Hitting a High Note

She had already competed as the youngest contestant on vocal reality TV show Chinese Idol before competing on Dancing with the Stars of China and China’s version of The Amazing Race, Exploration of the World.

Now Emily Li ’18 is continuing to hit high notes as a first-year student at Yale University, where she recently received a $500 grant aimed at encouraging art and multi-media explorations of Asian American identity. She and classmate Caroline Ho, a pianist-songwriter Li met in a fall music class, plan to write and record an EP of original songs focusing on Chinese immigrant stories and experiences, with at least one song in a mix of Chinese and English.

“In writing music about these stories,” they say, “we aim to raise awareness of the experiences of Asian immigrants, while celebrating their determination, struggle and culture.”

The pair recently released two new songs, “You Said Please” and “Follow Your Lead,” and plan to continue exploring Asian American identity through music as part of their project.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Li was just nine years old when she began singing. A native of the Princeton area, she loved singing tunes from shows like Wicked and from female singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson and Sarah Bareilles. Taking note, her parents signed her up for a half-hour vocal lesson at her weekend Chinese-language school. Thirty minutes turned into almost two hours, and Li’s love for singing was cemented.

Like many first-generation Chinese Americans, says Li, she and her sisters, who are also Lawrenceville alumnae, would return to China every summer to spend time with relatives, immersing themselves in their family’s language and culture. The summer before her eighth grade year, Emily competed in a singing competition at the Beijing Olympic facility known as the Water Cube.

“It was a very little competition but I noticed that while I was in competition I was improving so much because I had a goal,” she says. “My performance skills improved, I was more disciplined.”

Her vocal teacher in China suggested she look into other competitions, and that’s when the Chinese Idol opportunity arose. It required Li to hit the pause button on her Lawrenceville education – right after her II Form year.

“I remember that summer I reached out to Dean Eldridge and my plan was to take a trimester off,” she says. But after signing a contract with a Chinese TV company to participate in other shows like Dancing with the Stars and Exploration of the World, Li decided to take a full gap year to pursue these unique opportunities.

“I grew a lot and learned a lot about my own aspirations and goals in regard to music,” she says. “I saw the bad and good and decided I wasn’t going to do music as a career. It was hard for someone so young to be in the public eye.”

Returning to Lawrenceville for her Third Form year, Li says she savored the stability and routine of the school schedule. She dove into musical activities, participating in fall musicals each year, the Lawrentians, the Larries, Winterfest and Spring Dance Concert.

When it was time to look at colleges she debating attending a music conservatory, but ultimately decided to go for the traditional university experience at Yale. Her first semester there has sparked thoughts about Asian American representation in the arts and popular culture, and how Li herself might make a mark in that space.

“Ever since I was young I never considered doing music in America, I was always focused on China,” she says. “Part of the reason I focused on China was fear and insecurity because there is not one singer-songwriter in the (American) pop music industry today who is Asian. As a kid, if you don’t see someone who looks like you and someone you can look up to, you don’t feel like you can be a part of it.”

After participating in a protest concert at Yale, Li says she became more aware about inclusive representation in the arts.

“We are acting to be these people – why does race or gender have to do with these feelings,” she says. “You go on stage and try to get the audience to feel something – different genders and races feel the same things.”

Li says she realized that she shouldn’t let fear hold her back from performing and pursuing singing.

“If all of us choose to be afraid and not work toward that goal, it’s never going to get better for the next generation of Asian American kids who want to see themselves [represented],” she says. “It was a big moment where I was like ‘hey, this is something where I can at least try to change.’”

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