Nancy Lu: Growing Up In The South And Representation In The Media

emilytreadgold #5, Features, Women In Music

Nancy Lu, founder and storyteller of Fancy PR is a trailblazer for women not only in music, but Asian Americans. As a fellow Chinese American growing up for the South, I knew she had her own set of experiences and from knowing her for years, we’ve gotten to watch her cultivate a diverse roster of talent - SOFI TUKKER, Overcoats, RALPH just to name a few. We talked to her to discuss what being Asian American meant to her and her career. 

I just really wanted you to talk about your background, and then how growing up in the South shaped your heritage, and how it is now, and then just your experience as an Asian in the music industry?

Nancy: My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. We eventually settled in Austin, Texas, but I also lived in Wichita, Kansas, and in Greeley, Colorado for a time. Both of those places are essentially small, middle America towns where there’s not a lot of diversity, and a lot of time, I found that we were the only Asian American people in a room. It’s not something that someone points out, but rather something that you immediately become aware of. It became the thing that defined me, for both positive and negative reasons. When I was living in Austin and then attended college where there was more diversity, I lost the sense of who I was, because being the only Asian person in a room was so much of my identity growing up. I was really forced to redefine what being Asian meant to me, and that manifested in a period of self-discovery that included taking Chinese classes in college. 

Yeah, because there's to say this specific kind of Asian, and yeah, I guess when we were growing up, I think I was the only one who-- I mean, two other girls, but everyone was just Chinese. That was all the Asians we had in Arkansas for some reason. We had a few that were Indian, but they were either Indian or Chinese people. That's all. Those are the only two Asians that anyone saw on my channel.

Nancy: Until you see it, until you're around it, it's hard not to be ignorant. So that's why I think that it is so important that there is greater representation in media. We’re lucky to have Olivia Rodrigo carrying the torch for Filipino representation in the music industry right now, but there are so many talented South East and South Asian Americans in the entertainment industry that deserve more of a spotlight. I can think of Jia Tolentino, an incredible Filipino writer/novelist, and Jian DeLeon, a Filipino American menswear industry icon. But growing up, most of my classmates were either Chinese or South Asian and we all had “Tiger Mom” parents who wanted us to be doctors or lawyers and for the most part, we were okay with that. There weren’t any Asian Americans in my immediate sphere who were pursuing more creative aspirations, and I wish I had that exposure earlier on. 

We're usually exposed to that when we were younger growing up, too, and there might have been people that we knew about, but it was very limited. But I listen to a lot of music, obviously, as a kid, too. And it would have been awesome to have exposure to even Western media. We have representation of artists that we could have listened to, like some of these younger generations now have. 

Nancy: Because then it feels normal when you're constantly exposed to people from diverse backgrounds, rather than a novelty or simply checking off a box. It makes me think back to 10 or 15 years ago when pop singers from abroad were trying to break into the US market. It didn't work because it was kind of like, "What is this? What the fuck is this Asian person trying to do?"

Yeah. No one would welcome them.

Nancy: Nobody took it seriously. It very much felt like, "You don't belong here." And I'm going to say that before even giving you a chance. "This is Western culture. It's superior. This is the way that it has been, this is the way that it will be, and there's no place for you here." And it didn't work out for them. Asian representation in music back then was nominal; it was background decoration. Like Tony Kanal from No Doubt and the Asian guy in The Smashing Pumpkins. Both those bands were huge in the late 90s/early 00s and did tons of interviews, but I don’t believe either ever shared anything in those. I don’t know anything about them except from seeing them in band press photos and going, “oh, an Asian person is in this band!”

Solo or with someone else.

Nancy: Yeah. So, if anything, they were like window dressing. Right? I don't think I've ever really heard-- I mean, I can't even remember the Asian guy's name in the Smashing Pumpkins. I don't even know what it's-- I don't know that he ever spoke in an interview. That's why it's so important to have representation in media. Because it normalizes it. 

How would you say that shaped how you view things even now in your career? Are you-- because obviously, the both of us being people of color, being Asian, we grew up cognizant, I think, anyway. That's something we've known. Do you think that it's more intentional now for you as a woman in music? When you select people that you represent, you try to be as diverse as you can?

Nancy: I think I'm definitely cognizant of that. I'm always excited for the opportunity to work with Asian artists, but at the same time, I don't want it to be a check box. So it won't ever be a situation of trying to fill a ‘diversity placement’ for the sake of it. I think that diminishes the value of that person and their worth to what they look like. It cuts it down to a very superficial level.

Yeah, it's almost like you're just doing it just to have it, to say that you have this person. 

Nancy: I would love the opportunity to work with more Asian and also Asian American artists. I mean, obviously, there are so many K-Pop bands that are kind of making their way over. But I would really like to see more artists break from Mando-Pop and J-Pop.

Would you say because we're both from small towns, did you-- because of the limited exposure to other Asians in media, music, did that affect you growing up and how you battled with it? I know growing up for me it was really hard. I didn't whitewash myself, but I tried a lot of things to assimilate as much as possible subconsciously, I think, to not be as Asian as I could have been as a kid.

