Korean Quarterly Newspaper

The Next Big Thing

Finding no Asian role models in pop music, Minnesota Kimberly Michaels creates one

       Take a minute out of your day and turn on your radio.  Find yourself a good FM station, one with more music than talk, and then listen.  Listen to a song or two – take in the melodies and lyrics.  Close your eyes and let the singers’ voices create images in your mind. What do you see?    

More often than not, you can tell by a person’s voice and their style of singing what ethnicity they are.  As un-politically correct as that may sound, it’s true.  Toni Braxton, singing He Wasn’t Man Enough For Me, with her deep robust, sultry voice conjures up a black woman, where the tonal quality of Faith Hill’s voice is obviously of a white woman.  American music has been defined on this black/white dynamic throughout time, across all popular music types, from blues to country to rock-n-roll, and has often exiled the Asian voice to reach only the ears of Asians.

Until now, that is.  Imagine this --- hearing the power, phrasing, tone, and temper, ranging from the styles of Aretha Franklin to Sade to Britney Spears, all from a Korean woman?

This is the future of American music:

I had heard that Kimberly Michaels was supposed to be good.  However, since I had become familiar with numerous Asian singers over the years, I doubted how different Falkman would really sound from the hoards of Asian voices that were, however musical, still distinctly Asian.  There’s just something about the Asian voice quality that screams loudest when sung, something which has historically deterred the success of integrating Asian vocalists into America pop culture.

So when Michaels said she was singing for an R&B band called Rock Steady, I expected to smile and clap graciously for an Asian woman trying to sing R&B songs.  But, when she started to sing Ain't Nobody by Chaka Khan, I was in shock.  There, on stage, was a 5'1" Korean woman who could barely pass for legal age, but when I closed my eyes I heard the voice of Chaka Khan.  I heard Aretha in a following set and then Whitney, and many other R&B artists that night, all of whom were coming form this Asian phenom.  I was in awe.

Kimberly (Sung Hee Park) was adopted into the Falkman family when she was six months old and grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota.  For as long she can remember music was an integral part of her identity and development.  Recognizing her talent and potential, Kimberly's parents started her on Suzuki Method piano lessons at age four - an age when most children pound away at those grand piano keys just out of fascination for the feel and the noise. Suzuki Methods teaches musical training not by reading notes, but by realizing sounds and forms, learning by ear and developing musical recognition from within.

 

Kimberly learned to read music by age seven, and as a musical prodigy at age 13, began to compose her own music as an emotional outlet.  "I wrote a lot of music back then," she commented, "I used to sit at the piano and write teenage angst songs. They're called Alternative songs today, but they didn't have a name back then.

 The angst came, in part, from being  a middle child of her parents' two biological children, an older brother and a younger sister.  She also dealt with questions about her heritage, about being adopted, and about her own biological roots.  These questions of identity and race were issues that her adoptive family was not trained to deal with - other than to reassure her "you're very special" and "you should be thankful (for having been adopted)" - a response which caused her to dive further into her music.

 By the time Michaels reached high school, she was directing and accompanying her school choir for selected performances and was allowed to debut her original compositions as opening acts for school concerts.  Music became her claim to fame, and the magnet for her parents' attention.  "It was the 'make us proud' factor, especially from my father,"  Michaels states.  Music helped her transcend the image of 'being different" because of her race, to being gifted because of her talents.

She recalled her first paying gig.  "I was fifteen and this guy who had graduated the year before heard me play at a concert.  I was playing some original music and some holiday music on the piano before the concert started.  He called me later and asked me to play for a ball that they were having at his fraternity at the U (of Minnesota).  I didn't even think of asking for money.  I said "yes". So for all $35 plus tips, Kimberly's career as a performing musician was born.

 Shortly after Kimberly graduated high school, she met up with Sheila Raye Robinson (daughter of Ray Charles) at a bonfire party in Minnetonka.  Robinson was in town working on an album with some local artists when one of Kimberly's friends approached her.  "One of my friends said (to Robinson) 'you should hear my friend' 'cause Kimberly can sing!"  And luckily Robinson was game.  The next thing she knew, Michaels was sitting in Robinson's car singing along with a 10,000 Maniacs song, awaiting Robinson's verdict.  Robinson was in fact, so impressed with Michael's voice that she invited her to sing background for her album.

