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Identity, Awareness & Representation: An AAPI Heritage Month Conversation With Spotify's Ronny Ho

Courtesy of Spotify

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Billboard is highlighting Asian-American voices within the music industry through a series of conversations on identity, representation, and raising awareness. Here, we have Ronny Ho, who's the head of dance and electronic development at Spotify, and helped launch the streaming service's content hub for AAPI month -- exemplifying how companies can carve out space for a more inclusive and diverse generation of executives. 

As the streaming giant’s head of dance and electronic development, 29-year-old Ronny Ho has helped grow Spotify’s AAPI hub since its inception four years ago. Together with a team of company allies, Ho has championed AAPI creators with the goal of increasing Asian-American visibility in the music and audio space -- one playlist at a time.  

In 2016, Ho joined the Asian Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Spotify, which kickstarted the very first initiatives surrounding Asian American Heritage month. When the Asian ERG partnered with the content team in 2017Spotify’s first AAPI hub was created -- starting with one playlist featuring Asian and Asian American artists.  

Today, the AAPI hub has grown into a robust content hub with multiple playlists -- featuring artists like Saweetie, Olivia Rodrigo, and Audrey Nuna -- and even an array of podcasts to further tell the diversity of stories within the Asian diaspora. As both industry insiders and music fans turn to Spotify playlists for music discovery, featuring such artists on one of their AAPI playlists is becoming a practical way to uplift Asian-American voices.  

This year, Spotify’s AAPI campaign was especially needed as Asian Americans faced an increase of hate crimes and discrimination. "Despite this challenging year, AAPIers continue to thrive -- making waves in representation in every field from art, music, food, sports, politics, fashion and beyond," says Marian Dicus, Global co-head of Music, Spotify. "Through our campaign, 'We Have So Much to Be Proud Of,' we wanted to celebrate the AAPI artists, creators and their work and give them a space to amplify their voices. I could not be more proud of this important work from the team." 

With the buzzwords of diversity and inclusion sprinkled into every press release recently, Ho has been an advocate for this type of advocacy since the beginning of her career at the streaming platform. Below, Ho gives a behind-the-scenes look into playlist making, the importance of having BIPOC execs in the c-suite, and what she hopes for in future AAPI campaigns.  

How did you end up in the music streaming space?  

Five years ago, I was working in investment banking in finance, but I always loved music. When I was in college, I went to lots of concerts. In high school, I was one of those kids holding up signs on TRL. But after two years in finance, I needed to find a way back to into music. Coming from a corporate financial background, tech was a little easier to get into. So I got a role in business development at Spotify -- helping get new subscribers in different markets.  

How did you end up switching from the business side to the music side? 

While in that first role, I was making a lot of relationships with folks around the company -- especially on the music side. I met Marian Dicus -- who's the global co-head of music -- through our Asian employee resource group that had recently launched at the time. When the stars aligned, I ended up on the music team. 

What inspired the very first AAPI hub at Spotify?  

During the inception of our resource group in 2016, we were really catering to employees and building a community for Asians at Spotify. For me, I wanted to see what we can do off platform to really showcase the work that we were doing internally. Asian American Heritage month was in May, so we wanted to make it a moment and see what happens.

Working with the music team, we asked labels if there were any Asian or Asian Americans on their roster who we could potentially spotlight. I think that was a question that labels probably never heard during that time. We didn't have a dedicated AAPI playlist at the time, so we thought to do a takeover -- kind of like a hub -- of 15 to 20 artists from different labels. That's how we came up with our first hub. Since then, it's evolved because there have been so many more Asian-American artists. It's really cool to see that happen. 

The hub has grown so much since the first playlist. Can you talk us through its growth over the last four years?  

When we were first putting this together, we were looking at artists, like Far*East Movement. For a long time, I was reaching out to our friends in other markets in Asia. We didn't have as many Asian-American artists, so we collaborated closely with our markets team to find Asian artists. In the beginning, you saw a lot of K-pop influences in our initial rendition. We also found out that a lot of famous Asian artists were Asian-Americans, who went back to Asia to start their careers and then make it in America later down the line -- Eric Nam is an example that comes to mind.

So originally, there wasn't many to pick from, so we worked closely with the Asian markets. Then over time, more artists started coming out and saying that they are Asian-American -- so we saw more Asian-American music. That's helped us with build our playlists, and now there's so much music that I can make multiple playlists.

 

What do you think inspired artists to come out and be more proud of their Asian-American heritage?   

I think it's definitely because of the direction media is going. I think about it similarly to food. When we were growing up, we'd bring kimchi in our lunchboxes. Now, we see it at fanciest restaurants as a side or topping. It comes with people being more open minded as we progress in society. It's exciting to celebrate our differences rather than hiding it, and trying to blend in with the rest. It's a lot easier for people to speak up, too. 

How were you able to convince the company to invest resources into the AAPI hub and campaign? 