Nancy: Absolutely, when you're trying to make friends, you want to be somebody other people can relate to. Being obviously different appearance-wise, is not helpful in establishing that relatability. People will also have their negative preconceptions based on how you look, so you're fighting against that. And then, when you're in grade school, there's the added layer of literally everyone trying to fit into society’s idea of what a “cool teen” is. 

Yeah. I remember begging my parents to shop at all the stores that everyone else shopped at. Like, I do need this shirt from Abercrombie. Yeah. I probably did.

Nancy: Yeah. I mean, I definitely did not either. I got made fun of the clothes that I wore. I begged my parents to buy me something from the GAP and they ended up buying me a XXL GAP hoodie, which also wasn’t “cool” lol. 

Everyone else is doing this, and I need it.

Nancy: You want to fit in so, so bad. You want people to like you. You want people to see you as one of them. You sacrifice maybe a lot of who you are to be part of whatever the in-crowd is or what's perceived to be popular so that you won’t stand out. 

Yeah. It was almost easier to blend in.

Nancy: Yeah. Because if you stood out, it was always for something bad. 

How has your perception now changed as you've gotten older?

Nancy: I think I'm more comfortable with my choices and myself, and less concerned with superficial things. Peer pressure might be tougher now than it was at the time I was growing up now that there's social media. Like, "How many likes am I getting on this Instagram? How many likes am I getting on this tweet?” You actually don't have to subject yourself to any of that cause it's not going to make you feel better about yourself. 

The validation, yeah. No, that's perfect. And then what is being Asian American mean to you now, versus what it was when you were younger?

Nancy: I think when I was younger, I didn't like it.


Nancy: I’m ashamed to say it, but I was a bit self-loathing.

Yeah. It's hard because it was us against everyone else going to school, and I'm sure you felt that too when you were moving and having to start over. And there's no one else like you, really. You are one of very few. And everyone stuck together, so it's like, I don't have anybody else, so I need to do what I can.

Nancy: I think just what I said before of just being more comfortable in myself—having a greater appreciation for my parents, family, and their struggles. Though their struggles are not the same as mine, nor do their struggles justify me also having to struggle or make it okay, but it does put things into perspective. Sacrifice is not easy, but having a good support system makes it endurable.

I mean, you're very aware, I'm sure, of what was happening before all the attacks that people were experiencing the last several months. How did that affect you and just kind of change your perception on how certain things respond, the media, and even your circle? Because for me, specifically, I remember it was hard. I felt we were constantly screaming into some void. How did you cope with that?

Nancy: I definitely felt sad, really sad, about it. When I spoke to my parents about it, we kind of encouraged each other not to leave the house. I got some self-defense gadgets too. 

Yeah, my dad sent me a taser from a police friend that he knew. And I was like, "This sounds like a terrible idea because I'm going to tase myself, but I'll put it in my purse." I just don't know that I trust myself to operate it.

Nancy: Hopefully you won't need it! I know that after I got my self-defense tools, it made me feel more at ease to leave the house. I did feel angry that a lot of people weren't taking the attacks seriously. That kind of triggered this feeling that Asian Americans are just always overlooked. Like, why would I expect this situation to be different? And then that led to remembering instances of being overlooked in my career, which led me down a very negative spiral that wasn't good for my mental health. 

It was important for me to take a step back from that and remove myself from feeling that way, though it might be true. It forced me to reevaluate and instead focus on the community and support system that I do have. Sometimes it takes a while to find your people in this industry, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not there. 

The other thing the attacks brought up for me is the relationship between the Asian and Black communities here, and the racism that exists within the Asian American community. And I think the conversation there really needs to be how we can support the Black community because racial justice and equality starts there. We can't be yelling, "Oh, why don't people care about us? People need to give more of a shit." But at the same time, staying quiet when an unarmed Black man gets shot in the street while wearing a hoodie or carrying a cell phone. 

What do you want to say, to speak of how people can just be better without asking you to educate them? What is something you think that the community can do?

Nancy: We talk about powerful people. I think everybody has power, maybe it’s a little, maybe it’s a lot. Whatever your job is, you're a conduit for work, for projects, for opportunities, even though that might not be immediately apparent. That’s how we support each other and build and sustain our music community. So when an opportunity comes across that might not be a great fit for you, try to give it to somebody that you wouldn't immediately think of, try to give it to somebody who doesn't already have 20,000 followers on Twitter or Instagram. Give it to somebody who you know will absolutely crush it, but are still looking for their chance.

Samantha Fong

"At 15 years old, I begged my mom to take me to Walmart to get Taylor Swift's debut deluxe album and I never turned back. This was my very first entry point to stan fandom. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee I was exposed to a ton of music - from rapping 3 6 Mafia to bopping to Justin Timberlake's solo discography. Now, in LA have a day job working in nonprofit development, but by night, I'm a full-fledged fangirl. I'll listen to generally any genre, but I'm a sucker for a good pop song. If you ever need someone to scream sing Carly Rae Jepsen's E·MO·TION with, I'm your girl. No, I still have not gotten over the One Direction hiatus. Please continue to respect my privacy. Twitter : samfonggg, Instagram : samantha_fong"