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Blank Space and “Asymmetries of Childhood Innocence”  

In 2015 a video of a child in an Internet café in the Philippines began to trend on social media sites. Titled, Kanta ng isang Anak para sa kanyang inang OFW “Blank Space (“Song of a child for her overseas foreign worker mother”), the video shows a girl singing via Skype to her mother who is working in an unnamed location, presumably outside of the Philippines. “Ma kakantahan ulit kita ha?” (I’ll sing for you again mom), she says, and starts singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”. Her mother attentively watches and listens to her song, soon beginning to cry in longing for a daughter she has not seen in a long time. The girl’s attention is divided between the screen that shows the lyrics, the camera that films her singing, and her mother who quietly observes. This video has over 110,000 views and is one of many archived messages from a child singing or speaking to their mother who labours transnationally. Despite the videos’ jittery framing and low quality, the intended message of shared longing across cyber and transnational borders is clear.

The Spanish-American war (1899-1902) resulted in the relinquishment of the colony of the Philippines from Spain to the United States. This transfer of power instituted the imperial specter that continues to grip the archipelago. The many performances of American pop music on Youtube and on stages throughout the Philippines are what Christine Bacareza Balance calls the “musical aftermath of US imperial cultures” (2016). Having amassed over 97 million YouTube views in the Philippines, Taylor Swift’s overwhelming popularity is evidence of this continued imperial presence. In the video, the young Filipinx girl sings lyrics written by Swift: “I’m dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand.” When sung by this child these lyrics take on different meaning than Swift likely intended. Perhaps she is anticipating an end to the necessity of separation between mother and daughter. 

Using song, the video provides evidence of what Hannah Dyer calls the ‘asymmetries of childhood innocence’ (2019), reminding its audience of the ways transnational labour and global capital impact children’s experiences of kinship and development. Dyer suggests that some children are withheld the protective hold of childhood innocence. She writes:

“Childhood innocence is a seemingly natural condition but its rhetorical maneuvers are permeated by its elisions and attempted disavowals along the lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. That is, despite the familiar rhetorical insistence that children are the future, some children are withheld the benefits of being assumed inculpable (2)” 

Ascriptions of childhood innocence thus require a child to replicate social norms including the production of the nuclear family. In the Philippines, where the liberalization of international trade and high levels of unemployment have disproportionately impacted the labour migration of women, structures of the nuclear family are being re-organized (Parreñas 2005; Tungohan 2013). Women who work outside of the Philippines and away from their families are paradoxically celebrated for their “sacrifice” while also subject to disapproval over their absence (Tungohan 2013). When mothers leave the Philippines, the care-arrangements for children are shifted. There is a growing recognition of the changing nature of motherhood within transnational contexts and the concomitant emotional consequences of negotiating “long distance intimacy” (Parreñas 2005). The demands for transnational labour reconfigure Filipinx family formations and necessitate fraught intimacies between parent and child across borders. Cyber technologies like cell phones and the Internet initiate creative opportunities for children to be “virtually present” in the lives of their mothers and vice versa.  

“Parenthood” by Flickr user Saúl Alejandro Preciado Farías, CC BY 2.0

Drawing from Dyer, we might think of children who live without the physical presence of their mothers as “queer” to normative theories of childhood development that affirm overwrought expectations of maternal presence. She suggests that discourses of childhood innocence intend to subjugate the queerness of childhood and that these elisions hold bio-political significance. Faced with social inequities, Dyer emphasizes the importance of a child’s symbolic expression. She argues that children express their psychic and social conflicts aesthetically. A child’s imagination elaborates resistances to the enclosure of childhood innocence as a barometer of value. In this way, this article suggests a child’s singing and dancing are aesthetic expressions that take notice of the entangled traces of colonialism and nation, while resisting hierarchal structures that deem some childhoods more valuable than others.

