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Discrimination fails to stop my musical journey

By Luke Shen-Tien Chi | | Updated: 2023-12-07 17:25
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A photo of the author at a coffee shop, singing and strumming his guitar. [Photo provided to]

Nine out of 10 Asian Americans have personally experienced discrimination, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. In light of this, I would like to recount an incident that I experienced years ago. I have been hesitant to discuss my musical background since arriving in Shenyang in 2008, and have had minimal involvement in music writing or performance. However, it was not until living in China for more than a decade, a problem began to emerge - something I didn't even notice at the outset.

But let’s first go back to the period before arriving in China. In 2003, I left New York City to pursue my music dreams and relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. I secured a one-way Greyhound bus ticket that transported me from my hometown and left my mother, and friends behind. Thankfully, upon arrival, Eric Wilson and his family generously provided me with accommodations. Wilson, a celebrated suspense writer, was someone I knew through a connection I had made before undertaking my journey to Tennessee.

Lacking a driver's license as a 20-something American-born Chinese, navigating Nashville, or Music City of the US., proved to be a hurdle. Nonetheless, I overcame this obstacle and established connections within the city's music scene, in spite of my minority status in the state. Unknown to me, these experiences in Nashville were merely a small portion of my songwriting journey.

Looking back to the time before I moved to Nashville, I fondly recall the moments when Ronnie Oliver Jr, a conductor and educator, would patiently review my sheet music and annotate my errors with a pencil. Although it was initially hard for me to carry out his corrections, his advice greatly developed my songwriting skills. Previously, my music was too emotional, but he kept me on track with proper artistic form and structure. Through his mentorship, my musical composition improved significantly because of his guidance.

Every generation has notable recording artists whose beliefs and backgrounds distinguish them apart. I fall into that category, much like Bob Dylan and others. Their personal faith serves as a foundation that has brought some of our times' best music to light. Meanwhile, others draw inspiration from traumatic events that shape the essence of their musical fit. These elements have created an energetic drive that appeals with the rising public opinion toward musical expression.

As a child, my mother, a second generation Chinese American, introduced and filled my ears with a broad array of musical genres, such as The Carpenters, Don Mclean, Paul Simon, ABBA, Eagles, and many other artists. I expanded my music collection by watching VH1's music video countdowns in addition to my mother's musical preferences, which developed my fundamental comprehension of musical composition. Nevertheless, it wasn't until I pursued formal music education that I truly refined my craft.

During my time in Nashville, I recall receiving an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal in Franklin, Tennessee, a location situated south of the capital. The family was gracious and welcoming during my stay. I participated in a household meal and had a confidential discussion about my music career with the host’s husband in the living room, away from the dining area. He kindly informed me that being an American citizen of Chinese descent could pose challenges in the music industry and there are no known ways to effectively market such artists to public. As an alternative, he suggested a career as a recording artist manager. He also hinted that my vocals could improve with age. Although I initially dismissed his comments, I later felt their impact while living in China.

For a while, everything was running smoothly, and upon my decision to live in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China, I acquired a guitar. From time to time, I would strum my guitar and sing a tune out of the blue. Later on, Xiong Yudi, a former student from my English Spokenology studies who was aware of my musical background and also created music, urged me to resume composing. With Xiong's encouragement and another reason in mind, I made the choice to pursue it.

On December 22, 2020, I resumed composing music and lyrics. By January 31 of the following year, I launched my debut original track on Netease Music, a prevalent app for streaming music and music videos.

Fans of my music may recognize the distinctive style of my songwriting, but may notice that my lyrical approach differs. I aim to avoid overwhelming content and instead strive for simplicity, allowing listeners to easily catch the words and relate on a personal level. This approach ultimately extends my reach to a wider audience of music lovers. At the start of my writing in Shenyang, I concentrated on a theme related to love. However, this year I've explored various topics including a song dedicated to a friend, a melody for a birthday celebration, a lullaby, composition supporting disaster relief efforts, and as well as pieces inspired by popular films and specific travel destinations.

After spending well over 10 years in China since 2008, I realized the discomfort due to remarks made by the individual in Franklin. Rather than dwelling on the discouragement, I eventually understood he was hinting that I continue my music career at a later date. Only in recent years has everything slowly fallen into place. I recall my friend Lew Tabackin once said to me after I settled down in Shenyang, "I hope you are well and have found your calling." It took me quite a while to find what I love the most - songwriting.

On July 11 of this year, I was thrilled to release my 50th original song on Netease Music. After taking a break from songwriting, I resumed it about three years ago and now earn a modest income from it. My current objective is to produce up to 100 songs within the next two and a half to three years. Ultimately, I aspire, perhaps to become a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, but I hope that discriminatory or restrictive factors will not impede my progress. Likewise, I extend this wish to everyone globally, that they are treated equitably and fairly.

Luke Shen-Tien Chi, an American-born Chinese spokenologist and writer.

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