Dancing Between the Notes: Music and Asian American Panethnicity

By Gary Phillips Jun 10, 1998

Asian American music turns 25 this year.

Two recently released CDs, a reissue of the 1973 folk classic by the group A Grain of Sand and the 1998 experiments by hip hop musician Jamez, reveal deep links between political identity and musical expression. These works express much about what it has meant and now means to be Asian American.

A scant 50 years ago, Chinese Americans wore “I’m Not Japanese” buttons to distinguish themselves during wartime. Yet the children of that war-time generation grew up to link hands and identities in solidarity as Asian Americans. Influenced by the Black Power movement, various Asian ethnicities rallied together to oppose domestic oppression and the Vietnam War.

Birth of Asian American Music

In 1973, A Grain of Sand, the folk trio of Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto and William “Charlie” Chin, released the first Asian American album, a self-titled LP subtitled, “Music for the Struggle of Asians in America.” While Asian American participation in popular music stretches back to the 1800s, “A Grain of Sand” was the first record to employ the term “Asian American” to refer to its artists and audience. The cultural work of such groups as A Grain of Sand had an important impact on the nascent Asian American identity and its link to radical politics.

Because folk music represented communal ideals and grassroots ideologies, the genre was an obvious choice for Asian American activists. For Miyamoto, the music empowered the group to reach a wide range of people. “We really saw that this was like being a musical ambassador,” she said. “There were things we could do and say, ideas we could spread in a very passionate and heartfelt way to people of like mind.”

Miyamoto, Chin and Iijima did more than string some guitar chords together and sing about global imperialism — their album shows a dedication to making form as powerful as content. As a result, the album succeeds artistically, avoiding reduction to rote revolutionary rhetoric, devoid of feeling or pleasure.

Manifesto for Change
But it was more than just a musical album — it was a proclamation for change. The group wrote extensive liner notes to serve as a manifesto on the bridging of art and politics, form and function. A Grain of Sand mapped a new political and cultural identity for Asian America, claiming, “Music has the power to touch; at the same time it can move people collectively while striking some emotion deep within an individual. The struggle must recognize that power and utilize it!” Music was more than a vessel for entertainment, it was also a vehicle for education.

Twenty-five years later, the trio’s popularity is resurgent. Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto and William “Charlie” Chin are performing again after more than 20 years, and their 1973 album debuted on CD in March. The re-release also features CD-ROM interviews and photo stills, making the album a valuable multimedia archive.

A Grain of Sand’s mix of progressive politics with popular music has remained a vital part of Asian American musical development, including artists as diverse as fusion group Hiroshima, jazz artist Jon Jang, and the hip hop crew Mountain Brothers. Their legacy has been to push music as a legitimate space to debate politics, challenge the status quo, and envision new futures.

Politics Follows Art
But their era has passed, a fact especially evident on “We Are the Children,” where they paint an outdated picture of the community: “We are the children of the migrant worker/ We are the offspring of the concentration camp/ Sons and daughters of the railroad builder/ Who will leave their stamp on Amerika.” While these lyrics described the heritage of many Filipino, Japanese and Chinese Americans in the 1970s, a very different set of circumstances exist in the 1990s.

Demographic and social change have altered the meaning of Asian American panethnicity. A majority of Asians in America are now foreign-born. Many were not even in the U.S. during the protest era. Neither they, nor their children, share a direct link to the Asian American movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and their cultural, ethnic, class, and political differences have complicated panethnic solidarities. If Asian America was once united on the basis of shared perspectives, there are now a jumble of distinct pieces tenuously held together.

Born the same year A Grain of Sand debuted, the second-generation Korean American Jamez (James Chang) was raised in the pervasive sonic space of hip hop. Unlike the “children” of A Grain of Sand’s era, Jamez and his peers are more likely to be children of the international executive, the political refugee, or the ethnic entrepreneur. Where A Grain of Sand’s art followed politics, Jamez’s songs envision an Asian America where politics follow art. Rather than establish a singular identity for Asian American-ness, Jamez pushes to expand that notion into increasingly diverse directions. If Asian American music grounded its origins in a U.S. social movement, Jamez now works in a global space where transnational identities displace panethnicity.

Transnational Beats & Rhymes
Take Jamez’s musical approach. By blending traditional Korean and contemporary hip hop aesthetics, Jamez’s musical hybridity parallels his own cultural hybridity. Jamez’s discovery of Korean music better allows him to explore the nuances of his identity. “In the past, I had always tried to be somebody else — black, white, or Latino — because I never felt comfortable speaking in Korean,” he said. “Learning about Korean music was like learning my native tongue, albeit musically.”

Jamez’s new single “F.O.B.” works on two levels. Sonically, he uses traditional Korean music in his tracks, a striking difference from A Grain of Sand or even other Asian American rap groups who tend to use conventional Western standards. Samples of recorded sound bites float in, offering stark politicized commentary. Jamez’s “7 Train” is a metaphoric call for inter-community solidarity, as he rhymes about his subway observations in New York City.

Lyrically, he embeds “F.O.B.” with a narrative of carving out an identity from an array of conflicting influences: “Tales from da Jaemygyopo Nation/ Second Gen/ Seoul-ta-Babylon my R.I.B.S./ Rotten Banana Syndrome/ Got me thinking, ‘I’m a niggaman instead of zipperhead.’”

Jamez challenges Asian American panethnicity. He sometimes aligns more with blackness than with Asian American-ness. Identity becomes fluid, hybrid and contradictory. His Asian America isn’t bound by the constraints of nationalist identities, and lacks the stability that helped ground the previous generation. Yet Jamez recognizes that increasing hostility towards Asian Americans makes panethnic solidarity far from archaic: “Seen as a foreigner and nothing more/ Home is where da heart is, but my heart is turning into stone.”

A Grain of Sand and Jamez have acted as both prophets and apostles of Asian America’s identities, revealing important ways in which culture intertwines with politics. The dance between Asian American artistic works and the political times they inhabit has always been intricate. Neither wholly leads the other; the roles change constantly. Asian American music records the rhythms of history between the notes.

For more information about A Grain of Sand’s re-released CD, contact Bindu Records, 11901 Santa Monica Blvd. Suite 533, West Los Angeles, CA 90025 or visit their WWW page:

For more information about Jamez and F.O.B. Productions, call (718) 762-1883 or visit his WWW page:

Oliver Wang is a member of the editorial staff of ColorLines.