The child’s sonic performance in the YouTube video is a queer offering that creatively procures transnational connection. Her singing registers a queer frequency that destabilizes normative theories of child development that assume a mother’s physical presence as necessary to developmental success. The girl’s performance suggests that psychic and political reparations can occur in the sounds the child makes. The tactile, spatial and physical qualities of her voice forge a new relation to her mother. Her voice is affecting, seemingly moving her mother to tears and rousing the onlookers at the Internet café to reorganize their bodies and sing along. In this video, we are invited to witness a child whose world has been altered by globalization and the continued geo-political violence’s enacted by the American empire. Given these circumstances, her “creative re-interpretation[s] of kinship” serves as a reminder that the affective fortitude of her voice tests physical and emotional borders (Dyer 2019). The restraint of normative conceptions of family is ruptured when the child remakes her relation to her mother in ways that stir joy, collectivity, and pleasure. 

Screenshot from “

By observing and listening to the child’s song more closely, we can listen for its potential to re-sound and re-imagine the parent-child relationship across borders. The sounds of “OFW Blank Space” linger after the clip has ended. By listening for what is in excess of the video’s content, we can consider the affective registers that enunciate alternative understandings of migration, family and belonging. There is a humming that is ubiquitous in the video. Perhaps, it is the sound of the electric fans that run to combat the tropical heat of the Philippines. Maybe it is the collective buzzing from the computers that have been set up to provide the Internet to its cybercafé patrons. The acoustics of the space are at once mundane and haphazard, and at the same time, cogent indicators of the geopolitical truths echoing throughout the scene. With limited access to Internet in the home, the cybercafé has been a site that children frequent to communicate with family working in another country. The convergence of sound, technology and diasporic subjectivity becomes audible when the practice of listening is attuned to these methods of transnational connection. 

While listening to the pedagogical potential of the cybercafé more broadly, a focus on the vocal performance of the child reveals my investment in what the sound of her voice tells us. The video starts with greetings spoken in Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines. When the backing track begins, the child makes a seamless transition into singing in English. In her vocal performance of the lyrics, her Filipino accent is almost undetectable. She sings with a dulcet tone that is clear and appealing. Her voice sounds well-trained and confident. If not for the video, one might believe the child to be a professional American performer. In this scene, it is her voice that is marked and constituted by a narrative of American imperial conquest and Filipino assimilation. But in a creative adaptation of American cultural production, the child re-writes this racialized script and uses American pop songs as a mechanism of care for both herself and her mother.

“Mother and daughter at home” by Flickr user Dejan Krsmanovic, CC-BY-2.0

The economic instability in the Philippines has created a state instituted transnational workforce. Women have been disproportionately affected by the demand for work in care industries such as nursing, childcare and care for the elderly (Francisco-Menchavez 2018). These gendered and racialized structures of employment privilege the presence of Filipinx women in families other than their own. The child is withheld a future that assures her the presence of her mother and their physical proximity is denied as a result of the demand for labour and capital exchange between nation-states. However, despite these circumstances, the child uses her voice to summon a beautiful intimacy, one that does not disavow the imperial history that marks its possibility, but instead uses loss as a resource to creatively mourn their separation. For the child, the act of singing is a replacement for her lost object, her mother. In the video we witness a child who is full of joy and whose strength of voice quells, if not, temporarily, whatever longing for her mother she might have. Relatedly, the child is also perceptive of her mother’s needs and uses music as a method of offering her care. Her performance creatively re-routes the presumed directionalities of care (from mother to child) which globalization has fundamentally altered.  

Featured image: “Children” by Flickr user Clive Varley, CC-BY-2.0

Casey Mecija is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist, primarily working in the fields of music and film. She played in Ohbijou, the Canadian orchestral pop band, and released her first solo album, entitled Psychic Materials, in 2016. Casey is also an award winning filmmaker whose work has screened internationally. She is completing a PhD at The University of Toronto, where she researches sound, performance studies and Filipinx Studies as they relate to queer diaspora.

