Rapper and performing artist Jason Chu offers a veteran’s insight as he muses with Mark Redito on the nature of Asian American music.
ASIAN AMERICAN MUSIC is maddeningly difficult to pin down: What is Asian American music, who is making it, and why?
What is Asian American music, who is making it, and why? Is it music made by Asian Americans? For Asian Americans?
Is it music made by Asian Americans? For Asian Americans? Is it music that incorporates Asian rhythms, sounds, samples, and instruments? Is it defined by what it isn't?
These questions surface as I watch Mark Redito — the Filipino American EDM producer and DJ formerly known as Spazzkid — play First Fridays at Los Angeles' Natural History Museum. He opens to a handful of Korean high school kids, but his bouncy synths and magnetic low end draw a steadily swelling crowd. By the climax of his 45-minute set, he drops Carly Rae Jepsen's "I Really Like You" over what sounds like a karate-chopped J-pop 45", and the multi-hued, multi-generational crowd cheering in response looks like a microcosm of LA's ethnic and economic diversity.
Then a puppeteer wearing a T-rex costume the size of a small giraffe stomps through the back of the room, rearing her head high, and I stop thinking about demographics. I stop analyzing the crowd, and instead let myself become a part of it. The music, the bodies, the "Becoming LA" exhibit, the T-rex — we are all part of it.
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"Young Filipino American men really care about their hair — I think it also stems from the Black community, the Latino community. When you've always been trampled on, you carry yourself like it's almost a radical act to carry yourself really nicely."
Mark and I are sitting at a bar near his place in Long Beach, California. We are talking about hair. Specifically, we are talking about his hair (undercut, hidden away beneath a neon pink Nike cap), and my hair (topknot, peeking out from my pulled-up hoodie).
This is a detour from the ostensible point of our meeting: talking about the intersection of faith and culture.
Or maybe it isn't. After all, to misquote my therapist, how you dress is who you are. And, as two young Asian American musicians, we are discovering that our philosophies of hair parallel how we understand our respective art: Whether scheduling a biweekly trim or pumping up an audience from the stage, we're painstakingly conscious of the message we are sending. Mark notes, "Fashion is communicating when words cannot; you are communicating something, even before you speak." If your hair looks like your mom cut it for you, you are saying something about yourself. Something you may or may not want to say.
Some might call this awareness of appearances shallow; I would have, at a certain point in my life. But in our conversation, it serves as the gateway to a larger point about ethnic representation and American identity:
"I was reading 'America is in the Heart', an autobiography of this Filipino writer [Carlos Bulosan] who immigrated to the States. He was one of the first batch of immigrants, and it talked about the story of the first Filipino American community here. That was a time when racism against Filipino Americans was rampant: Whites hated them, Japanese and Chinese looked down on them — they'd often hear: 'You guys are brown, you guys are short.'
"Whites hated them, Japanese and Chinese looked down on them — they'd often hear: 'You guys are brown, you guys are short.'"
"And so most of them were farm workers, earning peanuts. And if farm work wasn't available, they — these guys with no money — would just hang around. They'd wear their nicest suits, their sharpest haircuts, their hats. They had nothing, and this was all they had."
It's easy to write off EDM as "party music", empty-minded, self-fulfilling prophecies about shots, last Friday nights, and party rocking. I'm guilty of casual condescension, framing dance music as the kid-cousin of Serious Art, which talks about the big questions, God and man, and society and justice.
Mark's beats are a rebuke to my elitist tendencies: His build-ups and giddy drops, far from crass or commercial, have a quirky, ebullient joy. As he dips sideways, twisting his digital controller in the air like a toy plane, the crowd of white, Black, Latino, and Asian Angelenos lets out a pure, joyful cheer. If Carlos Bulosan was right, America is in the heart.
Then for 45 minutes in LA, America is a small, dark, heavily-bearded brown Asian man.
For 45 minutes in LA, America is a small, dark, heavily-bearded brown Asian man.
"My natural leaning, knowing the context of being Filipino American and being Asian American, is that our communities are not in the spotlight enough. And if I do have a platform, if I know that this song is going to reach more ears, my first tendency is always to work with somebody of Asian descent."
