Beyond K-Pop: Asian Artists Are Spreading Their Wings Past Their Respective Countries

64th Annual GRAMMY Awards Telecast
FLY AS ME: Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars of Silk Sonic perform onstage during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on April 3, 2022. .Paak and Mars are just two examples of the talented
Asian American artists who are making a mark on the music scene.
Photo by Kevin Mazur / Getty Images / The Recording Academy

The most popular Asian-American pop artist in Asia right now is Bruno Mars, who has sold out several stadium concert series throughout the region over the past several years, including a record-breaking seven sold-out shows at the 55,000-cap Tokyo Dome in January. Though Mars’ musical appeal is based on his showmanship and grounding in classic R&B, reggae and funk, it’s his special enthusiasm for his Asian fanbase that has proven to be the gamechanger. In the past year alone he’s played in almost every Asian country and territory multiple times, including places that many Western artists pass up. 

What Mars’ ubiquity in the region proves is that Asia is no longer a live music backwater. Until about 20 years ago, the only Asian country that regularly enjoyed the attention of Western pop artists was Japan, but now every major city in the Asia-Pacific region counts as an important market, which means foreign artists are coming more often and staying longer. With large-scale music festivals popping up throughout the region like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, the chance to reach more people in the world’s most populous continent increases exponentially by the year.

As a result, more Asian artists are getting the exposure they need to venture out of their respective bailiwicks and, of course, the first place they play is other Asian countries, often through festivals and group tours. K-pop, the biggest Asia-specific pop genre in the world right now, started building its brand and foreign fanbase at the turn of the millennium by targeting Korea’s former colonizer, Japan, whose population is more than twice that of South Korea’s. Japan has not only the biggest music market in Asia, but the second biggest in the world. Nevertheless, almost all the music consumed in Japan is locally produced and, until very recently, little of it was sold or even promoted overseas. K-pop endeavored to tap that market because South Korea’s was too small to suit its ambitions. And after it conquered Japan, it was on to Asia — and then the world. 

The manufactured idol group is K-pop’s specialty, and while the Asian model of that concept was developed to a great extent in Japan, Japanese idols had limited reach in Asia until recently. What sold K-pop was not just the more universal appeal of the dance tunes and ballads, but the diversity of the personnel. K-pop agencies made an effort to recruit members from other Asian countries — in particular Japan, China and Thailand — as well as from North America, where many Koreans have emigrated. These members helped give their groups a means of entry into markets outside of Korea, just as Asian-American artists have an advantage when they perform in Asia. There’s a built-in curiosity factor.

Consequently, the idol strategy has been adopted by entertainment agencies in other Asian countries, and lately several of these acts have been attempting to break out on the continent and even internationally. For a while now, P-pop or Pinoy-pop, from the Philippines, has been threatening to make its move as the next big Asian pop genre, with the vanguard boy band BGOY causing a stir even in Korea. Another P-pop group, SB19, was even trained in Korea and, following the Trojan Horse methodology of K-pop, even has one Korean member. Meanwhile, Thailand and Vietnam have offered up a bunch of homegrown
acts like Trinity and Monstar, who’ve been touring the Southeast Asia festival circuit. Even Indonesia and Laos have their own idol groups. 

The one that’s set to go big, however, is Hong Kong’s Mirror, though their momentum was stalled by a horrific accident in which a video panel fell from a ceiling during a July 2022 concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum, seriously injuring two backup dancers. This spring the 12-member boy band launched a world tour that will take them to North America and Europe. What’s notable about Mirror is that their appeal is designed to go beyond that of more classic Chinese-language pop acts such as Jay Chou and Eason Chan, who play almost exclusively to Chinese-speaking audiences. 

Outside of idol groups, which musically tend to rely on contemporary dance tropes and American-style hip-hop and R&B, rock in its various guises also has a purchase
on Asian sensibilities. Veteran groups like Japan’s One OK Rock and Taiwan’s Mayday are arena-fillers throughout the continent as they trade in distinctive melodies and big emotions that transcend language differences (though One OK Rock’s songs are as much in English as they are in Japanese). However, the most prevalent rock subgenre in Asia is probably heavy metal, especially right now in Southeast Asia, where it provides a certain measure of transgressive expression. There are too many locally popular bands to count, but recently the New York Times focused on the Indonesian group Voice of Baceprot, an all-woman power trio that sports hijabs and sings about female empowerment. As an example of what metal means in Asia, they’re almost perfect. In that regard, guitar-based indie bands have also made a big impression in Asia, though, as indicated by the indie descriptor, their intracontinental success has been more DIY in terms of approach. Artists like Thailand’s Phum Viphurit, Taiwan’s Elephant Gym, Japan’s Hitsujibungaku,

Indonesia’s Grrrl Gang and Korea’s Se So Neon are not only regulars on the Asian festival circuit but tour extensively on their own. Many also have record deals in North America and Europe. 

Still, the genres that travel the furthest in Asia are electronica, which often incorporates traditional local styles, and hip-hop, which accommodates every type of cultural outlook and temperament. For the most part, K-pop artists, including former 2NE1 member CL and Big Bang leader G-Dragon, dominate Asian hip-hop because of their work with foreign producers, but in a real sense, it’s the one genre that best allows integration of distinctive regional attitudes, both lyrically and musically. No rapper in Asia typifies this trend better than Awich, the Okinawan-born artist who debuted in 2006 and has since developed the fiercest flow in Japan. Having recently been signed to major label Universal Music Japan and now touring throughout Asia and the world, including an appearance this year at Coachella, Awich has become the standard bearer for Asian hip-hop that’s personal and idiosyncratic and yet connects to people on a wider level. She proves that sustained dedication to an artistic vision is just as commercially important as good promotion and planning, no matter where you’re from.