If you don’t know Frank Waln, you need to know him. The Sicangu Lakota rapper and activist has given voice to the voiceless and educated fans with his timely, moving, and politically sharp lyrics. He’s also put his words to power by working with The Dream Defenders in Palestine, fought against the Keystone XL pipeline, and regularly promotes his activism through his Twitter account. Understand Waln better by reading his own words about his music, his politics, and his message to fans old and new.
On his latest EP, The Bridge:
“The world is hungry for Indigenous voices and stories right now. This album [The Bridge], like all Indgenous art, holds centuries of Indigenous stories, personal and universal. I made this project for myself and other Indigenous people like me who need honesty, vulnerability and healing in their lives.”
On the historical background of his song, “Treaties”:
“As an Indigenous producer and songwriter, center the voices of Indigenous elders in a song is a great way to show my audience who I learn from, and to share knowledge directly from the source. Thhis song is as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago, when the U.S. government was breaking its treaty rights. It’s happening right now with the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines being built onto treaty land.
How can the United States call itself the greatest country in the world when it won’t even honor the treaties that founded this country? I hope this song spurs every American citizen who hears it, Indigenous or not, to pressure our government to follow its own laws and honor its treaties. This song is about justice.”
The song that started his hip-hop journey:
“…[W]hen I was seven or eight, I fell in love with playing piano. I started teaching myself how to play keys. So, I would say, my dedication to music started at the piano when I was seven or eight. Eminem was my introduction to hip-hop. But then, when I heard the Nas song “One Mic” that’s when I decided I wanted to be a rapper. That’s really when I devoted myself to hip-hop.”
On hip-hop’s resonance with Native Americans:
“Hip-hop resonates with a lot of people of my generation, whether they be in a city or on a reservation. I was thinking about this a lot lately. When I was growing up, the representations of Natives that we saw on TV were nothing like what we were living. Nothing like our reality. It was always, like, these savage Indians of the past. Very stereotypical. The media we saw, the artwork that we saw, the images in mainstream media that we related to the most, were hip-hop. Those artists were telling stories that definitely related to things we were going through, and are going through on the reservation.”
Describing his activism:
“What I’m doing – the ideology and worldview that I’m using to approach what I do – is older than the word and concept of an “activist.” I’m just Lakota. That’s why I care about my people. That’s why I care about the earth. That’s why I care about the water. That’s why I care about my community. That’s why I care about people around me. That’s why I devote my gift of music and why I use my platform to protect those things. Because I am Lakota. That’s how I was raised by mother, and my aunties, and my community. That’s what I’m taught in my culture and in my ceremonies. A lot of time Native people get pinned as activists, but really we’re just being Native. I’m just living my life, and trying to live my life in a way that my ancestors and elders and my parents and my culture raised me.”
Hari Kondabolu wants you to realize why The Simpsons character Apu is a problem.
His documentary, The Problem with Apu, aims to show Simpsons fans why their favorite Qwik-E-Mart store owner is much more than just a funny character. For many, Apu is a figure embedded with offensive racial stereotypes about Indian-Americans and Indian immigrants, compounded by the fact that the voice of Apu, Hank Azaria, is putting on a stereotypical Indian accent.
Vulture’s Malika Rao (who also appeared in the documentary) interviewed Kondabolu about the film, his opinions on Apu, the struggles he had with making and editing the film, and what the conversation about Apu means to the bigger issues of representation for Indian-Americans and POC in general.
On figuring out how to to explain racism to the uninformed:
“It was fun to make a movie and to interview so many people, but the actual heart of the issue, it was a 101 course. I honestly wanted to call it Seriously? I need to explain this? Because we all know this. It’s obvious. But I had to educate people. There’s a part of the film where I had to be reminded, this is going to mainstream America. This isn’t a film that’s in festivals. I need to explain basic ideas. I really need to explain minstrelsy? I really do? And I’m like, yeah, I do. This stuff used to be called “inaccessible” though. We’re at least in the era where it’s now mind-blowing.”
