Dawen Wang Wants to Wake up the World

Singer-songwriter Dawen Wang, a recent transplant from Chicago to L.A., performs within the genre of neo-soul. With a vocal sincerity, his music carries a rich harmony woven by syncopated rhythms. His lyrics, aptly charged with political content, refreshes the face of neo-soul by adding a sense of social urgency.

I found this interview of Dawen Wang by A-List TV, Chicago-based Asian American web magazine. Wang speaks eloquently about his transcultural experiences and thoughts behind writing socially conscious lyrics. The video concludes with a live performance of "Wake Up" from his 2008 EP.

Stay tuned to the release of Dawen Wang's first LP titled Awaken, America this spring.


remix of A Grain of Sand

L.A.-based Hip hop producer Senz of Depth remixed song "War of the Flea" from A Grain of Sand by Yellow Pearl (Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin). This remix features emcee Bambu. Check it out!

<a href="http://music.senzofdepth.com/track/war-of-the-flea-senz-of-depth-remix-feat-bambu">War Of The Flea (Senz of Depth remix feat. Bambu) by Senz of Depth</a>

Senz of Depth posted some commentary about this track on his blog:

"Boy I tell you, they did some mean ass fingerpicking back in the heyday of 1960s/70s folk music! My cramping fingers could attest to that. Well, I now had all these tracks of isolated acoustic guitar just laying around on my computer. It dawned on me that I should put it to more use, so I chopped it up, slapped a beat to it, and added some of Chris’ original vocals. Lucky for me Bambu liked the beat, so he added a couple of verses that really took the song to a new level. Much gratitude and thanks to Nobuko Miyamoto for allowing us to sample the original music."

This track is a part of the mixtape that DJ Phatik is compiling for the premiere of Tad Nakamura's documentary "A Song for Ourselves." This is an exciting moment in the history of Asian American music.


Race and “Air and Simple Gifts” at the Presidential Inauguration

I’m teaching a 400-level seminar called “Music in Asian America” this semester. Last Tuesday, instead of a class meeting, I created an “inauguration assignment.” The objective of the assignment is to ask the students to examine the musical representations at the inauguration ceremony in light of the current media discourse about Obama’s politics with regards to race and ethnicity. The assignment first asks the students to read SF Gate’s “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang’s controversial article: “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” and explore a slew of responses to Yang’s article. Then it asks them to post their analysis to the class blog.

The class did a marvelous job discussing the representational politics of multicuturalism exuded by the classical music performance at the ceremony. Immediately, they noticed the seemingly contrived selection of four minority musicians: Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a U.S.-based Venezuelan national pianist named Gabriela Montero.

Introducing a Puritanesque theme, McGill plays the familiar “Simple Gifts”, 19th century Shaker hymn most notably known for American composer Aaron Copland’s citation in Appalachian Spring. Combined with the “Air”, a popular song form of the 16th and 17th century England, this arrangement by pop classical music composer John Williams presents a continuity of the American ‘folk’ culture from its European/English roots. Most explicit part of the musical message perhaps is couched in the role of “Simple Gifts” in the arrangement. In this section of the performance, the musicians, working in intimacy and collaborating with a performed (lip-synched!) vigor, displayed Obama’s politics of social unity in a literalist and sensational way. Also, the reference to Appalachian Spring is no coincidence. Similar to the effect in Copland’s ballet, the “Gifts” citation symbolizes freedom as promised by living a hardworking and simplistic life. Associated with the American ideology of meritocracy or the American Dream, the themes of freedom and hard work, also are evoked by Obama during his inauguration speech.

In his controversial article, Jeff Yang links Obama’s belief in educational achievement and work ethic to what he calls “Asian values,” the impetus to pull up by the bootstraps as perceived to be adopted by Asian immigrants. One student pointed out in class that Yang’s assumption risks reinforcing the model minority myth. Yang’s thesis is better argued in his NPR interview. In it, Yang claims “race more as a metaphor”, as a transmigratable concept away from biological and cultural essentialism, away from the binary and toward the multiplistic approach. I think he’s onto something here. Obama’s multiracial ethnicity and transcultural/transnational upbringing could embody a more fluid way of conceptualizing race and ethnicity. Yang finds these qualities in the present Asian American communities.

Present-day identity politics is not one-dimensional as once it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. Identity politics could work in such a way to allow room for identification "as" and "with." Many individuals of social groups identify with Obama. And Obama's unity politics seems to allow him to breach various social divides. Yang's article should've been more accurately titled as "Could Obama identify with Asian America?"

I asked my students, “are there any dangers in conceiving of race as a metaphor? Is race really transmigratable?” Histories of oppression associated with race are still around us. We decided that only parts of race can be deconstructed through cultural criticism, although we hope that someday that race as an social institution and ideology will transmigrate completely and sublimate into thin air.


YellowBuzz Is Twittering

I decided to join Twitter because one of my friends invited me. Beside its highly addictive quality, I actually find it a really neat communication tool. Its immediacy and P2P capacity is welcoming for both communicative and creative usage such as a spontaneous guerrilla or street art/action!