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Relocating Soundscapes of Schooling: Learning to Listen to Children’s Lifeworlds-Cassie Brownell

Top 40 Democracy: Taylor Swift’s Election Day Victory-Eric Weisbard

Hearing “Media-Capitalism” in Egypt–Ziad Fahmy

Mukbang Cooks, Chews, and Heals

Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet.  –JS

Today’s post comes from Binghamton University junior David Lee, former student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to

write one researched, multimedia blog post on our class WordPress in the style of Sounding Out! on a sound studies topic of interest to you (approximately 1500 words). Your post should involve an issue involving power and social identity, use our in-class readings as a springboard and quotes and analyzes at least 2 in the post, relate our course topic at hand to a contemporary event, conversation, or issue and includes evidence of research of that topic (3-5 quotations/links to credible online sources), include audio, visual, and/or audio-visual elements as a key part of your analysis (this can include recordings, still photos, you tube clips, videos, etc.) and follow SO!’s submission guidelines on form, style, tone, and content: (https://soundstudiesblog.com/to-blog-2/).

For the full assignment sheet, click How We Listen_Final Blog Assignment For the grading rubric, click Blog Assignment Grading Rubric (1). For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018

Mukbang is the newest wave in trends for ASMR; it is an online audiovisual broadcast in which the host enjoys his/her food while interacting with the audience. Adopted from Korea, Mukbang’s literal translation is a portmanteau—it is a combination of two Korean words: “mukja” (let’s eat) and “bangsong” (broadcast). The first time I watched these eating broadcasts was in 2018, before major surgery. Prior to the surgery, I could not eat for twenty-four hours. It came to the point where I was so hungry that I would chew up the meat and spit it out and I would make a mental list of foods that I wanted to eat after the surgery. In an effort to satisfy my hunger, I watched a lot of videos on the Tasty network and stumbled upon Mukbangs. I had heard of the term prior to that day but had never watched the videos myself. The experience could be expressed as an oxymoron: sweet torture. I remember salivating uncontrollably but at the same time watching someone eat began to ease my own stomach.

In recent years Mukbang has blown up on streaming sites like Youtube, and has been met with a subsequent huge audience growth. Mukbang was most notably referenced in the company’s Youtube Rewind 2018 video:

Interestingly, Mukbangs have only been considered ASMR once they were adopted by American content creators. According to journalist Matthew Sedacca, viewers explain that they experience what they call a “braingasm”, described as a tingling sensation down one’s spine from the sounds of cooking and eating. The sizzling sounds of the broth or the slurping sounds of noodles are what is said to relax the listeners. In Touch the Sound, Evelyn Glennie communicates that to hear is to also touch. Likewise, the viewers experience a sensation of touch from the audio and visual elements that the video stimulates. The sounds of food that many associate with tingling, pleasant sensation can also provide viewers with a sense of comfort and reassurance.

In today’s busy society, it is hard to have a formal meal with our family and friends, so oftentimes we are found eating alone. Watching Mukbangs can mitigate the feeling of loneliness through the presence of what Steve Connor calls the vocalic body, so while we are eating alone, the presence of another is real and felt. According to Connor, “[t]he principle of the vocalic body is simple. Voices are produced by bodies: but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea—which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucination—of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice” (35). The voice in these videos takes the form of a body sitting next to us, eating and talking to us.

Simply put, viewers are watching another individual enjoy his/her meal, but Mukbangs have a greater social implication. The rise in popularity of Mukbangs coincide with the rapid technological advancements occurring in society and the shift in entertainment focus on streamable content. Eating is a routine and everyday experience, so Mukbangs portray a vital aspect of life where viewers can passively watch while experiencing the sensory feeling that sound evokes. When the host visually and audibly enjoys his/her meal the viewers can feel the presence of a body ,which accounts for the chills down one’s spine characteristic of ASMR videos. As this phenomenon demonstrates, sound can lessen feelings of loneliness by bringing the audience a sense of human comfort.

“the cook has to eat alone” by Flickr user Joseph Choi, CC BY 2.0

Mukbangs are also helpful to those who have restrictions in their diet. For someone who may be deadly allergic to shellfish, he/she can imagine that experience by watching another person enjoy the dish. While it is not the same as twisting off the claws of a lobster and eating the meat, watching and listening to another person do just that allows the viewer to be a part of that experience. Moreover, a deadly food allergy may keep someone from sharing a communal meal with friends; the sounds of a Mukbang video could recreate that experience. Lastly, and no less important, Mukbangs act in opposition to the unrealistic beauty standards of society; while society’s expectations push us to always keep our figure, a Mukbanger’s response is to eat senselessly. Therefore, Mukbangs embody our fantasies; we live vicariously through the broadcaster.