How Apu represents America’s deep-seated racism:
“The issue isn’t so much the character. I’m a 35-year-old man. It’s not an offensive thing, it’s a little insulting, especially when I was a kid. To me, it’s like, how did that happen, how does that still happen, how do we keep doing it? It’s not like it’s over. We still think about representation, we still think about erasure or one-dimensional representation. This is a classic example, but it’s one example. Apu is grandfathered in. It’s like a fossil in nectar, you know what I mean? It’s a great example for us to see because it’s both then and now. Times have changed, but ultimately for me it wasn’t just about Apu. It’s really about where we are as a culture and the fact that racism isn’t a singular thing. It’s a virus. It mutates, and every era, it changes.”
The one part Kondabolu wished he put in the documentary:
“There’s this one anecdote we didn’t put in that kills me. I did some research, and Peter Sellers and Satyajit Ray knew each other [Editor’s note: Peter Sellers starred in The Party, in a role Hank Azaria has compared to Apu; Ray created The Apu Trilogy, the famous Bengali series that the Simpsons’ Apu got his name from.] Ray wanted Sellers to be in his first attempt for a film, called Alien. They hit it off. Then Ray saw Sellers in The Party and was horrified. I just met this man. This is what he thinks of me? And the voice he uses. Peter Sellers has a monkey pet in the movie. The monkey’s name is Apu, and that’s not a coincidence, especially during [the time of the release of Ray’s Apu Trilogy]. I hear that story and I think about Apu, the cartoon character. You take [Ray’s] main character and give him this voice you know he would hate. The fact that [Apu the monkey] wasn’t squashed — this is what happens when you don’t squash it. It doesn’t look the same way, but it still survived.”
On how racism and representation affects all people of color:
“There’s a history of how people of color are used and how their bodies and images are monetized. Any South Asian in this country has faced it considerably easier [than black people]. When we talk about big moments, we talk about 9/11. You’re being held by law enforcement, seen as a threat. Black people deal with that every day. So it’s from this large legacy, but it’s not the same.”
Make sure to read the full interview at Vulture.com. The Problem with Apu is now streaming on TruTV and Amazon TV, Amazon Fire, iTunes, Roku and other streaming services.
NBC and Starz have given TV fans tons of be excited about in the coming months. Check out the list of new shows we can expect to see in the near future.
Starz signs on for two shows featuring Latinx casts
According to Variety, Starz has two shows featuring Latinx casts in the works. The first, Vida, follows two sisters as they learn secrets about their family and themselves.
“‘Vida’ follows two Mexican-American sisters, Emma and Lyn, from the Eastside of Los Angeles who couldn’t be more distanced from each other. Circumstances force them to return to their old neighborhood, where they are confronted by the past and shocking truth about their mother’s identity.”
Vida‘s showrunner will be Tanya Saracho, and Alonso Ruizpalacios will direct the premiere. The show will star Mishel Prada, Karen Ser Anzoategui, Chelsea Rendon, Carlos Miranda, Maria Elena Laas, and Melissa Barrera. Sexual diversity will also be a feature of the show; Ser Anzoategui is a non-binary Latinx/Chicanx actor, artivist and playwright, and Laas’ character on the show, Cruz, is described as an “enigmatic lesbian who has a checkered history with [Prada’s character and one-half of the show’s main sister character leads] Emma.”
The second show, Family Crimes, seems much more generic in the sense that it’s about a well-tread storyline–Mexican organized crime. The show, created by David Ayer, focuses on a woman who has to learn to live a new life.
…[T]he project follows a young Latina who is forced to reinvent herself when the federal government closes in on her family due to their ties to organized crime in Mexico. She must learn to navigate the web of deceit and danger in the criminal underworld in order to survive.
NBC redirects focus on diversity in new projects
According to the Hollywood Reporter, NBC has committed to a family drama created by Sleepy Hollow co-showrunner Albert Kim.
The story is being described as a “multicultural soap” as well as a modern-day Anastasia story of a woman who grew up in the U.S., unaware of the wealth and status she is set to receive.
The project…revolves around a family-owned Korean electronics corporation that is rocked when its CEO dies on the eve of launching their American subsidiary, with his will revealing the existence of a previously unknown heir. Kim based the original concept on Korean chaebols, multinational business conglomerates like Samsung that are run by single ruling families that often go through succession drama.
Her initiation into a family she never knew about “ignites a Shakespearean battle for power amongst her newfound siblings in the Los Angeles-based drama.”
Kim will executive produce the show with Dan Lin under his Warner Bros. Television-based arm, Lin Pictures.
