Growing up Chinese American in suburban California in the 1990s and 2000s, I encountered only phantoms of myself in the pop music I consumed. In the music videos of that era, Asian identity was not represented in the people but the furnishings: the dragon-door backdrops in Mandy Moore's "In My Pocket," the wallpaper and satin robes of Christina Milian's "Dip It Low," the Asian-spa setting in Busta Rhymes's "Pass the Courvoisier." Of actual Asian people in music videos, all I remember is the Chinese chick whom Jay-Z had to leave quick because she was bootlegging his shit in "Girls, Girls, Girls."
In middle school, I coped with my internalized sense of foreignness by listening to hip-hop and R&B. Its essential Americanness was potent, and I felt most American when I listened to it. I couldn't explain it at the time, but it was a relief to listen to music performed by people of color. I became obsessed with the R&B Princess/Dream Girl, who looks good in crop tops and baggy jeans like Aaliyah, can be real like Alicia Keys, dances her ass off like Mya, and possesses swag like Ciara. In other words, she was the exact opposite of teenage me. I was an outcast who didn't know where I belonged, and I definitely did not rock crop tops. My only hope was in fantasy — and the R&B Princess was the fantasy of that empowered young woman of color making her way in the world, demanding her visibility. As much as I felt like I could see myself in them more than in the Britneys or Avrils, they still felt beyond my reach — a part of an American cultural imaginarium that didn't include people who looked like me.
The fresh-faced Ameriie burst into the music scene in the summer of 2002 with "Why Don't We Fall in Love," an anticipatory celebration of the beginning of romance. In the music video, Ameriie is walking around Brooklyn on the first day of summer and then sits on a park bench, singing, "It's starting to become so clear to me / Tomorrow ain't really guaranteed." Ameriie, the daughter of a Korean mother and an African American military father, was born in Massachusetts. Early on, she lived for three years in South Korea, and Korean was her first language. When her first song came out, I was fifteen and my single mother and I had just moved to a new suburb. I was starting at a new high school where I knew I wasn't going to be the only Asian American, and I had all sorts of weird hopes for the possibility of communion and belonging. The sentiment in her debut songs was the hope for new love in that fragile time before reality sinks in and there's no longer a space for dreaming. Of course, high school turned out to be anything but that space of belonging, but for me, music has always been its replacement. In music, there was sanctuary — and it was larger than the walls of high school. Ameriie's music is peak-aughts R&B, part of an unquestionably American musical legacy. For teenage me, Ameriie revolutionized the possibilities of the R&B Dream Girl. Her debut meant something: that Asian Americans did not have to be invisible props for someone else's dream.
Sally Wen Mao is the author of the poetry collections Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014) and Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019).