Will the Real (Asian) American Idol Please Stand Up?

Two people were especially rankled when the most prominent Asian to emerge from the “American Idol” phenomenon was the off-key cartoon character, William Hung.

So these two men – who happen to be accomplished music producers Young Kim and William Pyon – took matters into their own hands by inaugurating the Asian American Pop Star Contest.

More than 100 contestants between the ages of 11 and 30 auditioned. The 10 finalists, which comprise one group and nine soloists, will perform at the “eXposure: Voices of a Second Generation” concert in Los Angeles on May 6. The winner, who will be determined through the results of an online poll at www.enterxp.com, receives prizes worth US$3,000, including a professional photo shoot and demo recording, as well as the possibility of a contract.

“Our long-term goal is to produce an Asian American artist that will recreate the way American media sees Asian American singers,” said Kim, who with Pyon co-founded Xperimental Entertainment, a company with offices in Los Angeles, Seoul and Tokyo that offers a triple-threat punch of music production and publishing, and a recording studio.

“Ultimately, we want to be the stepping stone for all those talented Asian American artists out there trying hard to make it and help them in whatever way we can so that they get mainstream exposure,” Kim added.

One of those artists is finalist Jeanie Cha, a 22-year-old Korean American who can relate to the struggles of getting that big break.

“I think Asian American artists in the past have had difficulty breaking in because they are always promoted inadequately,” Cha said. “I think a record company has to really believe in the artist in order for them to push them all the way and obviously there is no track record, so companies don’t want to risk it!

“Right now, singing is my full-time job,” Cha added. “Honestly, it’s really tough! I am broke as hell and wish I could work, but for now I am focusing on my music career because it’s now or never!”

Next Phaze, a Filipino American male quartet, has also turned their hobby into a career. The group moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco last year because they felt that the Southern California metropolis offered more opportunities for work. But more often than not, they too feel the negative effects of the William Hung stereotype.

“Sometimes when we audition, we run into people who would say, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect that sound from you guys,” said Carlo Ricafort, one of the band’s members. “I would say that we break a lot of barriers.”

Ricafort and the rest of Next Phaze plan to release their first full-length album this summer, and they heavily promote their music through their Web site and Myspace blog. They even run an online clothing company and hope to perform in their native Philippines.

“The biggest challenge [since the move] was that we didn’t know how much we have to hustle back and forth in order to make ends meet,” Ricafort said. “Now that our group is our full-time career, we feel that 24/7 networking helps us, from producers to other artists, especially being an Asian American.”

Equally busy is fellow finalist Catherine Hwang, a 22-year-old student at California State University, Los Angeles . She is simultaneously pursuing a singing career, working two part-time jobs and studying for her medical school exams. If it was up to her, music would win over her mother’s choice of medicine, but even then, this devout Christian keeps her options open.

“The reason I sing is to bring glory to God,” says Hwang, who cites Jay-Z as the artist who she’d like to work with most. “However, I believe that being only involved in a Christian market can limit your musicianship and also limit to the amount of people you can impact.”

And with a client list boasting the likes of Mandy Moore, BoA, Jennifer Lopez, Boyz II Men and LeAnn Rimes, Xperimental’s contest provides a tantalizing opportunity to all the finalists – not only to work with a company that has a diverse client roster, but also to fulfill a lifelong goal.

“The reason why I want to pursue this as a career and not just as a hobby is because of the fact that I want to be able to live out my “American Dream:” to make a living doing what [I] love most,” said Hwang, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea as a child. “In my heart, I know there is nothing else that satisfies me more.”

Addendum [May 8, 2006]: Congratulations to Next Phaze for winning the contest! Go to http://enterxp.com/ where you can read Q&As with the finalists and watch videos of their final auditions. The finalists performed at the “eXposure” concert at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Los Angeles, Calif., on May 6. The event was hosted by “Last Comic Standing” winner Dat Phan and featured all 10 finalists plus musical guests All-4-One and WheeSung.

Videos: Interviews with Catherine Hwang and Sue Jin Kim
videos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine