I was introduced to electronic dance music (EDM) in my freshman year by my high school swimming teammates. At that time, I was mostly sheltered in a bubble of academics in my upper middle class Asian home and laughably unknowledgeable about popular culture. During conversations with my peers about movies, TV shows, and music, I would awkwardly sit to the side and feel very lost. As a result, when the fastest (and, in my eyes, the coolest) swimmers on the team took me under their wings and sent me the links to their SoundCloud playlists full of EDM tracks, I was instantly hooked. I would eagerly hang on to their every word as they talked about the newest releases, the most popular DJs, and their wild experiences at music festivals.
Other music genres that older teammates introduced me to, like rap and hip hop, didn’t resonate with me as much, so I always thought that my appreciation for EDM was very personal. High-tempo rhythms motivated me through challenging workouts, hypnotic beats provided a soothing backdrop to daily life, and uplifting lyrics raised my spirits whenever I was feeling down. However, once I entered college, I quickly realized I fell right into the typical demographic of EDM listeners. When asked about my favorite type of music during fraternity rush events, my response would frequently elicit the reaction “Oh, so you’re a rave Asian?” I had never heard the term used before, but they were referring to the large crowds of Asians who attend EDM festivals across the US. Initially I didn’t think the archetype was as ubiquitous as those fraternity brothers made it seem. However, last spring when I travelled to Miami, Florida to participate in Ultra Music Festival, an annual event featuring over 170,000 attendees, I looked around me, saw a sea of Asian faces, and began thinking that perhaps the reasons I was drawn to electronic dance music could be attributed to something more fundamental than the recommendations of a few high school teammates.
There has been a solid amount of recent scholarly discussion surrounding modern Asian American identities and how raves factor into their development. Although they don’t use the term “rave Asian,” Judy Soojin Park, a social studies researcher at Harvard University, and Diamond Yao, a columnist for a magazine focused around western Asian identities, use interviews with Asian American attendees of EDM festivals to explore the motivations that drive members of this cultural subgroup towards electronic dance music and the festival culture that surrounds it. Park and Montreal dance culture writer Mireille Silcott agree that the genres of electronic dance music and house music can be traced to the 1980s, when they first arose in gay black clubs in Chicago (Silcott 22). These raves originally took place in secret locations in fear of being broken up by law enforcement and were “safe spaces” where historically marginalized groups could find comfort and community while having fun. Park notes that the music then spread to the UK, where it similarly served as an escape from the cultural repression of the late 1980s Thatcher era, and continued onward to the western US, where it thrived on the legacy of the American counterculture (Park 17). Since then, the appeal of the music has slowly spread from its original consumers to the predominantly middle-class white youth that makes up its current audience. However, even though the gay black community is no longer at the center of EDM, the spirit of inclusiveness and escaping repression remain. PLUR, an acronym standing for Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect, is a central ideology of the modern rave scene, born out of the ideas of the earlier hippie and peace movements in the United States in the 60s and 70s.
A large reason that so many Asians flock to EDM festivals seems to be because of this accepting ethos that underlies both the history and the culture of the genre. Traditionally, Asians have been portrayed as cookie-cutter foreigners in American culture, a model minority that appears to adhere to the rules with an obedience that is almost impossible for Americans to understand. In an interview with Plan A Magazine, a website centered on Asian culture in the West, Daniel, a Vietnamese Ivy League freshman, shared his experience that “people thought all the Asians were very sheltered and studying all the time,” and by going to raves with his friends, it allowed him to “defy the societal box that Asians are put in” (Yao 2). Through attending these concerts, Daniel and his Asian friends felt they were able to shake off their stereotypes and gain a form of acceptance into popular culture. Additionally, in my own experience, my background as an Asian math major at MIT often results in a flurry of jokes, with one friend describing my old Facebook profile picture as “someone who looks like they did everything right in high school.” However, in all of the raves I have attended, most people I meet just want everyone to have a positive experience without any consideration for your race, your GPA, or where you stand in the social hierarchy. Rather than feeling ridiculed for fitting a “model minority” stereotype that depicts Asians as robotic and unemotional overachievers with no social skills, rave Asians are empowered by a group that doesn’t discriminate by background but rather appreciates and loves the entire community around them.
The slang commonly used among Asian festival-goers further perpetuates this idea of unconditional acceptance. Groups who attend festivals together are known as “rave families” (Park 23). According to one of Park’s interviewees, “rave moms/dads” are the people who introduced someone to the EDM scene, but in my friend group, we use the term to refer to friends who take care of the group during concerts and make sure the members of the group using psychedelic drugs such as MDMA have a positive and safe experience. This notion of a supportive and caring family contrasts with the strict and demanding parenting culture typical of many middle- and upper-class Asian households. While Park argues that this jargon over-idealizes the uniting power of EDM festivals, I believe that many Asian youth like myself are drawn to the genre of EDM and the surrounding festival scene because it provides them with an alternative family structure that can truly fill in the gaps of support from their actual families.
Like the parents of most Asian American youth I have met, both my mother and father immigrated to the United States from Asia with pennies in their pockets to pursue scarce academic opportunities with hopes of more lucrative employment prospects in the US. Growing up relatively poor in a Chinese education system where very few students were able to attend college, they naturally viewed higher education, only obtainable through sheer grit and work ethic, as the only way to “get out” of their situation. From my experience and those in the Asian community in my suburban Chicago neighborhood, as this generation of highly educated and hard-working Asian immigrants started having children, they imposed the values that had helped them succeed onto their offspring. While the mainstream American style of child-rearing is more focused on raising a happy child, Asian parents are more concerned with a successful one, as defined by academic excellence, prestigious careers, and extracurricular achievement. Although my parents were fairly “Westernized” by the time they raised me, my academic and athletic success were always extremely important to them and I certainly felt a level of pressure to accept the same priorities as they demanded. Among my peers in high school, the Asians tended to be a bit more competitive when it came to academics and college applications. On the other hand, the Asians I met at music festivals were always eager to help me enjoy my experience, whether it was offering a drink of their water or including my group in their dance circle. Rave families offer unconditional acceptance without requiring its members to “earn it,” something that is rarely found in the traditional Asian family.
However, as I met more people in the rave scene, I started to realize the reasons that kept fans coming back to festivals like Ultra year after year wasn’t just simply an appreciation for the music and the social bonding. They were experiencing a deeper, spiritual takeaway that came with attending a rave in person. On the last day of Ultra last year, my friend group decided to meet up with a mutual friend and the rest of his group. When I walked into the high-rise apartment, I was surprised to find that I was the youngest person there by quite a margin. As I spoke to fellow ravers that were five to ten years older than me, many of them echoed the feeling that their lives had changed in a substantial way as a result of their rave experiences. After Ultra last year, which was the first EDM festival that my friends and I attended, one of my companions declared that he had achieved an “internal calm” and a rediscovered “sense of purpose towards school, brotherhood, and career.” Long after the Miami tan faded from his skin and the video recordings on his phone became more vivid than his memories of the festival, he still carried himself with a different set of priorities and a resolve to enjoy life in the present rather than constantly worry about the future. Although the massive stages, thumping beats, and flashing lights are far from the quiet, reflective scenes of a chapel, ravers interviewed by Scott Hutson, a University of Kentucky anthropologist who published a paper in 2000 on the spiritual effects of raves and EDM music, claimed that they “felt closer to God [on the dance floor] than the church with all its doctrines could ever bring me” (Hutson 38).
Most Asians in my community (including me), are agnostic, and the setting of an EDM festival presents a unique opportunity for us to discover a spiritual side of ourselves that many of us have never considered before. DJs act as “technoshamans,” defined by London dance club owner Fraser Clark as “harmonic navigators” who use “the tapestry of music to take charge of the mood of a crowd with one finger on the pulse of the adventure and the other on the turntables,” while ravers dance en masse, their intense focus on sensation and experience allowing many of them to see themselves and their place in the world in a completely new light (Hutson 37). When I am in a crowd of tens of thousands of ravers, all of whom are moving with the same beat, dancing with the same moves, and singing out the same notes, I feel extremely connected to the people around me. Their energy and ecstasy are contagious, and I find myself fading into the collective consciousness of the crowd. In moments like this, when I see so many people from vastly different walks of life united by their common love for the EDM festival experience, I can’t help but feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself. Without a more traditional religious upbringing, it seems to me that many agnostic Asians are repeatedly drawn to the rave scene because it becomes a place where they can feel this deep spiritual feeling of human interconnectedness.
