Dumbfoundead is a Rapper Straight Outta Koreatown

Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park
Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park

 

Dumbfoundead, whose given name is Jonathan Park, is a Korean American rapper. Born in Buenos Aires, “DFD” was raised in LA’s Koreatown. At the age of 10, he got his first exposure to hip hop at a community center in MacArthur Park. He further honed his craft at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop in Leimert Park. He began to achieve renown after participating in the West Coast division of the rap battle Grind Time Now. Today he has a strong presence on YouTube, where he has over 400,000 followers, and has released three solo albums to date.

Dumbfoundead will be headlining JANM’s outdoor Summer Night Concert on Thursday, August 18, along with other hip hop and electronic music stars. Our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in production, Michael Chang, conducted the following interview with the rapper via email.

Michael Chang: What drew you to music, specifically hip hop and rap, as a way to express yourself creatively?

Dumbfoundead: There was always an “I don’t give a ____” attitude that came with rap music. I feel like I can say whatever I want when I rhyme it over a beat. There’s a lot of power in music. Hip hop as a genre specifically has always been rebellious and DIY, and I like that aspect of it—it makes something out of nothing.

MC: As a creative person, what do you think makes Los Angeles a unique place to work?

DFD: We have so many little neighborhoods, and each one makes you feel like you’re stepping into another country. Being in this city really is the definition of the American experience; I feel like I learn more every day about different cultures and how unique everybody is, which helps me write universal stories and songs.

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MC: Do you think LA is more conducive to a thriving scene for artists of color?

DFD: I love that LA is as diverse as it is. The community of AAPI entertainers here is bigger than anywhere else in the world and I definitely do not take that for granted. I think it’s important that we tell the stories of our people with all the outlets we have here. I know when I tour the Midwest I get a lot of AAPI artists coming up to me and talking about the lack of creative outlets in their town.

MC: The music video for your song “Safe” critiques how Hollywood erases and ignores AAPI identities in mainstream media. Do you think executives, directors, and other people in power inside the entertainment/media industry do this with intent or more subconsciously?

DFD: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s almost a new idea to throw us into leading roles and in some cases they can’t even imagine us playing those characters. In other cases, they aren’t willing to take the chance because they think white actors are a safer bet for box office success. We need more people of color behind the scenes—writers, producers, directors, and executives—pushing our stories forward. We can’t just wait for those roles to come along, or expect them to be written by people who don’t know anything about our experiences. We have to write our own stories.

MC: Looking into the future, are there any other media or disciplines you’d like to explore?

DFD: I would love to write, direct, and act in films. TV and films have always been big passions of mine and there are so many stories that still need to be told. For right now though, I’ll settle for writing treatments for my music videos [laughs].

JANM’s Summer Night Concerts series kicks off this year with “Viva La Taiko” on July 21 and continues with “Electronic and Hip Hop Night” on August 18. Concerts are held on the plaza; admission is free and no RSVP is needed. For more information, visit janm.org.

Michael Chang majors in Graphic Design and Painting at the University of Southern California.

Film Examines Chinese Immigrant History from Women’s Perspectives

This past Saturday, in honor of Women’s History Month, JANM held a screening of the new documentary film, To Climb a Gold Mountain. The film recounts key moments in the history of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the experiences of Chinese women. Extensive commentary from writers and historians (including past JANM guest speaker Lisa See) is used to tell the stories, along with period stock footage, vintage photographs, and—in the case of a 19th-century prostitute about whom very little is known—a gripping reenactment.

Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The film begins on a dark note, recounting the squalid and abusive conditions endured by the first female Chinese immigrants, who primarily served as prostitutes for the bachelor society of Chinese men that worked to build the railroads. Conditions slowly improved as laws changed to allow these men to start families in the U.S.

The rise of the filmmaking industry comes into play next as the life of Anna May Wong, a talented and charismatic actress who pioneered Asian American representation in popular media, is examined. In spite of her widely acknowledged abilities, Wong suffered a bitter disappointment when she lost the lead role in the landmark 1937 production of The Good Earth to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer, who, along with lead actor Paul Muni, played the role in “yellowface.”

The appearance of the glamorous, articulate, Wellesley-educated Soong Mei-ling, who became a world power player when she married Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek, signifies a historic shift in U.S.-China relations as well as a significant shift in how Chinese people were viewed by the American public. The film ends on a positive and reaffirming note with a profile of Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, who states unequivocally her continuing belief in the American dream.

