In mid-May, I received an email from a manager who had read about MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans) speaking out against White actors taking roles originally written as Asian characters. Of his client’s video, he wrote, “I can confidently say right now there is no better tool out there to educate the public regarding the issue of whitewashing and the marginalization of Asians in the entertainment business”. He also claimed this artist was “a young singer-songwriter who can best be described as a young Elton John that can dance like Fred Astaire. I don’t say that lightly”.
“Oh boy,” I thought, this is probably going to be embarrassing. I clicked on the link for “Leading Man.” Will Jay, an Asian American actor, auditions for a role (“Deaf Note: The Musical”, a play on the much criticized Neftlix film “Death Note”) in front of two cynical casting directors. He sings well, but they quickly dismiss him. The executives are immediately more friendly to a White guy, Danny Hand, with the casting director saying, “Ooh, nice handshake! Iron Fist!” (parodying Danny Rand, Marvel Superhero Iron Fist, a part many wanted to go to an Asian American). He shakily performs the same tune, yet the executives like him.
Dejected, Jay sings, “How do I lose out to a guy who’s average at best?/A face that’s easy on the eyes, but a name you’ll soon forget?/He’s just more of the same, so let me take his place/That should be me, and you know why…You’d best believe, I’m your leading man”. Jay walks onto the street where we catch glimpses of old fashioned movie posters which satirize the titles of recent whitewashed films: “Ghost In the Spell” (“Ghost in the Shell”), “Dr. Estranged” (“Dr. Strange”), and “The Great Fall” (“The Great Wall”).
The actor begins displaying agile Fred Astaire-like dance moves as retro-sounding horns kick in. He touches one of the posters, transforms into a blonde/blue-eyed White guy, and this time wins the part from the same executives. In the end, he reverts back to his real self, angers the executive, and walks out the door.
Wow, this guy can definitely sing! And he really gets it! By the second listen, I was wondering if this was a remake of another song because it already sounded so catchy and familiar; but no, the 21-year-old wrote it all by himself.
Will Jay (who’s half Chinese and goes by his first and middle name instead of his last name, Behlendorf) tells me it was inspired by a combination of hope and fear when he was on his way to the studio for a writing session with producer Matt Nelson. “I got a call from my acting agent [the singer’s been auditioning since he was 10] asking me about the ‘Mulan’ live action remake and asking questions about how good my Chinese was and what my height was and martial arts. And I was super excited about it… When I got off the phone, I kinda got this weird sense… my first thought was, ‘What if they cast like Zac Efron as Shang? And Jennifer Lawrence as Mulan?’
“Over the last six to eight months, I’d seen that Whitewashing thing over and over again. And so that was really top of mind for me. And it just came from a place like, I would so love to be that guy and I would so love to be at the forefront of that movement. And so, I had the idea in the car on the way to the studio and we wrote it pretty much then and there. We made a couple of changes later.”
Though most of the artist’s songs are about love:
“It reminds me that there is a place for [making] a statement and art that challenges society. So I’m looking forward to continuing to do that.”
(Full disclosure: Jay and his manager, Jorge, later came to a MANAA Meeting; VP Miriam Nakamura-Quan was so impressed with his all around talent that she suggested I try to get him an audition for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, which I managed to do; and we’ve been trying to promote him ever since.)
At an August 5 performance at the Hotel Café, the performer (who was born in Burbank and was raised there and in Studio City) impressed with nine songs, seven self-written, all solid compositions. His pick-up band of USC students included a couple of other Asian Americans meshing in a perfect mix. If Jay looked totally comfortable on stage, it’s probably because he’s been performing professionally since the age of 14 when in 2010, he beat out 30,000 to nab one of the five slots in the boy band IM5, created by “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, social media guru Perez Hilton, and tour director Jamie King (Ricky Martin, Rihanna, Madonna).
At the end of 2014, Jay, then 18, felt the need to spread his wings, as the songs he was writing didn’t fit the style of his group. Between May and October of 2015, Jay flew back and forth to China seven times as a contestant on “The Voice of China”. He had to learn to sing in Chinese for the first time but managed to make the Top 20.
Coming out of IM5, he had many Instagram followers, but people with less got signed to recording deals. “I thought would be a walk in the park. I thought I would get a development deal, record an EP or album. But that didn’t happen. And it was… obviously very humbling.”
Major labels asked Jay’s manager what his marketing plan for Asia was, inferring one for the states was not enough. Remembers Jay, “It was definitely frustrating knowing that I was good enough and knowing that I was ready but having just this one more wall to climb. But I’m just over it now. Walls are made to be climbed over. So I’m gonna do it, you know? And I don’t need all those people. I’ll see ‘em when I’m playing at the Hollywood Bowl, you know? That’s fine.”
In addition to writing all of his material, Jay also has a hand in the arrangements of his recordings and usually has a very specific visual idea for his videos. He planned every shot for and edited every single frame of his 2016 video “Gentleman”, once again displaying a respect for the past while creating modern-sounding music.
Every month, Jay releases a new song on his YouTube channel, usually accompanied by a slick, professionally shot mini-film that belies its shoestring budget. To hear more about his life, tune in to “Asian America, The Ken Fong Podcast” which will be posted on September 19.
“The ten year old me, I had these lofty dreams of being a singer. My mom had a subscription of Billboard magazine and she got me one, and I would flip through all the charts and I… was desperate to find somebody who looks like me. Anything that looks like me. And I didn’t … Above all else, I’m doing it for the ten year old me that’s out there right now, you know, who needs somebody to look up to and who needs a reminder that you can do whatever you want, you can be whoever you want to be.”
Guy Aoki is the Founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) the first all-volunteer, non-profit organization solely dedicated to monitoring the mass media and advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans. For almost 25 years, he wrote the “Into the Next Stage” media column for the Rafu Shimpo and for 17 years wrote syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark. His views do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.
Featured image via Instagram / willjaymusic