I would be remiss to discuss the causes and effects of this spiritual journey without mentioning the role that psychedelics, mainly MDMA (ecstasy), play in the rave scene. Boston University professor and ethnomusicologist Andrew Shenton suggests that these drugs play “a critical factor in understanding some of the aims of this music and some of the psychology of composition” (Shenton 238). After analyzing the audio content of EDM live sets side by side with the psychological effects of ecstasy, he concluded that the music, as it is played at live festivals, is meant to mirror the ebb and flow of the drug’s effect on the audience. Ecstasy causes the raver to become more engrossed in the music, capable of detecting subtleties in the pattern of sound that would escape the average listener, a process referred to by Shenton as “reduced listening” (Shenton 239). Furthermore, according to Simon Reynolds, a published author and journalist on the history and culture of raves, ecstasy catalyzes an atmosphere of “collective intimacy, an electric sense of connection between complete strangers,” which plays in perfectly with the ethos of PLUR that defines the festival mantra as well as the desired feelings of belonging (Shenton 235-236). My friends who have taken ecstasy have enthused about the positive effects of the drug, saying they were completely and utterly in the moment, entranced by how beautiful the lights are, how beautiful the world is. The connection I have felt to the people around me is amplified hundred-fold for those under the spell of MDMA. A companion described his experience with the drug as “feeling the love around you and letting the DJ guide you on a journey through their music without a single worry in the world.” In my experience, ecstasy (the feeling, not the drug) is an extremely individualized phenomenon that is more of an internal process than an external experience, and the emotions brought on by the drug help to reach the mental state and encourage the deep thought required to feel true ecstasy. The rave can be an incredibly profound spiritual experience, one that would almost certainly not be possible without the assistance of MDMA. However, what is it about this drug and the festival scene that surrounds it that especially attractive to Asians?
Based on conversations with friends who have taken ecstasy at concerts and festivals, I think this phenomenon is a product of the combination of relatively low health risks, high potential reward, and support of the surrounding community. Raves entice us with an opportunity to do something illegal and exciting but in a rather controlled environment where fellow ravers and event staff prioritize safety above law enforcement. When my friends knew that I would be sober and constantly keeping an eye on them, they could relax and immerse themselves more deeply in the psychedelic experience. While this appeal exists for everyone, for Asian youth, according to Yao’s interviewee, “there is undeniably a certain solidarity that comes from flouting the stifling rules together” in an effort to break out of the “rigidly traditional conservative cultures of their ancestral homelands” (Yao 15). Carefully treading the line between order and chaos, ravers using the drug in the context of a festival experience an extremely valuable learning opportunity in self-development.
This brings me back to my original inquiry: what were the deep roots of my love for EDM? I have always harbored a love for learning and academics, passions which alienated me from other children in my youth. As a high school swimmer, my interest in EDM certainly gave me a newfound sense of community and acceptance, one that continues to grow in college as I attend festivals with my rave family while I slowly become more independent from my real family. The feeling of interconnectedness I experience at raves has made me a more spiritual and compassionate person and I appreciate that my musical tastes gives me a more multi-dimensional personality as someone who works hard but can also have fun. At the same time, I still enjoy EDM for what it is: something that makes everyday life just a little bit more enjoyable. I will continue to proudly be a rave Asian, attend festivals, and enjoy music that makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.
Hutson, Scott R. “Technoshamanism: Spiritual Healing in the Rave Subculture.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 23, no. 3, 1999, pp. 53–77., doi:10.1080/03007769908591745.
Nutt, David J, et al. “Drug Harms in the UK: a Multicriteria Decision Analysis.” The Lancet, vol. 376, no. 9752, 10 Nov. 2010, pp. 1558–1565., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(10)61462-6.
Park, Judy. “Searching for a Cultural Home: Asian American Youth in the EDM Festival Scene.” Dancecult, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 15–34., doi:10.12801/1947-5403.2015.07.01.01.
Shenton, Andrew. “Negotiating Ecstasy: Electronic Dance Music and the Temporary Autonomous Zone.” Thresholds of Listening: Sound, Technics, Space, by Sander van Maas, Fordham University Press, 2015, pp. 226–244.
Silcott, Mireille. Rave America: New School Dancescapes. ECW Press, 1999.
Yao, Diamond. “Raving Asians Make the Bass Drop: The New Rave Culture.” Plan A Mag, Plan A Mag, 3 Mar. 2020, planamag.com/raving-asians-make-the-bass-drop-the-new-rave-culture/.
 This is not to say that MDMA does not carry a lot of risks, including dehydration, involuntary jaw clenching, lack of appetite, mild detachment from oneself (depersonalization), illogical or disorganized thoughts, restless legs, nausea, hot flashes or chills, headache, sweating, and muscle or joint stiffness. “Low risks” was stated in comparison to more common recreational drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco. (Nutt 1558) If interested, this is an interesting study to read: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)61462-6/fulltext.