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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.
Over the last few days, news about two prominent Asian American community leaders caught the attention of many Americans around the country. First is the passing of General Vang Pao, the longtime and high-profile leader of the Hmong and Laotian American community, passed away at the age of 81. Commentator Mai Der Vang at New American Media summarizes his personal history and significance to Asian Americans:
During the 1960s, the U.S. government recruited him to command guerrilla forces against communist Laos in a covert war in which tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians forced into exile. . . .
Many of us also recalled the arrest of Vang Pao and ten other men in 2007 as they were charged with attempting to overthrow the Lao government. Rally after rally, hundreds of his devout supporters participated in demonstrations here in Fresno and Sacramento. They put intense pressure on the US government to release Vang Pao, and put together 1.5 million dollar bail for him. In 2009, charges were dropped. . . .
Many in the Hmong community viewed him as a leader, but Vang Pao also represented for them their lost homeland. When his supporters saw him in public, they saw him not as an aging man in a three-piece suit but, rather, the young valiant war commander he once was. For them, he was the manifestation of a home they once knew and the memories of a life they once lived. . . .
For others in the community, Vang Pao’s passing marks an end to a contentious era. Despite galvanizing support among the masses, there were some who remained skeptical about his leadership perhaps due to his politics, his personal life, or the fallout from histories tied to Laos. Yet whether a person admired him or held their reservations, there is no arguing the fact that he was one of the most prominent figures in Hmong modern history, essentially serving through the decades as the unelected leader of the global diaspora.
I am not an expert on General Vang’s life but it was clear that he was both admired and disliked by many Laotian and Hmong Americans. In either case, he had a significant impact on many of their lives and transnational history, both in southeast Asia and here in the U.S. Inevitably, his passing creates an environment and opportunity for new leaders to emerge in the Hmong and Laotian American communities. In the process, we are likely to see Asian Americans continue the gradual transition from lives focused primarily on Asia to one focused more on America.
The other notable Asian American leader to make the news recently is Ed Lee who, for all intents and purposes, is on track to become the new mayor of San Francisco and thus one of the first Asian American mayors of a major U.S. city. The San Francisco Chronicle summarizes the recent events that led to this momentous event:
The Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 today to appoint City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor, but the decision is not official until Mayor Gavin Newsom steps down and is sworn in to the lieutenant governor’s job he won in November. Newsom has refused to resign until the new Board of Supervisors with four new members is sworn in at noon Saturday. The new board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Newsom’s successor, who will fill out the year remaining on his term.
As for Lee’s chances to get the nod from the new board, he has it all but locked up. Seven of the supervisors who voted in favor of Lee today will still be on the board Tuesday, providing the majority Lee would need to get the job even without their new colleagues. . . . Voters will elect a new mayor in November.
Up to this point, even though Asian Americans made up 10% of California’s population and 33% of the population in the Bay Area, we have been consistently underrepresented as political leaders in these areas. There are numerous external and internal factors that influence much of this historical underrepresentation, but as we move forward into the 21st century, as I’ve described in several posts on this blog, there are numerous ways in which the Asian American population can make significant contributions that reflect the political, economic, and cultural changes taking place in the world in general and American society in particular.
With this in mind, there are also many compelling reasons why politicians need to take Asian Americans (along with other immigrant groups and communities of color) seriously as not just a constituent group but also as a major emerging cultural and demographic force in the years to come.
Here are some more announcements and links out that have come my way relating to Asians or Asian Americans. As always, links to other sites are provided for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of their contents:
A Legislative Summit is an opportunity to set goals/identify and prioritize legislative issues that are most pressing to the Asian communities so collectively we can create an action plan to influence future executive and legislative government activities and decisions that are favorable to our communities.
To Increase awareness of today’s and future Asian American generations’ issues and needs such as economic development, immigration, language access, voting rights, and discrimination.
To improve cooperation and mutual understanding by bringing diverse ethnic Asian American communities together.
To raise the visibility of the Asian community and later to present its concerns to the two (2) gubernatorial candidates and members of the General Assembly.
To gather and disseminate data about Asian American communities.
To bring the energy and vision of different Asian community members from all social, educational, age, and business sectors background together so that collectively we can create real and productive change.
