Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on artists of different cultural backgrounds in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features Asian and AAPI rock and metal musicians discussing the recent wave of Anti-Asian violence and their own experiences with racism.
In this installment of “Heavy Culture,” Asian and AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) rock and metal artists recount experiences of racism and share their thoughts and feelings on the rise in violence against people of Asian and AAPI heritage. Some musicians expressed intense memories of facing prejudice as young children, some as teenagers, and for others, there were too many instances to count.
Sharing their views are Herman Li of Dragonforce; Kimberly Goss of Sinergy; Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park; Freddy Lim of Chthonic (and member of the Taiwanese legislature); Saki of Amahiru and Mary’s Blood; and Wolf Red of Bamboo Star.
May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Standing up for the Asian community is not only about stopping Asian hate but about celebrating Asian culture and music, listening to Asian voices, and showing empathy and respect for each of their experiences. Please read the aforementioned artists’ individual stories and thoughts below:
Herman Li of Dragonforce
On the rise of violent racist attacks on members of the Asian and AAPI community
Of course, this is terrible and it does make me more worried. Originally, I’m from Hong Kong and I grew up in Europe and lived there most of my life and I always had another pair of eyes in the back of my head because I have experienced this myself.
Someone set my hair on fire, randomly and unprovoked. This was before Dragonforce, in the UK. I was just a guy who played guitar who listened to metal and went to metal bars. There was nothing I could do, sometimes you don’t know what to do. If you get into a fight with the person, you’re the one that’s going to get in more trouble.
So these kinds of things I’ve experienced — but to the degree of shootings? It’s terrible — it makes me worried because I have a child and she’s going to be almost two years old. What kind of society is she going to be growing up in? It’s just a terrible thing that has been happening and now it’s amplified even further.
On his early experiences with racism
I went to a boarding school when I was about 11 years old in France and that was the first time I realized what racism was. There was a section where there were international students: there’s me, kids from Africa, people from different parts of Europe and written on the wall of that building [for international students] was “Le Pen” the National Front Party — that’s the racist political party in France where they want all the foreigners out of France.
I’ve experienced this for a long time to know how to react in order to be safe and not take it any further where it could be dangerous. I was in the boarding school for about a year and it was tough because you knew some teachers were racist. I was the only Chinese kid in the whole school and you learn from other foreign students, “Oh, that teacher’s racist, you have to be careful.”
On the lack of conversations about racism with his parents
They never, ever talked with me about dealing with racism. I asked my mother only a few years ago, “When you put me in boarding school in France, did you know it was going to happen?” Because I was never taught about racism when I left Hong Kong, I didn’t even know it existed. And my mother actually said to me, “Well I knew it was going to be like that. I went to study in France, too, before you were born, when I was young.” It’s just the way it is; that’s how older people look at it. I think they just accept that’s the way it is because they’ve been treated like that for years.
I think [parents and older generations] don’t want to talk about it, it’s a dark side that they don’t want their kids to know. I think they hope that things get better so you don’t have to know about how things were back then. Since leaving Hong Kong at the age of 11, that’s when I discovered what racism was and it never stopped, even now, it’s just different. Growing older, being in a band — now it’s just abuse on the internet, but there are filters to block comments.
But I think I have gotten used to it and I don’t talk about it. I don’t think some people understand why we don’t talk about it that much. I’ve been through it my whole life.
On facing racism while touring and in the music industry
I remember doing a show with Atreyu, on an off day during Ozzfest, and someone threatened me and wanted to beat me up after the show was over. There was no real reason, it was just outside in the carpark.
There aren’t that many Asian guitar players, Chinese [guitar players], it’s even less. Another experience, before Dragonforce got big, I used to get phone calls at my house almost every single day, sometimes at 4:00 a.m., sometimes at 7:00 p.m., of someone making a funny accent and insulting me and just prank calling me and it went on for months. I had to get the police involved, they couldn’t trace the number.
All of these things that happened, but I was able to channel that energy to make a stronger self and to make Dragonforce more successful. I think the metal scene is in denial of racism in it. I have so many crazy stories but we don’t really talk about it and when I do interviews I’m not ever asked about it because they think it doesn’t exist.
Kimberly Goss of Sinergy
On her cultural background and upbringing
I’m half Korean; my father is from Seoul. My mother is Caucasian, her parents being mostly of German heritage. I was born in L.A. but moved to Japan with my mother at the age of one. She was a singer and performed in Japan. We lived with a family there who took care of me while she worked. My first language was actually Japanese, but unfortunately I lost it all once we moved back to America. I spent most of my childhood and all of my school years in the suburbs of Chicago until I moved to Norway two months before my 18th birthday.
