You may have heard Simon Tam’s TED talks. You may have skimmed news headlines about the Asian American musicians’ petition to the Supreme Court for their trademarked band name: The Slants. Rocking out and social justice are just some facets of these SmartyFellas.
Readers of our blog can identify with receiving negative criticism for one reason or another for pursuing their bucket list.
In this article, readers receive a behind-the-scenes look at how these creatives have fun together and do individual self-care to recharge despite hecklers. These answers were given to our Editor-in-Chief Renee Marchol during the weekend that The Slants performed at the anime convention Aki Con 2016 in the Seattle area.
What would you share with young Asian American male musicians dealing with heckling? What is something you tried that you learned wasn’t sustainable?
Ken: You can’t listen to others trying to bring you down. Trolls and haters can be really scary if you dwell on the harmful words that they are intentionally throwing at you.
Listening to criticisms is one thing but you can’t hang onto words that are simply an opinion.
From my own experiences, hecklers who lash out might be jealous about the way you are living, making music or pursuing your art, and they are upset that they are not where you are. Other hecklers might just be curious to see how you react.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! If you only think about the people that are bringing you down, you’ll forget about the people who always want the best for you!
Joe: I think it somewhat depends on the genre of music you play. If you are playing edgy music or music that demands attention, then I would say stand up for yourself and get good at shutting down hecklers. If you think you are rockstar, then the bulletproof attitude against hecklers will only benefit you. On the other hand, I feel like with a more pop friendly band like us, we stand up for ourselves but we are not antagonistic. There’s definitely plenty of negativity thrown at us but our response is often compassionate and with a sense of humor. We enjoy what we do and are lucky to get to play music and a heckler isn’t going to change that. The unsustainable thing would be to get angry about it and hang on to that anger. That is what the heckler wants and it creates an air of negativity that drags everyone down. It’s much better to throw out a witty comeback (“…the Jerk store called and they are running out of you”), get a laugh and go on having fun.
Yuya: Being a successful musician is already hard enough, but being Asian American in the music industry is an added hurdle. I wish this wasn’t the reality for us in 2016, but it is. Heckling comes with the territory. We’ve all dealt with it at one point or another, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet; it more than likely will at some point in your musical career. Don’t let them get to you. Let your art and talent speak for itself. We’re just not well represented in the music industry yet. The more of us there are, the better off we’ll be in the public arena that is the music industry. People are typically uncomfortable with what they don’t understand. This is where I tend to think heckling comes from. As Asian American musicians, we can use our music to help people understand. We can speak on panels, and do these types of interviews to help shed light on who we are. We need to support each other, and help each other succeed. We still have to work hard to normalize the thought of Asian American musicians in a very non-Asian U.S. music industry.
When dealing with hecklers in the past, I got bent out of shape, got angry and lashed out at the person for saying whatever they said. I learned over time that it doesn’t work nor does it solve anything, it just cements those stereotypes even deeper into their minds. And really, a reaction is what they’re wanting from you. These people tend to be bullies and just want to make people feel bad about themselves (likely because they’re insecure about themselves, but that’s a completely separate topic). Getting angry about it and lashing out isn’t sustainable. Instead help educate these people. If they’re not open to that, just ignore them. Not everyone is going to accept you, and that’s okay. The more people we educate through our music and interviews, the easier it’ll be for us to succeed as musicians.
Simon: Rejection and ridicule are two things that every artist will face in their career. That is unavoidable. When that is combined with Asian American identity, it is only compounded. This is usually what happens when people are disrupting the system, when we are challenging social conventions about art. My advice is to always find a way to positively use any criticism or heckling to make better art. Remember, the best form of “revenge” isn’t striking back, but success. Rising above that noise takes discipline, self-care, and compassion – the cruelty lashed out by others is often rooted in pain and ignorance.
Years ago, our band appeared on stage at a bar in Bakersfield, CA. People in the audience actively taunted us – “Why are there so many Asians on stage? They even have keyboards, how cliché!” However, they quickly shut up when our bombastic stage show kicked off with fire-breathing and the most energetic show the venue had ever seen. Insults turned into apologies. You aren’t going to win everyone over, but you can certainly use your music to speak in ways that words may not be able to address. Good art can spur a conversation; great art can disarm those with malicious intent.
The other thing I would recommend is finding a community who can support you. Instead of only feeding upon toxic messages, connect with others who understand your struggles who are able to inspire and lift you up. And if you don’t know any other Asian American musicians locally, feel free to connect with our band anytime.
How do you recover after performing entertainment and/promoting a social cause? How do you create balance and do self-care?
Ken: Vocal warms ups, cool downs, 4 gallons of water and hot tea! I appreciate the fact that my bandmates know that sleep is the best form of recovery for me. (They also know it’s my favorite). Thankfully, good technique can carry you far if you are disciplined enough.
Being with the band has made me feel like an activist. We have an anti-racist, all loving message, so when we are at events I feel charged up from all the positive energy and vibes.
