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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
My friend and colleague Oliver Wang recently completed a book titled Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area Duke University Press) and it’s based on his many years of ethnographic research on the mobile DJ scene in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s and in particular, the leading role played by Filipino Americans in shaping, defining, and leading that cultural and music scene. The book’s description:
Armed with speakers, turntables, light systems, and records, Filipino American mobile DJ crews, such as Ultimate Creations, Spintronix, and Images, Inc., rocked dance floors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. In Legions of Boom noted music and pop culture writer and scholar Oliver Wang chronicles this remarkable scene that eventually became the cradle for turntablism. These crews, which were instrumental in helping to create and unify the Bay Area’s Filipino American community, gave young men opportunities to assert their masculinity and gain social status.
While crews regularly spun records for school dances, weddings, birthdays, or garage parties, the scene’s centerpieces were showcases — or multi-crew performances — which drew crowds of hundreds, or even thousands. By the mid-1990s the scene was in decline, as single DJs became popular, recruitment to crews fell off, and aspiring scratch DJs branched off into their own scene. As the training ground for a generation of DJs, including DJ Q-Bert, Shortkut and Mix Master Mike, the mobile scene left an indelible mark on its community that eventually grew to have a global impact.
Oliver Wang is Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach and his research interests center on pop music, culture, and politics. He has also written on Asian Americans and hip-hop, retro soul music, and the critical geography of the Kogi BBQ truck, among other essays. He is the editor of Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide and has written for NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, and the Village Voice, amongst others.
I asked Oliver the following questions about his work and his new book (I added some links to certain words and terms in his answers to provide readers with more context and information):
How did you first become interested in this particular scene?
I first started reading about the Bay Area’s Filipino American (FA) scratch DJs in local alternative weeklies in the early ’90s. As I was a budding DJ myself, I was intrigued at how all these world class Asian American DJs had emerged out of the Bay. A few years later, as a music journalist, I began interviewing scratch DJs like Q-Bert and Shortkut and discovered that the common link they all had was that their careers all began in the 1980s as a part of mobile DJ crews. I had never heard about that scene and my journalistic and scholarly instincts lit up. At the very least, I felt like there was a good story to be told here.
In what ways are the Filipino American DJs that you focus on unique? How do they assert their own identity onto the DJ scene?
The unique quality of the mobile scene was that it was predominantly Filipino American and it had the right conditions in place for that to be self-sustaining for over a decade. There were other Bay Area mobile scenes, with other ethnic groups, but apparently, none had the same kind of size, longevity, or intensity and as I argue in the book, that’s because the Filipino American community was especially well-organized to help circulate the necessary capital to support a long-term scene of this nature. It’s not because FA DJs were more gifted or somehow more culturally inclined towards DJing; I resist any impulse to culturally pathologize this community. It’s because they have a remarkable social network of family, student/church groups, and community organizations that helped to circulate gigs (and therefore money) amongst the crews.
As for how they asserted their identity, what’s notable is how little my respondents thought their ethnicity had anything to do with the DJ scene. If there were identities being asserted, it had far more to do with what school or neighborhood they were from – as well as their identity as a crew – and on a less self-aware level, their identity as young men. But expressing their “Filipino-ness” wasn’t part of their performance. I think that stands in stark contrast with the generation of hip-hop-influenced DJs that came after them, for whom ethnic identity was far more at the forefront.
The book’s description mentioned that these Filipino Americans used their DJing as opportunities to assert their masculinity. Can you elaborate on this a little bit? How did their idea of being masculine compare to say, conventional notions of White or Black male masculinity?
As I suggested, those assertions of masculinity weren’t necessarily self-aware nor different from what you’d find amongst other young men. The crew structure is very similar to that of other homosocial organizations you find amongst male youth: sports teams, youth gangs, fraternities, etc. Being part of a crew gives them a sense of belonging and purpose and they often spoke of it in gendered language, i.e. “a brotherhood” or the like.
There’s been some debate over the years about whether Filipino Americans consider themselves to be an integral part of the larger Asian American community, or whether they tend to identify more as Hispanic/Latino. Based on this project, how did these Filipino see themselves in relation to the larger Asian American community?
This wasn’t a topic I landed upon with them but I will say that there was no uniform kind of ethnic self-awareness that my respondents expressed. Some of them were confused about their identity growing up but others had a much better sense of themselves as Filipino Americans. It really varied and depended on their family/life experiences. As to the pan-ethnic question, we never got into that but I do think to the extent that there were other scenes, like a Chinese American mobile scene, they did see their scene as being distinct from that as opposed to them all being in some greater “Asian American mobile scene.” The important thing to remember is that while their scene wasn’t exclusively Filipino, all the key parts of the social infrastructure that supported it linked back to Filipino family, religious and community networks. Being Filipino certainly wasn’t incidental even if it wasn’t being actively expressed/performed.