Mukbangs have introduced a new format for cooking shows. Rather than emphasizing cheesy background music and eccentric hosts on cable tv, Mukbangs strip all these effects away, so that viewers can truly appreciate the essence of cooking in the kitchen: it’s not just about what the dish tastes like in the end, but also the auditory experience. On cooking shows, a lot of the focus ends up on what the plate looks like, or what steps go in what order—it is a visual experience, in general. When it comes to Mukbangs, people watching the videos get to enjoy the relaxing sounds of cooking, and the focus is not on copying the recipe: Sedacca states, “with ASMR it becomes more about the sound than the taste.” The alternate format promotes cooking to a larger audience instead of gearing towards stay-at-home moms. Mukbang cooking videos tend to be more of a minimalist everyday perspective rather than displaying cooking as a luxurious commodity. Mukbangs show us that it is no longer about becoming the cook, but appreciating the cooking being done, and the sound adds to the intimacy of the event. With Mukbangs it is as if your mom were cooking in the kitchen.

In doing so, Mukbangs can also advocate for cultural awareness, as viewers are exposed to different foods that the host enjoys. By seeing a host they trust enjoy foreign food, it encourages the viewer to possibly try that food or visit that country in the future. A popular example of this would be when kpop idol Hwasa from group Mamamoo went on a South Korean tv show called I Live Alone and ate gopchang (cattle intestines) at a nearby restaurant. After the video went viral, the Korean BBQ restaurant industry exploded within a day, so much so, that the dish was reportedly sold out in all of Seoul, Korea.

As for me, nowadays I watch Mukbangs when I miss home. Now that I am away at college, many of my meals consist of dining hall food. Where I go to school, Korean restaurants are scarce and do not taste the same as home. There is something about a well-cooked Korean meal that Korean restaurants at school cannot replicate. So, when I am away at college, I often watch Korean Mukbangs to tap into the comfort of home, through sound and images.

Mukbang watchers have an array of audience members; people watch it to lose weight, for ASMR, or simply when they are eating alone. Mukbangs challenge social norms; although it may be rude to slurp spaghetti noodles in public, Mukbang is evidence that some people enjoy those exact sounds. Likewise, as more people begin to live individualistic lives, the eating broadcasts make up for this difference in human interaction. For those trying to lose weight, Mukbangs offer the option of seeing someone “eat their feelings” without you yourself having to overindulge or feel guilt.

More importantly, Mukbang is a relevant example that listening can be a tactile experience: through vibrations and also from sensations through the body. It challenges the listening audience to be present and appreciate the essence of food, and cooking as a sustaining artform. The aforementioned is especially true for cooking shows where the audience listens for the calming sounds that come with cooking instead of listening to what seems like a sales pitch to best copy the recipe. Mukbang makes cooking and, consequently, eating into healing activities instead of something that is reserved solely for those who have the time. Mukbangs are making a social difference by promoting Korean culture, spreading cultural awareness through food, and helping to lessen the feeling of loneliness. While Mukbangs were previously seen as fetishized or weird they are now challenging our preconceived notions on how, what, and with who we should enjoy food.

