AAPI's Are Dying at EDM Festivals

After a two-day run on the fairgrounds of the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana last weekend, three young Asian Americans died from complications after attending the Hard Summer Music Festival. It was the same festival, where last year two young women—one of whom was also Asian American—died from drug overdoses.

The cause of death for this year’s Hard Summer deaths—Alyssa Dominguez, 21, of San Diego, Derek Lee,  22, of San Francisco, and Roxanne Ngo, 22, of Chino Hills—will take months to determine. However, it is of note that prior to last weekend, there were at least 25 confirmed drug-related deaths at Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festivals promoted by Los Angeles-based companies since 2006, and ten of those deaths were young Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). With this year’s three fatalities added to this somber roster, AAPI’s will make up nearly half—46 percent—of the rave deaths.

As an Asian American and Pacific Islander community organizer working in substance use prevention in communities of color, I know this is not a coincidence.

As the public discourse revisits debates over who is to blame for the deaths of young people at EDM festivals, I am reminded of the invisibility of substance use within the AAPI community—the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S.

API youth and their racialized experience as the “Model Minority” or “Other,” coupled with the lack of comprehensive policy and best cultural practices to promote education, awareness, and harm reduction methods, has led to the death of these young AAPI’s at these concerts.

“Oftentimes, consideration of consequences is dismissed because the young AAPI population thinks they’re in control of the situation, but may not have accurate information, knowledge or understanding of how alcohol or other drugs can affect them,” explains Jeanne Shimatsu, Prevention Education Coordinator at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program.

“Ongoing communication between parents and children and education is crucial,” she adds. “Help them know the real information about alcohol and other drugs and themselves, so they can make a more informed decision.”

Substance use was a topic seldom discussed in my strict Filipino American household. Whenever it was brought up, my parents just told me not to do them. End of story. My parents’ Nancy Reagan approach to drugs did little to stop me from doing them later in life. If anything, it pushed me towards using because I associated not using to being Asian.

Growing up, I was often made fun of for being “too Asian.” Naturally, when I grew into my teens and my personal identity began to form, I correlated using drugs with being unique and separate from other Asian kids. Using drugs made me feel that I had social capital, something many young AAPI’s don’t feel they have. In 2011, I moved from the Bay Area to UC Riverside for college. As an 18 year old, the abrupt shift from strict parental surveillance to the freedom of living on my own allowed me the opportunity to go to as many parties and large events as I wanted.

It would take almost four years and a near-death experience at a New Year’s Eve rave before I realized I was spinning out of control.

Only through my work in substance prevention education did I come to the realization that my AAPI experience is connected to why I chose to use.

AAPI youth in college today feel the pressure to meet the education and career expectations created by the well-known “Model Minority” myth, the one where scholastic aptitude and financial upward mobility should be at the center of our Asian American and Pacific Islander identity. But the stress that many AAPI youth feel to meet these expectations and the detriment to their mental health (not to mention the stigma around mental health issues among many AAPI families) is a risk factor for substance use.

Last year’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration brief on Asian American/ Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander Boys and Men referred to their subjects as “a diverse population that is often overlooked, underserved, and not well understood.”

And a 2008 study (in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse) on young AAPI drug consumption in dance/rave culture admits there is little research for this demographic. Epidemiological studies lack “sufficient numbers of cases” for AAPIs and some omit any mention of AAPIs altogether. The primary reasoning behind the absence of AAPIs in drug scholarship, according to the study, has been “the belief that drug use among Asian Americans is not a problem.”

But 46 percent of the rave deaths being young Asian American and Pacific Islanders is a problem.

Promoters have taken the brunt of the blame. After several deaths at EDM festivals ended the shows in Los Angeles County, the party moved east to Las Vegas and San Bernardino County, where the towns were more than happy to welcome the revenue—after all, there were 147,000 concertgoers at this year’s Hard Summer. The family of a 19-year-old who died after last year’s Hard Summer is suing the promoter, the county, the county fair association, the city of Pomona, and the security guards “in order to capitalize on teenagers and young adults who believed they were attending a safe party environment.”

Hard Summer founder Gary Richards wants to implement the advocacy group DanceSafe’s harm reduction strategies, such as better access to medical services and onsite drug testing as a better approach in addressing drug use. But the 2003 Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, which makes promoters liable for holding events with known drug use, is a barrier to providing those services.

To be sure, though harm reduction techniques could save lives from dangerous drug use, these recent deaths make it imperative to identify why AAPI youth decide to obtain and use drugs. When we can better understand the culturally specific risk factors—racism, acculturation stress, language barriers, gender and generation roles, poverty, to name a few —that lead our youth to substance use, we can then begin to strategize more thoughtful approaches in drug prevention for Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, families and communities.

This need for community-based research on AAPI substance use and prevention education is vital for community organizers and grassroots efforts to advocate for comprehensive culturally relevant policy if we hope to prevent more deadly overdoses. 

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