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  • Cover Story
    A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America
    by Sojin Kim

In 1973, three young activists in New York City recorded A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Singing of their direct lineage to immigrant workers as well as their affinity with freedom fighters everywhere, Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin recorded the experiences of the first generation to identify with the term and concept Asian American—a pan-ethnic association formulated upon a shared history of discrimination. They sought a connection to their cultural heritage; to claim their historical presence in the United States; to resist their marginalization; and to mobilize solidarity across class, ethnic, racial, and national differences. Music provided a powerful means for expressing their aspiration to reshape a society reeling from a prolonged war, ongoing struggles against racial inequity, and revelations of the Watergate cover-up. As writer and activist Phil Tajitsu Nash would state many decades later, A Grain of Sand was “more than just grooves on a piece of vinyl,” it was “the soundtrack for the political and personal awareness taking place in their lives.” Equal parts political manifesto, collaborative art project, and organizing tool, it is widely recognized as the first album of Asian American music.

A Grain of Sand was produced by Paredon Records. Over the course of 15 years, Paredon founders Irwin Silber and Barbara Dane amassed a catalog of 50 titles reflecting their commitment to the music of peace and social justice movements. In 1991, to ensure its ongoing accessibility, Silber and Dane donated the Paredon catalog to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, through which these recordings and their original liner notes remain available to the public.

While the message of the album was by no means mainstream, the music through which Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie expressed their political and social convictions was reflective of the popular genres of the period. The 12 songs on A Grain of Sand were shaped by the American folk music revival, blues, soul, and jazz. For instance, “The Wandering Chinaman” is in the form of a traditional ballad. “We Are the Children” is more of a folk-rock anthem. “Divide and Conquer” and “Free the Land,” with their bass and percussion lines, are driven by a soul groove. “Something About Me Today” and “War of the Flea,” are instrumentally stark, emphasizing Nobuko’s voice against the counterpoint of Chris and Charlie’s guitar lines. All of their songs are notably written in the first person and directly encourage the listener to
action: “Hold the banner high...”; “Will you answer...”;
“Take a stand....”

Intending to take their music on the road, they kept their instrumentation simple—two guitars and three voices. For the album and in some performances, they were backed by conga and bass, and other instruments such as the di zi, a Chinese transverse flute that Charlie played.

A Grain of Sand was mostly compiled over a two-day period from first or second takes. Charlie compares their 4-track recording process to more technically sophisticated commercial productions as the difference between “a folding chair and a Maserati.” And perhaps because of these conditions, the recording is animated by the spontaneity and energy of a live performance. Arlan Huang, who created the artwork for the album jacket, remembers, “It was fresh as can be. There was nothing else like it. The power of their lyrics was aimed at people like me. They were saying things that I had thought about but hadn’t put into words or painting. And they were GOOD. It wasn’t like seeing your buddies at the neighborhood hootenanny strumming a guitar. Nobuko could actually sing.”

Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie, who were in their twenties and thirties in the early 1970s, arrived at their collaboration via routes that reflect the legacies of migration and exclusion.

Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto (b. 1939). Nobuko’s mother was born in the United States, the daughter of Japanese immigrants; her father was the son of a Japanese immigrant father and a White Mormon mother from Idaho. The family was living in Los Angeles when World War II broke out and all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were forcibly removed from their communities. To get his family out of the Santa Anita racetrack where they were initially confined, Nobuko’s father volunteered to harvest sugar beets in Montana. From there the family moved to Idaho and then to Utah before they were allowed to return to Los Angeles after the war. Despite this instability, Nobuko was encouraged by both parents in her study of music and dance. By the 1960s, she had been a scholarship student at the American School of Dance in Hollywood; performed with Alicia Alonso’s ballet company; and performed in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song, as well as in the film adaptation of West Side Story, where she was cast as one of Maria’s Puerto Rican dress-shop companions. She had also discovered the limitations of being an Asian in the mainstream entertainment industry. In 1968, she helped Italian filmmaker Antonello Branca to document the Black Panther Party for his film Seize the Time. Through this project, she met Yuri Kochiyama, a Harlem community activist and friend of the late Malcolm X, who subsequently introduced Nobuko to civil rights organizing in the local Asian and African American communities.

Chris Kando Iijima (1948–2005). Both of Chris’s parents, Americans of Japanese ancestry, were originally from California but raised their family in New York City, where they resettled after their World War II incarceration. Their example and consciousness significantly contributed to A Grain of Sand. Chris’s father was a musician and choirmaster, who took his children to the 1963 March on Washington. His mother—inspired by the educational and cultural activities integral to the Black Power movement—co-founded the organization Asian Americans for Action (Triple A) in 1969 to instill the same kind of pride in local Asian American youth. Chris attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, where he studied French horn, though he also played guitar.