Yellowbuzz on Twitter

And I was interviewed by NPR about Twittering inauguration media. Watch out for ultra-geekiness: http://tinyurl.com/7dqbvx



Reflecting on “Asian American” Digital Identity Politics on MLK Day

Everyday, I receive Google Alerts about any websites, blogs, or news feeds containing the keywords “Asian / American / music” in whatever order and combination that Google search engine finds. Most of the Alerts, unsurprisingly, point to stories related to U.S. politics. Interestingly, around the time of the 2008 Presidential Election, my InBox experienced a minor Google Alert “explosion” with news stories and criticisms listing all the color-based social groups, connecting Obama’s racial politics to the now dominant American ideology of multiculturalism. To my disappointment, none of these news stories included anything substantial information with regards to the Asian American (if there is such a thing) perspective on the Obama and Biden duo.

Is “Asian American” coming to stand in for a keyword, tag (in the speak of blogosphere), or a hip buzzword in our current media environment as digitally informed and constructed? Is there “real content” beyond the textual reference of “Asian” and “American”? If so, how do we assess this content considering the methods of information retrieval, i.e. Google Alerts, and the context of presentation, i.e. hypertextual state of Internet media?

Today, my Google Alerts linked me to a couple of exciting pages of content-worthy materials related to Asian American arts and culture. One of these is a New Yorker article titled “By the Skin of Our Teeth” about “The Shipment”, the new play by Young Jean Lee. The reviewer Hilton Als comments on the Lee’s “irreverent take on racial politics.” Commenting on her 2005 play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”, featuring the self-violence of an Asian American female character, Lee declares her attitude toward the state of identity politics in the U.S: “For this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity-politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre, and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity-politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern. . . . It’s become the status quo.”

When I read the passage, I thought to myself, “now, here’s a kernel of wisdom” worth pursuing. What does she mean by “identity-politics show”? What consists of this ‘cliché genre’ of formulaic and assimilationist plays? A good content analyst would seek information about the playwright and this play. Before I jumped into my usual mode of performing a search on Google or Wikipedia search on Young Jean Lee, I slowed down and pondered about the path of information that allowed me to arrive at this intellectually compressed bit of information.

The New Yorker tags this article with the following keywords: “The Shipment”; Young Jean Lee; Korean-Americans; Douglas Scott Streater; Race Relations; Asian-Americans; “Pullman, WA.” Google search engines must have picked up this article because of the tag “Asian-Americans.” But search engines are not able to make a qualitative distinction between this article [or other substantive articles] from the sources that simply use “Asian American” as a stand-in for cultural multiplicity and diversity. Unfortunately, Asian America still exists, in the digital environment, mostly under a pile of diversity-bound laundry lists at best, or pornography and ads for mail-order brides or other forms of race-related sex industry, at worst.

The risk of being pigeonholed, objectified, or exoticized is no news to individuals of Asian descent in the United States. Playwright Young Jean Lee asserts provocative and vehement critiques for the discursive objectification of Asianness in her 2005 play which opens with a monologue by a woman with the name of “Korean-American”:

“Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. . . . Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. . . . I am so mad about all of the racist things against me in this country, which is America. Like the fact that the reason why so many white men date Asian women is that they can get better-looking Asian women than they can get white women because we . . . have lower self-esteem. It’s like going with an inferior brand so that you can afford more luxury features.”

This is intellectually dense, emotionally heavy stuff. But the fact that it’s available in a point-and-click fashion is astounding. Google Alerts prevent information from fossilization. Without Google Alerts, I would find this article somewhere down the line when I do archival search, plowing through databases for historical artifacts. The newness and immediacy of this information would be lost. Also, it would take many more steps to link this article to other articles related to the subject of “Asian / American / music” published today.

The other noteworthy piece Google Alerts linked me to is an interview of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer by RVAjazz blog entitled "Intellect Meets Creativity." Iyer speaks reflexively about his role as an Indian American musician in the Afro-centric tradition of jazz music: “I'm just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone's. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture - it's about who we are and where we are and what time it is!”

The juxtaposition between the New Yorker article on Young Jean Lee's play and Vijay Iyer's interview is intellectually curious. Iyer’s perspective on race in America is less dystopic than Lee's. In fact, his alliance with African American culture and struggle speaks to a larger discourse about race in terms of minoritarian politics, quite contrary to the uncritical multiculturalist orientation. Iyer’s interview could tap into the historical and contemporary moments of Afro-Asian connections formed in anti-racist solidarity.

My research aims to track these moments deliberately and shamelessly, making links and disconnects among them as they occur in real time. Information as such, categorized and recategorized based on similar or dissimilar terms, is generated and circulated at high volume daily on the Internet. Digital technologies allow discourse to flow in disparate, rhizomatic directions. The hypertextual state of Internet media is overwhelming to sort through, but this quality allows information to seep into unexpected cracks and generate surprising juxtapositions. Similar to keywords and tags, identity categories, also reproduce themselves in a semi-irrational, hypertextual fashion in our time. These contradictory patterns as discovered in the digital environment may best represent the schizophrenic style of identity proliferation that would mark our post-"identity-politics" age.


