From Rina Sawayama to beaadoobee, Asian artists are making waves in music, finding further audiences through the power of TikTok and social media. The past few years have brought an onslaught of recognition for Asian musicians in Western music — and we’re totally here for it.
Many Asians who grew up in a country where they were considered a minority probably understand the struggle of trying to find representation. Even New York Times bestseller and recent Grammy nominee Michelle Zauner, of Japanese Breakfast, described in her memoir Crying in H-Mart the profound inspiration she felt from the representation she found in Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O (also of South Korean descent).
It’s a moment many Asian Americans like myself experience. Whether it was watching Mulan for the first time or finding out that Kehlani is part Filipino, there’s a sense of pride, a feeling of “we made it.” And no matter how many Asian actors land a role or musicians reach new heights of fame, that feeling never gets old.
Much like Zauner, growing up, I always sought out faces and experiences that resembled mine in music — and still to this day. It’s not only that there are more Asian artists making their way onto the scene, it’s also that their ethnicity is not being talked over as much as before.
The “perpetual foreigner” stereotype has permeated through Western society in many forms, appearing in instances such as Japanese internment during World War II to the latest COVID-19-driven spate of anti-Asian hate crimes. The perception that people of Asian descent in America, Canada, the UK, and beyond aren’t truly American, Canadian, or British because they don’t fit into the majority has silenced and hidden many for generations.
But things are looking up. More artists than ever are embracing their identities, weaving them into their music, and showing the next generation that success is possible for people that look like them.
So how many Asian artists made it into your Spotify Wrapped this year? How many were in your top 100 songs of 2021? As we enter the new year, you can incorporate these artists into your listening. There’s something for everyone.
Here are 14 Asian artists you should add to your 2022 playlist.
1. Rina Sawayama
If you’re a Rina Sawayama fan, it’s hard to believe there are still people who haven’t heard of her yet.
The Japanese-British pop star has collaborated with Elton John and Lady Gaga, and recently got the BRIT Awards to change their eligibility rules after she was excluded from nominations in 2020 for not holding British citizenship. Sawayama is shaking things up on the music scene, from pop-rock ballads like “Dynasty,” which tells the story of her struggle with "intergenerational pain," to the upbeat R&B-pop song “Cherry,” which details her pansexual awakening. Sawayama is a must-listen.
2. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Fronted by Thao Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American singer and guitarist, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down mix folk and alternative rock for a unique sound of heritage and upbringing. Though Nguyen has now found inspiration through her background, the 37-year-old was not always comfortable with expressing her identity.
“I had never addressed it in my work because I had never addressed it in my life,” said Nguyen to the New York Times.
With the latest release of the album Temple, it’s clear that Nguyen is ready to let go of those past inhibitions. Nguyen, who grew up in Virginia, writes of the fall of Saigon, which brought her parents to Virginia seeking refuge, in the titular, beat-laden rock song “Temple."
Although the band dissolved in October, Nguyen is embarking on solo pursuits, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.
3. Vardaan Arora
Vardaan Arora, an Indian actor and musician based in New York, is smashing stereotypes and breaking down barriers for Asian LGBTQ+ artists. Arora points to pop icons like Shakira and Britney Spears as childhood inspirations but describes feeling disconnected from them growing up in India.
“I didn’t have a lot of Indian influences, but it’s a huge part of my identity. I feel like subconsciously, I’m influenced by how I grew up, even if I’m not trying to actively put it into my music,” he said to Gay Times.
Arora feels that many queer artists of color don't get the recognition they deserve. So add a few of his songs to your queue this year — if you’re a pop fan, you’ll love the synthy beat of his song “Rare.”
4. Luna Li
Toronto-based Luna Li offers a smooth combination of dreamy rock and bedroom pop to the mix with songs inspired by nature and self-love. The singer and guitarist is making a name for herself, landing opening gigs with musicians and groups she’s looked up to, like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. If you’re looking for a gentle upbeat jam for your playlist, check out her latest single “Cherry Pit.” On and off stage, Li captures our feelings wistfully.
“I especially want young girls and young Asian girls to feel seen and heard,” said Li to i-D Magazine. “Representation is super important to me. Growing up, I never saw people who looked like me playing in bands or taking space onstage.”
