S.O.T.O.: Brand New Day For My AZN Brethren?

S.O.T.O.: Brand New Day
From Crunk City (2006)

When Paul Kim became a finalist on this season’s American Idol, it set off a light bulb for a NY Times writer to probe the question of why Asian Americans are missing from the pop music field. That story became “Trying to Crack the Hot 100” which appeared at the beginning of March (you can read it here). Several days later, WYNC’s Soundcheck followed up with their own take on the story: “When East Doesn’t Meet West”. Once again, Paul Kim was the “hook.”

What is striking about both stories is that by the time they ran/aired, Paul Kim was already voted off Idol and this actually served to “prove” the point of both stories – Asian Americans can’t get a break. Without debating that claim – it’s true enough – what I found striking…and a little perturbing…is that neither made mention of the fact that even though Kim was gone, there were still two other Asian Americans amongst the finalists: AJ (who is mixed Filipino/Chinese/etc.) and of course…the South Asian wunderkind Sanjaya.

Anyone familiar with the internal politics of Asian American-hood won’t be surprised by this at all – East Asians like Paul Kim (Korean) or myself or Junichi for that matter – are the standard-bearers for defining “who is Asian” whereas Filipinos and South Asians have long been kept on the fringes, a social state of affairs that hasn’t exactly done wonders for the call for “unity.” That AJ and Sanjaya were seemingly invisible in a story about Asian Americans in pop music only drives that point home.

Coincidentally, DJ Similak Chyld in S.F. recently sent me a song to check out: “Brand New Day” by S.O.T.O. (Something Out of The Ordinary/Sons of The Orient), a Filipino + Japanese American duo who’ve crafted what very well could be an anthem for contemporary Asian American pop artists.

Few things to note: first of all, it probably doesn’t bespeak a great future for the group when their site says “WE WON’T STOP!!!” but their self-advertised URL (soto.tv) has clearly been taken over by another company. Second of all, it’s really unfortunate that the positivity of their song gets undermined by the cover art for their Crunk City album which is both cheap and crassly sexist.

That said, “Brand New Day” is worth a listen for the ways in which it expresses the frustrations (and hope) that a lot of Asian American artists likely feel. Sure, it’s not the most sophisticated songwriting ever and yeah, the backing track is the instrumental to Xzibit’s “Paparazzi” (you can hear the shutterclicks at the beginning) but that unintentionally nods to the way in which the notion of “Asian American music” is largely a mesh of creativity and adaptation. There’s no real organic “sound” that our community can claim as its own but artists have proven quite flexible to adjusting to what’s out there in the public, whether it was folk in the 1970s, jazz in the 1980s and hip-hop and R&B since the 1990s.

Then there’s Sanjaya, for whom “flexibility” would be an understatement in the many ways his racial “passing” allows him to occupy multiple social spaces at once. Read that Ann Powers’ take on him again to get what I mean.

In any case, I’m definitely not mad at “Brand New Day” and the song, like a good anthem, has already picked up a cover. All they need now is to appeal to fellow Pinoy Chad Hugo for a hot Neptunes track and…

Meanwhile, thanks to Get Downnn for their post and farewell and happy journeys to Gray Charles.