For senior Leo Xia, Friday was no average night. It marked the inauguration of his career as a singer-songwriter as he released his EP album, Hyphenated. That evening, Tommy’s Place was invigorated with music and life as friends, students and local artists flooded the venue to celebrate Xia’s artistic debut.
Although Xia has been making and performing music for years, the concert was rife with personal firsts. In addition to unveiling his first independent body of work, Xia launched a line of merchandise and played with a full band for the first time.
His voice and acoustic guitar were accompanied onstage by the talents of Erin Kim on lead guitar, Mark Adam Mekailian on drums, Andrew Liu on keyboard and Jimmy Chen on bass guitar.
Most notably for Xia, the concert signified his “artistic awakening” and a means for him to prove his commitment to music to family and friends.
“Different ethnicities are pigeonholed in different ways, but for Asian Americans, we’re pigeon-holed in a very specific way as the ‘model minority,’” Xia said.
Hyphenated holds significant meaning for Xia, especially since his songs center on themes of cultural identity.
Hyphenated features six original songs, all of which were previously written but professionally produced and compiled for the first time: “Split Down the Middle,” “Jealousy,” “Yellow,” “Shaky Arms,” “Faded Photo” and “Kite.” After Friday’s event, the full album was made available on online streaming platforms and on sale as a CD.
The production of Hyphenated began when Xia was approached by Kairos Music Group after performing at Tuesday Night Café, an Asian American open mic scene. The Los Angeles-based company offers affordable music production in world- class studios to budding, independent artists. Xia funded his personal venture via Kickstarter.
Though he will soon be graduating with a degree in industrial and systems engineering, Xia intends to pursue music full-time with support from part-time jobs. Xia regards his pursuit of a major he cares little about as an experience emblematic of Asian American cultural norms.
“People view Asians as very smart but only good at certain professions,” Xia said. “I wish I’d just told myself when I was applying to college, it’s OK if your major’s not the most conventional, just go for it. Find what makes you happy.”
Having grown up in Beijing surrounded by first-generation immigrant adults, Xia cites YouTube-famous Asian American artists — including David Choi, Clara C and Wong Fu Productions — as his biggest inspirations. He said he appreciates the special significance of seeing Asian American role models in the media — role models who look like him.
Xia’s mindfulness of and passion for Asian American representation in media and entertainment is manifest in his music. “Split Down the Middle” laments the cultural dichotomy and lack of transnational understanding that afflicts the Asian American experience: “Felt like a stranger everywhere I went / Such confusion all across the board, are you American? / How could you be with a face like that? / At this point how do I even react?”
Xia’s lyrics are critical aspects of his music; he effectively translates his unique experiences into heartfelt words that encourage the listener to empathize with him and others who have faced similar struggles.
“I think the core message of my music is Asian American self-determination,” Xia said. “I want to tell other Asian Americans that you can actually do whatever you want to if you set yourself to it, despite what your parents say and despite what society tries to impose on you.”