Chris and Nobuko met in Triple A; and they wrote their first song and performed together in 1969 at a conference of the Japanese American Citizens League, where they joined other young people in urging the organization to oppose the war in Vietnam. Nobuko recalls, “We sang a song that was the collective expression of our Asian brothers and sisters to stop the killing of people who looked like us. The electricity of that moment, the realization that, until then, we had never heard songs about us, set the course of my journey.” When they returned to New York, Chris and Nobuko wrote more songs and began to perform locally and in California. A year later they met Charlie Chin.

William “Charlie” Chin (b. 1944). Charlie’s father came to New York City from Toisan, China; his mother, who was of mixed Chinese, Carib, and Venezuelan ancestry, was born in New York but raised in Trinidad. Growing up in Queens, Charlie’s musical upbringing was comprised of the Trinidadian forms played by his mother’s relatives and those emanating from the American folk music revival. Inspired by Pete Seeger, Charlie took up the banjo, but he also played cuatro, auto harp, and guitar. In the late 1960s, he toured the country with Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys. After he left the group, he returned to New York, where he worked as a bartender. In 1970, he ended up backing Chris and Nobuko by chance at a performance for a conference of new Asian American community groups, student organizations, and activists at Pace College. He recalls, “I’m at the conference, and all the things they are talking about—Asian Americans, how history impacts us, how we have been apologetic about being Asian. And there’s been this hanging question for me, ever since I had taught Appalachian 5-string banjo at a folk music camp, ‘Where is my history? Where is my culture?’ So I go on with them. And I’m listening—I have never heard this stuff before. This is amazing. So the first time I ever hear them play, I’m playing with them.”

For the next three years, the trio performed at Buddhist temples, churches, colleges, community centers, coffeehouses, rallies, prisons, and parks in New York and across the country. “We became like griots,” Nobuko says, “Moving like troubadours from community to community—we’d say, ‘This is what is going on in New York…and we have this Chinatown health program going on,’ and we would carry this news to Sacramento and L.A. and Stockton and San Francisco. And then we’d gather stories from there and carry it back to New York. We were like the YouTube of the times—spreading the news.”

Coming of age during the civil rights and anti-war movements, the children and grandchildren of Asian immigrants unleashed a whirlwind of grassroots activism beginning in the late 1960s. Around the country, they protested the war. They demanded ethnic studies curricula. They organized against urban renewal projects that displaced the residents of old Chinatowns and Japantowns. They formed literary workshops, art collectives, and social service centers. A Grain of Sand was a direct extension of Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie’s collaboration in the Asian American Movement.

One important community that provided support and inspiration for A Grain of Sand was Basement Workshop, an Asian American collective in New York’s Chinatown. Formed in 1970, they ran a creative arts program, a resource center for community documentation, and a youth employment program; produced a magazine; and offered language and citizenship classes. In 1971, Basement Workshop undertook a project to illustrate and publish the music of Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie. Titled Yellow Pearl, after one of their songs, it grew into a larger compilation of writing, art, and music. Public artist Tomie Arai emphasizes the importance of Basement and A Grain of Sand during this period: “You have to understand. There wasn’t anything at all out there. There was no music. No published poetry, music, recordings. Nothing. It was through Basement that people began to refer to themselves as artists. I didn’t know any artists. I wanted to be one—but I didn’t know what that meant.”

Fay Chiang, who served as director of Basement for 12 years, recalls that for their programs and direct actions, they also looked to the examples of other communities: “We were influenced by what was happening in the Black and Puerto Rican communities. Why not us? Who are we? It was very basic: Who are we? There was a hunger, a need to figure that out, where we felt like it was a matter life and death. The second and third generation Japanese Americans had come from the camps—and this feeling of not belonging in the society, racism, and displacement was visceral.”

Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie’s association with activists in other communities was reflected in their music. For example, “Somos Asiaticos” was inspired by their involvement with squatters’ organizations Operation Move In and El Comité. These activists opened a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Dot, which was regularly visited by singers, performers, and poets from Cuba, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The Asian Americans who had taken over a storefront for a drop-in center down the street also congregated here. Nobuko recalled, “We were all there—artists and poets—listening to and influencing each other. We had a whole set, five songs, that we did in Spanish. One year, I think it was 1973–1974, we did more gigs for Latino groups than for Asian groups.” In fact, their first recording was done for a Puerto Rican company, Discos Coqui. Invited by two Puerto Rican Movement singers, Pepe y Flora, they recorded “Venceremos” and “Somos Asiaticos,” which were released as a 45 disc in Puerto Rico. Later, they were invited to perform at Madison Square Garden for Puerto Rican Liberation Day.

