On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.
Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”
In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.
The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?
Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.
The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.
“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”
Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”
“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.
Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.
“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”
If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.
The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.
Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”
Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”
Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”
While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.
Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”
Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”
Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.
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Contra La Pared: Reggaetón and Dissonance in Naarm, Melbourne–Lucreccia Quintanilla
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012. Read last week’s post by Liana Silva here–JSA
Lately, I’ve been halted by a particular photograph of my mother. Like Roland Barthes’ wonderland photo of his mother in Camera Lucida,
this picture “corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” (8).
It began when my father reorganized his photographs. Since retirement, he’s taken on archival projects with renewed fervor. He began with 1974 (the year I was born), made it all the way to 1984 and from there slipped back. My mother, a freckled farm girl in South Dakota, standing in front of a box house and snow, lots of snow. The year, 1957 or so. My father in a high chair in Sepulveda, California. Perhaps 1948. By then my grandparents knew he was deaf.
And every couple of weeks or so my dad calls me. I finished another year, come see the pictures, he tells me via the Iphone, his slow, thoughtful typing shaped by many years of TTY-use (TTYs, or “Text Telephones,” are increasingly receding from every day use, replaced by chatting and text messaging). I imagine him at home in my old room, surrounded by generations of Waldners, Cardinales, Jensons and Ewings. Eagerly, he fills an old stereoscope viewer with 3d slides. His favorite is of my brother and me at the Buschart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. My brother is six and I am eight; our young faces are carefully tilted towards the pale cabbage roses. My father fits more years into fewer albums, filing the stray photos in new Costco cardboard photo boxes. And yet, as he reduces by putting old pictures into new boxes, he continually finds older pictures, older boxes.
The last time he called me, he was in 1984. These pictures depress my dad; he won’t spend much time here. In the photos I’m always on the phone or covering my face. Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the times he would attempt to enter my teenage world of sound. He’d follow the knotted coil of the cord, pick up the phone and say “huh-lllll-ooo,” exaggerating his lips in a comical lip-synch, emitting a low, guttural voice while I danced for the phone. We’d both laugh as if we secretly agreed: hearing language is silly, ugly; my father rarely uses his voice.
But within 1984 was a stack of black and white 5×6 matte photographs bound by a rubber band. They were a series of still television shots of my mother. We lived in Berkeley then, and my mother would drive to San Francisco to record the DeafNews; I remember being sleepy, confused, and excited when my mother’s face appeared on the TV. These photographs frame my mother the way I saw her: her face elongated by the distorting concave screen surrounded by blackness; in the picture she seems still to be floating in TV space. I wonder, who stood in front of the television, through several barriers and captured these stills of language?
In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus. It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo. “Careless Whispers” played as it did at all high school dances and embraced couples locked bodies in a slow sway on the dance floor. The music, the discomfort of boys in pressed shirts and Drakkar Noir, it was no different than the stiff dances at Ramona High school down the street. But it was Deaf more than any silence could be. When my friends found out my parents were deaf they nearly almost always gasped: “I bet your house must be so quiet!”; they nearly always got it wrong. Here, in this cafeteria-turned “sea of love,” Deafness announced itself. Deafness was not mute.
sound does not just enter the gateway of hearing; it can also be perceived through the sense of force” (77).
The song changed to M.C. Hammer, and the dancers on the floor continued slowly rocking. A nervous looking redhead held his palm out with one hand and with the other shaped his hands to form legs; he put the two signs together and asked me to dance.
I was flattered, and acutely aware that I was the foreigner there. As I took his hand, I was filled with adolescent shame forever demanding: “be quiet! People can hear.”
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,/sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres/tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,/tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño–Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets Cien Sonetos de Amor
I am six, and eight, and thirteen. The door is open, so I crawl into my parents’ bed, and the pull of the sheets awakens my mother. She grasps my hand. I whisper in sign language so my father won’t be disturbed by the light. Then, I take her hand and listen, tracing the terrain of her fingers, following the curves to read her words. I fall asleep talking to my mother, her hand in mine, my father’s snoring vibrating the bed.
