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Steve Aoki on how his Asian-American identity shaped his career in music

Steve Aoki's new documentary
Steve Aoki's new documentary 03:06

The new Netflix documentary “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” mostly focuses on electronic music superstar Steve Aoki’s day-to-day life and his complicated relationship with his father, Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, but one of the film’s most powerful narratives is on the DJ’s identity as an Asian-American. 

Steve Aoki spoke with CBS News about the documentary and why it’s important to him to speak out about issues facing the Asian-American community.

In one scene in the film, Aoki recalls being bullied and laughed at in school for being Asian-American. He revisited the anecdote and told CBS News, “The first thing my mom did was apologize to the other mom because that’s her style.

“‘We don’t want to cause any problems’ and I’m like, ‘I got into a fight with him because he was throwing s**t at me and calling me names,’ and my mom was like, ‘No, we have to apologize. I don’t want to be ostracized in this community because they won’t support us.’” 

Aoki explained that this experience and others like it shaped his foray into the music industry. Though he’s known for his EDM career, Aoki actually got his start in the punk music scene with his record label, Dim Mak, that he started when he was 19, signing bands like Pretty Girls Make Graves and The Kills. 

“When I went to college and I started understanding my identity, there was this inherent rebellion that was creeping up,” he said. “It made sense that I got into punk and hardcore, that I wanted to voice this angst and anger about something I couldn’t really discuss with my peers.” Aoki studied sociology and women’s studies in college and says he considered pursuing a Ph.D. in Asian-American studies. 

Aoki said he hopes Asian-Americans will speak out more as other minority communities have done. 

“When I was taking Asian-American classes in college, that was actually a conversation -- a constant conversation,” he said. “Over the course of history, Asian-Americans don’t really voice their opinions more so than the Latinos and African-Americans. It’s something that takes more reinforcement and more of a voice to help build courage and strength and be able to speak up.” 

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