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Can an Asian American be the next American Idol?

Struggling Asian-American artists cite racial barriers to stardom in the US.

BOSTON — Perhaps you've heard of Heejun Han, the 22-year-old Korean American from Flushing, Queens, who also happens to be a semi-finalist on American Idol Season 11.

To many, he may seem an unlikely star. He's known for his likable personality, but also for shaking his arms before each performance to get the nerves out. Idol judge and Aerosmith leading man Steven Tyler said Han's song selection on Tuesday night — Robbie Williams' "Angel" — was a miss.

But when he opens his mouth to sing — that’s when US pop star Jennifer Lopez gets a little teary. His voice on Tuesday was "smooth as silk," J Lo said. His initial performance “really impressed and shocked” another judge, music producer Randy Jackson. Even Tyler said previously he thought Han “could be the next American Idol.”

Han isn’t the first Asian American to be on American Idol, but the overwhelming love and attention he’s getting on camera and off makes it seem that way.

Most talented Asian-American singers have struggled to break into the US music scene. But even as Asian Americans have trouble getting the attention of US music producers — a problem many artists blame on racial barriers — imported K-pop, or Korean pop music, is growing in popularity in the US.

K-pop groups have landed on stages like Madison Square Garden and the Letterman show, while most Asian-American artists are self-supported, reaching their audience primarily through YouTube.

And many more Asian Americans are making the reverse journey to Asia in search of opportunities to perform.

K-pop’s American secret

Consider Korea's infatuation with singer Ailee and the more veteran Jay Park, who rank No. 7 and No. 9, respectively, on the “K-pop Hot 100” Billboard music chart. What do these two singers have in common? Both are from the US; Ailee is a New Jersey native, and Jay Park is from Seattle.

The trend is nothing new, according to Oliver Wang, a music journalist and assistant professor, who teaches pop culture at California State University Long Beach.

“When I was in college in the early ‘90s, people would talk about the LA Boyz who found far greater fame and success in Taiwan than they did here,” Wang, 39, said. 

LA Boyz, a Taiwanese-American boy band formed in 1992, brought American hip-hop from Los Angeles to Taiwan. Solid, a Korean-American trio, did the same but with R&B in Korea, becoming the country’s first R&B group.

“I do think that for many Asian Americans, frustrated by the lack of opportunities locally, they see Asia as a potential avenue where racial differences won't matter as much. It's certainly no guarantee — Asian countries generate so much local talent it's not like they need our ex-pats to go over there — but it's been a 20-year trend thus far,” Wang said.

Producer Jae Chong, an original member of Solid, later went to Taiwan to write and produce for the LA Boyz, as well as Asian-American artist Coco Lee and more recently Aziatix, an Asian-American R&B/hip-hop group that won Best New Artist at Mnet Asian Music Awards 2011.

Indeed, Asian countries welcome artists with Asian roots and American culture; they are seen as an alluring blend.

“Asian-American artists are both American and Asian so it’s strange and exotic [to them],” said Tatsu Aoki, Japanese American founder of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival.

Entertainment companies in Asia, especially Korea, frequently hold worldwide auditions in search for the next K-pop star. Often the top contestants include Asian Americans who may or may not speak fluent Korean.

“There’s like 10 of them [audition shows] in Korea,” Heejun Han said. “When I see those shows with people who sing so well and have perfect English, I’m curious why they don’t try in the US.”

Paul Kim and John Park did try. Both made it to the top 24 of American Idol, like Han — Kim was part of American Idol’s sixth season (2007); Park, the ninth (2010).

But where are they now?

Asian-American artists flounder in US

Park’s American Idol fame propelled him overseas. A native of Northbrook, Ill., Park was cast in a