On the rise of violence against the Asian/AAPI community and facing racism during the pandemic
I’ve been having flashbacks to my childhood. As a kid, I was relentlessly teased for my looks. Kids would make their eyes slanted and look at me saying things like, “Ching-chang-chong,” I was often called gook or chink. The difference is that kids can be cruel because they’re too young and ignorant to know better.
Experiencing this sort of blatant racism as an adult has been completely unprecedented and shocking to me, though. It’s heartbreaking to see all the senseless violence and to feel a sense of worry when I go out. My daughter was extremely worried for me in the beginning. Any time I’d go to the store or run errands she’d ask me to go with someone. It’s disturbing to have your child fear your simple trip to get groceries.
I also had someone tell me to go back to China, another person said go back to North Korea. It’s all been verbal assaults for me. I was wearing my mask with sunglasses inside stores for a while so people couldn’t see my eyes. It’s pretty surreal to have to think like that.
On having discussions with her daughter about being a woman of Asian heritage
I do [have these discussions]; however, my daughter has blue eyes and light brown hair when it’s not dyed some funky color. She’s only 25 percent Korean and nobody even realizes she is Asian unless they see her with me or she tells them. The saddest part for me, when all this Asian hatred and violence started resurfacing, was that I was secretly relieved for my daughter’s sake that she didn’t appear noticeably Korean. That’s the heartbreaking reality.
On experiencing racism and discrimination online and in the music industry
Recently I had someone tell me to, “Go back to North Korea you f**king gook” in a direct message on Instagram. I remember one time on tour with another band I played in, some guys were harassing me outside the venue, mocking some Asian accent and laughing at me. Then they saw me onstage and asked for my autograph after the concert. I looked at them and did the same mock-Asian accent and said, “I no understand you.” In person, it was rare, but online I definitely used to read comments from people referring to me with Asian slurs. They usually got shut down pretty fast by other fans, though, so that restored my faith in humanity.
Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Fort Minor
On the rise of racism and violent attacks on members of the Asian and AAPI community in the U.S. and other parts of the world
Touring and traveling, I’ve seen racism everywhere. There’s no place I’ve been that doesn’t experience it. Talking about “Stop Hate” and “Stop Racism” is lazy and meaningless, it’s just a plea to social media followers not to cancel you; racism doesn’t have an end date. It requires constant effort. Racism is the disgusting result of ignorance and lack of compassion.
On whether political rhetoric has contributed to the anti-Asian racism and violence
The pandemic is a time of crisis which requires the collaboration of masses of people. We’ve needed to collectively commit to staying safer. We’re all trying to manage our families, education, work, and any number of other stresses and challenges.
The idea of creating division by scapegoating a group of people and incorrectly blaming them for the situation is the opposite of what we need. Anyone who perpetuates the “China Virus” language and throws blame at Asians is not only needlessly putting people in danger, they’re sabotaging the efforts needed to get society back on its feet — back to school, back to work, back to some version of “normal.”
On his Japanese heritage and his ancestors’ history of being in a U.S. internment camp
Looking the way I do, nobody ever really knew where my family was from. We got mistaken for Mexican, Native American, Chinese, Filipino, and Inuit. My dad is first-generation Japanese. Our family was interned in camps here in the U.S. during WWII, with 120,000 others under Executive Order 9066.
They rounded up any American citizen on the West Coast who was of Japanese descent, and stuck them in makeshift prison camps in the desert for the duration of the war. Those families came home to poverty, with all their belongings vandalized, stolen, or destroyed. In 1988, Ronald Reagan passed the Civil Liberties Act, which paid reparations to families who had been wronged. I remember my dad getting that check and donating the whole thing to our church.
On facing obstacles or prejudice in the music industry
In general, just not having any Asian role models in music meant I didn’t have anyone to look up to in that way. But more specifically, our A&R once asked us to stop using a certain logo because it “looked like a sticker for an Asian car club.”
On what it means to be Asian American in 2021 in the United States
Seeing images of elderly folks being randomly attacked is heartbreaking. I appreciate all the folks standing up right now. I think speaking up for each other in positive ways, and making the effort to understand each other’s’ challenges and perspectives is key.
Freddy Lim of Chthonic (and an elected member of the Taiwanese legislature)
On the “Stop Asian Hate and “Black Lives Matter” movements
I think all countries deal with this difficulty [of racism and discrimination]. Because Taiwan looks up to the Western democracies such as the U.S. and European countries, we look at the bright side of these countries. When things happen in the U.S. and there are movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate — we feel like these democracies in the West have to improve and are trying to improve themselves. Taiwan always wants to improve itself so we feel like we’re behind.