Performing on college campuses around the country, I'm constantly fascinated by the many ways Americans of Asian descent parse our identity. Growing up in Delaware as one of a small handful of Asian kids in my high school, I found ethnic camaraderie where I could: An inclusive Asian American spirit bound together the Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans at my school. But I quickly learned that the same esprit de corps didn't always exist elsewhere.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Mark immigrated only seven years ago to attend music school in LA. He is both home- and heritage-conscious. His forearm is banded with indigenous Filipino tattoos, and he peppers our conversation with references to longanisa and eggs and his very Filipino-sounding artist name — "I would roll the R: R-r-r-r-edito. That's how me and my family would pronounce it. I think it puts my Filipino-ness front and center, which I love."
At the same time, he demonstrates a willingness to support and promote diverse Asian voices — rare in often-segregated Asian American spaces, and doubly so in the casually white-dominated EDM industry. "I always knew that, if I was to put a face to my album, I wanted it to be an Asian face."
That album is 2013's "Desire", a frothy, bubbly blur of twinkling bells and whispery vocals that "Pitchfork" magazine compared favorably with indie darling Toro y Moi. "Desire" is a product of collaboration: Filipina producer Skymarines, visual artist Krystal Perez, and Shanghai-based photographer Mang. The project is "an homage to all the things that I really like about [J-pop]: the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the minimalism. I really wanted to share that, share my love for it." But he's well aware it could be seen as appropriation as he's not of Japanese descent.
At the bar, reflecting over the reality of race in America, Mark talks about his growing awareness of complex responsibilities: drawing from diverse influences while not colonizing and limiting their existence to the bounds of his personal vision. As he talks about choosing to work with diverse Asian artists, I think to myself that maybe this is how Asian America starts to answer the questions that we have been asking about ourselves.
What is Asian American art? I don't know, but whatever it is, it is being made by artists like Mark who proudly own the complexity of their own stories (immigrating from the Philippines, coming to belong in America), even as they draw from other voices (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, to name a few) in our diverse and sometimes conflicted family — culture makers who can salute, sample, and select from the riches of Asian and American aesthetics, while not slavishly adhering to past ways.
What is Asian American art? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it is being made by artists like Mark who proudly own the complexity of their own stories.
And this is especially what Asian American Christianity needs: a Filipino DJ who wears a neon pink Nike Dri-FIT cap, who makes albums dedicated to the Japanese aesthetic, who drops Carly Rae Jepsen tracks, and who is proud to love God and say he is a Christian.
"I feel like me having the capability to do this is giving glory. Even though I don't explicitly talk about worship, this is a form of worship for me — It's almost like a spiritual obligation, to pursue this thing inside of me.
"(God) has imparted that on me, and I feel like listening to that is an act of worship in itself. Me listening to that is me singing my praise — I don't need to just sing about Christian stuff."
As Mark packs up and takes pictures with young superfans hanging around after his set, I chat with a few of his friends who came to the show — friends from Epic Church in Fullerton.
I think about what I just saw — a remarkably Christ-like thing — as I drive to Koreatown for a post-show dinner. It's an image plucked from the heart of the gospels: a dynamic leader moving the ears and bodies of a culture through a shared ritual, bringing his religious community with him into the heart of a secular gathering. Later on, Mark passes on to me the words of a fellow musician: "If you want to have a party, you've got to lead the party."
"If you want to have a party, you've got to lead the party."
Christianity doesn't live in a vacuum, and neither does music, art, film, poetry, fashion, or any other component of culture. Some practice faith as explicit proclamations and professional evangelism; for others, faith is the soil in which other pursuits sprout: medicine, research, business, art. Mark wasn't spinning gospel tracks or dropping Hillsong instrumentals; he didn't pause for prayer in the middle of the show. But his music and presence brought a clean, happy vibe into an often-jaded nightlife scene. And for him — and me, and I suspect more than a few of the partygoers that night — that innocent happiness was a thing of God.
Working patiently and excellently at his craft, Mark Redito practices a jubilant, loud, and subtle faithfulness. He's somewhere tonight, making music or making the crowd move — a brown Asian face in a room full of sweaty kids of all ages, giving glory to God.