Kim’s show will feature a nearly all-Asian cast, and incredibly enough, this isn’t the only show NBC is committing to that highlights diversity both behind and in front of the camera. According to NBC News, NBC has committed to a legal drama that would star the first Sikh lead in American network television.
The show will be co-executive produced by activist, filmmaker and lawyer Valarie Kaur and based on a concept by her husband Sharat Raju, an NBC Emerging Directors Program alumnus.
According to Kaur, the idea, which she and her husband worked on with their friend Tafari Lumumba, would feature “a band of law students in a renegade law clinic, fighting the good fight.” The show is being produced under America Ferrera’s new production company. Ferrera and Kaur’s relationship began when Ferrera featured Kaur on several panels for NBC writers rooms and showrunners, which led to This Is Us featuring a Sikh character in the show.
NBC has also put into development Love After Love, sold from Kaptial Entertainment and Universal TV. According to Deadline, The show is written by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and based on the Argentinan series Amar después de amar otherwise known as ADDA.
An extramarital affair is exposed in a car crash that leaves the man in a coma and the woman missing–soon to be found dead of a gunshot wound. As their spouses try to piece their lives back together, police struggle to solve an ever-deepening mystery. Think The Affair/Unfaithful meets How to Get Away with Murder.
What do you think about these shows? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
It’s been a long time coming for K-pop fans, especially the ardent fans of boy band BTS. In May, the group snatched up the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, beating out stateside mainstays like Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. Their win served as a prelude to their biggest moment in the American spotlight yet–a full performance at the American Music Awards this past Sunday.
When I watched this performance live, I felt like the reaction the entire crowd had must have been what it was like for audiences to see The Beatles for the first time in the 1960s. There was a different energy building up to the performance, and that energy kept building throughout. It was eye-opening for me, and it should have been eye-opening to any concert promoters, stadium owners, and record labels. BTS is ready to explode onto the American scene.
But, despite BTS and other K-pop groups and solo artists having intense fans that span age groups, social classes and racial lines in America, American mainstream music coverage has largely steered clear of giving these artists press. Now, thanks to the electric AMA performance, America has to reckon with the power of not only BTS, but Asian pop stars as a whole.
The musical glass ceiling
K-pop and Asian singers in general have had it tough finding success and respect in America. Even when BTS won their Billboard Award, there were viewers (seemingly mostly superfans of the losers) who delved into racist, xenophobic rhetoric because their fave lost. The general consensus of these superfans, according to Paste Magazine‘s Martin Tsai, was that BTS stick to Korea.
“Of course, the two Canadian nominees in the category (Bieber and Mendes) have eluded this knee-jerk outrage and xenophobia, as has just about every Brit in American pop history from the Beatles to One Direction,” he wrote. “It’s the type of blowback that ensues whenever a person of color upsets the cultural status quo—as when Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, when Jeremy Lin first played for the Knicks, or when Takuma Sato won this year’s Indianapolis 500 and prompted the now-fired Denver Post sports writer Terry Frei to tweet how that made him ‘uncomfortable.’ Indeed, the American soundscape has proven to be a final frontier for Asians and Asian-Americans to find their footing.”
Tsai writes about how many Asian and Asian-American singers have tried their turn at breaking into America’s discriminatory music industry with varying degrees of success. Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” for instance, is the only Billboard Hot 100 chart topper by an Asian singer, and that was in 1963. (The song later became a hit for the group A Taste of Honey, who covered it in 1981, yet another chapter in the push-and-pull between black and Asian diasporic experiences in America.)
The crossover hit most people remember with some freshness is Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” became a viral sensation. However, his follow-up single didn’t do near as well, and for many in America, “Gangnam Style” was always seen, as Tsai describes, “a novelty song.” Psy’s appearance, for better or worse, also helped him gain short-lived success in America; unlike BTS, who are young and look and behave like living Ken dolls, Americans saw Psy with the same stereotypical lens used on most Asian men–Psy is goofy, funny and, to the audience, seemingly unaware of why he’s seen as such, which makes him more of a target for racial stereotypes. (However, Psy a bad boy jokester-critic in Korea, is the complete opposite of “unaware”; he was America’s Favorite Asian until word got out about how Psy had performed songs protesting the U.S. military, particularly over the beheading of a Korean missionary by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Even “Gangnam Style is a protest song of sorts, criticizing the upscale Seoul neighborhood Gangman’s needless opulence and materialism.)
