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Alex Porat on how anti-Asian hate in the pandemic changed her priorities in pop music

Porat considering how to use her platform for more than just clicks
Singer Alex Porat is photographed in Toronto on Friday, October 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Somewhere in the haze of the COVID-19 pandemic Alex Porat started thinking differently about her Asian identity.

For most of her youth, the 23-year-old Canadian pop singer lived what she calls a “Hannah Montana double-life,” holding her mixed ancestry close to her chest with friends. Kids could be cruel, sometimes calling her racial epithets or dealing backhanded compliments about how she seemed “so white.”

And so she would downplay her Chinese mother’s background and lean into her dad’s Polish side, believing that blending in as best she could might spare further slights.

Hardly anyone knew about her family, her love of Japanese anime or how she enrolled in a New York K-pop training school as a teenager.

“The person I was at home was just left at home,” she said in an interview at a Toronto rehearsal studio as she prepared for an upcoming Canadian tour.

“It’s a different sort of privilege to not be identifiable.”

Years have passed since then, but Porat still thinks deeply about how efforts to stay invisible in her adolescence shaped the singer-songwriter she wants to be today.

After building a YouTube following with bedroom covers of pop hits, which helped attract more than one million subscribers, Porat is considering how to use her platform for more than just clicks.

Over the course of the pandemic, as an explosion in anti-Asian hate crimes spread across North America, she was left feeling vulnerable and worried for her family’s safety.

“It got scary when you realized that it could happen to your mom,” she said.

“I think I was paranoid but how could you not be?”

Left with her own thoughts, Porat gave up doom-scrolling the bad news on social media and began writing her feelings into song.

Those emotions are at the heart of “Miss Sick World,” a sombre pop track about rejecting the pressures of assimilation — the same ones that once eroded her own confidence. Over the summer, Porat headed to the recording studio to lay down the track, which became a late addition as well as the title of her new album, released last month.

The song’s lyrics will likely speak to young people who’ve kept parts of themselves hidden to appease others. But for Porat they’re a reminder of the value she’s found in embracing all shades of herself.

In Canada’s fickle pop music scene, she’s still trying to determine her place. Few other Asian-Canadian pop singers have found mainstream success, especially women.

“I know who I am, but I still don’t know necessarily where I fit,” she said.

“There are definitely some days where I’m like, ‘Damn, this is not going be an easy road.’”

But Porat is used to facing unpredictable turns and rejection.

As a child, she spent years auditioning for Canadian TV commercials without landing a single gig, she said.

Eventually, she was accepted into a New York K-pop training school for performers who wanted to sharpen their skills before auditioning for the big South Korean entertainment companies. The experience was life changing, she said.

“This was the first time I felt like the industry would not reject me,” she said. “I was like, this is my space, I can learn and grow here.”

The K-pop classes were intense and relentless, Porat recalled. For six months, she lived under a strict regimen that determined when she ate, slept and performed.

Students traded in Pop-Tarts as prisoners do cigarettes. She was often the ringleader who snuck away to a nearby snack bar and collected breakfast pastries to satisfy the group’s cravings.

“I had a suitcase full of Pop-Tarts,” she said. “It was like a currency.”

Returning to Canada, Porat was at a loss once again. She dabbled in business school, briefly took a job at a law firm, and eventually decided she couldn’t do without making music.

In 2019, she appeared on CTV’s singing competition “The Launch” in hopes of winning over the judges, who included Sarah McLachlan. She didn’t, but her voice captured the imagination of Toronto music manager Laurie Lee Boutet, who helped Porat build a support system of women and people of colour to help “uphold the vision,” as Porat describes it.

After two years releasing various singles and an EP of covers, Porat’s more polished “Miss Sick World” album hit the internet.

The other eight tracks offer a fizzier pop perspective on the state of her world. Songs about boy troubles and breakups (“Bubblegum” and “Happy for You” being two standouts) sit alongside a good-hearted rebound anthem (“Only Hanging Out Cause I’m Lonely”) and a more fanciful projection of love (“Dimension”).

Some of those songs have already connected with listeners on streaming services, which leaves Porat optimistic that she’s moving in the right direction as she looks to boost visibility for Asian creators and open doors for future generations.

“Sometimes it does feel like the burden rests on us to make that space available,” she said.

“But there’s always room is what I’m learning.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.