The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance – The Inspiration

Jon Jangtet
Photo by Bob Hsiang

Two experiences in New York inspired me to name my CD recording The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance: Malcolm X Yuri Kochiyama. On Tuesday March 7, 2016, I gave a presentation entitled, The Sounds of Struggle: Music from the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s to the Asian American Movement of the 1980s at Columbia University co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. I was moved by so many students of color who gave me compliments. One Latinx student described me as a decolorizer. One black student imagines me working with Kendrick Lamar. But during the interaction, I was asked, “Have you worked with Grace Lee Boggs or Richard Aoki?” The obvious short answer was no.

Then I asked the sharp and knowledgeable students of color, “Have you heard of Yuri Kochiyama? I was stunned by their silence, especially since Yuri and Bill and their six children grew up in Harlem near Columbia. Then I remember the time in 1992 when Yuri Kochiyama and Amiri Baraka led protests against Spike Lee’s film, X. I can imagine hearing my revolutionary ancestors Yuri and Amiri calling down to me, “We have to speak the truth, not Spike Lie.” It was time for me to memorialize Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X.

During the student and faculty interaction, a Chinese American woman who was an adjunct lecturer at New York City College asked, “Do you know about the Peter Liang case?” I answered, “I know about the legal lynching of a young black man by the name of Akai Gurley by the police if that’s what you mean?  Then the Chinese American woman adjunct lecturer asked me, “What do you think is the appropriate punishment?” I fired back, “What do you think is the appropriate punishment?” She replied meekly, “community service.” Then I could feel my blood pressure rising, “Community service as punishment for a police officer killing an unarmed black man?!”

The following day, Asian American Movement photographer Corky Lee me took out to lunch in New York Chinatown. Corky explained to me that there was a large number of Chinese nationalists whose sense of equality is acquiring white privilege. Their rationalization: “If white police officers can get away with killing young black people, then Peter Liang, a Chinese American police officer, should have equal privilege.” Corky also explained to me that progressive Asian American politicians and Asian American social justice organizations who support justice for the young black man Akai Gurley, have been red baited and have received hateful threats of physical violence.

For now, that’s part of the story of where the inspiration for this new work came from. Here is description about the works that will be released on Asian Improv Records at the end of 2018.

Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! expresses a musical and political plea to shatter the Sisyphus boulder that black people has had to endure in this country for over 400 years. The Sisyphus Syndrome, a phrase coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to describe upward and downward motion of the struggle of black people in United States, was often referenced by Amiri Baraka, Father of the Black Arts Movement who was a leader in same working- class activists of color political organization of resisters that Francis Wong and I were in during the 1980s.

  Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!  is structured into three movements to commemorate black human beings victimized by racist violence and white supremacy


The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance – The Recording

The Pledge of Black Asian AllegianceThe recording opens with two excerpts from my newly commissioned work, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance, Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X is a hybrid of Soran Bushi, the Japanese fishermen’s song from Hokkaido, and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s Get Up! Stand Up! I was inspired by Billy Harper’s unique rendering of Soran Bushi, on The Awakening the live recording of the Billy Harper Quintet in Paris in 1979, as well as Hitomi Oba’s unique rendition. 1973 was the pivotal year that I made the crucial decision to pursue music at the late age of 19 through Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bruce Lee, McCoy Tyner and Bob Marley.

The second excerpt, The Nail That Sticks Up!, is dedicated to Yuri. It is inspired by Max Roach’s The Dream where Max performs a two part invention with the pre-recorded, I Have a Dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963. I took a pre-recorded speech by Yuri Kochiyama about the history of black leaders supporting Asian Americans

Yank Sing Work Song is dedicated to the Yank Sing Restaurant workers, victims of wage theft and management abuse who won a 4 million dollar settlement. Min Xiao Fen, the virtuoso pip (Chinese lute) performer, opens with a Cantonese (southern Chinese) melody while the double bass is playing a figure which is a hybrid of slow black funk and Cantonese.  Inspired by Miles Davis Bitches Brew recording, the rhythm sections shifts to a faster tempo.

Jasmine Among the Magnolias is based on Beautiful Jasmine Flowers (Mo Li Hu),

the first Chinese folk song brought over to the United States in 1800. Our unique treatment is a hybrid of this popular Chinese song within a contemporary black gospel ballad context. The work pays tribute to Frederick Douglass and Senator Blanche Kelson Bruce who fought for Chinese immigrant rights to become US citizens.

Flower Drum Song (Fengyang Hua Gu) has been considered among the most well-known Chinese traditional songs. Flower Drum Song originated from the Anhui Province, an area in east-central China known for its long history of suffering of poverty and famine during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). The Flower Drum Song featured a husband and wife duo that “begged” and earned money by performing the Flower Drum Song and dance. The wife performed also on a small “flower” drum and the husband on gong. Similar to the black tradition of the “dozens,” the second part of the song featured a playful exchange of insults. Here is an example of the dozens in the Flower Drum Song, “My wife is ugly because she has big feet.” Here is an example of the dozens in the black tradition, “Your mama’s feet so big, she needs to wear a license plate.” 

The next three works are part of a suite that I composed entitled, Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The work is a collaboration with poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp. The first piece, Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! pays homage to Michael Brown. The opening 14 note phrased is based on the 14 syllable phrase, “Hands up! Don’t shoot! I want to live! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

The second piece, More Motherless Children, pays homage to the nine black victims at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I selected the black spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, because six of the victims were mothers and grandmothers.  Max Roach and Wendell Logan, who were two of my mentors, passed on this tradition to me. Max Roach recorded Motherless Child dedicated to Marcus Garvey on Max Roach’s recording, Lift Every Voice and Sing. When White American musicologist George Pullen Jackson stated that black spirituals were based on white hymns, Dr. Logan argued with the response, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child could not and did not come from a white hymn.

The third and final piece of Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! is entitled Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times?  This work pays homage to Mario Woods, the 26 year black man who was shot twenty times and killed execution style by four San Francisco police officers.  None of them were punished. During the process of composing Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!, there were more parts and the music sounded different. There was a part about Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. But something happened. Poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp, who has two black sons in their twenties, and I became depressed as we developed the work. Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times?  changed from a piece about Mario Woods to a roll call and meditation of black victims legally lynched by the police.