By Jocelle Koh & Sinead

Currently on her very first tour across the US and UK, Chinese-American singer-songwriter Emily Li, otherwise known as Emei sings to screaming sold-out crowds of Gen-zers about everything from best friends trying to steal her man (on her song ‘Better People To Leave On Read”) to her ADHD diagnosis (on “Scatterbrained”), aptly capturing the zeitgeist of this younger generation.

Incorporating a unique mix of angst, apathy and vulnerable cynicism into her alt-rock/pop sound, she first saw success on Tiktok and Instagram where she’s now amassed over 500,000 followers for her reposting of her electrifying live sets and her storytimes where she reveals the genuine story behind her heart-on-sleeve lyricism.

But the 23 year-old who grew up speaking Chinese as the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants has never shied away from sharing about what seems to be a past life of hers where she lived in China for a year, auditioned for Chinese Idol and won third place at 15, as succinctly retold in this seven-second TikTok she posted titled “my sidequest” with over 68,000 views to date.

Indeed, a simple YouTube search reveals a fresh-faced adolescent Emei’s introduction video on Chinese Idol, where she introduces herself in a bubbly manner before belting out Judy Kuhn’s ‘Colors of the Wind’ to the amazement of judges Richie Jen 任賢齊, Vivian Hsu 徐若瑄, and Han Hong 韓紅.

While there seemed to have been a world of possibilities at her fingertips upon taking part in Chinese Idol, including securing a TV deal, Emei decided to return to the States for further education, which is where she unexpectedly blew up on Tiktok in 2020 after beginning to post some of her covers and original songs on the platform.

The ‘returning to ones’ homeland’ story arc rings very true for many Asian diaspora artists in the Mandopop sphere who have taken the same route. Some who come to mind include Dutch-Chinese singer-songwriter Diana Wang 王詩安 and Chinese-American singer-songwriter Karencici who both debuted through reality singing competitions (Diana via 2010’s Million Star and Karencici via 2016’s Sing! China) similarly to Emei, alongside higher-profile examples such as pop icon Coco Lee 李玟, godfather of R&B Wang Leehom 王力宏, and godfather of Soul music Khalil Fong 方大同, who have paved the way in their respective genres of dance pop, Hip-hop/R&B and Soul/R&B music for other musicians (diaspora or otherwise) to follow in their footsteps.

Leehom and Khalil in particular are cited as key influences for Emei growing up amongst others such as Stefanie Sun 孫燕姿, JJ Lin 林俊傑 and Jay Chou 周杰倫 (Emei has documented her early influences in this playlist), and seeing as most of her major Mandopop influences are part of the overseas Chinese community, it comes as no surprise that Emei was seeing much more opportunities for someone that looked like her in China than in her hometown.

Speaking with Asian Pop Weekly, she shared: “One of the reasons I started in China and was planning on pursuing entertainment there was because I never really thought pursuing music in America was an option for me. I never had someone who looked like me in Pop Music and I just assumed it would never happen. I had no connections or mentors in the field so it just felt impossible. I’m very grateful that that is starting to change for Asians with artists like Rina Sawayama, Joji, Blackpink etc.”.

Indeed, while Emei has had fewer points of Asian representation in the West to look up to growing up, she has unwittingly found herself as one of the trailblazers of her generation, creating a path through her authentic use of social media to garner listeners in both online and offline spaces. However, she is by no means the first Asian-American public figure to do so.

For Asian-American musicians and creators, despite the problematic nature of the medium, social media has historically proven itself to be a foot-the-door for them into the entertainment industry independently. Asian-American music YouTubers such as Kina Grannis, AJ Rafael, David Choi, and Sam Tsui are key examples of artists who have amassed millions of followers in the early ‘00s to 2010s with their lush, acoustic-style covers and easy-on-the-ear originals, pivoting them into record sales and sold-out live tours across the US and even internationally.

Japanese-American YouTube musician Kina Grannis, who is most recently known for her rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” as featured in 2018 box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians famously forwent a record label deal with Interscope Records and instead focused on growing her following via her YouTube which currently has over 1.69 million subscribers to date.

Filipino-American YouTuber and artist AJ Rafael, known for his sentimental lyrics and soulful vocals and viral originals such as “Without You”, “We Could Happen” and “She Was Mine” launched his first North America tour in 9 years in May 2023, and boasts seven sold-out dates with new shows being added and tickets scarce for the remaining three shows.

With 638,000 followers across all social media platforms and 1.419 million monthly listeners on Spotify and counting, Emei is well on track to match and perhaps even surpass these levels of success on her own terms. Of the role Tiktok played in her success, she explained:

“TikTok felt like the only way to get people to listen to my music. It’s incredibly important to indie artists right now as it democratizes the industry and gives us a way forward”.

Indeed, Emei’s first post on TikTok dates back to 2020, coinciding with the start of the pandemic which saw TikTok explode in popularity, growing 66% in worldwide usage from 2020 to 2022, marking a perfect storm that has grown her music past her wildest expectations.

Considering the increased representation of Asian diaspora artists in the Western pop market in recent years, such as Filipino-American artist Olivia Rodrigo who has five multi-platinum certifications and numerous mainstream awards under her belt, and Japanese-British artist Rina Sawayama’s touring success both in US and Japan, this is further reason to hope that moving forward, Asian diaspora artists will have diversified possibilities for where and how they will grow their music; in online or offline spaces; and most importantly, wherever they choose to call home.

As for Emei who continues to champion her Chinese heritage despite her marked success in Western pop world, we’re sure that the door to re-establish her connection with the Chinese pop market will continue to stay open for her.

Follow Emei on Tiktok or Instagram and check out her music on Spotify! You won’t be disappointed.