Tag Archives: Obama

research teaching

Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.

pop culture & media teaching

Race and “Air and Simple Gifts” at the Presidential Inauguration

I’m teaching a 400-level seminar called “Music in Asian America” this semester. Last Tuesday, instead of a class meeting, I created an “inauguration assignment.” The objective of the assignment is to ask the students to examine the musical representations at the inauguration ceremony in light of the current media discourse about Obama’s politics with regards to race and ethnicity. The assignment first asks the students to read SF Gate’s “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang’s controversial article: “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” and explore a slew of responses to Yang’s article. Then it asks them to post their analysis to the class blog.

The class did a marvelous job discussing the representational politics of multicuturalism exuded by the classical music performance at the ceremony. Immediately, they noticed the seemingly contrived selection of four minority musicians: Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a U.S.-based Venezuelan national pianist named Gabriela Montero.

Introducing a Puritanesque theme, McGill plays the familiar “Simple Gifts”, 19th century Shaker hymn most notably known for American composer Aaron Copland’s citation in Appalachian Spring. Combined with the “Air”, a popular song form of the 16th and 17th century England, this arrangement by pop classical music composer John Williams presents a continuity of the American ‘folk’ culture from its European/English roots. Most explicit part of the musical message perhaps is couched in the role of “Simple Gifts” in the arrangement. In this section of the performance, the musicians, working in intimacy and collaborating with a performed (lip-synched!) vigor, displayed Obama’s politics of social unity in a literalist and sensational way. Also, the reference to Appalachian Spring is no coincidence. Similar to the effect in Copland’s ballet, the “Gifts” citation symbolizes freedom as promised by living a hardworking and simplistic life. Associated with the American ideology of meritocracy or the American Dream, the themes of freedom and hard work, also are evoked by Obama during his inauguration speech.

In his controversial article, Jeff Yang links Obama’s belief in educational achievement and work ethic to what he calls “Asian values,” the impetus to pull up by the bootstraps as perceived to be adopted by Asian immigrants. One student pointed out in class that Yang’s assumption risks reinforcing the model minority myth. Yang’s thesis is better argued in his NPR interview. In it, Yang claims “race more as a metaphor”, as a transmigratable concept away from biological and cultural essentialism, away from the binary and toward the multiplistic approach. I think he’s onto something here. Obama’s multiracial ethnicity and transcultural/transnational upbringing could embody a more fluid way of conceptualizing race and ethnicity. Yang finds these qualities in the present Asian American communities.

Present-day identity politics is not one-dimensional as once it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. Identity politics could work in such a way to allow room for identification “as” and “with.” Many individuals of social groups identify with Obama. And Obama’s unity politics seems to allow him to breach various social divides. Yang’s article should’ve been more accurately titled as “Could Obama identify with Asian America?”

I asked my students, “are there any dangers in conceiving of race as a metaphor? Is race really transmigratable?” Histories of oppression associated with race are still around us. We decided that only parts of race can be deconstructed through cultural criticism, although we hope that someday that race as an social institution and ideology will transmigrate completely and sublimate into thin air.


This entry was originally posted on January 27, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

pop culture & media

On Race and Obama

Presidential candidate Barack Obama explicitly discusses the issue of race for the first time in his campaign speech last Tuesday (3/18/08). He does so in part responding to a speech made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama puts forth his definition of race as a color-based ideology that leads to inequalities and social divisions. Recognizing the history of black oppression – slavery, Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education, Obama makes clears that he is aware of the fact that minorities in the United States still experience the social, political, cultural and even psychological consequences from this racist history. Obama taps into the current discourse regarding social emotionality as he diagnoses the causes of “black anger” and “white resentment.” He then attributes the conflictual sentiments to the issue of race “that we cannot afford to ignore right now.”

Obama is quick to point out the racialized response to the presidential election campaign, i.e. the bipolarization between African American and white votes split between Obama and Clinton, the prediction of white majority’s favoring McCain. This conspicuously leverages his campaign strategy of promising a “union” across the racial and economic divide. This union is a union of “the people,” particularly for and from the children, with the central issue being education. Pitted against the “people” are implicitly the immoral corporations and political lobbyists with self-interested motivation and power to advance for profit. I like that he targets the corporations and the politicians. But I ask, who are these “people”? The American people? The citizens? I dare asking, what about the non-citizens? What about the immigrants?

The compelling effects of Obama’s speech have much to do with the colorblind discourse presently dominating the American public. He’s right to say that there is much cynicism in the current cultural and political atmosphere, and not enough serious discussions about racial equality and justice. He is even progressive-hip to censure the neo-conservative contradiction in “reverse racism” and American public’s compulsory to be politically correct. But unfortunately, this is where he stops.

A good student of American history perhaps, Obama draws the cause-and-effect relations between the historically known facts about African American oppression and the current racial inequalities in the U.S. Obama understands the “white resentment”, particularly toward pro-minority policies such as the Affirmative Action, as a reaction to white American citizens’ claim to their “immigrant story” and the American Dream. Obama criticizes the majority’s blind faith in “equal opportunity.”

The immigrant story is not just a story, it’s a reality. In the resolution portion of his campaign speech, Obama advocates for a sense of hope for change. To the African American voters, he promotes hope and stands behind their grievances for justice. He conflates the conditions of an economically disadvantaged “immigrant father” to the minority side of the divide.

It seems, the immigrant figure can flip-flop from the white majority to the African American minority side of the picture rather conveniently. Obama apparently side-steps the issue of immigration most pertinent to Latinos and Asians living in the U.S..

Race is not just only an issue related to the domestic black-white relations. Race is also central in the polemic about immigration and foreign policies. When Obama denigrates corporations for outsourcing, he ignores an important part of the story: both working Americans’ animosity toward “foreigners” working within the border of United States as migrant workers, or working for an U.S.-based company. The discourse around the War with Iraq and anti-terrorism is undeniably tainted with racializing ideologies about the people of the Middle East and the Islamic faith, both abroad and domestically. Immigrant rights as well as race-based profiling and hate crimes against American citizens and immigrants of Central Asian ethnic and religious affiliations have been downplayed in presidential debates.

Race and Racism come in various shapes and colors. Some are black; some white. And some are brown, some yellow. Whiteness (or blackness) is sometimes defined by while being pitted against brown-ness, yellow-ness, or Muslim-ness. Obama’s “new politics” fails to address an age-old problem about the interethnic and interracial tensions within the United States and abroad. Until the issue of race is addressed multi-dimensionally with nuances regarding citizenship and border, race remains a stultifying divisive force. There is conceivably no true union, if the union is based on hate and exclusion across various borders within and along the U.S., and not on the domocratizing ideals of this country.

If you haven’t watched it yet, please do:


This entry was originally posted on March 28, 2008 on Yellowbuzz.