 After recording in Minnesota for Robinson, Falkman decided to move out to Los Angeles with Robinson and pursue a career in the music industry.  As a young Asian American woman, the road to success was yet to be paved. With virtually no precedents for Asians in popular music, Michaels often found herself being jostled around by people who were unwilling to accept her as a serious musician. "Isn't that cute, you sing?" Michaels recalls this common reaction based on her appearance. "They expected me to sound a certain way - like pop, house or dance beat kind of music - and I don't sound that way at all."  

Not only was she denied jobs because she was Asian, she found herself being hired for gigs just because she was Asian as well.  Kimberly explains, "People would say 'hire her to pretend to play the keyboard and use her because she's Asian.'"  She found that she was often hired for what she calls "exotica appeal," that is, for decoration rather than for talent.  "Also at that time,"  Michaels explained, "everyone was trying to get the "One Nation' kind of feel or the United Colours of Bennetton image".

 "It's really hard to get respect in the music industry (as an Asian)," Michaels reflected.  "Even now when I'm older and working all the time, people still always don't talk to me straight.  They still look at me and talk to me like I'm a little Asian girl.  But now I just know how to handle it better."  Michaels said demonstrating a "don't mess with me" kind of gesture. 
 
Although Michaels surrounded herself with musicians while in Los Angeles, she explored the Korean connections as well, venturing occasionally into Koreatown.  She discovered a common reaction that adopted Koreans get from immigrant Koreans.  "I went to Koreatown when I lived in West Hollywood, and they didn't like me because I didn't speak the language.  They asked me if I was Korean and I said 'yes', but then they were angry with me".  When Falkman explained to them that she was adopted and that she had minimal exposure to her Korean heritage growing up, she was frequently told, "You need to go back (to Korea). "

Only once was Michaels offered support by a Korean in Los Angeles.  When she explained to one Korean store owner that she was adopted, he tried to help her.  Every time she entered the store, he would show her a big flash card with a Korean word on it.  He taught her how to say it, what it meant, and then made her take it with her to study.  Then, anytime she returned (which was often), he would quiz her to see what she could remember.  She kept the flashcards and has them to this day.
 

Of her many years recording, performing, networking and absorbing the Los Angeles music scene, Michael's most memorable performance was in 1996 with Stanley Clarke, and George Duke for the opening of the Billboard Magazine Club.  "The night was a blur.  I got there really late and many people had been telling him (Stanley Clarke) about me.  So they invited me up on stage and the place was packed.  I didn't really sing anything; I just sang licks (sings sample) and then I just went off on this screaming tangent and the crowd went nuts!  And so when they cheered I looked out and said "what's up, Billboard?!" and they went 'whaahhh', and I said, "I said what's up, Billboard!", and they went 'whaahhh' (louder)! And then I said "I said what's up?' and they went wild! I'd never experienced that before, on a big stage".

 Since returning to the Twin Cities, Michaels has been featured as both lead and background vocalist for such bands as Rupert's Orchestra (The R-Factor), The Klique, Tres Jolie, Rock Steady, and is putting together an Asian tour with her signature band.  Her goal is to become the role model that she never had - A serious musician who happens to be Asian American.

 Kimberly Michaels is for real, the next big thing, and her debut album, Kimberly Michaels, is expected to be released next fall, upon completion of her Asian tour.  She describes this album as a fusion between Soul & Jazz, "something sultry, old-school,  with a little R&B"  For more information about the upcoming album or where to see her perform, contact kimberlymichaels@comcast.net

 

 •This article has been posted with permission from The Korean Quarterly (KQ) Newspaper, per Martha Vickery, Managing Editor. Telephone: (651) 771-8164

PO Box 6789. St Paul, MN 55106

 ** Falkman has been changed to Michaels