
NIKI — Peyton Lee ’24
Even though she’s just 23, Nicole Zefanya (known mononymously as NIKI) has become one of the most prominent Asian American pop musicians in recent years. Extremely precise, silky smooth vocals and homegrown, singer-songwriter emotionality characterize most of her music. Originally from Indonesia, NIKI got her first big break opening for Taylor Swift. Soon after cultivating a popular YouTube channel, she’s now one of 88rising’s most recognized artists, alongside stars like Joji, Keshi and Rich Brian. With dozens of singles, two EPs, a studio album and a feature on the soundtrack of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi,” NIKI’s prolificity is only bound to increase with time. Check out her live sessions and acoustic remixes!
IZ — Peyton Lee ’24
You probably know Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s (nicknamed Brudda Iz, or just IZ) cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” even if you’re not familiar with the artist. What you might not know is that IZ was a monumental advocate for Hawaiian independence. Along with several studio albums released with the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, IZ’s inspirational solo discography quickly cemented him as a Hawaiian cultural icon. “Facing Future” is the best-selling album of all time by a Hawaiian artist. And in 2014, his story — including his premature death in 1997 — inspired the Disney-Pixar animated short “Lava.”
UMI – Ryan Loo ’25
Tierra Umi Wilson (known widely by her stage name UMI) is a 23-year-old African American and Japanese indie R&B singer and songwriter native to Seattle. Within her music, UMI often draws inspiration from her multiracial background as a member of both the AAPI community as well as the African diaspora. The majority of the lyrics in her song “Sukidakara,” from her EP “Love Language,” are sung in Japanese, seamlessly fusing the historically Black genre of soul and R&B with her Asian identity. As a mixed race African American and Chinese person myself, I appreciate the “Blasian” representation UMI brings to the indie genre.
However, UMI’s allure is much deeper than mere representation. Through her gently rhythmic lullaby-like vocals and lofi-inspired beats, UMI’s music truly lives up to her stage name, which translates to “sea” in Japanese. Each line she utters is a wave of relaxation, offering a much needed respite in this often chaotic world, slowly lulling her audience into a state of serenity where they can –– if even just for a second –– be at peace with themselves and the world around them.
Deb Never – Richard Coca
When I first saw Deb Never perform live, I was told that night was her birthday. I would later find out that was a lie. With different claims of when her birthday was on the internet, it seemed that no one knew when her birthday was. When the question of age arose, it also turned out that no one knew exactly how old she was — just that she was in her 20s. This aura of mystery that surrounds Deb Never is intentional, according to the artist herself.
Never strives to defy everything around her image, from gender to genre. As a queer Asian in the music industry, Never navigates a very male-dominated space in an incredibly unapologetic manner. As she sings in her latest single, “Crutches,” “[she’s] storming in like thunder / ‘Cause [she’s] tired of waiting for / Better days, better days.” Never is sure to rise in the scene as she continues to find her place in the industry with more music poised to be released soon.
Mitski – Chloe Walsh ’25
Mitski is perhaps one of the most enigmatic artists to emerge from the previous decade. Her privacy regarding her personal life has in no way deterred her fanbase’s obsession over her, even if the occasional audience yell of “I love you” has led to her respond with “you don’t know me.” While her debut album, “Lush,” recorded while she was a university student, put her voice on the map, it was her 2018 album “Be The Cowboy” that established Mitski as a singer with something to say. Pulling on influences from indie pop to classic rock, Mitski has spent the past decade writing about everything from patriarchal gender roles to cultural alienation, and even went viral on TikTok with “Washing Machine Heart.” If you’re looking to explore her discography, I would suggest starting with “Me and My Husband” and “Brand New City.”
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.