“Free the Land,” another song on A Grain of Sand, was written by Chris for the Republic of New Africa. This organization, established by a group of Malcolm X’s associates after his 1965 assassination, was the first group to call for slavery reparations—in particular in the form of an all-Black homeland in the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Atallah Muhammad Ayubbi and Dr. Mutulu Shakur, both Republic of New Africa members, performed on A Grain of Sand. Atallah worked in the Black and Puerto Rican communities in the Bronx where he grew up. He was also a conguero and sometimes accompanied the group in live performances. Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who is the godfather of Nobuko and Atallah’s son, provided background vocals on the album. He often played the album at home, and his stepson, the late rapper Tupac Shakur, grew up listening and singing along to it.

Of this time in the early 1970s, Nobuko recalls, “It was like jumping into the pool of revolution…. Every day there was organizing going on at many different levels. It was powerful. You see something wrong, you have an idea how to fix it, you put it into practice.” And about this period living on the Upper West Side, she says, “that was the first time I ever felt like I was part of a community. You would walk down the street and see people you knew, and they would ask if you were going to be at such-and-such event and could you bring food or perform. It was a dynamic moment. We were crossing borderlines, and the music helped us to do that.”

The intensity of purpose and activity during this period succeed in reshaping academic, cultural, and political institutions. It also gave rise to ideological conflicts and violence that sometimes destabilized organizations and efforts. For instance, Basement Workshop was shaken internally by the accusations and criticisms of members of the Communist Workers Party. And several months after A Grain of Sand was recorded, Atallah was killed in an ambush at a Brooklyn mosque.

Charlie remembers, “We were all moving so rapidly…. Everyone believed that things could be changed if you worked on it. We in our very young innocence thought that there actually would be a revolution in this country. I assured people it would happen. And when it didn’t, I felt bad: ‘Sorry, man’, ‘Sorry, dude.’”

By late 1973 when A Grain of Sand was released, Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie were beginning to hone their sense of purpose in ways that drew them in different directions. And the album marks, in effect, one of the group’s final collective efforts, though each in their own way continued the work they had started together.

Nobuko returned to southern California. In 1978, she established the organization Great Leap, Inc., through which she initiates multicultural community performing arts collaborations in Los Angeles, as well as nationally and internationally. She continues to perform, lecture, and provide workshops based on her new music as well as on reinterpretations of the songs from A Grain of Sand. In recent years her residencies and special projects have focused on facilitating dialog across spiritual differences and on environmental issues. Active in the Senshin Buddhist Temple, she has composed music and dances that are now a regular part of the annual Buddhist observance of obon (Festival of Lanterns) in temples from California’s Central Valley to San Diego and nationally.

Charlie focused his attention in New York’s Chinatown, becoming involved in the Chinatown History Project, which became the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. He later apprenticed to a master Chinese storyteller, learning the traditional teahouse style, which he has adapted and continues to perform throughout the country. In 1991, he moved to northern California, and he now works for the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, driven by the conviction that “we know that people can be whipped into hysteria and xenophobia—we’ve seen it happen before, and it could happen again. And the only thing you can do is be vigilant and educate, educate, educate.”

Chris directed his energies to New York’s Upper West Side, where he had grown up. After 10 years of classroom teaching at Manhattan Country School, he studied and practiced law, and later became a professor in Hawai`i, where he fought for Native Hawaiian rights and mentored a generation of social justice–minded law students. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 57.

In the years just before Chris’s passing, Tadashi Nakamura, a young fourth-generation Japanese American filmmaker, began producing a documentary about him, A Song for Ourselves: A Personal Journey into the Life and Music of Asian American Movement Troubadour Chris Iijima. His film is an inspiring and melancholy portrait of Chris, covering his participation in A Grain of Sand, his reflection on his life as he confronted terminal illness, and the impact he had on others. For the film’s premiere in 2009, Nakamura invited Nobuko and Charlie to perform—and he also enlisted several young hip-hop artists. He explains: “Grain of Sand paved the way for many progressive Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders [API] to not only become musicians but cultural workers—artists who use their creativity to further a political movement. I feel very much a part of a present-day movement of API artists that are trying to document, articulate, and tell the stories of their people through their work. A talented new set of artists—such as Geologic and Sabzi of Blue Scholars, Kiwi, Bambu and DJ Phatrick—are creating the soundtrack to my generation’s movement. They are continuing the work that Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie started back in the 1960s. So when I premiered my film, I invited them to perform. I wanted to show that the legacy of A Grain of Sand is very much alive today.”