Guest Post: Taiyo Na And Five Asian American Artists Who've Inspired Him

Monday, May 11, 2009

by Taiyo Na

There have been many, many Asian American artists who have inspired me along my short way, so to keep things succinct and perhaps more interesting, I’ll only talk about a handful of artists who have made an impact on me through some sort of personal encounter in my life.

Peeling the Banana

They were the first Asian American performers I had ever seen I my life. Circa 1996, when I was a little 13-year-old high school freshman, I attended an Asian American youth conference held at NYU, and I saw a group of four guys—Gary San Angel, Bertrand Wang, Parag Khandar and Michael Kang—all who are venerable artists, movers and shakers in their own right now, perform a collection of scenes, stories and songs. This blew my mind. I couldn’t really articulate it then, but I know now that seeing them at age 13 forever changed the way I viewed myself in the world. They performed this number that day called “Asian Man in America,” and 13 years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday. Powerful.

Fay Chiang

Fay is a poet, a remarkable one, and was the director of the Basement Workshop, the first Asian American arts organization on the East Coast, for most of its 15-year history. When she was 18 years old or so, circa 1971, she taught the first Asian American Studies course in New York City at Hunter College while she was a freshman there. She’s mentored hundreds of youth through her work as Program Director of Project Reach, an at-risk youth center in the Lower East Side. Fay’s also been battling breast cancer for the last 6 years or so, successfully. A survivor, a fighter and a mother, she’s inspired many here in this city to live a more meaningful life, and I’m certainly one of them.

Charlie Chin

Charlie’s like our Woody Guthrie, but saying so would diminish the uniqueness of both individuals. I had met Charlie a number of times through Fay, but the first few interactions were very awkward because I was so nervous and intimidated. Finally we all had lunch one day, and I completely eased up because as much as this man has done, I saw that he was a New Yorker like me with a similar sense of humor and street smarts. Since then, he’s marveled me with stories of hanging out with his old buddy Jimi Hendrix, hearing Malcolm X speak on a soapbox in Harlem and singing with the late, great Chris Iijima as a part of the pioneering Asian American music troupe A Grain of Sand. Charlie has this beautiful, soul-stirring song called “The Ballad of Vincent Chin,” and hearing that number live, let alone sharing the stage with him, has been one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Jessica Hagedorn

As messed up as I feel like my youth was—abandonment and masculinity issues galore—I was also very blessed to have encountered many of these artists early on. Jessica’s daughter went to my high school, and that’s how I first found out about her work. It was this fascination in the beginning where I kept on asking myself, “Who is this wild woman who’s also my friend’s mother?” Jessica’s life has been one of adventure—danger and beauty, as the title of one of her books goes—and I’ve always found great inspiration in that. She’s refused to ever be boxed in as one thing. She’s been a poet, playwright, performance artist, novelist and leader of the Gangster’s Choir, her rock band that included the mighty Vernon Reid on guitar! As a person, too, though, I’ve always admired how she’s someone who won’t take anybody’s shit yet can also be very kind. When I was 19, I gave her a chapbook of my poems. She sent me a sweet email afterwards and even sent me a copy of her awesome, new book at the time, Dream Jungle. I didn’t think it was a very even trade—my humble, little chapbook for her hardcopy, beautiful, new book—but it’s these acts of kindness that have inspired me to become better and better as an artist and person, so that one day I can return it in some way.

Ron Domingo

When I was a host for the now defunct Comcast channel AZN TV, the producers of the TV show I was working for assigned me an acting coach. I was even rougher around the edges than I am now, and the producers gave me the coach to get me more polished. That coach they gave me was Ron Domingo, and he has since been one of the most life-changing people in my life. Ron is a real actor, with years of work on the stage, screen and film, and boy, did he show me what time it is. He got me to see for the first time the great beauty, intensity and discipline behind the craft of acting. Until then, I don’t think I had ever met a more visceral and impassioned guy like him. A devoted father of two now, he really gives every fiber of his being into his work. I once saw him in a play about the Cultural Revolution where he took on two roles at the same time, one of a wealthy schoolboy and one of a meager peasant. He seamlessly took on the unique life and rhythm of both characters, and it was outstanding. I asked him, “Man, how do you do what you do?” He led me to an acting studio he studied at, and coupled with the lessons he’s given me, I really haven’t been the same since.

[Slanty Note: Ron can also be seen in the new Slow Jam King DVD]

Born and raised in New York City, Taiyo Na is an MC, singer, songwriter and producer who has performed nationwide at venues such as Lincoln Center, Knitting Factory and many more. Hailed as “undeniably soul-rootsy” with “storytelling through music at its finest,” his critically acclaimed debut album Love Is Growth (Issilah Productions, 2008) features the song “Lovely To Me (Immigrant Mother),” an ImaginAsian Entertainment Original Song Contest Winner. He is also a curator of the monthly Sulu Series at the Bowery Poetry Club and Entertainment Series host for the PBS-syndicated TV show Asian America.