good friend and colleague of mine, let’s call him D.J.,
recently turned down a lucrative job contract, when they asked him to assemble an all-black American band. In his words, he was “tired of the bullshit... good musicians are good musicians, regardless of their skin color.” Having been on the wrong end of such commercialized artistic ventures in the past, I was really touched by his stance against racial profiling. He really needed the work.
It was once explained to me that that are no Asian role models in the music industry. Not that I care, because a good musician is a good musician, regardless of color, but we’re there, if you bother to look. Here are some prominent Pop, Rock and Jazz musicians of Asian descent:
- Bruno Mars
- Eddie Van Halen
- Leslie Kong and many other Jamaican-Chinese music-indusrty pioneers discovered and produced Bob Marley.
- James Iha — founding member of The Smashing Pumpkins
- Rex Goh — Chinese-Australian lead guitarist, toured and recorded with Air Supply, Savage Garden, Randy Crawford, Tom Jones and Daryl Braithwaite.
- Phil Chen — Chinese-Jamaican bassist, one of England’s most utilized sessionist during the 1970s and 1980s, by artists such as Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors.
- Kirk Hammett
Irish-Filipino ancestry; founding member of Metallica
- Mike Shinoda — of Japanese American decent, member of Linkin Park
- Arnel Pineda
US Rock band, Journey
- Nguyên Lê — Vietnamese-French Jazz musician and composer, known for his accomplishments with guitar, bass guitar synthesizer, performed with Randy Brecker, Vince Mendoza, Eric Vloeimans, Carla Bley, Michel Portal, Renaud Garcia-Fons, Per Mathisen, Marc Johnson, Peter Erskine, Trilok Gurtu, Paolo Fresu and Dhafer Youssef.
- Kim Thayil — Soundgarden; of Indian ancestry
It was both inspiring and disheartening. Discrimination is everywhere and flows in every direction. Words would fail to describe the humiliation and discouragement I have felt on occasion, knowing that I’ve worked for years to develop my craft, pursued excellence in what I do, paid my dues playing with world-class musicians, networked and broken into various circles in the music scene (including academic circles, international musician networks, local Swedish circles and the Stockholm-American circle)... only to be shut out of gigs, because I am neither here nor there — not white, not black.
- I once passed all the auditions to join a major Funk band, whose music is still getting air time on the radio to this day. All the musicians in the band loved me. I was presented to their management and all set to sign on with the label, when I was suddenly informed that I didn’t match their profile. Off the record, their management said that I was not a part of the African American heritage and would stick out as a chink in the midst of their big afros.
- An agent once asked me to join what would later become a world-famous platinum-selling band, on the condition that he would justify my being a part of the act by naming the band, East Meets West... I declined.
- A Swedish wife of a prominent African American musician began artificially assembling and selling all-black bands to the Swedish market, and I was suddenly left out of all the band configurations I’d previously been a part of.
- An African American “competitor” guitarist in the Stockholm scene began telling other musicians not to hire me, on account that he was black and thus “owned” Soul/Funk music... and although his skills were often lacking, he got the gigs, even when they required reading and playing jazz, which he couldn’t handle. It was pure frustration, watching him fake it year after year, being told consistently by my peers that I would have done a far better job of it.
- When a gospel artist arrived in the Stockholm scene some years ago, he began networking with all the black musicians he could find and putting together high-profile gigs. Although I was part of the American circle, I found myself on the outside looking in, at all-black groups performing on TV, in theaters, etc. Even the African American singer, for whom I was the main sideman for years, had been plucked away for those gigs, but didn’t bring me along for the ride.
- In recent years, I was frequently teamed up to work with a female African American artist. I participated in the audition that landed us a lucrative contract. We were all looking forward to it, but I found myself replaced by another musician. The new groups was a disastrous combination of incompatible black musicians who would never have chosen to play together, but they were teamed up for the job, because the agent had stringently requested an all-black band.
- Recently, I was invited to collaborate with yet another prominent African American artist, only to find myself on the outside once again, because the band leader chose an African American guitarist over me, reasoning that the guitarist had the music “in his DNA.”
- I keep a detailed gig diary. Over the decades, I have created tens of thousands of jobs for Swedes, but have only been called back for jobs by Swedes less than ten times — these figures are no exaggeration. While I cannot and will not say that all my Swedish musician colleagues are racist or that this is anything to do with the color of my skin, I cannot rule out the fact that I am excluded, simply because I am not Swedish.
- I was turned down for gigs in Thailand, because the venue wanted “American musicians” and I “don’t look American.” I was also frequently slighted by fellow musicians with whom I’d shared the stage, as well as by managers of clubs and posh hotels where I played. While they would speak with the other American musicians, they would not so much as say hello or acknowledge me, as though I was just another dumbf**k Asian to them. There is a definite racial hierarchy at play in Asia, with Caucasians at the top. It is subscribed to by locals and foreigners alike.
So, kudos to you, my friend, D.J., for refusing the blacks-only gig. If only more people would take a stand, like you have.
In the words of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Our lives begin to end when we stop talking about things that matter. It’s all very nice to wish things away by ignoring them, but there also comes a time when it’s quite necessary to speak up and say, “Stop! This is unacceptable!” Racism does not go away of its own accord—it never has!
©Zak Keith, 2013