Psy’s success in America does, sadly, hinge partially on the goofy stereotype he was able to fill. Think back to American Idol–out of the number of Asian contestants that have tried out, how many do you remember as being 1) actually good 2) actually handsome and 3) actually taken seriously? The closest to ever reach the level of being taken as a legit artist was Anoop Desai, and even then, the judges (and the coaches, quite frankly) weren’t ever sure of what mold he should belong to. When he did sing his preferred genre, R&B, it was often taken as a surprise or even a joke. The cover he became known for, Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” was looked at as part-sideshow, part-participation trophy. Despite the crowd (and Anoop’s hormonal fans) screaming for him, his performance was still seen as “Can you believe this Indian kid is gyrating and singing black music?”
Interestingly enough, I’ve actually interviewed Desai way back in 2009, sometime after his season’s American Idol tour ended. Back then, he said he had actually quit his degree in college and moved to Atlanta to pursue music full-time. I’d hoped we’d be able to see Desai on the big stage soon, promoting his own album. So far, not yet.
For what it’s worth, it seems like Asian artists are taken way more seriously on The Voice, in which your voice, not your looks, are what goes into you being picked. Take for instance Tessanne Chin, a Chinese-Jamaican artist who was able to release her second album and major release Count on My Love and sing for President Barack Obama. Or Judith Hill, a biracial Japanese-African American artist who had not only sung with Michael Jackson and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, but was able to release Back in Time, a CD produced by Prince after her stint on the show.
Still, what’s holding Desai back is the same thing that has held back many Asian and Asian-American artists–the stereotypes many music execs still have when it comes to Asian artists and Asians in general. In 2007, The New York Times profiled Harlemm Lee, a Detroit native of Chinese and Filipino descent who was looking to make it big as a singer. However, after landing a spot on 2003 NBC singing reality show Fame and gaining a record contract–his second in his music career, Lee never achieved the success he was hoping for. As of the time of the article, Lee was working as a secretary.
“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” he said. “You don’t fit.” On his MySpace page, he wrote, “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”
Asian artists today: BTS and beyond
Thankfully, it seems like a groundswell of support for Asian artists has been building in America, possibly leading to BTS’ big AMAs moment. Buzzfeed’s Tanya Chen released a list of 21 Asian American artists music fans should know in 2013, including rapper Dumbfoundead, whose music video “SAFE” took on the movie industry’s whitewashing and discrimination against Asian actors.
NPR’s Mallory Yu wrote about this year’s SXSW Asian-American showcase, spearheaded by LA-based nonprofit Kollaboration. And last year, Splinter News declared K-pop star Eric Nam as the first K-pop artist to actually make it big in America. It’s important to note that Nam, like many American-born Asian superstars before him, had to go overseas to find fame back home; he’s originally from Atlanta, and as Isha Aran wrote, “has a cultural fluidity that–at least by American audiences–is rarely seen from K-pop stars.”
BTS is primed to be in a position to bust open the doors for all of the Eric Nams, Girls’ Generations, 21E1s, and Dumbfoundeads on both sides of the ocean, and the AMAs is just one of the biggest glass ceilings to crack.
I remember my mom talking about how she used to mark her calendar for video release dates by Britney Spears or *NSYNC, and wake up to watch MTV,” wrote Jordyn, a BTS superfan in Las Vegas, to The Fader‘s Owen Myers. “It was something I could never relate to, and I thought that it was lost on our generation. When I saw the first video from BTS, I finally understood what she meant.”
“They are terrific and the most popular K-pop band in the world right now,” said Susan Rosenbluth, senior vice president at Goldenvoice/AEG Presents, whose firm promoted BTS’ international “Wings Tour”, to Paste.
“I think if they wanted to cross over and do more, they will…I think it will take certain things like winning awards, being in the general-market eye, so to speak, by marketing their brand in the U.S. more, in Mexico more, in other parts of the world more than just on the internet, and by virtue of the music that they put out in the future. [If] they wanted to sing more in English, they could.”
From what the band has said in interviews, they are looking to put out more English-spoken content. And, if their breakout performance from the AMAs is any indication, we certainly haven’t seen the last of BTS in our neck of the woods.