Country Music's Biggest Asian Star?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because appearances, and everything else, can be deceiving.
By Isabelle Lee
You’re scrolling through TikTok one day, and a video comes across your feed. In it rings the voice of a mysterious, twangy country singer, hidden from view. Right up until the video pans to a mirror, and you discover that it’s none other than a Chinese-Japanese-Korean-American man wearing a cowboy hat, and belting out “Your Man” by Josh Turner.
If you’re honest, maybe it makes you realize that you haven’t seen an Asian country singer before. Maybe it even makes you challenge your own notions about the genre of country itself. Scrolling through the comments, you can see you’re not alone, and you might feel like someone who we think summed it up best.
“What in the yeehaw?”
On a livestream last week, a commenter wrote, “You’re the reason COVID is happening” in all caps.
What in the yee-haw, indeed — but maybe you’ve already heard of the “Asian country singer,” aka Travis Yee, from his viral TikToks or his YouTube cover of a Garth Brooks-style take on WAP by Cardi B. One comment on his cover of WAP sums up the reaction he got to the video: “An Asian singing a Black song in the genre of country. America!” See he’s a recent addition to the viral-singer club. First going viral last July, the 35-year-old got his start on YouTube with a cover of Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.”
A commenter who saw the video wrote that Yee had a country voice. As a San Francisco boy, he didn’t grow up listening to country music; in fact, his family “didn’t listen to music” at all. But one day, while driving from San Francisco down to Comic Con, he found himself listening to country music radio when his iPod battery died. He fell in love with the genre, but he never considered that he could be a country singing star. Not until the fateful comment on his cover.
It also didn’t seem possible because of how “stereotypically white” the genre is, but the more feedback he got from fans to keep it up the more he started to see a place for himself in a world traditionally dominated by white artists. And once he started singing country, he knew he had found his niche. But he couldn’t have anticipated the wild ride that going viral would be.
For Yee, going viral is a confidence boost — a confirmation that what he does works because he’s found that people respond best to the “rawness and realness” of his content. He also credits social media with creating his voice, from the original idea to sing country music itself to little tips from commenters about tone, or telling him to sing with more emotion.
Riley noted that Yee’s approach to music is unique not only because “he’s talented, but also because he’s out here to prove that because you look a certain way, you don’t need to fit a certain mold to be a country singer or be successful.” According to Riley, “He has a moxie about him that really screams that he’s ready to take on the world.”
Yee is also familiar with the dark side of viral fame. On a livestream last week, a commenter wrote, “You’re the reason COVID is happening” in all caps. Yee was taken aback and tried to ignore the comment, but the commenter wouldn’t let up. He eventually responded, shutting them down. While it was frustrating, it was not, sadly, a new experience. Yee revealed that he usually gets one hateful comment a day on his videos.
He’s also getting more hateful comments now, amid the rise in anti-Asian violence. So from the Black Lives Matter movement to starting conversations about anti-Asian violence, he thinks that country music is long overdue for change — and that the last year has “made people more aware of what they need to do, from a business standpoint and from a personal standpoint.” He now sees more people commenting on his videos with positive messages.
In any case, going viral takes thick skin. According to Yee’s sister, Sheri, the hateful comments he gets “only fuel him to be better and do better.” Yee himself revealed that he actually loves mean comments because they inspire content.
But at the end of the day, “people are a lot more accepting” of him as an Asian country singer, Yee thinks. That was something even he questioned about himself when he first started.
And now he’s working on releasing music and becoming a bona fide country star. He’s released a single already, titled “Everything But Country” and has another one coming out soon called “Eyes Like Mine.”
“The secret to success isn’t just having talent,” says Riley. “It’s being the guy that people want to get a drink with after the show, and having gotten to know Yee, I already can’t wait to buy him a beer after his next show.”
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee