Every day, more and more artists are being discovered. Due to the power of social media and streaming services, all it takes is one TikTok to use a song for a video to become viral. However, if that is the case, where are Asian American artists?
Why are so few Asian American artists reaching Billboard top 100 or winning the Grammys? Where are the South Asians?
Even within the Asian American community, there is a minority in mainstream media; there are almost no South Asian American singers. Why is this?
A possibility might be that South Asian parents emphasize stable professions (law, medicine, engineering) and therefore do not encourage risk-prone, “creative” careers. Another reason might be that mainstream media does not know how to perceive South Asians.
In an NPR interview, Asha Putli, a Mumbai hailing artist, described her struggles trying to become a mainstream artist in 1960s America.
“In 1969, CBS came to me and said ‘We want to sign you,’ but they wanted me to change my name,” Puthli remembered. “I remember one of the honchos at CBS telling me, ‘You’re not black, you’re not white, so we’re going to find it very hard to market you.'”
Since Puthli, there have been only a handful of South Asian artists who made it big.
Blendtw had the opportunity to interview Aakanksha Kuchan. Known by the mononym, “Akansha,” she is a rising contemporary R&B artist from Berklee College of Music. Here, Akansha tells her story and challenges of being a rising Indian American contemporary R&B artist.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into singing? How did you discover R&B?
“I started singing theme songs like Hannah Montana and Sonny with a Chance. Then, I moved to India in the second grade. There, I learned Karnatik Music (South Indian Classical music).
Then I moved on to pop music, the Top 40 pop. That was my beginning for getting introduced to Western music. I started to fall more into different cultural music like Spanish and Arabic music.
I’m very intrigued by the vocal aspect of music. I started listening to a lot of languages. Freshman year of high school, I moved [to New Jersey], where I joined choir. I did not know what choir was until I joined.
I thought to myself, “Wow, people are actually in groups together singing?” I did not know what harmony was, I didn’t know anything. It introduced me to choral music, opera.
Then I joined the vocal jazz choir, and that led to R&B music. A lot of friends from the choir listened to contemporary R&B music. I had one friend who was an amazing R&B singer; he would always sing these crazy runs, so I would always ask him to teach me.
The more he sang, the more I adapted to his kind of singing. I used that, along with listening to other R&B artists. Now, it’s just so easy for me.”
When did you decide you wanted to be a singer?
“I went to this NYU summer recording program at Clive Davis Recording Music Institute, where I was introduced to the music business aspect. There, I met a lot of people and made a lot of connections.
That was when I found out that this was what I wanted to do. We went to all the places. Apple Music, Spotify, record labels; I met all these successful people and saw what it was like for them to share their music through those platforms.
There is more to music than singing. You need to have a brand. During college apps season when I was a senior in high school, I applied to college, but with a different major than I had expected.
I could not imagine being stuck behind a desk, doing something I didn’t wanna do. I still applied to other schools for different majors because according to my family, I needed a backup plan.”
As you know, there are hardly any South Asian origin singers in mainstream media. This is possibly due to the fact that the Asian American community encourages stable professional careers such as medicine, law, and engineering. Did your family have any hesitations with the idea of you pursuing music as a career?
“My parents always knew I was going to do this, but they didn’t talk about it. They are actually surprisingly very supportive.
During my junior year of high school, I told my dad that I was thinking of studying medicine, but he was the one who gave me the idea that maybe I should do music. He introduced me to the NYU Summer program.
We wrote out a resume, applied, did everything we could, and I got in. After that summer program, I was able to finalize my decision and committed to doing music. I still have that mindset that through everything we do, we are pursuing our career, while still doing what we love.
I think that if you want to do something crazy, you need to find a way to also make good decisions and live a good life. Right now, I am majoring in music business with a minor in songwriting.
It’s entrepreneurship, also known as the management, marketing, and the legal side of [the music industry]. However, at the same time, I am immersed in the creative aspect of the music industry and pursuing my own music career.”
Who are some of your biggest R&B musical influences?
“I started by listening to a lot of 90s R&B, so I was influenced by TLC, Lauren Hill, Outkast, and Wu-Tang Clan. These people made a huge difference in my sound and moved me into contemporary R&B.
They had a great vocal influence on me because of their different and unique melodies. People don’t really use that now, but I’m trying to incorporate that sound within my music.
Current contemporary R&B artists include Snoh Aalegra, Rihanna, and Jorja Smith, and their influences are also from 90s R&B. It’s an overall spectrum of artists that I take inspiration from.”
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a South Asian pursuing music? Or just as an artist in general?
“That happened not in college because I’ve been there for six months, but in high school. We had a lot of South Asians, but not many in choir or musical theatre. They thought it wasn’t my area.
They thought, “why would you, an Indian, be cast as a lead? You are brown.” This cast is white people. I’ve seen a lot of these musicals, they’re often white lead musicals. It doesn’t give a lot of opportunities to people of color.
It just makes no sense. People of color always end up in the background. Every person of color wants to be the lead. They have that fantasy, especially if they’re into musicals.
You would want that attention. I tried out once in junior year and the teacher responded with, “yeah no, you wouldn’t be fit for a role like this,” and they ended up using a blonde white girl.”
“Even in the college I go to, Berklee College of Music, very few Desis go there. People come to me asking me questions like, “What are you? Where are you from?”
I’ve also gotten a lot of questions like, “Are you going to be like Raveena?” but we’ve got different and diverse experiences unique to us. I totally respect Raveena, she’s a queen, but at the same time, we’re telling our own individual stories. I want [South Asians] to be labeled as different individuals.”