Lately, there’s been more attention paid to Asian Americans using alternative means to express themselves artistically, such as through YouTube and other forms of social media. Do you think Asian Americans on YouTube are content with asserting an alternative, independent cultural identity, or do you think they’re looking to use it as a springboard to get into mainstream media?
I don’t think it’s an either/or, especially as these days, YouTube practically IS mainstream media (though differences still abound, see below).
To me, what I find fascinating about the mobile DJ scene story is that they were inspired to form these crews — as teenagers — because they saw DJs in clubs and thought, “Why can’t we do this back at home?” It’s a simple but profoundly powerful idea to realize one’s own creative/expressive potential using the tools you have around you. In the 1980s, that meant cobbling together a sound system from family stereo systems, before you could invest in professional equipment.
In the 1990s, in the import car scene, you saw middle class youth taking their personal transportation and transforming that into mobile canvases for self and collective expression. In our current age, it’s about using the tools built into digital devices, be they computers or smartphones. I think the vast majority of youth seek to make their voices heard, not necessarily in a self-conscious way to be either alternative or mainstream. It’s only later that people like us (scholars, journalists) try to parse their activities into these kinds of subcultural dichotomies but I don’t think, for example, mobile DJ crews were a subculture. I don’t think they saw themselves as one nor did they function as one (in the strict, Hebdigean definition of subculture).
Based on your academic work and personal observations, are there any emerging artistic or cultural trends within the Asian American community that we should keep an eye out for?
There are at least two areas that I hope scholars will spend time exploring:
1) Social media “stars” who’ve used non-traditional media platforms to produce and distribute their own content. While I do think the distance between mainstream vs. social media is fast collapsing, there is still a traditional media industry in place (i.e. record companies, television networks, movie studios, et. al.) and they still command much power and influence. But what we’ve seen is that Asian Americans have bypassed those institutions to find other ways of getting themselves “out there.” That, to me, is really profound especially compared to how limited things were for the mobile DJs who largely were invisible to anyone outside of their scene or region.
2) Asian Americans involved in the contemporary food scene, whether as chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, etc. This is something I’ve begun to write more about myself and I think we’re only going to see more and more Asian Americans pursuing careers around food and more to the point: food culture.
If I had to pick a third, I think K-pop is going to be a fascinating topic to study. Its popularity, of course, is transnational and transracial but to the extent that most Asian pop musics have never found solid footing in the American pop scene, I think K-pop might be the one to crossover and if so, I imagine that Asian American k-pop fans will be somewhere in that mix. Maybe.
Broadly speaking, I just think Asian American cultural formations, performances and participation is STILL woefully marginal in Asian American Studies. For a variety of reasons, “we” produce a disproportionate amount of scholars who study literature and that’s all fine and good but I feel that Asian American Studies really lags behind other, similar disciplines in our exploration of popular culture as a site for critical examination and discussion. This was certainly the case when I started grad school nearly 20 years ago and it’s not like we’ve seen a sea change since then. I hold out hope that some future generation of scholars will be the ones to turn that particular tide.
A lot of people are stressed out right now and understandably so. Our federal government is deadlocked over the debt ceiling issue, the economy is still stagnant, people are mourning the recent murders in Norway, and just yesterday, a Muslim American soldier was arrested for an alleged murder plotting at Fort Hood.
What can we do to deal with all this stress? One thing that people can try is meditating. People throughout Asia have been doing so for thousands of years and little by little, others around the world have found this technique and have enjoyed its benefits.
Here in the U.S., meditation has been around for a while but as this news segment from ABC’s NightLine shows, it is increasingly becoming part of mainstream U.S. society:
As this story notes and as research increasingly documents, this example of east-west convergence is not just the latest pop culture trend — it can actually improve your quality of life.
2006: Toyota Joins NASCAR Toyota’s announcement that it will participate in NASCAR, the most popular form of motor racing in the U.S., poses a challenge to the sport’s all-White, American south-based culture.
2005: Multiracial Commercial Images Images of racially-diverse and multiracial Americans are becoming more common, but how representative are they of the realities of the U.S. racial landscape?