U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.
U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with producer and co-director Rebecca Hu, who was brought on to the project by the film’s director and executive producer, Alex Azmi. As a Chinese Canadian, the topic of the film resonated with Hu, but she did not know about most of the women being profiled. Thus, the making of the film was an educational experience for her. She noted that the issues highlighted in the film—such as discrimination against Asians and lack of visibility in the media—are still relevant today, and drew a parallel with recent discussions about the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards.

Hu also shared the good news that To Climb Gold Mountain has been picked up by PBS SoCal. A shorter version of the film that screened at JANM on Saturday—cut to fit PBS’s guidelines—will air beginning on May 17.

To find out more about this film, visit the website, which includes a fascinating gallery of notable Chinese American women, including many who are not featured in the film.

The Importance of Justin Lin and Other Asian American Cultural Pioneers

Next week, Big Trouble in Little Tokyo welcomes director Justin Lin to the museum for a tenth-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, followed by a panel discussion. Below, JANM Vice President of Programs Koji Steven Sakai reflects on Lin’s influence.

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When I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, there were zero Asian Americans on television, in movies, or in music. Okay, that’s not completely true, but it isn’t that far off. In fact, I remember playing G.I. Joe and turning one of the bad Asian ninjas (Storm Shadow) into one of the good guys.

Later, when I was thinking about becoming a screenwriter, I wasn’t sure it was possible since there wasn’t really anyone in the film and television world that I could point to and say, “That’s who I want to be like.” I didn’t believe it was actually a viable career, because if it was, why weren’t there more Asian Americans doing it?

It was around this time that three things happened in the world of Asian American pop culture. The Mountain Brothers, the first Asian American hip hop group signed to a major label, released their first album, Self: Volume 1, in 1999. They weren’t just a gimmick either; their album was an instant classic. Then, in 2001, Chinese American rapper MC Jin won seven freestyle battles in a row on BET’s Freestyle Friday. I tuned in at the end of every week to watch him, mesmerized by his skill. Finally, in 2002, Better Luck Tomorrow, the first feature film by Taiwanese American director Justin Lin, came out. It was one of the first Asian American movies bought by a major company.

Tokyo Drift smallAll three of these pivotal moments made me think I could make a career in the arts. But since I’m a screenwriter and producer, Justin’s accomplishment was especially meaningful to me. For once, there was someone I could emulate.

Justin has gone on to become one of the most successful Asian American filmmakers working today. And even with his success, he continues to support the Asian Pacific American community through his blog/YouTube channel YOMYOMF (You Offend Me You Offend My Family) and by always casting Asian Americans in major roles.

He has been an inspiration to me, and I would argue that he has also inspired an entire generation of Asian American filmmakers. For all of these reasons, I am honored to bring Justin Lin to JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, where he will participate in a panel discussion following a 10th-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the first of four films he directed in the highly popular Fast and Furious franchise. This event, which is part of JANM’s Big Trouble in Little Tokyo series, will take place on Thursday, February 4, at 7 p.m.

Today, there are many more Asian Americans who are visible in popular culture. But I would argue that they all owe a gesture of thanks to pioneers like the Mountain Brothers, MC Jin, and Justin Lin, who helped make things a whole lot easier for those who came after them.

For more information about the screening or to buy tickets, click here.

Koji Steven Sakai is the Vice President of Programs at the Japanese American National Museum, where he has worked for over 12 years. In addition to his work at the museum, he has written five feature films that have been produced. Most recently, his debut novel, Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies, was released by Luthando Coeur.

The Magical Worlds of Sean Chao

Sean Chao. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Originally from Taipei, Taiwan, artist Sean Chao graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2007 and now makes his home in Los Angeles. In 2012, Chao was featured in JANM’s Giant Robot Biennale 3 exhibition. He is known for creating intricate miniature dioramas using polymer clay, basswood, and paper, with nature as a recurring theme; he often depicts dense forests or vast oceans filled with plants and wildlife.

This Saturday, January 16, Chao will be leading a workshop at JANM titled Water Memory. Participants will learn to create their own sculptural underwater scenes using polymer clay, acrylic paint, and paper. In advance of this workshop, Chao graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email regarding his process and his influences.

JANM: How did you become interested in making dioramas?

Sean Chao: Growing up, I was very intrigued and fascinated by the dioramas at various natural history museums I visited, both in Taiwan and here in the States. It amazed me, the many details that were put into the dioramas to recreate natural scenes. It’s a different dimension—frozen in time and locked in a clear display case. One day I just decided to create my own dioramas, filled with worlds that I create.