Featured image: “Korean Food – Korean Kimchi and BBQ Cooking Meat (Creative Commons)” by Flickr user Sous Chef, CC BY 2.0

David Lee is a Korean American Junior at Binghamton University studying Finance and Marketing. In his free time he likes to read, work out, or watch TV. He is an avid fan of Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and Got7.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out Podcast #14: Interview with Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan — Aaron Trammell

Listening to Whisperers: Performance, ASMR Community, and Fetish on Youtube — Joshua Hudelson

Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever

 

My Voice, or On Not Staying Quiet

Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet.  –JS

Today’s post comes from Binghamton University sophomore Kaitlyn Liu, former SO! intern and student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to

write a 3-page biography of your voice.  You may choose to organize the paper and tell the story however you wish, as long as you consider your experience in light our classroom readings and conversations. . .Here are some questions to help you get started.  You do not need to answer all of them, but they may lead you toward some important realizations that you can share through this paper:  Have you thought critically about your voice before this class? Why or why not? If so, when did you first become conscious of your voice? Why?What do you love about your voice? Why? Who were your models for learning how to speak and style your voice? Have you ever wanted to change your voice? Why or why not? Have you? Have you liked or disliked your voice at some times in your life more than others?

For the full assignment sheet, click Voice Biography Assignment_F18. For the grading rubric, click Voice Biography Grading Rubric_F18. For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018

While the course usually seats mainly juniors and seniors, Kaitlyn was only a freshman when she wrote this powerful piece!

The first joke I can recall took place in fourth grade; then again, I am unsure why it is easier to call it a joke rather than its true word, which I learned only three years ago. Perhaps, given the fact that an eight-year-old is typically still protected from most forms of racism, the fact that I could only categorize this statement as a joke back then is what propels me to do so again as a college student. 

I remember that he hadn’t even formed words, he simply yelled out sounds. He pulled on the corner of his eyes and did his best impression of an Asian man’s accent from across the room, letting the whole class know his perception of my race. Ten years later, I realize that this incident was just the start of a lifelong endurance of misjudgment, bigotry, and the largely unwelcome narration of my life.

“Empty Chairs,” Image by Flickr user Renato Ganoza (CC BY 2.0)

In tenth grade, I applied for a student exchange program my high school had recently undertook called Community Wide Dialogue. The program involved my suburban school pairing up with an urban school nearby to discuss, and hopefully dismantle, racist ideals within our city. Although there is no explicit definition of the word “suburban” that details an overwhelming whiteness of its residents, this seems to be the case more often than not. After being accepted into the group, I attended our school’s first informative session about the program. Walking into the room, I quickly noticed that of nearly twenty-five students, I was the only minority they had accepted. I remember thinking to myself, Is this the best they can do? Am I a token minority here? My school had, albeit scarce, minority representation; why weren’t they included?

Being a minority in a program specifically designated for alleviating such ideals meant that I felt very discouraged from speaking in a setting where discussion, specifically from the point of view of minorities, was essential to the goal. I found it was often the white males of both groups speaking for minorities. One day, we studied vocabulary pertaining to racism; this is when I first learned that the term “color blindness” was actually quite racist, as opposed to its intended meaning. Additionally, this is when I first learned the word for what I had been hearing my entire life: microaggressions. My experience suddenly became real; what I had been calling “jokes” was racism.

I felt validated. Being Chinese-American, I am lucky to be protected from more extreme forms of racism that members of the African-American or Latinx population may face. Similarly, I am a minority, but in contrast, I am not perceived as a threat. I am not, as Sandra Bland was, a cause for a repulsive increase in the ease of extending an official white hand. I will never be the tragedy that causes Regina Bradley, a Black professor, to cautiously check herself in order to abide by her grandmother’s warning: “don’t attract attention to yourself.”

The most extreme racism I have endured lies in statements similar to: “Of course you did well on that test!” The only thing that surprised me is that these statements never came from strangers or acquaintances; instead, it was always my closest friends who felt comfortable enough to cause my own sense of discomfort. The most harmful thing about microaggressions is that it is socially unacceptable for the victim to verbalize their being affected by these hurtful phrases. When a victim acknowledges they are hurt, perpetrators are quick to cast their pain aside as hypersensitivity, working to further marginalize them while justifying their own discrimination. 

Staying quiet had everything to do with who I was: a female and a minority. I let my intelligence show through my writing and my academic performance. Even if I wanted to speak, I was aware of the little relevance my voice had to others, particularly boys. As Kelly Baker remarks in “Listen to the Sound of My Voice,” “teenage girls were supposed to be seen, but when they spoke they had to master the right combination in order to be heard.” Of course, just like Baker, I, along with several other females, never could master this cultural puzzle.

