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Yellow Pearl: An Exploration of Asian American Identity in Music

Updated: May 26, 2020

When exploring Asian American music, the definitive question is “what is Asian American Music?” While this is no easy task, defining Asian American music is paramount to creating an Asian American identity in music, and a necessary step towards greater representation. Musicologist Joseph Lam points out that “[Asian American music] is not something that one can easily identify by merely listening to its sounds, or interpret with rigid notions of cultures, histories, and peoples. Its musical-ethnic attributes and meanings must be analyzed with a series of parameters and discussed in musical, historical and social contexts." This lack of defining musical characteristics further complicates the matter. Asian American music isn't something that can be defined by specific timbre, rhythmic motifs, or melodic content. Instead, it must be reviewed within its social contexts and why it's being created. By exploring what “Asian American music” means, a discussion of ethnic identity is brought up. Until recently this discourse has been fairly unspoken in academic and artistic circles, evidencing the invisibility and marginalization that Asian Americans have experienced. By creating discourse regarding Asian American ethnic identity, a step towards greater representation and visibility becomes possible.

When discussing Asian American ethnicization, the term “pan-ethnic identity” is often tossed around. Panethnicity is used to group various ethnic groups based on a shared cultural origins, often utilizing geological, racial or religious factors. For example, the development of Asian American communities in cities as chinatowns and ethnic enclaves are critical to panethnic identity. This idea of panethnicity was born out of the Asian American movement during the civil rights era. The result of this movement created new spaces in academia for Asian American studies, along with community based organizations that supported the newly formed panethnic identity. The formation of “Asian Americanness,” contributes to the general discourse of Asian American representation and bolsters the effort towards fighting marginalization and invisibility in popular media. While it may seem that Asian Americans have gained solidarity through shared struggles and communal upbringings, the vast majority of Asian Americans still see some divisiveness in their ethnic identities.

Through the Asian American movement, artists like folk trio “A Grain of Sand” emerged. A Grain of Sand was composed of three young activists from New York; Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin. The three, all children of asian immigrants, were present at the beginning of grassroots activism in the Asian American community. Not only did their group, A Grain of Sand, help to cement a panethnic identity for Asian Americans in the arts, their group was conceived out of the Asian American movement of the '60s and '70s, and was a result of the activism and contributions of the grassroots movement. Nobuko Miyamoto and Chirs Ijima both met at the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) convention of 1970. The JACL is an Asian American civil rights organization that remains active today, and touts itself as the longest standing Asian American civil rights organization. The significant event at the 1970 convention was the murder of a young Japanese woman, which led to Myamoto and Ijima to form a folk duo and tour to raise memorial funds. The efforts by the group to seek cultural identity and work towards claiming an Asian American identity were monumental at the time, and paved the road for grassroots activism in the Asian American community to come.

A Grain of Sands’ album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, is widely recognized as the first example of Asian American music. Throughout the album, the group professes their experiences of being the children of Asian immigrants in America, and call other Asian Americans to take pride in their heritage. By taking these political ideologies and putting them into song, A Grain of Sand was able to bring Asian American cultural pride and take it to a wider audience beyond the scope of college campuses where these ideas were most present. The song “We Are The Children” is an anthem of the Asian American experience and provided a platform for pan asian identity in music. The first verse of the song writes:

“We are the children of the migrant worker

We are the offspring of the concentration camp

Sons and daughters of the railroad builder

Who leave their stamp on America”

This statement of the Asian American experience, by Asian Americans themselves was incredibly powerful, as this acclamation was unheard of at the time, especially in recorded song. Furthermore the use of “we” reinforces the idea of a panethnic identity, as the statement lends itself to a group mentality. Additionally, the historical events stated are a combination of experiences that differing groups within the Asian American community relay to. However, the use of “we” in this context makes these historical events more of a set of experiences that all fall under pan asian identity. In addition, the line “who leave their stamp on America”, is a call to action for Asian Americans to take charge and be present in society.

