What would taiko infused hip hop sound like? What would a Japanese American hip hop artist have to say about his or her experiences living here? These are just two questions that filtered through my mind as I enjoyed “Drums @ Work, Drums @Play”, a short and sweet concert performed by Portland Taiko’s artistic staff. Brief exposure to taiko imparts a sense of powerful beats, but in the course of an hour I realized how much range and versatility is possible with a drum and two sticks. The program was kept interesting by changes in formation, movement, and props. A folded sheet of paper made just as much audio impact as strong hits of sticks. The layers of rhythms were mesmerizing.
Even more important than the art of taiko drumming is the story behind taiko drummers. The art of taiko started in Japan, and since Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. the art has evolved and changed. It is not a static, imported art form, it is written and shaped by the lived experiences of drummers. People may call into question the authenticity of taiko drumming that strays from its original roots in Japan, but who has the authority to even define authenticity?
It’s very important for Asian Americans to have power and agency over their own stories, rather than catering to what others think their story should be, like what taiko is supposed to sound like or how it’s supposed to be performed.
This is connected to the way racism perpetuates singular images of Asians constructed by those in power to push forward a certain agenda. It happened when Filipino men came to the west coast to work. Whites disseminated stories that Filipinos were stealing their jobs and their women, neither of which were true, and both of which play on racial fears and contruct clear boundaries between self, those in power, and the other, those without. Although this racism does not always play out in the same overt ways, it is still subtly manifested in the daily experiences of Asian Americans.
I think that the racism that leads to outrageous bills such as HB 87 in Georgia, that has consistently defeated racial equity bills like Senate Bill 742 in Oregon, is an arm of the same system of racism that causes people to ask where I’m from when they see my brown skin, never able to accept from the start that I am American and I am from here.
Art is a way to tell our stories, and the variations and nuances of taiko drum rhythms are like the variations and nuances in the stories of Asian Americans. We are warriors, we are playful, we are light hearted, intense, wise, we are subtle and layered. One Asian American cannot be used as the representative or model for the entire socially constructed Asian American race, whether you would use that Asian American to reinforce something positive or negative. It’s still racist to lump entire populations together to an extent European Americans have not been. However each of us came here, and however each of us live, we are here now. This society should weave our experiences, knowledge systems, and histories into this country’s fabric, instead of perpetuating the message that white Americans are the only ones who are from here, and the rest of us are the foreigners.