Sean Chao, Big Cat, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao, Big Cat, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache
paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: Tell us about some of the inspirations that drive your work. Monkeys and country peasants seem to make frequent appearances.

SC: I grew up in Taiwan and my culture influenced my work tremendously. I grew up in the city, but I was always fascinated by the simplicity of peasant life in the country—so much closer to nature and so far away from the crowd.

My dioramas are fantasy worlds that I create. Anthropomorphic characters are very charming. They have their own personalities in my world, inspired by the people and animals around me. My brother was born in the Year of the Monkey and he is one of my best friends. My monkey character is based on his personality: smart and adventurous.

Sean Chao, Persimmon Picnic, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao, Persimmon Picnic, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic,
and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: You also have an interesting “creatures within creatures” theme going on, where robots are controlled from the inside by animals. Could you tell us more about this theme?

SC: Human beings create computers, robots, and artificial intelligence based on the likeness of ourselves. It’s in our nature to create. I simply created my own version of the robot. It’s based on an ideal human personality and controlled by characters that were inspired by my family and friends.

JANM: Who are some of your own favorite artists?

SC: Beatrix Potter—she was an illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist, and one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. Hayao Miyazaki—I grew up watching his animations. The stories are very touching for both children and adults, and the way he captures the personality of each character is just fascinating. There is definitely more to learn from him for my own work.

Learn to make a piece like this in this weekend's Water Memory workshop. Sean Chao, Skull Koi 2, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Learn to make a piece like this in this weekend’s Water Memory workshop.
Sean Chao, Skull Koi 2, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint
on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: What are you most excited about for your upcoming Water Memory workshop?

SC: Meeting people who share the same interest in sculpture and diorama, and of course I’m very excited to show them my techniques. It will be a real fun event.

Space is still available for Chao’s workshop. To register, click here.

Katsuya Terada Returns This Month to Complete His Live Drawing

Katsuya Terada at work in the JANM galleries. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada at work in the JANM galleries. Photo by Carol Cheh.

 

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is a highly interactive show, with several features that invite viewer engagement on a more active level than usual. One of these features is the live, on-site creation of a major new work by Katsuya Terada.

Starting shortly before the exhibition opened in October, Terada spent several days working inside of a roped-off area in JANM’s lower-level galleries to create a new, two-part drawing from scratch. Visitors were able to watch him as he worked. The artist had to leave town before he could finish, but he plans to return later this month (after the 19th) to complete the piece in the gallery.

Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada.
Photo by Carol Cheh.

The live drawing idea came from Eric Nakamura, curator of the show and founder of the Giant Robot empire. “Museums are typically filled with static objects,” he noted. “I wanted to present an interactive experience, where people could ask questions, and see what artists are like in person. It’s not everywhere that you can do this.” Nakamura gave Teraya no time limits, wanting him to produce a finished work that is suitable for framing.

So far the work is looking exquisitely finished right out of the gate. It does not yet have a title, but it does have a theme: masks. “I thought it would be interesting to draw a mask wearing a mask,” the artist says. Terada, who speaks very little English, spoke to me shortly before he left with the help of his friend and fellow exhibiting artist Yoskay Yamamoto, who served as translator.

I asked Terada to explain his process, which is organic rather than planned. “If I draw one line, that will tell me how to draw the next line,” he replied. “However, when I see the entire surface, and I start drawing one image, that will usually be the starting point, and from there I’m just trying to fill up the page without making mistakes—in composition, in choice of items to draw. I’m just making sure everything fits in the right way.”

Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.

 

Personally, I would find that process stressful. I asked him how he felt about that, and about having people watch him while he draws.

“It is stressful! But it’s like I’m challenging myself by being in that position,” Terada replied. “Having an audience can be a positive thing—it means that I have to work hard and I can’t slack off. But drawing itself is just enjoyable to me, with or without an audience.”

Terada will be back at JANM sometime after December 19th to complete his drawing. Keep your eyes on JANM’s Twitter feed and Facebook page to see when he’s in the gallery. Until then, you can come to the museum to view his progress to date.

Katsuya Terada's unfinished drawing, as he left it in October. The artist will return to JANM this month to complete the work. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada’s unfinished drawing, as he left it in October. The artist will return to
JANM later this month to complete the work. Photo by Carol Cheh.

A Chat with GRB4 Artist Yoskay Yamamoto

Yoskay Yamamoto in front of his artwork, Wish You Were Here.
Yoskay Yamamoto in front of his artwork, Wish You Were Here.