Joe: Some of us seem to be machines that could work 24/7 but I usually need a week to recover from touring. That usually means sleeping in and binging on Netflix. I try to eat well and exercise, even on the road, and the habits keep me in check. I still constantly work on music and other creative endeavors, along with paid gigs, but I know all about burnouts and have learned when my body and mind need a break. As I’m answering this question, I actually just spent the last three weeks working on a movie, editing it in LA, then flying back for our Seattle show and slept maybe an average of 4 hours a night for this entire time. Agenda for the next few days? Finishing Luke Cage and catching up on the CW superhero shows.
Yuya: After a performance, I like to sit or lay down and listen to soft jazz. It’s like the Yin-Yang effect for me. Stepping off stage after a show; I’m still pretty hyped up from the adrenaline. It’s nice to able to close my eyes, relax, take some deep breaths, lower my heart rate, and just get lost in the music. Right now, I listen to a lot of Jane Monheit. If you like jazz and you’ve not listened to her music yet, you should. You’ll enjoy it.
Simon: I believe that the best cure is often prevention – whether it is direct social justice work or playing on stage, I believe in keeping the mind sharp and body healthy by eating well, exercising frequently, getting good sleep, and meditating. It’s all-too-easy to solely live in a work/production mode, but the quality of our work (both in terms of art as well as activism) is greatly affected by these areas, so it’s important to be disciplined enough to take care of ourselves first. That being said, there’s nothing like a hot bowl of pho after a tour to feel refreshed!
What is a question you’d wish reporters would ask more often? What is the answer to that question?
Ken: “How do we like each other in the band?” The only reason why I say this is because with a new line-up change, there are completely new personalities that make up the band. That being said, this line up is awesome! We are ready to put in work and hungry for what is to come.
I’m glad that we can enjoy ourselves and each other when we are on stage, but it feels good just laughing hard or eating food together on the road as well. Plus, it’s fun messing with Simon every once in a while.
Joe: I wish it was this question! “Ask yourself a question and answer it.” My brain is pretty random and I’d have fun with something like that. Like right now, it would be “How do you feel about the current state of Bigfoot sighting videos?” My answer would be: It’s 2016! Why are there still videos online of sightings that look like they shot it with an Etch A Sketch?? If you are a Bigfootologist, get a real camera! Even Go Pros can do 4k! Come on!!
Yuya: “Who are you outside of music and activism?” My answer: I’m engaged to my better half, Emily, and we have 5 children. (You didn’t read that wrong, I did actually say 5!) I’m a lover of Netflix, and especially sleep (even though I still can’t seem to get enough of it, parents know exactly what I’m talking about!) Other than that I read occasionally, mostly philosophy/self-improvement type books. I love to travel and embark on new adventures. I’m really looking forward to my first tour with The Slants, and getting to experience places I’ve not yet seen. If you don’t follow us already, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our website. If we’re coming through your neck of the woods on tour, come out to our show and hang out with us! (Shameless plug, I know, I know lol.)
Simon: “Why do you continue to play in The Slants when the music industry is so difficult, especially for Asian Americans to find success?” For me, this band is equal parts art as well as activism. I’ll never forget when I first made The Slants public on Myspace, which gives you an idea of how old this project is now. Within a few hours, an Asian American teenager wrote the page to thank us for giving them hope and a reason to be proud of their heritage. Ten years later, we’re still empowering communities around the world. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to serve our people. Plus, it’s incredibly fun.
What’s next for the band creatively as a bucket list item? Who would you like to collaborate with?
Ken: My bucket list consists of touring with a big name, making big scale music videos and release more full length albums! I would love to collaborate with many artists and not only Asian American ones. Some would be Maroon 5, Weezer, Bruno Mars, and Far East Movement. Actually those are just some my bands that I’m into right now!
Joe: My actual band bucket list has opening for Tegan and Sara as the next item. Also touring Japan or the UK. And playing at a festival that Radiohead is playing at (even if we played in the parking lot). For collaboration, I’d really like the band to work with some visual artist and filmmakers. I’ve met quite a few amazing filmmakers hosting and attending film festivals and would love to line things up with them. To name drop a few… Dave Boyle, William Lu, Steven Kung… we want to be in your movies!
Yuya: Getting the new album written and recorded! I’d like to collaborate with Far East Movement. They’re doing great things for Asian Americans, and The Slants are doing the same. Imagine what we can do together! We could really make a statement for our causes.
Simon: Right now, we’re wrapping up writing and recording another album. After that, we’ll be heading to the Supreme Court before tackling an extensive tour going from Portland, OR to Portland, ME and back. I would love to collaborate with a number of non-music (Asian Pacific Islander) API artists to do some great work, including comedians and authors like Margaret Cho, Hari Kondabolu, Chang-rae Lee, Gene Yuen Lang, and more! On the music side, I would love to collaborate with Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode), Max Martin (songwriter), or Rick Rubin (producer).
Renee Marchol lives on the West Coast. She continues to collaborate on this bucket list blog by interviewing subject matter experts with Anthropology Scholar Erica Tyler, who is currently studying on the East Coast. Renee is currently taking beginning adult breakdancing in Bruce Lee’s Seattle Chinatown.