I am twenty-nine and I am watching her hands, her signing, and seeing my own. Her name, signed with a sweep from a handshape “L” to a curved “C” down the shoulder to the wrist (my name, the same “C”)— “now I know your mother, you sign just like her.” And my punctum—sting, speck, prick—the kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward ‘the rest’ of nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. Barthes again.
Her hands—her hands and my hands, let me see your hands she tells me. She too sees herself on my body; we are both always looking at the blurrr of her hands.
And looking, I return always to a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axototl” from Blow-Up and Other Stories about a boy who spends hours at the aquarium watching the axolotls; he is transfixed, haunted, obsessed, and keeps returning to watch these fish, no not fish. The boy consults a dictionary and discovers that they are the larval stage of a kind of Mexican salamander. I find the boy and his axolotls among my books, and discover highlighted in purple:
I was, I am, struck by this passage. These atavistic creatures capture, compress space and being. Identity breaks down—I, we, they are no longer discrete. What side are you on? Mother, Father Deaf.
When I was eleven our family bought a deluxe conversion Dodge Caravan complete with metallic bronze customized paint job, rust colored velour captain’s chairs, and a boomerang-shaped television antenna. I went with my parents to the car dealer on a sticky August afternoon. “We want a minivan,” my mother signed to me, I voiced to the short man with greasy black hair and uncomfortably freckled arms. He immediately took us past rows of suburb-like cutouts of vans and led us to the Las Vegas model of minivans—all the deluxe features and without a deluxe price. A special deal. I signed this eagerly—I wanted my parents to understand as I did—we were lucky to see this car. It’s a familiar scene: father adjusting the seats and falling in love with cruise control; mother insisting it was more than they budgeted; the dealer crawling in the back and hollering out through the nifty sliding third door all of the fantastic features.
Inside the car. Tell them the back seat can be removed for more room. Tell them there’s an acoustical equalizer for the stereo. Tell them there’s air conditioning. Tell them there’s a threeyearthirtythousandmilewarranty. Tell them we do financing right here in the lot. Tell them.
Outside the car. Is this the best price? Does he have anything less expensive? Does it come with a warranty? Do you have special discounts? Are you telling us everything?
“Yes, they like all the extras.” No—best price.
We left the dealer and got back into our happy orange VW van. My bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats and I cried. My mother was upset: “What’s wrong? Did you want that car?”.
The salesman knew my parents didn’t care about the equalizer or the TV monitor in the back seat; but he didn’t know they understood. “How nice of you to help your mother go to the store and do the groceries” while my mother writes a check, looking at the cash register screen for the correct amount. I am the mute one. “What did the lady say?” my mother asks; “nothing,” is my silent reply. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Yes, my mother has a college degree. Table 7 shows that the proportion of persons 18 years of age and over with under 12 years of education increases monotonically as the level of their hearing ability decreases. A bachelor of library sciences. No, she does not work in a library. They were afraid of what would happen if she answered the phone. They were afraid of hearing a deaf woman speak. We moved several times when the rent for one reason or another had to go up; even being six you become familiar with friendly discomfort. Interpreting for my mother when she caught my landlord in a contradictory lie—the distrust on both sides boomeranged off my nine-year old body.
In that parking lot, the traffic of misunderstanding and mistrust, all I wanted to do was to hide my lips, shield my transparent body so that neither side would see they were being betrayed.
The stage is dark, but the theatre is vibrating. “Red hots . . .” lingers in the air. My dad taps me on the shoulder. What does the music sound like?