 

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is filled with outstanding artworks. One of the most attention-grabbing is perhaps Yoskay Yamamoto’s Wish You Were Here, a complex, wall-mounted installation composed of numerous small paintings, photo-transfer panels, hand-carved wooden sculptures, and hanging objects. Displayed near the back of JANM’s upper-level galleries, Wish You Were Here stuns viewers with its exuberant presence.

Shortly before GRB4 opened, Yamamoto graciously answered a few questions about this work and the others he has in the show.

JANM: Did you custom-make Wish You Were Here for this exhibition?

Yoskay Yamamoto: Yes. This is a type of installation that I’ve been working on since 2012; I think that was the first time I did something with the panels and suspended sculptures together as one piece. From there, I gradually added more panels, and repainted more, adding different color palates and textures. The latest additions are the sunset hues and scenery, painted to fit into this particular kind of color palette.

Yoskay Yamamoto's Wish You Were Here.
Yoskay Yamamoto’s Wish You Were Here.

 

JANM: What were the inspirations behind this piece?

YY: The sunset is one of the main visual elements in the 100 panels I brought here. Ever since I started living in Los Angeles, I’ve been fascinated by how beautiful the sunset is in the city. At the same time, I’ve heard it’s due to the smog we have. I find this ironic. If I’m outside at the right time, I try to photograph the sunsets I see. Then I use a lot of them as reference.

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JANM: So you were born in Japan?

YY: Yes, in this small seaside town called Toba, which has a population of about 22,000. It’s decreasing every year because the younger generation ends up leaving to go to bigger cities.

Yoskay Yamamoto's California Dreamin' and Keep On Shining
Yoskay Yamamoto’s California Dreamin’ and Keep On Shining.

 

JANM: What brought you to California?

YY: Toba is a sister city to Santa Barbara, so I went to high school there and then studied graphic design at the community college. To pursue my art, I moved to San Francisco for about a year. Then, ironically, I got assigned to a gallery in LA. So I packed up my stuff and moved down here.

Yoskay Yamamoto's Cosmic Boy.
Yoskay Yamamoto’s Cosmic Boy.
JANM: Can you tell us about the other three pieces you have in the show?

YY: The smaller wall installation is called Cosmic Boy. I bought a bootleg Astro Boy figure from Hong Kong on eBay, and I just took the head off and re-sculpted it. Then I had my friend fabricate 25 of them for me.

I also have two paintings here called Keep on Shining and California Dreamin’. These are both based on the old Americana signage that I see around LA. I think this is something that’s dying in culture—I don’t think anybody is making these signs any more. I like seeing the craftsmanship in them—there’s something special and magical about it. I try to pick some titles or combinations of words that I like, to give a positive message to them.

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is on view at JANM through January 24, 2016.

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is now on view!

Having fun inside of kozyndan's custom vinyl mural, Heat Run Samadhi. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Having fun inside of kozyndan’s custom vinyl mural, Heat Run Samadhi.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

 

Since 2007, JANM has partnered with Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura to produce the Giant Robot Biennale, a recurring art exhibition dedicated to showcasing the diverse creative works brought together under the ethos of the popular brand. The latest edition, Giant Robot Biennale 4, examines the evolution of the Giant Robot aesthetic from its humble origins in drawing to its many celebrated manifestations in painting, installation, muralism, and photography.

This past Saturday night, GRB4 had its grand opening celebration. More than 2,000 guests gathered at the museum for a lively evening of art, music, food, and crafts. Enjoy the photos that follow!