To identify new Asian community leaders to effectively build issues-based community coalitions.
To make the case for Asian American inclusion in public contracting programs and to advance the participation of Asian Americans in minority contracting programs in the private sector.
To help empower Asian families to understand their rights and responsibilities with regard to their student’s enrollment at local public schools.
To create opportunity for creating bills that represent long-term solution to foster respect for Asian American & Pacific Islanders’ vast contributions to the nation.
Wednesday, August 5th, 2009
5:30 PM -8:00 PM
Ukrops Headquarters Office
2001 Maywill Str., Suite 100, Richmond, VA 23230
Registration required: email@example.com or Tel: 804-798-3975 PDF Event Flier
Call for Entries: 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is pleased to announce its open call for entries for its 28th edition, scheduled for March 11-21, 2010. The SFIAAFF accepts films of all genres and lengths, and is looking for exceptional films made by or about Asians and Asian Americans.
Early — September 4, 2009
Late — October 2, 2009
Attention All Filmmakers:
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is now accepting submissions for the 2010 Festival. A presentation of the Center for Asian American Media (formerly NAATA), the SFIAAFF is the largest event in the nation dedicated to screening Asian American and Asian films. The Festival accepts films and videos of all lengths and genres that are made by and/or about Asian Americans and Asians of any nationality. To submit online or for more information, visit www.asianamericanmedia.org.
87 Minute documentary on the Vietnam War. Shows how the U.S. government killed more than 3 million Vietnamese in their War of Independence. Starts with the history of the conflict from WWII, the defeat of the French, how the American people were lied into the conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin. Then shows how the killing was done. Includes testimony from soldiers and Vietnamese. Narrated by Martin Sheen. Written, produced and directed by Clay Claiborne.
This year, State Farm’s Youth Advisory Board expanded its disaster preparedness issue area to include grants addressing societal disasters like nutrition, exercise, bullying, abuse and diversity.
Applicants may request any amount from $25,000 to $100,000 based on a required budget which outlines project expenses. Request for Proposals (RFP) must be submitted online by Oct. 2. Complete details and contact information is available at www.statefarmyab.com.
The five issues that grant requests must focus on are:
Natural and Societal disaster preparedness
Accessing higher education/closing the achievement gap
To be eligible to receive a grant from the Board, applicants should be either an educator who currently teaches in a public K-12, charter, or higher education institution, or a school-based service-learning coordinator whose primary role is to coordinate service-learning projects in a public, charter, or higher education institution. Non-profit organizations are also eligible if they are able to demonstrate how they plan to actively engage students in public K-12 schools in meaningful service-learning programs.
The number of grants awarded will depend on the number and quality of requests received. Grant amounts will vary according to the nature of the proposal and availability of funds. At least one service-learning project will be funded in each of the 13 State Farm zones. As of June 2009, four years after the initial launch of the YAB, the board has awarded more than $12 million in grants to organizations in the U.S. and Canada and touched about 1.8 million lives.
Thirty high school and college aged youth oversee the granting of $5 million for student-led service-learning projects in the United States and in the Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario provinces of Canada. The process is unique in the responsibility and resource decisions that the youth are given. It is the Board who come together to research issues they would like to solve, review grant applications, and ultimately decide the grant winners.
Here are some more links out that have come my way relating to Asians or Asian Americans. As always, links to other sites are provided for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of their contents:
Interracial Couples in New York City Needed for Documentary:
Hello, I’m a documentary filmmaker who is looking for an interracial couple based in New York to be the subjects of a film I’m making. I was wondering if could send you a description of what I’m looking for that you could distribute to your network. It would be very much appreciated!
17th Annual Taiwanese American Cultural Festival:
Saturday, May 09, 2009, 10 AM to 6 PM
Union Square, San Francisco
Celebrate Taiwanese American Heritage Week with food, demonstrations and musical performances! Musical acts include traditional Taiwanese folk
music by the O Kai A Capella Singers, a Taiwanese aborigine group, and pop music by local Asian American artists. Celebrate our green theme with our orchid display or hear energy talks by Silicon Valley industry experts. Free and fun for the entire family!