Not Just A Month: What We’re Celebrating This May with ‘Pushing Boundaries’

Tia Ho

It’s May again, somehow. This trip around the sun has been unlike any other, marred by the congruent plagues of racism and pandemic, one acting like fire to the oil spill of the other and igniting inequities the world over. Around this time last year, I heard of the first attack on a person of Asian descent that was presumed to be racially- and COVID-motivated: a woman who was doused with acid outside of her Brooklyn apartment while taking out the trash. Since then, the news has covered stabbings, subway attacks, and a tragic shooting in Atlanta.

Make no mistake, anti-Asian racism is as old as the myth of the American Dream – but in the last year, we’ve seen just how fragile and conditional Asian proximity to whiteness is, with people of Asian descent (or, let’s be real, East Asian-looking people because most really can’t tell the difference) going from the already fucked model minority to the physical embodiment of death.

As a first-generation Vietnamese American woman, it’s been a year of fearing for my parents’ safety, debating how much caution is enough or too much, and trying to quell what is now ripe paranoia that flares when I take the subway in the densely populated city I’ve relocated to until the station reopens. But my work at KEXP is a constant reminder that art is resistance and good music is the soundtrack to – and sometimes the catalyst of – political and social evolution. 

This is a philosophy that undergirds much of KEXP’s programming, including our first-ever celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in 2020. This year, we bring that philosophy to a new kind of celebration, one that weighs lessons learned from our 2020 programming in the context of a year grappling with racial strife and its elusive opposite: transformative equity. At the turn of 2021, KEXP’s API staff came together to discuss the fundamental complications around celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. 

First and foremost: the challenge of programming around a massive region of the world. The continent of Asia is home to so many different cultures, religions, and languages. The term ‘Asian’ is usually associated with East Asian and Southeast Asian people, those of us from China, Viet Nam, Japan, and Korea; many forget that India, Bangladesh, Iran, and Yemen are also in Asia. Issues of representation within the umbrella abound, and they’re further complicated when you consider the histories of colonization and subjugation across Asia and the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Islands have unique histories and traditions and carry ancestral and indigenous knowledge.

The political grouping of Asians and Pacific Islanders has led to erasure of the specific achievements, challenges, and inequities experienced by Pasifika people both internationally and here in Seattle. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders face the highest rate of COVID contraction in King County, with our Pasifika population (which is third largest of any state) reporting seven times the number of cases white and Asian demographics do. The ‘Asian Pacific American’ construct actively harms a group of people Asian Pacific American Heritage Month claims to celebrate.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues of equitable representation during the month of May. So instead of celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re Pushing Boundaries. Through our music programming, we hope to expand the perception of who is Asian and challenge a monolithic view of Asia. Instead of leaning into the API construct, we hope to present conversations that celebrate Asian and Pasifika cultures as distinct entities. 

Rather than focus exclusively on American artists of Asian and Pasifika descent, we plan to explore the sound of the diaspora and the unique identities that have come from it. From historical pioneers to contemporary innovators, international game-changers to artists molding Seattle’s creative landscape, Pushing Boundaries is moving past borders and conceptions to honor the musical contributions of our Asian and Pasifika neighbors and celebrate art in the face of violent xenophobia.

The tensions outlined above, however, still exist and will continue to manifest across our programming, such as in our graphics. Sharing the inspiration for our Pushing Boundaries designs, KEXP volunteer graphic designer Alana Louise said:

"The artwork of events that celebrate a widely diverse group of cultures tend to focus on the depictions of a single one. It’s truly difficult to find an inclusive representation of so many different backgrounds. When I was approached for this project, I knew that I wanted to create something that many could have a connection to.
As a Filipina immigrant, I grew up believing superstitions from family members and family friends through elaborate stories that always had some connection to nature. In my research, I learned that creatures like ‘tikbalang’ – a half horse, half human in Filipino folklore, is an entity that also exists in Hinduism and Buddhism with representations in India, Tibet, Japan, and China. Several cultures seemed to have their own interpretations of a similar spirit and this idea sparked the concept for these images.

The four creatures represented in separate styles include a serpent, a rooster, a canine, and a tortoise. These are not as often depicted as a dragon or tiger, but are symbolic creatures with deep roots in stories told throughout generations in the Asia-Pacific."

This celebration will be imperfect, as all cultural months are. It is impossible to celebrate an entire region of the world in a month and we shouldn’t try to. Equitable programming means that we’re not just celebrating Asian and Pasifika artists – or Black or Latinx or LGBTQIA+ artists – during designated months, but year-round. We have a long way to go in that regard, but it’s critical that we try with intention, sensitivity, and a desire to celebrate our neighbors and honor the stories they share with us.

Over the next month, we’ll be introducing you to artists both new and old that we are so excited to share on-air and online. We’ll be doing a deep dive into the Philippine influence on Seattle hip-hop, talking about how Pasifika erasure shows up in music, and reconnecting with KEXP favorites to talk about new releases (and in one case, a new memoir!) in new live performances. We’ll discuss the importance of Black and Asian solidarity in the fight against supremacy, shine a light on organizations making a difference in the community, and hand the mic over to local and international artists for guest DJ sets. All of this and so much more.

Grab your headphones, snatch those reading glasses, and settle in with a cup of genmaicha. It’s just the beginning!

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