By Brennan Lowe
(Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of Kollaboration SF’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month series on prominent APA figures in media. Follow us on WordPress and FB, and check in every week of May for new profiles and features!)
When you think of classic folk singers, names like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell immediately come to mind, each of them outspoken voices on war, peace, and environmental and social unrest in the 1960s and ‘70s. Or at least, they come to mind for a large segment of the American population, but if you’re like me and had to Wikipedia some of them to make sure that, yes, these people are indeed considered folk singers, you’re probably thinking Asian Americans were left out of this musical movement. After all, the term “Asian American” hadn’t even been coined yet when Dylan’s iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind” came out in 1962, so how could there be APA folk music at all? The answer, my friend, is Yellow Pearl.
In 1973, Chris Ijima, Joanne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin banded together in New York to record what is considered the first Asian American album, titled A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. With such a vague title, you might be wondering with what purpose the trio of activist musicians created this record. Take a listen to their track, “We are the Children,” and try to unpack their lyrical subtlety (or rather, their lack thereof).
Yellow Pearl served as the voices of the budding Asian American Movement, and there’s good reason why their sole musical output is to this day remembered fondly by students and activists of the time. Ijima, Miyamoto, and Chin helped unite a people through expressing shared experiences of struggle, discrimination, and searching for identity in America, where Asians were not even a decade removed from being classified in the Census as merely “Other.” Groups that had been separated by countries of origin, language, and physical distance in the US were now empowering themselves through forging solidarity with one another, and A Grain of Sand cannot be overlooked in its role in helping shape that solidarity. Yellow Pearl’s messages and form weren’t limited to those specifically pertaining to Asian Americans, either, as they drew musical influence from the entire Third World political movement. Listen to “Somos Asiaticos” (“We are Asians”), the product of collaborating with Puerto Rican artists Flora y Pepe, or “Free The Land,” written for the Malcolm X-inspired Republic of New Africa. As Miyamoto would later recall, living in this time “was like jumping into the pool of revolution…. Every day there was organizing going on at many different levels. It was powerful. You see something wrong, you have an idea how to fix it, you put it into practice.” And so she and Ijima and Chin did in recording A Grain of Sand, and the rest is history.
Listen: A Grain of Sand is on Spotify. You have no excuse for not listening to it.
Brennan grew up on Motown and old school R&B, which explains and/or justifies his willful ignorance of folk music. Hit him up on twitter @flawanddisorder.