top of page

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Artists

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

May is #AAPIHeritageMonth

May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a celebration of Asiana and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific Islanders includes the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

In 1977, Rep. Frank Horton of New York and Senator Daniel Inouye each introduced a similar a resolution to found Asian and Pacific American Heritage week. Neither of these resolutions passed, but in June 1978, Rep. Horton introduced a resolution that President Jimmy Carter should “proclaim a week, which is to include the seventh and tenth of the month, during the first ten days in May of 1979 as ‘Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.’” This joint resolution was passed by both the House and the Senate and was signed by the President on Oct. 5, 1978. In 1990, Congress passed a public law which expanded the observance from a week to a month.

In 1992, Congress passed a public law that declared that May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. May was selected to honor the contributions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders to mark both the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Chinese immigrant laid most of transcontinental railroad.

In this post, we will be introduced to three artists of Asian-American and Pacific Islander descent from a variety of backgrounds and who work in a range of art forms. We will learn about three musicians—two from the past and one living and working today. We begin our post by meeting the Hawaiian queen, author, and composer, Lili'uokalani. Then we are introduced to jazz baritone saxophonist, composer, bandleader, playwright, writer, and social activist, Fred Ho. And thirdly, we learn about the life and work of cello virtuoso, music educator, and humanitarian activist, Yo-Yo Ma.


Before we get into the main content of this post, a brief note:

As this blog has grown, I've added more resources that I offer to the public free of charge, including well-researched educational blog material, lesson suggestions for teachers, and enrichment for artists of all skill levels and experience. If you are a regular visitor and you have the means to do so, please consider buying me a coffee on Kofi or joining me on Patreon.

I look forward to continuing to share content of the highest caliber with you as well as my passion for all things creative! You have my sincere gratitude from the bottom of my heart for your continued support.


Lili'uokalani – Queen and Composer

Our first artist of AAPI heritage is Queen Lili'uokalani. She composed hundred of songs or chants called mele with about 150 of them being published. Her most famous song is Aloha Oe. She also composed He Mele Lahui Hawaii, the Hawaiian national anthem. Her story illustrates how imperialism and colonialism have affected AAPI people and culture.

Lili'uokalani, also known as Lydia Liliuokalani Paki or Liliu Kamakaeha (Sept. 2, 1838 – Nov. 11, 1917), was the first and only Hawaiian queen regent and the last Hawaiian sovereign to govern the islands before they were annexed by the United States in 1898. She was born into a Hawaiian clan with high-status and was educated at a missionary school. Her mother was an advisor to Kamehameha III, who ruled from 1825 to 1862. Before Kamehameha's death, he adopted his nephew, who ruled over Hawaii as Kamehameha V until 1874 when he died without a successor. According to the Hawaiian constitution, the legislature could elect a new king and establish a new line of succession. So, Lydia’s brother David Kalākaua was chosen and ruled until 1891.

Lili'uokalani married John Owen Dominis in September 1862. Dominis was the son of a sea captain from Boston who was an official in the Hawaiian government. In 1877, after the death of a second brother, W.P. Leleiohoku, she was named heir presumptive. After this, she was known from that time by her royal name, Liliuokalani. After the death of Kalākaua in 1891, Liliʻuokalani was proclaimed queen. However, her reign was did not last long.

LoC, To the Hon. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, from Liliuokalani, Hawaii, October 1916
Lili'uokalani in 1916, LoC

In January 1893, a coup led by lawyer and son of Christian missionaries from Maine, Sanford Dole. Interestingly, the U.S. president at the time, Grover Cleaveland, was anti-imperialist and opposed the coup. However, with a change of presidential administrations from Cleveland to William McKinley, Hawai'i was officially annexed into the U.S. Two years later, Liliuokalani and her supporters formed the Oni pa'a (Stand Firm) movement and attempted to re-take the islands and return power to Hawaiian royal rule, she was charged with treason and put under house arrest. In exchange for a pardon for her and her supporters, she yielded power. She stated:

"Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands."

Lili'uokalani was granted a small pension by the provisional government, and on July 7, 1898, the Hawaiian Islands were officially annexed by the United States. She continued to advocate for a free Hawaiʻi until her death in 1917 at the age of 79.

