Written by: Encina Roh, SFU Student
With her recent single, 7 Rings, Ariana Grande has recently joined Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and many others when it comes to employing Asian aesthetics in their music. The use of chopsticks, cheongsams, and select vocabulary as part of their songs, videos, and choreography have become much more common. This even includes the respective use of Japanese characters for Grande’s 7 Rings video, and Chinese subtitles for Minaj’s Chun-Li.
But with the success of these artists and these tracks, I can’t help but be disappointed that the accessorization of Asian culture by popular artists has continued so far.
Ever since Asian workers arrived in the west, the shame associated with cultural expression and the pressure of assimilation has threatened Asian immigrants in their ability to be open with their heritage and culture. The freedom to engage in Asian culture was confined into Japantowns and Chinatowns, hidden away from the more “civilized” society who viewed Asian traditions, foods, and languages as a stain upon their communities.
This historical context is what makes cultural appropriation into such an injustice. When non-Asian artists like Minaj, who is of Trinidadian descent, and Grande, who has proudly vocalized her Italian roots, could be praised for using aesthetics specific to Asian individuals is undoubtedly an understandably problematic trend.
Cultural appropriation by successful artists like Minaj and Grande reduces Asian cultures, histories, and peoples to stereotypes. Grande’s use of Japanese lettering in parts of her 7 Rings video for effect essentializes the heritage and history of the Japanese language, treating it as just a marketable trend.
Similarly, the mashup of outfits in Minaj’s Chun-Li video, and the explicitly Asian-coded costumes and dancing during her performance on Saturday Night Live, reduces the beloved history and rich significance behind the Chinese cheongsam, the Japanese samurai armor, kimono, and the conical hat to a hypersexualized aesthetic.
While fans argue that Chun-Li pays homage to Asian culture, Minaj’s lack of concern while liberally using — and even sexualizing — Asian cultural outfits for gain cannot be passed off as cultural appreciation. Minaj’s disregard for the fact that Asian women are already excessively fetishized in Western culture (which Chun-Li grossly perpetuates) points to the fact that she can appropriate the props, the foreign characters, and outfits but face none of the consequences.
To me, it’s tactless to claim that flattery can be derived from Minaj’s video. It’s an ignorance to the vulnerable predicament of Asian women in the west, whose culture she ostensibly honors through her work but whose women she actually harms in doing so.
While it can seem innocuous to people who take in Minaj and Grande’s music, the reality that non-Asian artists can amass incredible wealth and popularity by cherry-picking aspects of Asian culture without carrying any of the historical burdens associated with them is disturbing. At its best, it’s a complacency to the appropriation of Asian culture. At its worst, it perpetuates disregard and disrespect towards the existence of many Asian communities in the West, and ultimately cheapens the true beauty and legacy of Asian cultures.