We try to fight for LGBTQ rights and we’re trying to pass the same-sex marriage law here. When I look at the West, they have improved on LGBTQ rights for years [whereas] we are so behind — we should work harder for this in Asia. When Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate happened, it reminded us that even democracies in the West still have problems but they want to progress in their society and democracy.
Even though these past years have been tough in the U.S. and in European countries, we are always inspired by the rights these countries try to fight for. The people in the West are not giving up on their society. And younger people are following these movements, that’s positive. I always believe that more young people in these social movements will make it better and faster.
On discrimination and intimidation faced on tour
One time in Germany, but it wasn’t anything tough. Someone said they didn’t appreciate that Asian people could play metal with this kind of energy. But it’s very rare [on tour], we don’t really face discrimination.
In 2013, when we toured the U.S., there were allegedly Chinese students who sent threatening letters to our booking agent and tour manager saying they will kill us when we’re onstage — that was a bad experience. But we decided to go on with the show and not give a shit about them. It could have been Chinese students studying in the U.S. or hired hands by the Chinese government – we’re not sure if it’s really Chinese students or not [who wrote the letters].
Saki of Amahiru and Mary’s Blood
On the rise of violent attacks on members of the Asian and AAPI community in the U.S. and other parts of the world
While I understand some of the frustration people feel about this situation, I am very angry about the actual acts of violence. Personally, I don’t think I can go abroad anymore, including the U.S. Asians are an ostracized group, and I often hear from my friends about Japanese people being discriminated against. With the development of social networking sites, I think they have become more intensified.
On whether political rhetoric helped contribute to the anti-Asian racism and violence over the past year
I feel that the frustration of the Coronavirus disaster has been expressed all at once, and I don’t think that discrimination and violence have decreased. I am not in the U.S., so I don’t know what is really going on, but I am seeing more videos, news, and posts on social media every day.
On dealing with online ridicule
Japan is an island nation with extremely few opportunities to meet foreigners, and I have never experienced such discrimination in Japan. However, there have been times when I have been ridiculed by comments on YouTube or social networking sites, and I have felt strong resentment.
On the impact of Asian women in heavy metal
Fortunately, I have never felt any obstacles nor prejudice in the music industry. Metal performed by Japanese women had been seen as a rarity outside of Japan until the appearance of BABYMETAL. I think it is good that we are getting more attention, new opportunities and audiences because of this.
Wolf Red of Bamboo Star
On being born in Hong Kong, raised in Australia, and facing racism early on
To set a bit of context, racism in Australia tends to be less pronounced than in the US. It’s a more diverse population but at the same time, we’ve never had to look at ourselves and have serious conversations so it remains pretty lowkey segregated. For the longest time, you’d barely see any Asian people on TV or in government, except when you look around the streets of Sydney and yellow and brown faces were just our classmates, neighbors and friends.
This disconnect felt like whiteness or Anglo-culture was what immigrants should be aspiring to, and our ethnicity and heritage was something to downplay or even be ashamed of. Then one day I got the passing “compliment” from one of my (white) friends, “Oh yeah, you’re Asian but you’re not really Asian,” as though my race or culture was the definition of being uncool. It wasn’t in malice but the most awful part of this was that the young version of myself actually believed it for a while.
On racism and discrimination in Asia
When I moved back to Hong Kong, it was an odd feeling. I left when I was three and after being told to “Go back to where I came from,” I did, and found I still didn’t fit in! It was a kind of “culturalism” where those who grew up abroad also were seen as not real Hong Kong natives. That’s why I named the band Bamboo Star, it’s a play on words for the derogatory term used for Asians raised overseas.
I wanted to use the music to own that identity and that like Hong Kong itself, being a cultural melting pot is nothing to be ashamed of. Once I got comfortable with that and started touring, it became the message I wanted to share about my heritage. We didn’t do a whole lot outside of Asia, although we have played in Canada several times. It was at those times we kind of found it worked for us to be the ‘token’ Asian band at festivals [in Canada].
On the rise in racism against Asians
It’s beyond terrifying and it’s so incessant. I’m not sure it’s my place to say as a non-American, but racial tension seems to perforate almost every layer of American society and culture. We’re living in the aftermath of the most divisive years in American politics, and this pandemic has created the perfect catalyst for racial violence to rear its head. COVID-19 has decimated livelihoods and people need a scapegoat.
Besides the sheer number of cases of anti-Asian attacks we’re seeing, what’s particularly heartbreaking is when the perpetrators are other people of color. This says to me that we’ve played right into the narrative of racial hierarchy and once again we’re getting pitted against each other as we have been for generations. It’s too easy to blame Asians for COVID-19, and it’s times like these where minorities ought to be together in solidarity. To all the non-Asian people who stand by us, thank you, we cannot overcome this alone.