Liliʻuokalani was not only a queen but a songwriter and author as well. She wrote in her book, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen:

Book Cover from Smithsonian Archives
Book Cover from Smithsonian Archives
After leaving school, my musical education was continued from time to time as opportunity offered, but I scarcely remember the days when it would not have been possible for me to write either the words or the music for any occasion on which poetry or song was needed. To compose was as natural to me as to breathe ; and this gift of nature, never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation to this day. I have never yet numbered my compositions, but am sure that they must run well up to the hundreds... Hours of which it is not yet in place to speak, which I might have found long and lonely, passed quickly and cheerfully by, occupied and soothed by the expression of my thoughts in music...

Her most famous song, Aloha ʻOe (Farewell to Thee) was composed before she became queen. She composed the song in its entirety in one afternoon in 1878. She said that she was struck by sudden inspiration while riding horseback through the mountains on her way to her home in Honolulu. According to researcher Leslie Ann Hayashi’s book Aloha Oe: The Song Heard Around the World, the song tells the story of James Aalapuna Harbottle Boyd, a military official from Honolulu who served the Kalakaua family. Liliuokalani had been touring the island of Oahu, one of her first official acts as the appointed heir-apparent and stopped to visit where the Boyds resided. As her riding party was leaving, she saw the colonel receive a lei and aloha, a goodbye, from a young Hawaiian girl. Some historians claim the girl was Lili'uokalani’s sister Princess Likelike, who had had a romantic entanglement with Boyd. It is said that Lili'uokalani did not write the song down until years later while she was under house arrest following her attempt to regain power. Because of this, many seen the song not as a tale of a lost romantic love but of a lament to a lost country.

Hawaiian Coast Photo: Sebastien Gabriel, Unsplash
Hawaiian Coast Photo: Sebastien Gabriel, Unsplash

The lyrics tell of someone saying goodbye to their love on a wind swept cliff. The last line of the chorus translated from Hawaiian into English says: Dearest one, yes, you are mine own/A loko e hana nei/From you, true love shall never depart, which could easily describe a human lover or a place that is dear to the singer's heart.

Many singers and musicians have recorded renditions of the song, many of them Hawaiian but some non-Hawaiian as well. Famous recordings include renditions by:

Nani Alapai (Dec. 1, 1874 – Oct. 1, 1928), a Hawaiian soprano singer of Native Hawaiian and Filipino descent who recorded the song along with singer Henry R. Clark for Columbia Records in 1911. Listen to her version in the video below.

American singer, comedian and actor, Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby Jr. (May 3, 1903 – Oct.14, 1977) recorded a version on July 23, 1936 with Dick McIntyre and His Harmony Hawaiians. Other popular renditions includes: one by Hawaiian singer-songwriter Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoole (May 20, 1959 – June 26, 1997) famous for his rendition of Somwhere Over The Rainbow and the version by singer and actor Elvis Aaron Presley (Jan. 8, 1935 – Aug. 16, 1977) in his 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii.

Fred Ho – Saxophonist and Activist

Our second artist of AAPI heritage is Fred Ho. Fred was a bandleader, composer, sociologist, activist, and saxophonist. He believed that through the arts social change can come, and he was an advocate for the de-colonization of culture to create art that exemplify equality.

Ho in 2005, Wikipedia
Ho in 2005, Wikipedia

Fred Ho was born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, CA, he changed his surname in 1988. He was a composer, baritone saxophonist, and activist. He composed operas, suites, oratorios, and ballets that mixed jazz ideas with popular music and traditional Asian elements. Throughout his career, Ho combined Asian melodies with big band jazz. Although many listeners may refer to his music as "jazz," he did not call his music that as he believed the label was created to denigrate the music of Black musicians. He referred to his music as Afro-Asian culture.