“Quiet” by flickr user heyrocc, (CC BY 2.0)

I took after most girls when I say that I tended not to speak much in class so as not to make boys uncomfortable by letting them into a female’s darkest secret: I was smarter than most of them. My teachers knew, of course, but they rarely mandated that I spoke out loud. I developed an especially close relationship with my English teacher of two years; he was one of the teachers who had the most insight into my thoughts as written in formal assignments. In other words, he knew my capabilities. 

In my second year of his class, he announced that there would be a slam poetry unit in which each student had to write a five-minute poem regarding something they felt strongly about. Most students were quick to write about their perception of the injustice of the school system. I assume this topic was popular due to it being deemed “safe,” meaning the majority of students had the exact same beliefs, and because, as I alluded to before with my deep, dark secret, who would want to make anyone uncomfortable by saying something meaningful? 

I decided I would. I could have easily written a poem about a neutral subject that still would have been much more memorable than the others in the class, but my teacher had a faith in me that I decided I would not disobey by lowering my standards for the sake of my classmates’ comfort, so, I did it. I talked about being Asian. 

“Poetry Slam,” Image by Flickr user Ländle Slam (CC BY 2.0)

I started the poem with quotes of microaggressions I have heard during my life. It’s said that opening with a joke can lighten the mood, and that was what these sayings were to them, right? I had judged their reactions rightfully; the crowd laughed at the pure absurdity of most of these quotes. When I turned the subject of the poem to how it made me feel, however, is when the class went silent. My voice shook until I reached the third page. I ended up winning the class award for that poem, but do not let that fool you into the amount of eyes that refused to meet mine when I finished speaking.

Their embarrassment is how I knew it had worked. People can cast away a few comments or corrections, but given a platform and five minutes of speech that can not be interrupted, people have to listen. More importantly, they have to listen to me. One of the rules the teacher had put in place regarding our poetry slam was that listeners had to ask each speaker questions after they read their poem in order to receive credit. Our school’s pride and joy, our white, male, three-sport athlete valedictorian, was the first to raise his hand.

 “How often do you hear these jokes?”

“Three to five times a day,” I responded loudly, bluntly.

There were no follow up questions.

The word got around. I had people coming up to me and asking me about the poem they had heard about; they began to call it the “Asian poem.” I noticed immediately that the microaggressions stopped, and when a friend witnessed one of the very few I encountered afterwards, her mouth dropped, looking at me to say, “It’s just like the poem!” 

My voice had officially become my own through… poetry? I had never considered the ability to find my voice and, in turn, myself through a writing form that I thought to be obsolete. I began writing poems about everything- immigration, love, mental illness, sexual assault- and what was most important is that I was praised. As a Chinese teenage girl, I was heard. I was heard by my classmates, by SUNY Oswego, by Ithaca College, by Scholastic. I realized that poetry could better consolidate and portray my thoughts on a topic than a simple speech. It was the art of speech, the cunning of rhyme scheme and line breaks that finally made what I had to say captivating to others because my skill was admirable. It was an acquired learning, figuring out what to cut, where to end, when to eliminate punctuation to portray certain emotions- it was a combination I actually enjoyed solving.

I ended up using this poem for my college application. I distinctly remember handing in a rough draft of what I thought to be the epitome of a college essay only to have my teacher promptly return it, saying, “You should use your poem instead. That is what is going to show your writing skills- not the typical college essay.” She gathered two other English teachers of mine to consult over the idea. Poetry was not the safest choice for a college application. One of the essay prompts on the application was very vague, simply claiming that the selection of this prompt would indicate that your writing was an explanation of something that the you felt was too important to leave missing from the rest of your application. The four of us easily came to a consensus: this was what colleges needed to see. Call it affirmative action, but I firmly believe it was the quality of my writing–the way it carries the sound and the force of my voice–rather than the subject that got me where I am today. 