2003: in Defense of Ignorance Asian Americans react to Rep. Coble’s ignorant and misinformed defense of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
Along the same lines, other writers and bloggers around the internet have also posted their own end-of-year stories, articles, and lists related to Asian Americans, so I list and summarize the ones that I have recently come across (thanks to 8Asians for taking the lead on mentioning these lists):
The writers of the online magazine Asia Pacific Arts (published by the University of Southern California U.S.-China Institute) select their favorite Asian and Asian American performers, film, music, TV dramas, choreography, video games, behind-the-scenes artists, etc. of 2010 (thanks to AngryAsianMan.com for mentioning this).
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
The topic of how Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed in the mainstream media and popular culture continues to be a hot topic of discussion and debate among Asian Americans and non-Asians as well. The following books shed some more light on this complex and multidimensional issue.
This volume highlights materials that receive little academic attention such as works on Southeast Asian migrants, mixed race cultural production, and Asian/American pornography. As an interdisciplinary anthology, this collection weaves together various forms of “knowledge”—autobiographical accounts, humanistic research, community-based work, and artistic expression. Responsive to the imbrication of knowledge and power, the authors aspire to present a diverse sample of discourses that construct Asian/American bodies. They maintain that the body serves as the primary interface between the individual and the social, yet, as Elizabeth Grosz noted over a decade ago, feminist theory, and gender and sexuality studies more generally, “has tended, with some notable exceptions, to remain uninterested in or unconvinced about the relevance of refocusing on bodies in accounts of subjectivity.” This volume attempts to address this concern.
Philippine cinema, the dream factory of the former U.S. colony, teems with American figures and plots. Local movies feature GIs seeking Filipina brides, cold war spies hunting down native warlords, and American-born Filipinos wandering in the parental homeland. The American landscape furnishes the settings for the triumphs and tragedies of Filipino nurses, GI babies, and migrant workers.
By tracking American fantasies in Philippine movies from the postindependence period to the present, José B. Capino offers an innovative account of cinema’s cultural work in decolonization and globalization. Capino examines how a third world nation’s daydreams both articulate empire and mobilize against it, provide imaginary maps and fables of identity for its migrant workers and diasporan subjects, pose challenges to the alibis of patriarchy and nationalism, and open up paths for participating in the cultures of globality.
Through close readings of more than twenty Philippine movies, Capino demonstrates the postcolonial imagination’s vital role in generating pragmatic and utopian visions of living with empire. Illuminating an important but understudied cinema, he creates a model for understanding the U.S. image in the third world.
“Too often Hollywood cinema is reduced to a homogenized product. Fuller, while primarily tracing consistencies within the Hollywood product, also traces the heterogeneous nature of Hollywood’s output. Thus, she not only chooses Films in which Oriental characters are played by non-Orientals but has discovered Films in which the issues of disguise, masquerade, and even stereotyping are central.”
-– Tom Gunning, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago
“Fuller’s study of images of Asian Americans in film takes an insightful approach by examining the practice of performances in ‘yellowface': white (or in rare cases, black) actors portraying Asian characters. Hollywood Goes Oriental makes a substantial contribution to the literature in Asian American studies.”
— Frank H. Wu, chancellor and dean at the University of California Hastings College of the Law
“Fuller’s discussion of cross-ethnic performance in Hollywood Films is long overdue. She adds valuable insights Go Film studies, ethnic studies, and gender studies, while her use of performance theory in the analysis in which ethnicity is viewed as a social construct that is expressed through the body–points to the possibility of new perspectives.”
— Jenny Lau, professor of cinema at San Francisco State University.
This collection examines transnational Asian American women characters in various fictional narratives. It analyzes how certain heroines who are culturally rooted in Asian regions have been transformed and re-imagined in America and have played significant roles in Asian American literary studies as well as community life. The interdisciplinary essays display refreshing perspectives in Asian American literary studies and transnational feminism from four continents.
No Safe Spaces looks at one of the most radical and enduring changes introduced during the Civil Rights era — multiracial and cross-racial casting practices in American theater. The move to cast Latino/a, African American, and Asian American actors in classic stage works by and about white Europeans and Americans is viewed as both social and political gesture and artistic innovation. Nontraditionally cast productions are shown to have participated in the national dialogue about race relations and ethnic identity and served as a source of renewed creativity for the staging of the canonical repertory.
Multiracial casting is explored first through its history, then through its artistic, political, and pragmatic dimensions. Next, the book focuses on case studies from the dominant genres of contemporary American theater: classical tragedy and comedy, modern domestic drama, antirealist drama, and the Broadway musical, using a broad array of archival source materials to enhance and illuminate its arguments.