Certificates of appreciation were given to curator Eric Nakamura and each of the GRB4 artists by Danielle Brazell of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Certificates of appreciation were given to curator Eric Nakamura and each of the GRB4 artists by Danielle Brazell of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Danielle Brazell of the Department of Cultural Affairs, right, presents curator Eric Nakamura with his certificate of appreciation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Danielle Brazell of the Department of Cultural Affairs, right, presents curator Eric Nakamura with his certificate of appreciation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
More than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities. Photo by Richard Murakami.
More than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities. Photo by Richard Murakami.
A popular activity of the evening was custom finishing a button using designs started by GRB4 artists. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A popular activity of the evening was custom finishing a button using
designs started by GRB4 artists. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A family makes buttons together. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A family makes buttons together. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Excited guests line up to have their designs pressed into buttons. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Excited guests line up to have their designs pressed into buttons. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Audrey Kawasaki poses in front of her artwork. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Audrey Kawasaki poses in front of her artwork. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dublab spins some tunes to keep the party going. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dublab spins some tunes to keep the party going. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Tasty bites were provided by Mama Musubi. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Tasty bites were provided by Mama Musubi. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Cafe Dulce also got in the spirit with special Giant Robot x JANM donuts. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Cafe Dulce also got in the spirit with special Giant Robot x JANM donuts.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Nerdbot's Photo Booth brought out the flair in everyone. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Nerdbot’s Photo Booth brought out the flair in everyone. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Eric Nakamura, right, and a few of the artists admire kozyndan's mural. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Eric Nakamura, right, and a few of the artists admire kozyndan’s mural.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Kozue and Dan Kitchens, aka kozyndan, pose in front of their work. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Kozue and Dan Kitchens, aka kozyndan, pose in front of their work.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
People couldn't get enough of kozyndan's mural! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
People couldn’t get enough of kozyndan’s mural! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A guest tries his hand at drawing inside a replica of artist Edwin Ushiro's studio. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A guest tries his hand at drawing inside a replica of artist Edwin Ushiro’s studio.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, left, and artist Mike Lee check on a few last-minute details in the replica Giant Robot store. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, left, and artist Mike Lee check on a few last-minute details
in the replica Giant Robot store. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Mari Inukai in front of her painting. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Artist Mari Inukai in front of her painting. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Ray Potes of Hamburger Eyes poses in front of the collective's installation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Ray Potes of Hamburger Eyes poses in front of the collective’s installation.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Katsuya Terada wows onlookers with his live drawing skills. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Katsuya Terada wows onlookers with his live drawing skills. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A rapt crowd gathers to watch electronic musician Daedalus. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A crowd gathers to watch electronic musician Daedalus. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Daedalus in action. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Daedalus in action. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
No opening at JANM is complete without a visit from the reigning Nisei Week Court! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
No opening at JANM is complete without a visit from the reigning
Nisei Week Court! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, and artist Esao Andrews. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Curator Eric Nakamura, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, and artist Esao Andrews. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.

Marié Digby’s Colorful Pop Music Helps Launch JANM’s New Summer Night Concerts

Irish-Japanese American singer-songwriter Marié Digby is just one of the artists featured in JANM’s new Summer Night Concerts series, launching on July 30. Digby is a Los Angeles native who vaulted to fame after her acoustic cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” went viral on YouTube. We conducted this email interview to learn more about her music and her perspective as an Asian American musician.

Marié Digby
Marié Digby
JANM: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Marié Digby: I would say it’s like an apple! The skin is vibrant and colorful, the meat of the fruit is storytelling and emotions, and at the core is pop music.

JANM: Who or what are your biggest influences?

MD: I’m a kid of the nineties so most of my biggest influences are bands and artists from that era. I grew up on Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Poe. So many amazing artists!

JANM: What inspired you to do your own acoustic version of “Umbrella”?

MD: I had just started uploading cover videos on YouTube. I was always on the lookout for new songs on the radio—preferably, heavily produced songs that I felt still had an amazing core structure, which I could then break down to just vocal and guitar/piano. When I heard “Umbrella” in my car for the first time, I knew it would probably sound great stripped down.

JANM: There’s a wonderful quote in your bio: “I love watching people, and songs come out of that. When I have an experience that moves me, I can’t sit still until I’ve written the song.” Can you give us an example of an experience that moved you to write a song?

MD: What’s funny is, when I have a really positive/happy experience, I rarely feel like the first thing I want to do is sit down with my guitar and write a song! It always seems to be the more tragic, heartbreaking, soul-shaking events. As an example, I once wrote a song about all of the different people I’ve seen and met who pass through Los Angeles, in the hopes of becoming a star. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to see the transformations I often witness. This city from afar is full of hopes and dreams but when you’re actually in it, it can really eat you up alive.

JANM: Do you identify as an Asian American artist? Or, put another way, do you feel that your identity as an Asian American influences your artistic practice, and if so, how?

MD: I absolutely do! When I first started out, I never considered the fact that my ethnicity might play an important role in my being an artist. When I started posting videos, I noticed that the majority of the comments were coming from Asians, in all different parts of the world! I love being half Asian. I am so proud to represent not only my Japanese culture, but a quickly growing group of hapa kids in America.

JANM: Besides JANM’s Summer Night Concert, do you have any exciting plans or upcoming gigs you’d like to tell our readers about?

MD: The most exciting project on my calendar right now is a new album I’m creating with Tom Rothrock, who produced my first album, Unfold. We’ll be working on it later this fall. It will be my first full-length independent release, after making four other albums with the help of record labels. But I believe with the help of my amazing fans, it just might be my best album yet!

