Steve Aoki, Tokimonsta, Yaeji & More Reflect on How Their Asian Heritage Has Influenced Their Music

TOKiMONSTA
Austin Hargrave

TOKiMONSTA photographed on March 11, 2019 at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States, so we're celebrating 10 DJs and producers who represent for their roots in their music, art and everyday lives.

The DJs and producers on our list have drawn from their cultural heritage to fuel a blossoming and inspiring international music career. See what they had to say below.


Steve Aoki

The international superstar DJ has one of the most recognizable faces in the music scene, but he spent much of his childhood battling serious insecurities. His Japanese parents immigrated to the States in the ‘60s, and his father, an Olympic sumo wrestler and founder of Benihana restaurants, made Japanese culture his business. That didn’t make it any easier for Steve to fit in.

"I grew up in Newport Beach, which is 96 percent white, as far as the statistic of the demographic," he says. "I just dealt with a lot of racism, a lot of self-hatred, a lot of confusion and that kind of thing. When I left [for college], I started to find my identity, and then I understood how important it was to represent and have that pride."

Today, his Asian American heritage is both consciously and unconsciously a part of everything he touches. "It's in my music," he says. "It's in my DNA." He loves working with Asian artists, from Indonesian pop star Agnez Mo to K-pop supergroups BTS and Monsta X. He also recently worked a remix for a forthcoming Netflix version of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell, and he’s got plans to get in the studio with some top J-pop talent.

Listen To: Steve Aoki & Vini Vici - “Moshi Moshi” Feat. Mama Aoki

"I remember playing it at EDC Japan, maybe a month or two after the song came out," he says. "The pride, and the excitement and the passion. They were so excited that I have a song with Japanese words in the song … the whole crowd just said 'Moshi Mosh,' literally 40,000 people just screaming it. At the end, my mom says 'kawaii desu ne,' which means 'it's cute.' They all yelled that louder than any other more popular song I have. It really hit me how important it is just to hear your own language in songs, and how big it is culturally. I'll never forget that."

Tokimonsta

Grammy-nominated Tokimonsta was raised in Los Angeles by South Korean parents who stressed a connection to "Oori Nara," or "our country." She says her roots have given her the foundation to be strong in a country where she is a minority and "treated as weak."

"The Korean music history is long standing and unique," she says. "I feel as though people view Korean music as pop centric, forgetting that we have a historical past of amazing traditional Korean music. That being said, I try to use traditional Korean sounds in my music. It gives me a unique sound signature not present in my peer’s music."

Listen To: Tokimonsta - "Sa Mo Jung"

"I have a few songs that are dedicated to my family and culture. The first song where I used Korean cultural music is called 'Sa Mo Jung' off my first album 10 years ago. It’s the name of a park my uncle built in my family’s original hometown of Ganeung. It translates roughly to 'Remembering Mother Park.' It’s dedicated to my grandmother, but also all mothers. A lot of my cultural appreciation comes from my strong Korean mother, so I wanted to thank her by dedicating this song to her."

Zhu

The story has it that Zhu initially kept his identity hidden because he wasn't sure how the EDM loving masses would feel about a Chinese-American DJ and producer. He's now become one of the biggest names in the game, working alongside Tinashe on his latest single "Only."

"Growing up, I wanted to assimilate into American culture," he says, "but now I’m building my own fusion of cultures." His music, fashion and visual performances celebrate the intersection of various artistic mediums to tell a more vibrant story, and the same goes for his synthesis of Chinese heritage and urban influence.  

Listen to: Zhu, "Only" Feat. Tinashe

"Art is about different perspectives," he says. "When I grew up, my dad was very into traditional Chinese music. yangqing, erhu, dizu. Non-confrontational and easily listening music was his preference. I can’t say the same about myself. The environment that I grew up in lent itself to be expressed in a dark and provocative medium."

Yaeji

New York City-based producer, DJ and artist Yaeji wears her roots on her sleeve by singing in both English and Korean. Her latest EP What We Drew took great influence from her personal and family history, going so far as to film the title track music video in Seoul with her family and childhood friends. 

"My Koreanness has always existed with me, and always will -- but I do think that I’ve been actively trying to connect with it more as I grew older," she says. "To me being an artist is being myself, questioning myself, and answering myself. In that sense, my life is my work/art. Everything that I was taught, everything I had to unlearn, everything I saw, smelled, heard, growing up in various places, all of that is in my music. Family and personal experiences are intertwined a lot for me because of how I was raised. I was taught to always put family first, to always think of family."

Listen To: Yaeji, "What We Drew"

"My title track 'What We Drew' feels that way to me," she says. "It really encapsulates all of these things that I talk about. The value of family, communities, chosen family, the people you surround yourself with, the people that help you grow -- all of this. These people made me who I am, and I reflect a piece of them. I’m showing gratitude."

Giraffage

It means a lot to this Taiwanese descendant to put on for his Asian roots - but it wasn’t always that way. As a first generation Asian American in a predominantly white school, Charlie Yin spent most of childhood embarrassed by his differences. Now, the only thing that embarrasses him is how he once rejected himself. 

"In the back of my mind, there is always the thought of some kid out there that went through the same identity crisis I did growing up," he says. "A lot of it was due to a lack of role models in media that looked like me. Now that I have somewhat of a platform, as an asian in a predominantly non-asian field, it’s important for me to let future generations know that it is cool to be proud of your own identity and heritage."