My secret was finally out; I have shit to say

Featured Image: “Voice” by Flickr User Laurel Russwurm (CC BY 2.0)

Kaitlyn Liu is a sophomore at Binghamton University with an intended major of English Literature with a concentration in rhetoric. Kaitlyn takes interest in writing about gender and race along with other intersectional classification systems. She has a passion for nonprofit work, including her previous work with student writers to raise funds for Ophelia’s Place, a nonprofit that provides support for those impacted by body image. Kaitlyn has also been awarded two gold keys for her writing through the Scholastic Art & Writing regional contest. Outside of writing, Kaitlyn enjoys reading historical fiction and singing for Binghamton’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, the Binghamtonics.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies — Christine Ehrick

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonefant

As Loud As I Want To Be: Gender, Loudness, and Respectability Politics — Liana Silva

Kawa: Rediscovering Indigeneity in China via Reggae

Kawa is a reggae group from Yunnan’s Ximeng, an autonomous county for the Wa people in the southwest of China, bordering Myanmar. When I learned about Kawa’s story in 2016, I was first intrigued by the geographical similarities between Yunnan and Jamaica: both regions are characterized by tropical climates, lush vegetations, and perhaps most prominently, proximities to marijuana plantations. Outsiders often associate the musical style of reggae with a stereotypical “laidback” lifestyle projected onto these locales. Known as “Yunnan Reggae,” Kawa’s music indeed exhibits some of the most characteristic elements of reggae music—slower tempos, remixed vocals, and repetitive chords falling on the offbeat.

“Yunnan Reggae”–Kawa

Recently I realized this climate connection was simplistic and reductive, and what I failed to grasp in Kawa’s music was far more important—a notion of indigeneity manifested through reggae’s generic elements. In Steven Feld’s “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: The Discourses and Practices of World Music and World Beat” in 1995, he noted the affinity of many indigenous cultures for reggae music. “Its [reggae] perception by indigenous peoples outside the Caribbean as an oppositional roots ethnopop form has led to its local adoption by migrants and indigenes in places as diverse as Europe, Hawaii, Native North America, Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and Southeast Asia” (110). In the 1970s, “roots” reggae translated the everyday lives of Jamaicans as well as their Rastafarian spirituality into a stark resistance to racial oppression, economic inequality, and colonial capitalism that they had experienced in history. The music was deeply embedded in the Jamaican culture. Around the same time, however, engineers and producers in Jamaica–many of them Chinese and Chinese-Jamaican–began to experiment with remixing reggae songs, contributing to an adaptive style of pop music as well as its international popularity.  Therefore, against the global market force for “a world music,” reggae was quickly adopted to preserve indigenous cultures, remixing a wide range of ethnomusical elements.

But note that Feld’s list did not include East Asia. In fact, indigeneity as a discourse has been largely absent in this region. Taiwan is perhaps the only exception, where the Austronesian peoples have claimed their indigenous status and political rights. Japan and the Koreas are often considered as the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. And China, while officially acknowledging its ethnic diversity, never thought its internal migration of the Han majority as a potential threat to its ethnic minorities and indigenous cultures. I grew up in the southwest of China in the 1990s, when the internal migration of ethnic groups was already a norm. I could not remember if “indigeneity” meant anything even remotely political. I could not remember if the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities were meant to be tied up to the land on which they are/were practiced. What I do remember is that there are regions where the ethnic minorities concentrate and in which they integrate.

This post examines how the Chinese reggae group Kawa introduces an indigenous discourse through the sonic elements of reggae. In their performances, Lao Han often opens with a statement about being an indigenous ethnic minority. Most members of the group have non-Han Chinese backgrounds—Wa, Hani, Aini, and Hui. And even the name Kawa refers to the Wa people in their own language.

Kawa always find the most innovative ways to incorporate ethnic elements into their interpretations of the genre. In “Yunnan Reggae,” for example, sampled vocals from Wa people, lyrics written in Wa language, and traditional Wa instrumentation all work together to portray living cultural traditions closely associated with the Wa ethnic identity. However, it is the intimacy with the land Kawa expresses in their music that foregrounds their indigenous sentiments.

