These musicians from Asia are defining a new era
From innovators to traditionalists, here are ten artists from Asia making waves around the world.
This story is a part of i-D Asia's Music Week, an entire week dedicated to spotlighting rising musical talents across the Asia region. Follow along as we explore how a new generation of artists are taking their place on the world stage.
Trying to pin down a specific ‘Asian’ music scene is something of a fool's errand: the region is huge and diverse, with new scenes and subcultures springing up every day. But anyone who’s ever dipped into a DIY venue in Tokyo, a club in Beijing, or a bar in Jakarta knows that there are myriads of new musicians in the deepest corners of the region making challenging, head-spinning beats, compulsively-listenable anthems, and songs to soundtrack the lives of Asia’s youth. Asian pop might be relatively untouched by Western fans and media, but with first-generation Asian artists like Mitski and Riz Ahmed making waves in the US and UK, it feels like Asia’s cultural boom will be internationally recognised sooner than one might think. We’ve rounded up ten Asian artists, innovators and traditionalists alike who seem like prime candidates to make waves overseas very soon.
Indian-born, Melbourne-based producer and songwriter Ashwarya popped up seemingly out of nowhere earlier this year when she uploaded her debut single “Biryani” to radio talent search Triple J Unearthed. A hazy, swirling vortex of arpeggiating synths and Bollywood-indebted horn squalls, Ashwarya’s music puts a new spin on Billie Eilish’s whispered missives, as well as the effortless bilinguality of Rosalia, dipping in-and-out of Hindi on a whim. It’s only her debut single, but there’s a strong sense of identity in Ashwarya’s music, an awareness of her own style and taste. (That might seem like a given, but it’s a rarity for such new artists.) Her Instagram, too, reveals an idiosyncratic and colourful fashion sense that feels in tune with her lead single's many left-turns.
It’s hard to overstate the quietly revolutionary potential of R&B singer-songwriter Alextbh’s music. The 24-year-old Malaysian makes wry, romantic pop about other men; in a country where homosexuality is still broadly condemned and sodomy is illegal, that’s a strong-willed act of rebellion. Of course, that radical potential would mean nothing if the music weren’t good, and, thankfully, it is: songs like “still mine,” which marry slick, G-funk indebted synths with lines like “Checking your Instagram on the daily / Sorry if I’m a bit possessive,” are witty and weird, compelling and accessible pieces of worn-in pop.
潘PAN, the Taiwanese rapper formerly known as Aristophanes, came to prominence over the last few years as a prominent collaborator of Grimes. A stand-out on 2015’s Art Angels and this year’s Miss Anthropocene, 潘PAN’s style is fast and frenetic, tightly-constructed raps coming out of her mouth at a seemingly impossible speed. While her two Grimes collaborations are her only songs currently on streaming services, her Soundcloud boasts a surprisingly diverse collection of tracks, including a recently-released collaboration with footwork icon DJ PAYPAL, a jazzy spoken-word song, (“Lotus In The Womb”) and more. A true weirdo of experimental rap, there are few experiences like listening to 潘PAN.
The music made by Toyko’s Aya Gloomy is contradictory and thrilling. The image of a contemporary pop star with her brightly-coloured hair and e-girl-adjacent fits, Gloomy’s music is actually a harsh, raw synthesis of indie rock and industrial no-wave music. She sings bright melodies over harrowing synthlines and crunchy drum hits, her songs as likely to devolve into icy entropy as they are to burst into a soaring chorus line. Her music only seems to be getting more fascinating, too — last year’s KANJIRU EP compressed Gloomy’s sound into a tight, beautiful package of ambient electronics and echoing vocals.
Inarguably the most famous artists on this list, Chengdu’s Higher Brothers have made waves over the past few years as the first Chinese-language rap group to break into the competitive and notoriously Western-favouring American market. It’s not hard to see the appeal of Higher Brothers’ music; combining the freewheeling exuberance of Playboi Carti (a direct influence on the quartet) with their own unique interpretation of trap, there are few rappers making music like this at the current moment. When it comes to Higher Brothers’ best songs, language barriers feel irrelevant.
박혜진 Park Hye Jin
There’s something special about Korean producer 박혜진 Park Hye Jin’s spin on lo-fi house music. Currently based in LA, 박 Park’s compositions are surreal and dreamlike, often featuring husky spoken-word interludes and whispered asides; she channels the introspective ambience of DJ BORING into something diaphanous and oftentimes uncategorisable. 박 Park’s latest single, the pulsating “Like this,” precedes her new EP How Can I, which promises to be one of the year’s most noteworthy electronic releases.
Filipino-born British artist beabadoobee makes an endearingly old-school kind of bedroom pop. Mixing dream-pop with hazed-out acoustic interludes and earnest indie rock ballads, beabadoobee’s music harkens back to to the endearing aesthetic jumble of Reminder-era Feist, her surprisingly agile vocals effortlessly sounding in a falsetto on the lullaby-like “Dance With Me” and in a lower register on the breakout “Coffee.” Signed to The 1975’s Dirty Hit Records, beabadoobee is, undoubtedly, the brightest star in the current wave of Gen Z indie.
It’s hard to pin down the kind of music that Tokyo band TAMTAM make. Formed, initially, as a reggae/dub project, the four-piece now make slick soft-rock somewhere between Phoenix and Todd Terje. It’s not for everyone, but there are gems in the mix here, from the Mariah Carey-on-acid squelch of “Worksong!” to the slow-building haze of “Gooooo.” TAMTAM essentially make mood music, but that’s no pejorative — there’s a lot to love in this bright, weird jam band.
Australian-born, Tokyo-based musician Mahne Frame’s debut EP KISS MY ASS, DEATH is a heady mix of seemingly incongruent styles and concepts: Marie Davidson-on-roids coldwave, testosterone-fuelled spoken word, delightfully arrogant swagger. A brutal and bracing 10-minute four-track, KISS MY ASS, DEATH is at turns confounding and beautiful, Frame oscillating between the role of confounding provocateur and clear-eyed poet. Cresting with the dewy-eyed “RIP KEITH FLINT,” a surprisingly tender ballad touching on change and nostalgia, KISS MY ASS, DEATH is a short and very memorable debut.
Tokyo’s ZOMBIE-CHANG tries on a lot of styles over her oeuvre — chintzy new wave synths, strange rap, heart-racing indie rock — without ever letting go of her identity. Despite the fact that her 2019 album Petit Petit Petit touches on dozens of sounds, ZOMBIE-CHANG’s voice — a riot grrrl-style melodic howl — is a unifying presence, turning even the strangest left-turn into something that feels completely normal. To hold the attention of an audience over such a dense kaleidoscope of styles requires star-power, and ZOMBIE-CHANG has it in spades.