This text will be posted on the University of Virginia Scholars Lab Blog.


A Song for Ourselve - Documentary about Chris Iijima

Exciting news!! On February 28, LA-native Tad Nakamura will premiere the first documentary film - A Song for Ourselves - on Chris Iijim, musician/activist/educator/lawyer who spearheaded the Asian American social movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Iijima passed away in 2006 and left a legacy of "Asian-American" identity-based cultural and social impact. Iijima was a member of the folk music trio Yellow Pearl, along with Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin. The trio released a collection of now historically significant protest songs on the A Grain of Sand LP (Paredon Records) in 1973.

In my class on pop music, I always use thee song "We Are the Children" from the album to demonstrate the "Asian American" pan-ethnic identification and alliance with The Third World. Students are always struck by the line "Leaving the stamp on America." The reason for this, I think, is that many college-aged students are unaware of the historical presence of Asians in the United States. Some simply think that there were no Asians in this country until their parents generation (1980s and later). Not only that, the students are always surprised to learn that Americans of Asian descent identified strongly with the US, contrary to the stereotypical conflation of Asians as transient migrants or immigrants.

This 30-year-old history deserves to be explored, archived, and heard. Nakamura has joined other Asian American scholars and activists behind the cause of raising Asian American cultural awareness by producing this 33-minute documentary on Chris Iijima's musical and social journey. This film is the third installment of Nakamura's trilogy on Asian American movement. I look forward to viewing and screening it to my students and colleagues, particularly to my class on Music in Asian America this spring.

The film contains interviews, photographs, and music related to Iijima and his time. In this interview below, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto explains Iijima's motivation of writing the song "Jonathan Jackson."

The world premiere of the film will also feature the performance of hip hop artists Blue Scholars, Kiwi, and Bambu with original Yellow Pearl members Joanne Miyamoto and Charlie Chin.


"Peace in, 2009" - Shuffled! on Boston Progress Radio

I was invited to contribute to the Shuffled series on Boston Progress Radio this week. Shuffled features an API individual and his or her playlist along with some comments on the songs. I wrote something vaguely festive for the new year.

Here's the song commentary portion of the post. [Read more: Wendy Hsu's Shuffled] Peace in, 2009!

“Swimming Pools” by Thao with The Get Down, Stay Down
I had a hard time selecting a song from Thao Nguyen’s 2008 well-produced, integrated album We Brave Bee Stings and All. I eventually picked “Swimming Pools” for its feminist message embedded. Thao explains that this song advocates for strength and audacity for women living in a male-dominated world. Every time I hear it, I feel like I’m riding full-fledged, chugging along the banjo-playing, bee-sting-braving Thao wagon. Thao’s syncopated vocals will toss you around – look out!

“Rainbow” by Boris with Michio Kurihara
When I first heard this song performed by Japanese sludge metal band Boris with guest guitarist Michio Kurihara, I knew that I could die with contentment knowing that I had witnessed one of the most extraordinary guitar solos of our time. A fuzzy and grainy treat for the New Year!

“Highway Movie” by The Nipples
The second album Sorry by The Nipples, a mid-2000s Taiwanese shoegaze band, has rocked my world for a couple months at time ever since I got it on my trip to Taiwan in 2006. Despite that I could never figure out the significance of the repeated four-line lyric, I treasure the dramatic contours and textures of the song. The song starts big and then implodes into a non-verbal, noisy, delay-washed sonic ecology. It ends with a lingering trace of life. Boldness and dystopia, this song is tour de force.

“Tracing Paths” by Kite Operations
This song by the New-York-based experimental indie quartet is highly addictive. Its circular motion tangles me in a web of stasis where the past collides with the future. This temporal ambivalence pushes and pulls until distance and denial drown out. On my blog, I interpreted the meaning of circularity inflected by this song: “What I enjoy is connection, the grey area, dialecticism, the Middle Way. Feelings of disconnection or the binary, either/or logic often alienate me. If there were one affect that I fall, fight, scream, and contend for, it would be that of connectedness.”

“Rising II” by Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono is my inspiration. Her persevering creation of peace and love through art is astounding. This song always gets me. Ono’s powerful vocalizations radiate like the sun, generously and immensely, riding through the gusts, rising above the rumbling clouds. I imagine that her visceral voice envelopes my acoustic-mental being. It touches you, if you let it.

“Pull Up the People” by M.I.A.
Sometimes I love to EQ up the bass on my stereo and let the lo-fi bass sounds work out my kidneys. M.I.A.’s audacity combined with playfulness will lead us into a momentous era driven by our own anthems and protest tracks. It’s time for change!

Read more: Wendy Hsu's Shuffled

I selected 6 tracks but only 4 of the 6 tracks are listed on the Shuffled playlist. Enjoy.