By Anya Shukla
Listening to Emma Wang perform her original songs at MoPOP’s Sky Church, one might think her jazzy, bright voice comes from the mouth of a 25-year-old, not a girl who’s still in high school. Although she’s been singing for most of her life, Wang’s polished sound has only started opening doors for her this year.
Growing up, “I found a lot of inspiration in fictional worlds,” Wang notes. As a child, she primarily consumed Disney movies like “High School Musical,” media with bold fashion choices and multiple musical numbers. Characters like Sharpay Evans, who sings, acts, and serves as a style icon, allowed Wang to see the ways that music, clothing, and film intersect. Even today, Wang draws inspiration from movies and popular culture, often creating mood boards of films and fashion elements for each of her songs.
Icons like Lady Gaga, Audrey Hepburn, and Katy Perry—all of whom Wang keeps pictures of on her bedroom wall—also influence Wang’s artwork and sound. “I’ve always looked up to female artists that are very proud of who they are,” she says.
Perhaps that self-confidence is why Wang’s music bucks the “sad girl autumn” trend popular in music today and instead focuses on having a good time. “The stuff I make tends to be very lighthearted,” she said. Her songs tend towards upbeat tempos; listeners can easily find themselves dancing along to the beat. “That style reflects my outlook on life: to not take everything too seriously and to find joy in the little things.”
Two months ago, Wang participated in MoPOP’s Sound Off!, an annual event that celebrates youth music talent from the Pacific Northwest. After being chosen to perform in the fall of 2021, she spent the next few months practicing with two teen instrumentalists, Oliver and Marty; because none of them had a studio space at home, they would find time to rehearse after school. In March, they moved their equipment to MoPOP, where Emma performed her pieces live at the organization’s Sound Church.
Wang’s love of fashion found its way into her Sound Off! performance. “I had this fabric laying around,” she said, and turned those scraps into a dress for the showcase. “I wanted it to be super fun for the show, since it was my first serious concert ever.” Made out of reflective silver fabric, her clothing, paired alongside the 80s-themed lighting and Wang’s mature voice, added a new dimension to her performance.
Wang hopes her Sound Off! experience will help her determine whether music will be a long-term pursuit. “As this year goes on, I have the opportunity to meet more people who will tell me if I’m in a place to go on… and fully make this a career,” she said. Especially because the majority of her community doesn’t encourage youth to go into the arts, she wants to ensure that she has what it takes to continue down this path. That being said, “no matter what, I certainly will find myself doing something that incorporates the creative aspects that art has,” she says. “I’m happiest when I’m making something.”
As a Chinese American, “I of course acknowledge and am very proud of my background,” Wang notes, “but I don’t think of it as something that should affect how far I should go in terms of a career.” Although she used to feel that her race would hinder her participation in the arts, she has gradually changed her mindset: “I’ve realized that, in most situations, when I’m in a room, I’m just as qualified as anyone else to be there.” After all, introducing yourself with your artwork can be a powerful way to dispel stereotypes. “Even if people just think of you as Asian, you can show them who you are with your art.”
Her parents, who are first generation immigrants, have also made her feel more comfortable as an Asian American artist. “My whole family has been amazing role models for building yourself in America as Chinese people. They’ve really shown that it’s possible,” she says. “If I’m ever feeling insecure about who I am, I look at what they’re doing now.”
Wang believes that “you should not feel any shame because of your background.” She urges teens to keep finding inspiration from the media around them, discovering the joy in little moments, and making a difference in their communities through their artwork. “It’s really wonderful to hear everyone’s experiences” through art, she says. “Everyone deserves to have their voice heard.”