Honey Zee

It’s always such a rare treasure to find an Asian artist in the mainstream media. I was flippin through the May issue of teenvogue and was doubly delighted to see a brief article on Zee Avi, a Malaysian songstress whose gently rugged vocals have perked up the US ears of Monotone and Brushfire Records (of the Jack Johnson variety). I know I rep hip-hop & r&b on this blog, but make no mistake; my musical roots run quite a course in reed instrumentation (read: I played clarinet all throughout middle school and high school) and I was no stranger to jazz. When teeny boppers were swooning all over John Mayer, KFK and I were all about Jack Johnson. And it doesn’t hurt that he was a pro surfer from Hawaii, where loved ones on both sides of my family have been born, raised and still reside.

The Dress

The other thing that caught my eye about the teenvogue article was the Gregory Parkinson dress Zee was wearing oh-so-gracefully. I had first seen the dress in the April issue of Lucky magazine and I was smitten. With a mixture of tie-dye and country florals encapsulated within a prom-dress cut, the piece is very cute, very hippie, very Free People. After listening to a few of her songs (you can stream the entire album here), I thought the dress vibed with her music really well. Coincidentally, she is no stranger to good style having had studied fashion design in London before her music career lifted off.

The Music

Zee’s music would suggest she is wiser than her 24 years. Think of some of the current acoustic jazz artists molded into a small brown package with giant potential and solid skills. There are the whispery vocals that call to mind Adele, Norah Jones, Zooey Deschanel of She & Him; the jazzy arrangements of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday; the acoustic melodies of Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz circa I’m Yours. Kantoi is a Malaysian-English track that reminds me of my family singing Filipino songs on the Magic Mic. Not that it’s cheesey! I just love the warmth and sense of belonging from being around Filipinos who take pride in our cultural heritage. (I’m not Malaysian, but if you listen to Kantoi, a lot of the words sound Tagalog.)

It’s a relief to hear this track. I always get uneasy when artists from other countries play American music. Apparently, Zee’s case is another example of how the internet broadens our horizons. As her album clearly showcases, exposure to American jazz influenced her musical leanings. There’s just no Asian representation in the mainstream music scene that actually sounds good. There was the short-lived girl pop group, One Voice (which I, admittedly, listened to every night one summer in college), Buffy who graced the air waves with her 15-minutes of fame and one-hit wonder Give Me A Reason, Jocelyn Enriquez and Nicole Scherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls. They’ve all attempted to conquer the pop scene, but with the fickle business minds of the mainstream music industry and an audience who has the attention span of a house fly, it’s hard to have lasting power when there are so many other groups out there with the same sound. And that’s what I don’t want for the Asian community; the perception that we’re novel, throw-away acts that perpetuate stereotypes of people who should only be plugging away numbers behind cubicles, performing surgery every day or running that Chinese take-out down the street instead of establishing our rightful place as colleagues in entertainment. The great thing about jazz is that, even though its artists don’t get as much attention as the pop fiends who dominate the media, the genre endures. Jazz greats still get accolades to this day. And it’s refreshing to hear an Asian voice get thrown into the mix.

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