Although the entirety of the lyrics consists of two lines, the song “Red Hair Tree” reveals an indigenous life dwelling on the land—in its neighborhood, locality, and proximity.

Such a huge red hair tree

Hitting the wooden drum sounding dong dong

“Red Hair Tree” resembles a labor song narrating the mundane activities of logging and drum crafting. The first line describes the tree’s size, invoking a reverence for its sublimity. The glistening red color contributes to the plant’s vibrant animacies. As Ai Yong explains, “If you have chatted with the elders on the A Wa Mountains about this land, you will see an extraordinary beam of light glistening in their eyes, carrying endless assurance and reverence” (translated by Meng Ren). The second line translates that reverence into a more intimate whispering. Due to the Wa people’s animist beliefs, the red hair tree’s spirit is reincarnated in the wooden drum. The “dong dong” sound then embodies an invocation of the natural spirits. “The Wa ancestors believe, where there is the red hair tree, there is god’s blessing. In the past, the tall and robust red hair trees surrounded all Wa villages.” As Ai Yong continues to explain, the natural spirits are called for protection in exchange for the people’s worship.

“Red Hair Tree” is not the first time when reggae prompted the Han Chinese to confront questions about migration and indigeneity, however. It is often forgotten that the Chinese diaspora in Jamaica contributed to the development of reggae. Stephen Cheng’s “Always Together (A Chinese Love Song)” in 1967 is a rare yet symptomatic example of how the Chinese imagined indigeneity through remixing reggae.

Despite its obvious rocksteady overtone, the song combines a wide range of Chinese elements. It opens with a pronounced bass line coupled by the guitar and then the accented drum beat. Although this rhythmic beat is reminiscent of typical reggae songs, the music flow is somehow disrupted by the sudden appearance of the male vocal. Stephen Cheng sings in Mandarin. His chest voice meanders across a wide range, registering a sonority that is more often heard in Chinese opera than in reggae songs (or pop music in general). His delivery accentuates on the extended vowels, exaggerating the dramatic ups and downs of the tonal language—Mandarin Chinese. In fact, the music is adapted from a well-known Taiwanese folk song “Green is the Mountain (Gao Shan Qing).” On the surface, it is a romantic love story. It depicts the scenic landscape of the mountains and waters of Alishan, which the Taiwanese indigenous Tsou people traditionally inhabit. Through a metaphorical parallel, the romantic love between a young Tsou couple is embodied in the companionship between the mountain and the water, which resonates with its English title “Always Together.”

Indeed, “Green is the Mountain” was written by the Han Chinese who fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, and it is often criticized for romanticizing the experience of the indigenous peoples who were forced to move into the mountain. When the song is rendered into reggae by Cheng, however, it re-contextualizes this imagined indigeneity as a diasporic yearning to restore the lost connections between land and culture. “Always Together” was produced by Byron Lee, a Chinese-Jamaican who founded the renowned ska band Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. As record producers, sound system owners, or band managers, numerous Chinese-Jamaicans like Lee contributed “Chinese elements” to reggae during its formative years. In return, reggae carries on the tradition of cultural remix, always opening itself up to local adaptions.

Reggae has always been an eclectic music form. As we have seen, both examples combine a wide range of musical elements from different cultures—from ethnic minorities in China to Chinese and African diaspora in Jamaica. Despite almost a half century apart, the two reggae songs foreground a discourse on indigeneity that is shaped by the migration of people and the mixing of culture. Despite the most generic “pop” elements, the local adoption of reggae reveals an attempt to comprehend the relationship between ethnic identity, cultural practice, and the land. Understood in this way, Kawa’s reggae music becomes an important voice in understanding ethnic differences and indigeneity in today’s China.

Featured Image: Screen Shot from “Kawa: Chinese Yunnan Reggae Band”

Junting Huang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His research areas include literary studies, film/media studies, and sound studies. His dissertation project “The Noise Decade: Intermedial Impulse in Chinese Sound Recording” examines the figure of noise in contemporary Chinese literature and new media art. It analyzes how noise is conceptualized through the recorded sound as a materializing force that indexes the shifting social relations in the 1990s.

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