Justin Bieber: Integration Pioneer? Come Again?
Okay, so Justin Bieber deserves some props for this one. I’m not usually the biggest fan of our latest teen idol – I never even knew much about him, save for the side bangs – but when I read about this development I couldn’t help but be impressed. Apparently, J. Biebs has chosen an all Asian-American band as a backup group. That’s right, all Asian-American. When was the last time you heard that?
The group, Legaci, is getting some fantastic publicity for their stint on Bieber’s summer tour. They are composed of four Filipino American young men who, before this job, couldn’t get a gig no matter how talented they were or how hard they worked. Now, they’re appearing on some of the biggest arenas in the country, performing on shows the likes of Saturday Night Live and Good Morning America, and are in the works of cementing their own record deal. It might make you wonder: why did a band that so clearly has the chops never get any attention whatsoever before?
Unfortunately, the answer might lie in the serious lack of Asian presence in American media. Racial minorities have long struggled to integrate into popular culture – Hollywood was much the monochromatic institution until very recently, when African Americans and Latinos have begun to secure a major place in film, television, and music. However, Asian Americans have arguably been left out; there is a noticeable absence where other ethnic groups are increasingly present.
But while there is only a small, small number of Asian Americans who’ve managed to make it in the industry, things are looking up. Notable new acts are few yet burgeoning: the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger is half-Filipina; half-Vietnamese, Hawaii-born actress Maggie Q (of Hong Kong and action movie fame) is set to star in the CW’s big Fall series, Nikita; young singing sensation and soon to be Glee guest star Charice is Filipina; Grey’s Anatomy star Sandrah Oh is Korean; and Allen Pineda, a.k.a Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas, is Filipino.
Perhaps most influential of all is the latter, Mr. Pineda. In previous BEP albums, Pineda has included songs with Tagalog lyrics: The Apl Song, a sentimental ballad, and Bebot, an up-tempo hip hop tune. Moreover, Pineda has established his own record label, Jeepney Music (named for the Philippines’ trademark public transport vehicles), with which he is working to propel the careers of Asian American artists as well as pursue philanthropic projects concerning various Asian countries.
Being Filipina myself, I have always found particular interest in Pineda because, well, it’s true—growing up Asian American there are few role models in the media. It was a source of pride to watch my friends include “Bebot” to their party track lists, and a relief to see an Asian American artist who is so successful and really acknowledges his heritage (no offense to Nicole Scherzinger, but you’re never going to hear a Tagalog PCD song.)
That said, Pineda is pretty much alone in his A-list Asian American status. Yes, there are musicians with great potential, but as of right now, it’s a skeletal genre. But now there is Legaci. Legaci was picked up, believe it or not, off of YouTube. Even more surprising (or at least it was to me) is the fact that Justin Bieber got his start that very way—Usher’s team saw his videos and got in contact. In more or less the same vein, Legaci’s Bieber covers were noticed by Justin’s manager, who promptly worked to bring them from cyberspace and onto a stage.
Legaci’s success story is something of an urban myth; a dream that will forever ruminate in the back of Internet users’ minds every time they record a web cam short. Unfortunately, though, they began on the path because it seemed like the only option. Dominic Manuel, one of the Legaci members, told the New York Times: “It’s very rare to hear an Asian American on the radio, so we all had to find somewhere to go. YouTube levels the playing field. It was our chance to have our voices heard.”
In the same interview, the group went on to list their more traditional attempts at recognition—college campus and club performances, self-released albums, auditions for American Idol, The Sing Off, America’s Got Talent and Top Pop Group. “We tried them all,” said Micah Tolentino, another Legaci member. “And they all said the same thing, ‘You guys are great, you have great voices, but you’re not what we’re looking for…we couldn’t help wondering: ‘Is it because of who we are? Because we’re Asian American?’ We decided that if TV wouldn’t give us a chance, and major labels wouldn’t give us a chance, we would turn to YouTube.”
The group’s perseverance has apparently paid off. Not only did the Times devote a two-page feature on them, they are also developing a pretty sizeable fan base and have begun to get attention from more veteran musicians, such as The Roots. Of course, their fame is still tentative—we have yet to see how Legaci will be received both critically and commercially, and at the moment they are most commonly known as “Justin Bieber’s Back-Up Group.”
And yet it is a triumph that they have even come so far as this. Personally, I believe that these boys deserve every credit that they are getting. It is absolutely worth noting that a once unanimously rejected foursome is sharing microphones with a sensation so big he’s coined an epidemic. Even more, Legaci is braving a rather desolate, unlucky path in the music industry—not only is the recording business suffering, but they are largely unembellished (as opposed to the likes of the ever rhinestone-ed Lady GaGa or Ke$ha), and, well, they’re a boy band for God’s sake!
Whatever the outcome is, Legaci should be acknowledged for even this distance. So too, Justin Bieber and his manager merit considerable praise for their decision to hire an unknown group from YouTube, with a hush-hush “disadvantage” at that. To bring this blog to a close: a toast to the Bieber summer tour – keep doing whatever you’re doing, kid!