'Can’t nobody hold us down' — PopAsia and multiculturalism

Korean rapper Psy.

SNSD/Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, 4Minute, Shinee, BigBang — just a few South Korean band names with global hip cachet to burn.

Their cult-like following has led some forecasters to predict that the centres of cultural power may well be shifting eastward, challenging the traditional dominance of US-based music companies.

Having acquired a vast audience in the past couple of years, “K-pop” is the hottest new thing in a global music marketplace. So, when you tune in for a Sunday morning (and now Monday afternoon) K-pop fix on SBS Radio's PopAsia, you are making a statement about the kind of country — and world — you want to live in.

Geopolitics and Psy’s global mega-hit “Gangnam Style” may not at first glance seem to go together, but music is never just music. There is always something sub-textual at play.

Historically, popular music has been connected to broader social trends and movements. In the case of K-pop, one of the underlying messages is the celebration of Asian cultural empowerment in a globalised 21st century world.

“Can’t nobody hold us down,” as 2NE1 proclaim with anthemic conviction, exorcising all the submissive and “model minority” stereotypes that have been attached to Asians over the years. The message: Asians rock, deal with it.

By identifying with material that is mostly sung in an Asian language, with some English phrases to clue-in Western listeners, K-pop (and J-Pop) fans are helping to defy a decades-old expectation that global pop culture is necessarily Anglophone (and, by extension, ethnically “Western”) in orientation.

This sounds pretty right-on to me, even if the big Korean entertainment corporations behind K-pop are about as profit-driven and capitalist as you can get.

As well as showcasing some of the most trance-inducingly catchy songs and music videos in the world today, PopAsia is also a beacon of healthy cosmopolitanism in a country like Australia, which has serious residual hang-ups about its relationship with Asia.

The hang-ups stem from our history. With the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, newly-federated Australia also became a profoundly racist nation in 1901. The main impulse to federation, as most historians concur, was the fear of Asian migration.

At its heart, the White Australia Policy was a radical experiment in eugenicist social engineering. The desire to establish a coordinated ban on “yellow” migrants led six bickering British colonies to join together.

Australia, it was assumed with unshakeable conviction, belonged to the “white” (and specifically “British”) race. Non-white bloods were to be excluded from the demographic mix at all costs, lest the nation become “mongrelised”. Indigenous people would die out, and Asians would be kept out.

After World War II, there was a huge upsurge in migration, which included migrants from not only the traditional source country of Britain, but refugees from war-torn Europe.

This influx of hundreds of thousands of non-English speaking migrants helped to diversify and invigorate the country, but assimilation was the official policy.

Migrants were expected to drop their native language and customs and adapt to the Anglo-Australian mainstream culture as soon as they arrived. Bi-linguality was especially frowned on as “un-Australian”, an attitude that still persists in some quarters today.

And White Australia remained very much in force during these years of high migration. The definition of “whiteness” was expanded to include southern and eastern Europeans, but the commitment of both sides of mainstream politics to anti-Asian immigration policies remained absolute.

The White Australia Policy was progressively dismantled in a series of legal and bureaucratic steps from 1966 to 1978. Since then, a policy of multiculturalism has supplanted the assimilationist imperative and Australia’s ethnic diversity has never been greater.

Yet, persistently, Asians have tended to be classed as somehow “other”, a theme that recurs frequently in that excellent collection of memoirs edited by Alice Pung, Growing Up Asian in Australia.

Speaking of her childhood in the early 1990s, Pung recalls: “We were called 'power points'.”

She didn’t understand the implications at first, but “one of my friends said, 'You know, Alice, they're not complimenting you, that's an insult. Have you looked at an Australian power point socket?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and they said, 'Well, doesn't it look like a sort of face?'

“And I had a look at it and I couldn't understand. They saw two sloping lines down and one in the middle, they saw [an Asian] face.”

For years after the official end of White Australia, it would have been unthinkable to broadcast an Asian language music program on a commercial broadcaster.

Asians? Funky beats? Many Anglos just wouldn’t have been able to connect the two concepts (tragically, some still can’t).

This is why we should take heart from the exponential success of PopAsia, which has recently celebrated its first anniversary on air.

Multiculturalism is not just about a set of anti-discrimination laws. If it is to be a genuine vital force, it means that we as Australians- and global citizens- all embrace each others’ cultures.

And music is probably one of the most powerful ways of achieving that goal.

As Tiffany/Hwang Mi-Young from SNSD puts it: “I don’t think language is a barrier at all. We have fans from all over the world, who love our music even if they can’t understand it.

“If there’s one thing that our experience has taught us, it’s that music is really a universal language. It’s something you don’t just hear — it’s something you feel.”

Today, the great-great grandchildren of the Australians who framed the anti-Asian “White Australia Policy” are now calling themselves “PopAsians” in ever increasing numbers. This is one of several hopeful signs that multiculturalism is taking root in this country.

Jamaica dela Cruz, Princess Ania, Jay K and the rest of the PopAsia crew are to be thanked for their consciousness-raising efforts.

Psy's Gangnam Style.