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On the night of Tad Nakamura's A Song For Ourselves premiere, APA sits down with Charlie Chin, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Kamau Ayubbi to discuss music and the Asian American movement of the 60s.
Interview with Charlie Chin, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Kamau Ayubbi
February 28, 2009
Interviewed by Megan Chun and LiAnn Ishizuka
Intro and transcription by Ada Tseng
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
"It's been my observation that most young people have no idea where old people come from," says Charlie Chin.
He chuckles. As someone who has seen the Asian American movement grow and evolve over several decades, he's happy to share stories about his role as an Asian American activist during the 70s. He's also quick to remind today's youth that they need to continue to be active -- by helping their communities, helping their nation, helping solve the problems of the entire globe.
While Tad Nakamura's film A Song for Ourselves focused on the life of late singer/activist Chris Iijima, fellow musicians Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin were also heavily featured in the documentary. Iijima, Miyamoto, and Chin's folk trio, A Grain of Sand, had been playing together since the late 60s/early 70s. This was during a time when the term "Asian American" was highly political and when many minorities were made to feel that they still needed to apologize for being in America. The three of them would write songs on a guitar, perform to an audiences, and spend time speaking with listeners about the sociopolitical issues that inspired their music.
"I was a singer songwriter [for years], but I have to confess that before I met [Chris and Nobuko], I had never written anything that had to do with my ethnicity or my cultural background," says Chin. "But in dealing with them, I began to see that it was impossible for me in this country to not have to deal with it on some level. No matter how I became as something, people would always see me as Chinese first, and as something else later."
Together, they produced songs such as "We Are the Children," "Divide and Conquer," "Yellow Pearl," "Wandering Chinaman," and "Asian Song." These tracks were originally recorded for their 1973 album A Grain of Sand: Songs from the Birth of Asian America, and some are featured or remixed on the A Song for Ourselves Mixtape.
"In a way, we were riding the crest of the [Asian American] movement itself," says Miyamoto. "Because [Asian Americans] didn't have anything else at that time, we were a voice for that movement, by default."
However, they realized very early on that they needed to band with other communities in order to be effective. As Nobuko points out, many of their songs are not about Asian American subjects at all. It was important to them to cross borders and create unity amongst diverse groups of Americans.
They also wrote about topics such as the African American experience ("Jonathan Jackson") and Native American prophecies ("Warriors of the Rainbow").
Both Chin and Miyamoto remain very involved with the community. Charlie Chin continues to write songs that deal with the history of this country. He also continues to work in theater, and he will be performing in an upcoming History Alive! performance of "Uncle Toisan" in San Francisco on April 19th, 2009. Miyamoto is the founder and artistic director of a multicultural arts organization called Great Leap!, that has been going on for thirty years. While it began as a forum for Asian Americans to tell their stories, the organization has become more diverse over the years, welcoming stories from all people and adapting to address social issues that are most relevant for the times.
As Nobuko and Charlie sit down to chat with Asia Pacific Arts, they are joined by Kamau Ayubbi, Nobuko's son who will later join them onstage during the Song for Ourselves premiere concert.
Charlie Chin: I met Nobuko [Miyamoto] and Chris [Iijima] in 1970. And I had been working commercially as a musician since 1962...And I heard there was going to be a confernece at a local college, Pace College. It was an Asian American conference, and that's where I first met several people, including Nobuko and Chris.
Due to a strange twist of fate, we were supposed to go last and second-to-last, but [the conference] ran late, and we ran out of time. So I said, well you guys go ahead. I'm just interested in learning what's going on here. And [Nobuko] said, "No, no, come up with us. We'll do it together." So the first time I heard Nobuko and Chris was the first time I played with them.
Nobuko Miyamoto: I was engaged in some meetings from a group called Asian Americans for Action that Chris Iijima was part of, and we were planning this protest to the Japanese American Citizen's League in Chicago... We were planning to do a program to show how we felt about the Vietnam War. So there were ging to be films, and Chris and I were talking, and I didn't know he was a musician, and he just brought out his guitar and started playing.
That night, we wrote a song, and we thought "That's pretty good. Let's sing it tomorrow." So in front of all these elders, we sang the song, and it was: Wow. Wow for us, wow, for them. Here we were: Asian Americans singing about us, how we felt. I had performed on a stage before many times. I had performed on Broadway, in night clubs, but I had never performed in front of my own people. And that moment was the moment that I realized the power of music.
Charlie: The music was supposed to be a vehicle. It was the boat to get across the river. What was the river? Getting people's interest, getting their attention, having them together in one place. Many times, we would have the concerts, so we could speak to people after the concert. We could say - let's discuss some of the things that we sang about. We would spend 3-4 hours talking to students -- what do you think?
Charlie: One thing that's often overlooked is -- The use of the title Asian American had distinctly political overtone when it was first used. It implied that you believed in certain values and certain politics. And to use that title and to accept that title impled the politics. Today it means you're a person of Asian descent who was born and raised in America. But it had immense resonance at the time because it meant stepping forward and stepping up, and saying: It's not just being Asian American. It's being on the side of what's right in a situation that was wrong.
Nobuko: I think this is a time where we have to go beyond ethnic divisions. We have to know who we are and to use our cultural roots and feel grounded in that. But at the same time, the home planet is in peril, and for us to keep looking at ourselves and say "We're Asian, and we're fine, and we're moving up in the world" is a crazy idea... [We have to] understand how we're connected with other people, how we can use our talent and skills to really invent right now.
We need our young people, our creative thinkers who experiment with their life. The important thing about 60-70s, people really let go of their preconceived ideas of what life is supposed to be -- really kicked off their shoes and said, "Let's find a way because this way isnt' working." And I don't see that young people right now quite have the space to do this. But it's going to have to happen...
Charlie: You have to begin at home, and check out what priorities are. Now, I have nothing against whales, but I think someone should watch out for them. But I've got other priorities. So it's up to each individual to decide. As you go out to wider and wider circles, what is your priority? Is it to get yourself tattooed and pierced and branded? Or is it to investigate, who really are you? What are your cultural roots? My argument would be that you have to first start inside, find out who you are... and then priorities will be made clear to you, as you sort things out. And that's where your time and energy should be devoted.
Kamau Ayubbi (Nobuko's son): I just think it's really interesting to listen to my elders. I feel in awe to listen to the history of my mother's journey, and looking at myself as deeply rooted in what they're talking about. Because for me, being half Japanese American and half African American and even having some European roots, but growing up not fully embraced by the Asian community nor fully embraced by the African American community... the question become "Where do I belong?" "Who am I?" I'm privileged to hear the history, to be able to listen to A Grain of Sand and deeply identify with what they're saying -- whether it be a part of my Asian history or "Warriors of the Rainbow." I identify with that. And now, as I embrace Islam, it's part of a world community.
Charlie: A song, like a book or a painting, last because it still has relevance. It still means something. People a year, five years, a hundred years later, still get something from it. It's still important. Something was touched that's universal. Good art is something specific that reveals the universal.
Nobuko: It's interesting because in these mixtapes that the young artist have been doing, actually taking music from the 60s, they used our music. It brings it into the present moment, where a lot of young people wouldn't get exposed to. Music like that really came out of the black movement and this black consciousness. If you grew up in the 60s or 70s, and you heard a Stevie Wonder song, you know where that song had meaning for your life. You could sit in a Stevie Wonder concert and go through your whole life... We realized that Asian Americans didn't have that. That touches me that... "We Are the Children" wasn't our favorite song at all. But that it has moved on to have a meaning for young people, it sort of gets me.
Date Posted: 3/20/2009