You’ve collaborated with a lot of other up and coming artists. You were just featured on the track Hunnit with Funder. What is that like? How do you think they influence your sound?
“The track that I just recently was on is very true R&B and has a lot of hip-hop, nuances to it, which I’m not very used to. It’s lyrical rap, so when I had to write my verse it was so new to me.
It was not something that I usually do, but Funder kind of gave me the idea of [the track] as a typical love song. Once we talked it out, I knew what I was going to write my verse on.
It took me a couple days to write my verse because there were so many words packed in a minute. It’s so different from contemporary R&B, which is just a couple words and you sing it over and over again.
It was different, but I really liked that it pushed me out of my comfort zone. Now that I’ve experienced that, I’d definitely try and collaborate with other artists in different genres.”
Releasing your music on Apple Music and Spotify is a huge deal! In 2019, alone, you had 11.7k streams and 7.6k listeners from 65 different countries just through Spotify! Congratulations on that! What was the process like?
“Honestly, I didn’t know that it would be so easy to get on all those platforms when I first started in 2019. I found out that there are distributor companies where you can literally post your track, and they send it to different platforms within two to three weeks.
You just have to pay five to nine dollars. It’s so accessible today; it’s crazy. I just recently read an article that at least 40,000 songs drop on all platforms every day.”
Let’s talk about your most recent single, “Under My Skin.” What is the story behind this song? How do you think your style has evolved since “Goodbye” and “Slow“?
“The song, “Goodbye” is a good starter song because it is really breaking through and really coming through with my artistry. It wasn’t really about anyone.
“Under My Skin” is a romantic song. I am not a romantic person. I’m not usually in relationships. I don’t do that kinda stuff, at least not yet.
I take experiences I see from others from my friends, people that I know, and incorporate their story within my writing. So whenever I hear a story, I go back home and write the whole thing down and turn it into a song.
That was kind of the basis of “Under My Skin.” Under my Skin was a person who has betrayed you, but you’re not trying to seek revenge. You know that you’ve moved on.
The idea is that they really did get under your skin and took you for granted. It’s your typical “get away from me, I’m a new person.” A lot of artists say that they need to experience this in order to write it. I’d rather just hear someone out and incorporate it into my writing.”
As you know, Indian music has a very distinct style. Do you think you’d consider weaving in elements of Indian culture into your own music?
“A lot of people ask if I’m going to wear Indian clothes or show off my culture’s music. I am proud of my background, and where my parents are from, but I’m not going to use my culture for profit.
It’s still a part of me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to wear a lengha in every music video. That’s their perception of me, but I am still an American.
I am pursuing contemporary R&B music, but at the same time, I am Indian. I’m balancing both of these cultures and introducing this balance to America instead of them having this perception that I am just an Indian girl incorporating that weird mix into my music.
I don’t need to bank off of it. It is something that is sacred to me. We do pujas, we go to all these places. That’s when I will truly show that I am immersed in this culture. This is a part of me, but it wouldn’t be used for something commercial.”
What’s a typical day of music production like for you?
“I usually don’t produce the entire track. I produce the demo track and send it to my producer. Basically, I come up with the melody, try and produce chords, and then just play acoustic for a while. For a couple days, play it.
It really just needs to sink in for a while. I threw out hundreds of songs like that. There are a couple songs that hit within the first few days, and once I get comfortable with the acoustic version of it, I start using my midi, Logic ProX, and add the harmonies.
That’s just the rough version. I make all the demos, and then [the producer] sends it back and makes it much better. Then, I add the vocals from the studio inside my house.”
What can we expect from you in the future? Any plans for new music? An album?
“I have a new song that’s coming out. It’s a ballad. It mainly talks about the issues that are going on right now in terms of Black Lives Matter and colorism within the South Asian community.
I’m talking about me and my sister’s experiences — essentially, societal problems. It also talks about how I’ve been stereotyped, and how I’ve been talked about solely using my culture as my identity.
It’s really a pivotal moment in terms of my artistry because it’s just a piano and my voice. It’s more about the lyrics, the voice, and how people feel.
The lyrics are mine, it’s from my experiences. It’s just something that people will relate to especially people from [the Desi] community. It’s different, and I’m really excited to show what I’ve come up with to the world.”
“I’m also planning two music videos for this summer; the song that I just talked about and another summer bop that I will be filming a music video for in August. It’s not as depressing as the one I was talking about before.
It’s very relatable. It’s talking about anxiety, dealing with people as a woman, and not being judged by people. It’s basically about women struggles, but it has a very upbeat, inspiring tune to it. Those are the two things I have for this summer. I’m working on more songs and maybe an EP in the future.”
Lastly, what’s your advice for aspiring South Asian artists?
“My parents have been supportive, but other members of my family have not. You only have one life, and if you know that aspect or that thing is what you want to do then there are ways. It’s not impossible.
There are outlets in which you can explain to your parents that this is what I wanna do, this is how I’m going to go about it. Just be strong in where you stand, and who knows? They might go along with it. At the end of the day, it’s your passion.
You don’t want to be living another person’s life. You want to be living your life. There are always things you can do to convince your parents. It did take me a while.
It took me all my life to convince [my parents], but eventually, they knew that this is what I want to do and I have the talent. Prove that to your parents, that you are fully invested, that you have the talent, and they might say yes.
We need more representation. We need to take this opportunity because there is no representation to fill in that spot, and that’s the part that I’m playing. There are not many South Asians in the R&B industry, so it would be cool to see faces like mine.
It’s high time that we follow our passion and do what we want to do.”