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For the four women of AzN PoP!, a parody K-pop girl group who satirizes the Asian American experience, their work took on new meaning after the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing rise in anti-Asian hate incidents that the United States has seen in recent months.
"We're seeing literally our elders being attacked right now. There's something about seeing a physical act done upon someone that just makes you empathize even more than you already did with them and this fuels us more," Iliana Inocencio told TMRW via Zoom. “We felt that way before just because of the lack of representation in entertainment but now because of these times, it feels even more important for us to put our voices out there without sugarcoating it, to be in your face even more without apologizing.”
A mix of one part Spice Girls, another part Blackpink and another part whatever hilarious thing you just watched on “Saturday Night Live,” AzN PoP! breaks down barriers by being unapologetically Asian American. Their humor comes from the honesty of their personal experiences, not problematic accents or stereotypical tropes.
“With all the anti-Asian racism things that have been going on, we already had been addressing it but it just gives more meaning and more strength to why we have been doing this,” Angel Yau added. "Our songs have always been about the hardships we've gone through, but right now our work gives us more power.”
Comprised of members Yau (Quirky Rice), Inocencio (Baby Rice), Anna Suzuki (Edgy Rice) and Maya Deshmukh (Brown Rice), all four women represent different Asian American ethnicities: Chinese, Filipino-Singaporian, Japanese and Indian respectively. (Full disclosure: Deshmukh is a personal friend of mine.)
This difference of identity fuels much of their comedy and their act, especially since they feel that the Asian American experience gets muddied by a lack of understanding around its diversity.
“We're all Asian from different countries or different backgrounds; that in itself is a visual and something we also call out throughout the show quite a few times,” Inocencio said. “Of course none of us individually want to represent that whole culture because we shouldn't, but just calling it out and showing that we are different has been really helpful in our shows.”
The group, who was featured on NBC Asian America's #RedefineAtoZ list in 2018, also adds that this moment has connected all of their cultures more than ever, and it's something that inspires them to keep working.
“The eight different Asian communities are finally coming together because it is like an open secret that all of our sensibilities are very separated, very classist," Inocencio said. “It's all divided but for the first time we’re seeing everyone of our generation really supporting each other.”
A to Z 2018: AzN PoP, comediansMay 1, 201801:55
‘Oh, that's racist’
All four performers are actors with their own budding careers. While they've amassed credits in everything to “Orange Is the New Black” to “New Amsterdam” to “Will & Grace,” it hasn’t been easy for them to get their breaks, big or small. Their real life difficulties with the entertainment industry and Hollywood are featured in their AzN Pop! shows where they get to call the shots, unlike many other areas they perform in.
“It's not just diversity in casting, it's a lack of diversity on an entire scale,” Deshmukh said of the industry. “Decision makers, network executives and other production company heads are usually white. So I think the more diversity you get with decision makers and behind the scenes people, the more you can combat some of these problems.”
“We're getting more representation but now we're figuring out more problems, only because the gatekeepers are not Asian so they don't know what to do,” Inocencio added, using the problematic casting choices of Disney's “Raya and the Last Dragon,” where Southeast Asian actors were noticeably absent, as an example. “Ultimately, like what Maya said, it comes down to the makers being not diverse.”
Deshmukh recounted an experience while backstage at United Citizens Brigade, an improv and sketch comedy group where the group got their start, when a teacher from the school saw the group getting ready for one of their first performances. When she learned the group was called AzN Pop!, she asked if they would be performing songs like the East Asian riff, a known musical phrase that has often been used in Western culture as an Asian stereotype.
Deshmukh explained: “Immediately after she said it, (she) was like, ‘Oh my God. I'm so sorry.’ Like she heard herself say it and was like, ‘Oh, that's racist.’ But those are the microaggressions we want people to think about when they come see our shows and hear the songs we perform.”
Their original tunes range in everything like “I’m a Fighter (The Adam Levine Song)" to a Rachel Platten-inspired ballad about battling against stereotypes. "I wanted to write something that was funny but also inspirational and it ended up being a big hit at our live shows," Suzuki said. "White girls like Katy Perry always get to have these anthems, so we wanted one, too."
"Our parents are the ones who came over here to sacrifice a lot and so there's always going to be this internal guilt that we have that is so hard to let go of.”
Or take their "Rice Rap," where each member spits rhymes about their respective cultures. “Don’t be throwing shade when the world do holla, they just wanna a taste of my Chicken Tikka Masala,” raps Deshmukh.
As funny as many think this content is, their jokes don’t always land. Some of their immigrant parents really don’t understand why people are laughing at them on stage, and the comments section on their YouTube videos can sometimes be full of vitriol.
“The comments were awful on this one video because satire and comedy in general will be received by so many different people in different ways,” Inocencio said. “I think just as long as we all know what we're trying to say, which is uplifting Asian women and shutting down people who are close-minded, that is our general M.O., but we really can't control how it's always received.”
But what defines them most of all is their identity as Asian Americans, especially as we enter a post-pandemic reality and they prepare to get back on stage.
“The main thing is that we are Asian Americans and I feel like that's such a group that people always don't know,” Yau said. "For me growing up, it's always that guilt that we have of America being a privileged place where you don't have to work as hard or don't have to suffer as much. Our parents are the ones who came over here to sacrifice a lot and so there's always going to be this internal guilt that we have that is so hard to let go of.
“Even now, when people immigrate to America, it’s always about keeping your head down, not wanting to make a scene, they just want to survive. With our generation, we do want to have a voice. It's still a struggle no matter what, we're still trying to please our parents or our family, but we want to be loud and unapologetic.”
But above all else, they just want to be funny.
“It's hard to please everyone,” Inocencio said. “But I think people who've seen our show and who know us feel that connection, and they see themselves onstage which is the most important thing of all.”