Ho moved with his family from CA. to Amherst, MA where his father worked as a college professor teaching political science. Growing up, Ho was inspired by the Black Power movement and began "inciting insurrections as a child." His first such "insurrection" was to defend his mother against the physical abuse at the hands of his father and give his father two black eyes. He began playing the baritone saxophone at the age of 14, and he described the sax as "this big horn that had this unyielding, raucous, raw and uncontrollable sound, and that ... became my voice." He became a saxophonist virtuoso, being able to play in six octaves, more than one octave more than most professional players.

Ho was a saxophonist extraordinaire.
Ho was a saxophonist extraordinaire.

After high school, Ho attended Harvard University and earned his B.A. in sociology. He edited four books that connected the arts—especially music—with social activism. Ho believed that there was a distinction between Asian-American art and western art that happens to be performed by an Asian-American. In his book, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader, he wrote: "the white assimilationist notion of the petty bourgeois Asian American artist that anything by an Asian American artist makes it Asian American." Then citing the example, "Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist who happens to be Chinese/Asian-American, not a Chinese/Asian-American musician." He believed music should foster equality:

In opposing cultural imperialism, a genuine multicultural synthesis embodies revolutionary internationalism in music: rather than co-opting different cultures, musicians and composers achieve revolutionary transformation predicated upon anti-imperialism in terms of both musical respect and integrity as well as a practical political economic commitment to equality between peoples.

For Ho, music was a means to demonstrate his political ideals which he also lived. Ho didn't own a car, made his own clothes from kimono fabric, and he often posed for promotional photos in the nude. He also edited and authored several books on his socio-political and artistic theories.

He received numerous awards and grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received an American Book Award in 1996, the Harvard Arts Medal in 2009, the Harlem Arts Festival's Lynette Velasco Community Impact Award.[9] At the 17th Annual Black Musicians Conference in March 2014. Ho was the youngest recipient of the Duke Ellington Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award His family created The ASCAP Foundation Fred Ho Award for composers who push boundaries in his honor. He founded two music ensembles, the Monkey Orchestra in 1980 and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble in 1982.

In the performance in the video below, Ho explains how politics, history, the stories of BIPOC, and the dismantling of colonialism all culminate in his music.

In 2006, Ho had battled colorectal cancer since his diagnosis in 2006. After several rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, his health briefly improved, but a second tumor was found in Sept. 2007. After eight years battling cancer, Ho died at his home on Brooklyn, New York on April 12, 2014. He left a legacy of avant-grade music and activism. He believed:

Art can fill us with love, with hope and with revolutionary vision.

Listen to Ho's piece When The Real Dragons Fly! Notice the blending of Asian elements with jazz element to create a style that was all his own.

Yo-Yo Ma Cellist and Humanitarian

Our third artist, and final one for part one, may be the most famous classical musician on Earth, Yo-Yo Ma. Although Ho described Ma as a "cellist who happens to be Chinese/Asian-American, not a Chinese/Asian-American musician," through his projects, such as the Silkroad project, he shows that he uses his art to explore his Chinese ancestry and to innovate, not simply to play old western art music standards.

Ma in 2013, Wikipedia
Ma in 2013, Wikipedia

Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist and songwriter of Chinese descent. He was born on Oct. 7, 1955, in Paris, France. Ma's mother, Marina Lu, was a singer, and his father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a violinist, composer, and a music professor. He was child prodigy who began performing at the age of four and a half. He received his earliest music training from his father, who taught both his sister, Yeou-Cheng, and him. They often were awakened by 4 or 5 a.m. to practice. By the age of only five, Yo-Yo had amazingly already memorized three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo suites!

When Yo-Yo was seven, his family relocated to New York City. While still in elementary school, he performed for U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and appeared on numerous television shows, including the performance below when he was introduced by legendary American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Aug. 25, 1918 – Oct. 14, 1990). In the video, Bernstein introduces young Ma by highlighting Ma's identify not only as a Asian cellist but as a Asian-American, saying:

[There] has long been an attraction to our country to foreign artists and scientists and thinkers who have come not only to visit us but to join us as Americans to become citizens of what has historically been the land of opportunity and to others the land of freedom. And, in this great tradition, there has come to us this year a young man aged seven bearing the name Yo-Yo Ma... Yo-Yo has up until now lived in France, a highly international type, but he and his family are now here. His father is teaching school i