It was a team effort. It starts from the inside, because there are a bunch of us who are super-passionate about it. As people heard the rumblings of what's going on, we got more and more people wanting to help out -- not just Asians. A ton of allies reached out. It's become a cross-functional effort, where we have our marketing team that helps with the campaigns on TikTok, for example. Or, we have folks on our creative team who watch what's happening in the world and come up with something really cool. We have our music and podcast team pitching in, too.

There were just so many people who were involved in making it come together and make it happen. That's how we did it. Over time, it became second nature to the business. We don't have to pitch every year. We know we're doing this. The question now is: What are we doing this year? 

How many people end up working on the campaigns? 

I would probably say 25 to 30, and they’re not all Asians. 

What initiative for this year's AAPI month are you most excited about? 

After all these years, I still love the hub. It's expanded a lot over the years, but now we have podcasting -- which I love, because it shows more the educational and storytelling side. With everything that's happening in the world, with the all the attacks against Asians, I think it's important to have part to it. The podcast space allowed us to say that we're letting the people dealing with this tell their own story.

We also have a shelf that highlights songwriters around the world. That's new, and I'm excited about that too, because they're the ones who have been behind-the-scenes making music for a really long time. And then, we have so much content on the music side, because the markets from Asia have really come out with so many musicians who wanna be involved. 

From music supervisors to music fans, so many people rely on Spotify playlists to discover new music. It's a huge opportunity to be included in one. Have there been any noticeably major stream boosts for any of the Asian artists placed on the playlists? 

Yes. I think our Jasmine playlist can help do that. I would say Keshi is [an artist who's seen a bump]. Audrey Nuna -- she's incredible. Yuna -- she's amazing. Rina Sawayama. Priya Ragu. Eric Nam, people love him on this playlist. Deb Never. KATIE. And then, Stephanie Poetri and NIKI from 88rising do very well on the playlist as well.

What goes into the selecting the songs and artists included on the playlists?  

There's a lot of different factors that go into it. First, they have to be Asian. I look at their trajectory. We have an internal tool that flags artists that are going up in their market. If that artist makes sense for a playlist, we leverage that tool to look at the data and put together the playlist. I'm always mindful of diversity. I don't want to feature all males, or all East Asians. I make sure that we're being very mindful that there are Southeast Asians, there's LGBTQ+ [artists], there are folks in the U.K. diaspora. 

Do you ever get pitches from artists?  

Yes, and we tell them to use Spotify for Artists. It's the best to way to get more ears on it. If you're just emailing me, then maybe one person will listen to it. It's more valuable to leverage the tool that we have for artists. 

As an Asian-American, have you been able to find role models at work who you can relate to? 

I was at Spotify when it was a smaller company, but luckily there were a few Asians pretty early on. I naturally gravitated to them because it feels very comfortable -- like they understand me. I got involved with the Asian Employee Resource Group early on, so it was a way for me to talk to them. Within the resource group, I was exposed to all the leaders -- who were people of color. That was a great way to be closer to these executives. 

What do you think of the music industry’s response to the rise of hate crimes against Asian-Americans?  

First, I think it was exciting when Billboard put up an article about the different companies that have a campaign going. For a long time, it felt like Spotify was the only one celebrating AAPI month. It's been about five years since then, and everyone is getting involved. More people are seeing what's going on and more people are getting educated. I think a lot of these folks at companies don't know what to do, but throw money at it, but I'm okay with that. Let's trust people who are on the ground with this and commit to a long-term investment in this. I'm just excited that people are noticing that this is happening. 

Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords in 2020. What do you think are more practical ways for companies to support their employees of color?  

An easy one is to elevate and recognize them. That's putting money where your mouth is. Promote them to leadership positions, so they can honestly have a seat at the table, where the decisions are being made. That way, their perspective and lived experiences can influence decisions instead of working in silos. For me, that's where the long-term change happens. 

How do you see Spotify’s AAPI hub growing in the future?  

I'm actually brainstorming some ideas now with some folks across the organization. I don't wanna say yet what may or may not happen, but there's a lot of unique cultures to this monolith of Asia that we'd like to highlight and delve more into. I'm only one version of this. We have folks around the company that are very well versed in other experiences in this diaspora. I think that would be a really cool way to further expand. Can't say anything beyond that! 

So many companies -- especially in media -- have faced backlash for the lack of diversity on their staff. What advice do you have for someone at a company who’d like to start similar types of initiatives?  

Find your allies and your friends at the company and make a case for it. Build a business case. Tell a story of what is happening. Then, find good role models in executives and tell them we have something here. I would lean on the allies at the company, who are really passionate about this space. The passion shows. People want that, and that's when you know the impact will be made. Encourage as much support from your teammates as possible. 

Who are your favorite Asian-American artists at the moment? 

Oh my god, there are so many! I love Saweetie. I love Audrey Nuna. Zhu just released an album two weeks ago, and it's amazing. I love Joji. There are honestly so many. I could name everyone on this list.