Listen To: Robot Science, Good Luck

I made this entire album, before I started Giraffage, while I was studying abroad in Taiwan for six months. I’m subconsciously heavily influenced by my surroundings and there is no doubt that some of that influence seeped into these songs.

Manila Killa

Talk about putting on for your city; this Filipino-American puts his home city in his name. Having grown up part-time in the country and traveled the region by car with his parents, the producer has always had a strong relation to Filipino history, food and culture.

The importance of that connection became more apparent as he's traveled the world. His dreamy, evocative productions are directly inspired by the big emotional ballads, smooth jazz, and pop his parents listened to on all those long drives. "These genres serve as the foundation to most of my music," he says.

Listen To: Manila Killa, "Midwinter"

"My EP outro song 'Midwinter' drew from memories of my parents playing the piano and hearing it throughout the house growing up," he says. "I've always thought of the piano as my favorite instrument and maybe that's why I so strongly connect to it -- it's an instrument that stands out on it's own and doesn't necessarily need to be accompanied by anything else."

Robotaki

Toronto’s Robotaki blends many influences for a fun, fresh sound, and he himself is a mix of styles. His mother was born in Hong Kong, while his father -- who is a descendant of the Hakka language group found in southeast China -- was born in Jamaica. While Robotaki identifies strongly as Canadian, his heritage has always played an important role in his life; from staying humble to the importance of family, keeping a strong work ethic and "a constant craving for Chinese food."

"The emotional bond Asian kids share with their parents is sometimes different from the typical bond ... in North America," he says. "Love is demonstrated through action and sometimes not through the use of words. My parents have always looked after me and my well-being, and I finally understand that this was their way of demonstrating their love for me. I strongly believe this paved the way for me finding music as a vehicle for expressing myself in ways that I didn’t with my parents."

Listen To: Robotaki, "Passing of Time"

"I decided to take a vulnerable approach and use my vocals at the forefront of the track," he says. "This vulnerability is something I hadn’t attempted in the past, and I’m proud that I took that chance creatively. Lyrically, the song speaks of being painfully aware of how quickly time passes and how much of a weight it can sometimes be on my psyche. I want to keep opening more doors of my emotional self, because it’s allowed me to get a better perspective on who I am, why I am the way I am, and how to be more emotionally free with the people around me."

Pat Lok

This disco-lovin’ groove master was born in Vancouver, a first generation Canadian following his family’s emigration from Singapore in the 1970s. His Chinese roots shaped his childhood through food and holidays, but it wasn’t until he grew up and moved out that he realized how much his values and self identity are tied to cultural traditions. Touring Asia in 2019 further fueled a sense of self discovery. His latest EP, Gone Is Yesterday, pays direct homage to his family in an animated short film. 

"I wanted to explore some of the Chinese folklore and mythology my Ah Kong [grandfather] introduced me to as a child," he says. "I wrote out the script and storyboards and actually finished the first draft for the film before the record was even done."

Listen to: Pat Lok, "Get Dawn"

"Sonically speaking, I drew on melodic inspiration and sounds native to the region where my family is from," Lok says. "The main hook and response are played by eastern bells and a flute, pulling from classic tropes of Asian melodies. At the same time, my short film has a retro video game/RPG feel, so I really wanted that scene, the final boss battle, to feel like a soundtrack that one of those legendary Japanese composers at Capcom or Square Enix might have written."

Josh Pan

Though he was born on the East Coast of the US, Josh Pan's family moved back to Taiwan when he was a child. His American upbringing made it hard to assimilate with his Asian surroundings, but the experience instilled him with a deep connection to his ancestral Chinese roots. The internet wasn't so robust in his city, but his cousin in Los Angeles sent him CDs by Kanye West, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Beatles.

His parents emphasized an education in both sciences and arts, and as a teen, he moved from classical performance to electronic production. Today, he's as influenced by Taiwanese artists Jay Chou, Khalil Fong and JJ Lin as he is by Alicia Keys and DJ Krush. 

"Khalil Fong -- 'Love Love Love' really stood out to me when I was a teen," he says. "Even though his parents were from Hong Kong and he was born in Hawaii, he made a big impact when he debuted in Taiwan and definitely left a mark in my mind."

Listen To: Josh Pan & Dylan Brady, "Past Lives"

"'Past Lives' was very heavy when we were writing it," he says. "It’s about moving forward and moving onwards, not letting your past dictate your present. I think it’s something we should remind ourselves of anytime we can. People can be too hard on themselves sometimes."

AObeats

AObeats' family comes from Saitama, Japan -- about an hour outside of Tokyo -- and many of them still live there. While he was one of a handful of Asian Americans at school, the internet provided a communal gathering spot for like-minded art lovers with immigrant families like his. 

"At a young age, there weren't many people who looked like me in popular music," he says. "Any time there was anyone remotely close, I rode hard for them and I think that shaped a lot of my childhood and teenage tastes in music. I honestly think Pharrell and the Teriyaki Boyz, as well as Hip-Hop's embrace of Bape, may have been the thing that made me want to start making beats."

Listen To: AObeats, "Go Time" Feat. Liz, Sophia Black

"There was a song on my last project called 'Go Time' that was LIZ Y2k and Sophia Black. Sophia is also half Japanese like me, and she did the bridge in Japanese. That was my first time having a song with Japanese in it, so that was pretty exciting.  I want to work with more Japanese artists as well. I went on a YouTube wormhole the other day of Japanese rappers, and there were some really great songs and videos."

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