The chorus of the song goes as follows “Sing a song for ourselves / What have we got to lose? / Sing a song for ourselves / We got the right to choose / We got the right to choose / We got the right to choose.” This union of “singing a song for ourselves”, emphasizes the importance of gaining an ethnic identity for the sake of Asian Americans themselves. Not in the hands of the white majority, or for the acceptance of westerners, but for the beneficiary of Asian Americans across the nation. Furthermore, the statement of “we got the right to choose,” declares that creating a panethnic identity is something we must work towards ourselves. Since, Asian American identity is not something inherently ingrained in society, Asian Americans have to work towards creating an identity ourselves. Lam describes that “panethnicity is created through construction and involvement versus being a "natural" state of identity formation." By choosing panethnicity, Asian Americans universally agree to adopt this sort of identity for the sake of visibility and representation in America. For Asian Americans to take on this sort of identity they move towards “leaving their stamp on America,” not only as Americans, but as a union of ethnic people with shared third world heritage.

The song "Yellow Pearl," also on their self-titled album, is another example of Asian American unity and panethnic sentiment. The title of the song comes from a slang term, “yellow peril,” born out of anti-Asian sentiment as the first immigrants arrived. In the album notes, Miyamoto writes, “Our people were called ‘the yellow peril’ when they first came to this country. We were ridiculed and feared and looked on as something less than human [...] but we see that if we see that if we look across the ocean, if all people of color look to their homelands, we are not a minority, but an overwhelming majority in this world." By taking a pejorative slang term and turning it into a unifying term, A Grain of Sand was able to subvert racist ideals and make “yellow peril” into a source of empowerment. This particular use is particularly powerful, in the sense that it unifies the Asian American population under a shared understanding of the racism that we experience and generations previous experienced. In doing so, it calls Asian Americans to come together under panethnicism for the sake of ourselves and our own empowerment. By staying silent, we only come to accept the history of struggle and discrimination experienced by Asian Americans and undermine the experiences our parents and grandparents faced.

Tadashi Nakamura, who directed a documentary on A Grain of Sand, described that “I think Asian Americans still feel like we are constantly called a minority. And it psychologically does something to you because you feel insignificant. But when you hear “Yellow Pearl"— "And I am a yellow pearl, And you are a yellow pearl, And we are the yellow pearl, And we are half the world,”—it connects you to the world, connects you to other people, connects you to your own power, and makes you step back and think of a broader context." The chorus of the song which repeats: "And I am a yellow pearl, And you are a yellow pearl, And we are the yellow pearl, And we are half the world," is extremely empowering as it calls Asian Americans together, and makes the Asian American community feel less individualized. Since the common narrative in America is that Asian Americans are a minority group, it’s easy for Asian Americans to feel out of place or alone in terms of their ethnic identity. However, when “we are the yellow pearl, and we are half the world” is sung it helps Asian Americans to understand that the feelings they have are shared by Asian Americans all throughout the nation.

As an Asian American artist myself, discovering artists like A Grain of Sand is incredibly refreshing as Asian Americans are generally considered silent in terms of political activism throughout the general public. Furthermore hearing songs like “Yellow Pearl,” helped me to discover what pan ethnic identity truly means, and its importance in creating visibility as an artist myself. While finding Asian American music that is inherently political can be difficult at times, Asian American artists do exist and spaces for them to be heard are needed. Through this exploration I have become more knowledgeable in my awareness of Asian American artists and have developed a stronger idea of my mission as an Asian American artist. By becoming more aware, I hope to use my work as an Asian American artist to further expand spaces for Asian American artists and “leave my stamp on America.”

Noah Leong is a third year Electronic Production and Design major at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. An avid violist, producer, and bassist Noah explores the use of traditional classical instruments in contemporary contexts. Growing up as a classically trained violist from the young age of three, he spent most of his musical education in youth orchestra and chamber groups. However, his interest in contemporary musical styles sparked when he picked up the bass guitar and began to explore jamming and improvisation. Since attending the Berklee College of Music, Noah has transferred those skills on to his chief instrument. Noah currently focuses his studies on jazz viola, production, and sound design. While working with many of his peers, Noah has been able to leave his mark on numerous projects by Berklee students. In addition to his musical studies, Noah is a strong advocate for Asian American representation in the arts, academia and mainstream realms. Noah hopes to see the future of Asian Americans to be equally represented, and free from the harmful stereotypes that are prevalent in our society.

Check out the Local Boy Collective here!

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