Marié Digby will perform as part of JANM’s first Summer Night Concert on July 30, along with Priska and headlining act Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. Kogi BBQ, Arroy Food Truck, and Frach’s Fried Ice Cream will be on site, along with a beer garden sponsored by JANM’s Young Professionals Network. Join us again on August 27 for an evening with Paul Dateh, Mike Gao, and Go Yama. All concerts are FREE.

Minha Park Searches for “Elusive Snow”

First & Central’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month concludes with this post. It has been a pleasure to spotlight diverse, Los Angeles–based, Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity in their work. We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we have.

Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video
Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video

 

Born in Seoul, South Korea, artist and filmmaker Minha Park moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). She now divides her time between L.A. and Seoul.

In A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), completed the year she graduated from CalArts, Park explores her new life in L.A. and her longing for South Korea, or what she calls her “motherland.” She particularly misses the phenomenon of snow, which she refers to as if it were a friend—“Not her voice, or her image. I miss her physical presence.” She finds however that L.A., being the land of special effects magic and wish fulfillment, offers many unique opportunities for conjuring an experience of snow.

A Story Of Elusive Snow ( 2013 ) 9min excerpts from Minha Park on Vimeo.

This delightful video work tracks Park’s wistful journey to find snow, incorporating vintage Hollywood movie scenes and well-known L.A. landmarks along the way. In addition to evoking longing, nostalgia, and playfulness, A Story of Elusive Snow also expresses Park’s feeling of being a stranger in Southern California—a feeling symbolized by the incongruence of snow on Hollywood Boulevard.

The video ends with manufactured snow overflowing from a Hollywood souvenir mug, a moment that is both joyful and absurd. In the artist’s own words, “Could [the protagonist] ever get her snow? In the last scene, the souvenir cup with the Hollywood logo can’t contain the snow that she made. Her personal longing for snow thus collides with a fundamental human desire for elusive magic and illusion.”

Mountain Brothers Broke New Ground for Asian Americans in Hip Hop

The Mountain Brothers (Peril-L, CHOPS, Styles)
The Mountain Brothers (Peril-L, CHOPS, Styles)

 

Most people I know of Asian descent who came of age in the 1990s have a deep appreciation for hip hop music. One of the most visible examples of this is chef and iconoclast Eddie Huang, whose boyhood is the subject of the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

Based on his bestselling autobiography of the same name, the sitcom repeatedly emphasizes young Eddie’s identification with hip hop as empowering music for outsiders. As Huang’s generation came of age, they began making music of their own, and today, there are many successful Asian American hip hop acts.

Back in the early ’90s, however, it wasn’t so easy for musicians of Asian descent to gain acceptance in the field. The hip hop genre was heavily coded as African American, and Asians were perceived as not fitting into the culture. Attempts to perform or compose beats were typically disparaged—by audiences, by music producers, and by industry executives.

In 1996, a trio of Chinese-American students at Penn State University entered a national singing contest sponsored by Sprite, and won. Their slick rhymes expressing their love for the soft drink wound up on the radio as a 60-second commercial. Executives at Ruffhouse Records—known for producing albums by The Fugees and Cypress Hill, among others—liked what they heard and approached the group for a deal.

Mountain SelfThe Mountain Brothers—CHOPS (Scott Jung), Peril-L (Christopher Wang), and Styles Infinite (Steve Wei)—named themselves after a group of noble bandits depicted in a classical Chinese novel. They soon became the first Asian American hip hop group to sign with a major label.

Unfortunately, the group’s path was a rocky one. The record label saw their ethnicity as a disadvantage, and even suggested that they satirize their heritage onstage by wearing karate outfits and playing a gong. Although their music was critically acclaimed, it was difficult for them to get gigs if they did not initially conceal their Asian identities. After releasing only two albums—Self: Volume 1 in 1999 and Triple Crown in 2003—the group disbanded.

Today, the Mountain Brothers are considered important pioneers who paved the way for the many Asian American hip hop acts who followed. Although two of the members have since left music to pursue other professions, CHOPS continues to have a successful career as a producer and composer, working with artists like Nicki Menaj and Kanye West.

On Thursday evening, May 14, JANM will present a rare panel discussion with all the original members of the Mountain Brothers, moderated by sociologist Oliver Wang. Come and learn more about the band’s history and what the members have been up to lately, and hear their views on the past and future of hip hop music. Tickets are still available here.

Listen to some of their classic tracks here.