My father is sitting to my left, my husband to my right. It is between scenes at the DEAFWEST performance of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m thrilled to watch the interpreters peering from the balcony above; their voices float above the Deaf actors who take center stage. Sign language takes center stage. The interpreters are for the hearing. The dividing line of the stage is several feet ahead of us. Blanche Dubois begins signing to Stella on the stage. But unlike the other Deaf actors, Blanche speaks with her own voice; the interpreters above are silent. Her signs are stiff, they struggle to keep up with her vocal cadence. I nod as I watch, transfixed: everything has been reversed.
I quickly sign to my father: She is speaking. She’s hearing! Then I lean over and whisper to my husband: her signing. It’s not Deaf. She’s hearing.
I am signing Deaf. I am whispering Hearing.
Cara Cardinale gives sound to her narrative with her mother’s voice–“sounding out” against audist notions of sound that keep Deaf voices silent and perpetuate the idea that deafness is interchangeable with muteness. She would like to thank her mother for sharing her beautiful voice, which to a CODA is a distinctive and comforting sound but often carries a stigma outside the home. Cara uses her own signing body here, not as interpreter, but as primary narration of this intimate photograph.
From his jacket pocket, my father pulls out his hearing aid still marked with red dormitory tape from his years at the residential state school for the Deaf; the opaque embossed letters have slowly curled back on themselves. He adjusts the petrified, squealing earmold then smiles at me.
Her hands are strapped to the hospital bed. More violent than the search for willing veins to take the sedatives, is the silencing. I cover my mouth to keep from gagging. In the darkness, I watch the television screen as it shows the tour of my mother’s internal body: my face looking back at me against the glass.
The doctor freezes the image and points out the polyps clinging to the intestinal walls. But I see gestation, birth—I am looking from the inside out:
If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides. When we experience this passage . . . intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (218).
It was my body in her body and I found myself looking for the lost baby from years ago; perhaps it was there, inside of her body, my body.
The intimacy, the motion still in the blurrr of the photograph. I am fascinated with a delightful dread, horror. Her name in captions, my name. Her body, my body. That picture says everything about my body. Everything about sitting between my father and my husband: lines drawn between us in the newly reupholstered seats, steel blue like everything new, between the actors and the audience, close enough to see the eyeliner drawn in for emphasis, between the Deaf actors on the stage and the hearing interpreters peering over them on the balcony.
I am transfixed. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Florescent lights saturate the room. I lean forward; take a breath; faint.
center of vision
Sometime within the last six months, my father’s left eye has had an aneurysm. This led to a detached retina and a burst blood vessel. The blood has been slowly moving towards the center of vision. During the day, my father sees shadows. And my mother has been hearing things. Last week she was startled by a high pitched noise; moments later the light in the kitchen flashed indicating that the phone was ringing. Lines are bleeding. The darkness is terrifying for my father in the same way that sound has become disorienting for my mother. And lately I’ve been on the verge of vertigo. It seems as if it were the moving forwards and looking backwards at the same time that’s been disorienting me.
I go with my father to see a retinal specialist. Once in the examining room, I am in the dark again. I am signing in the dark, but my father cannot hold my hand. He is across the room, peering at me with one eye, seeing my signs with the shadow of the pinlight. It must be dark, they explain, his eye needs time to dilate, to open so we can see inside. He will be injected with a kind of serum so that the shadow can be seen.
While we wait for the dizzy eye to dilate, I describe my vertigo to my father. He notes with interest and nods, yes, mother took me to doctors in Washington D.C. He looks at me. Your age. Even the emergency room. Nothing wrong. Gone—he signs with a shrug. Maybe gone—he points at me—soon.
The doctor returns and looks into my father’s eye. The serum has worked, and the image is transparent.
I see his eye, enlarged, disembodied, projected on the screen behind him. It is beautiful and dark, a moonscape clouded over by an eclipse. Everything is transparent, and I think of the axolotls.
C.L. Cardinale has a PhD in English Literature from University of California, Riverside. Currently she is editing her manuscript on what she calls “look-listening”—deafened gestures—in twentieth century narratives. She also publicly reads Proust, edits for Lettered Press, and sings with her one and six year old in California’s east bay.