Grammy Award-winner and Global Citizen Live performer H.E.R is no deep cut, but for those who don’t know anything about her besides her incredible musical talent, she’s also part Filipino. The 24-year-old Californian won an Oscar this year for her song “Fight For You” from the film Judas and the Black Messiah and delivered an uplifting message from the red carpet.
“Me being up there is a message to all the young Black and Filipino girls. You can be up here, too.”
6. MC Jin
Jin Au-Yeung, aka MC Jin, is a Chinese-American rapper born and raised in Florida who shot to fame at 19 when he began a seven-battle long winning streak on BET’s Freestyle Friday weekly rap battle. Jin became the first Asian American solo-rapper to be signed to a major label, but in the following years found less success than anticipated in America. He launched a successful career in Hong Kong and later moved back to the US in 2012. Since then, his music has been featured in The Fast and the Furious movies and his latest release, "Stop the Hatred" featuring Wyclef Jean, raises awareness toward Asian American hate crimes and highlights solidarity between Black and Asian communities.
Bea Kristi, better known by her stage name beabadoobee, racked up millions of streams last year due to her viral TikTok song “Coffee,” which, surprisingly, was the first song she wrote. The 21-year-old Filipino-British singer-songwriter started making music in 2017 and was signed to a label one year later. Since then, Kristi has toured with fellow bedroom pop star Clairo and received a BRIT Award nomination in the Rising Star category. In 2020, she released her first studio album, Fake It Flowers, and was ranked No. 1 on Billboard’s Top New Rock Artists list.
8. Deb Never
Korean-American grunge-pop musician Deb Never isn’t looking to fit in. The enigmatic Never is shunning formulas for success and creating music that resonates with her inside and outside world. It’s hard to pinpoint one genre that describes her music because Never purposely avoids any kind of mold. On her identity, Never follows the same philosophy.
“I'm openly gay, openly queer, and also obviously Asian American. It's important for me, at least for my own self-expression, to feel ... not defined, and for my art to speak for itself and for everything else to follow,” Never told Them. “I believe representation is so important. But I don't ever wanna get boxed in because of one thing other than just my music.”
Sidney Madden for NPR described Raveena’s music as “mashing up contemporary R&B with traditions from the South Asian diaspora.” Raveena Aurora is an Indian-American artist who began writing music at the age of 13. In 2018, Aurora rose to fame with her incandescent EP Shanti. Through her music, she finds a balance between her art and Indian roots, communicated intoxicatingly through steady beats and steamy vocals.
10. Run River North
Korean-Americans Alex Hwang, Daniel Chae, and Sally Kang make up the group Run River North, an indie-rock band from California. The band first gained recognition when they recorded their song “Fight to Keep” in their cars in 2012. Since then they’ve racked up millions of streams on Spotify, their biggest hit being an acoustic cover of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” The catchy sound of their song “29” is a perfect addition to any roadtrip playlist.
11. Mad Tsai
Mad Tsai knows how to use TikTok. You can find his music all over his page in short videos shot in his bedroom that have garnered millions of views. Tsai makes music about his identity and experiences, with catchy tunes and vibrant storytelling. His song “Boy Bi,” an ode to coming to terms with one’s sexuality, has become an anthem for an often underrepresented audience of bisexual men.
“I grew up watching these John Hughes coming-of-age films without ever seeing somebody that accurately represented my coming-of-age story — someone who is LGBTQ+ and Asian-American — so I wanted to create my own narrative that talked about these issues through the lens of a cheesy teen film,” said Tsai on the making of the music video for “Boy Bi.”
12. Kaitlyn Shuko
New York City-based Japanese American bedroom pop artist Kaitlyn Shuko is a must-add for your sad hours playlist. Her latest album Disposition features songs about reclaiming her independence and dealing with her mental health. (Author's note: To be fully transparent, Shuko happens to be my roommate — but I knew her as a musician first!)
13. Sofya Wang
Sofya Wang blends and crosses genres artfully with tracks like drippy rock song “Found Love” and the more mellow pop sound of “Boys Aside.” Wang describes herself as “an artist who also happens to be gender fluid, lesbian, and first-generation Chinese American.”
This list wouldn’t be complete without indie-rock icon Mitski Miyawaki, better known mononymously as Mitski. The Japanese American singer is a staple in the indie alt-pop world, writing soul-bearing hits that will gut you and somehow also make you want to dance (while crying). And, something to look forward to, Mitski has announced a new album: Laurel Hell, coming out February 2022.