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Q&A with Taiyo Na

Okay, we're pathetic for putting this off since March. But, as promised, David transcribed the interview, and Ryan even put out an album review!

ML & DZ: How did you come across the Cowgirl restaurant and what were your first reactions?

TN: My girlfriend and I were walking around the West Village looking for something to eat at nine, ten o' clock in the evening. [After seeing the display] I was about to rip some heads off, you know what I mean… I was really pissed. It took a while to sink in. There were three big windows filled with those grotesque images that really remind you of the nasty portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in history and media. There were a few "Fu Manchu" mannequins… a couple dressed in yellow face and garb. Really old-school, pre-60s stuff... So me and my girlfriend were like, "Is this really what we're seeing, in the west village of all places?" As I looked into the restaurant to see what kind of people were there, it was a particular kind of white, touristy folks who went there. The manager saw me looking around, and came out to take a smoke break, trying to see what my reaction would be. I could tell it was the kind of thing where they're trying to be smart or funny.

I can have a temper, so my initial reaction was to throw a trash can into the window. But I have a criminal record already, and if I were to go to jail again… I thought about the kids I teach, and my girlfriend urged me not to. There's a lot of balled up anger there; those images kind of bring up a lot of negative emotions. I didn't know what to do so I decided to write up a letter and take pictures - my girlfriend had a camera. That stuff happens all over the country, and it's minor compared to the real human rights abuses that go on all over the world. I did as much as I could, as sensibly and peaceably as I could.

ML & DZ: What do you think of people who think you're humorless or overreacting?

TN: As far as this cowgirl thing is concerned, I think there's a better way to do “humor”. Humor is funniest when contradictions of humanity are brought up. With this kind of "humor", it's at someone else's expense, at a whole group's expense. The images are so strong. For so many years, that's all Asian men were portrayed as… that evil, low-life, villainous Fu Manchu.

ML & DZ: For other people who encounter something like this, what do you think should be done?

TN: I can't really say what the correct way is. I think a great example of something like this is the Abercrombie stuff and how the Asian American community and other communities rallied around the racist things that Abercrombie was putting out. I think there are many ways to do things: rallies, petitions, protests, public awareness. Once the knowledge is out there, have people judge for themselves what is the best way.

ML & DZ: How did you decide that your album would be called Love Is Growth?

TN: When I first started making an album three years ago, it was going to be a hip-hop album, strictly beats and rhymes. But as I started it, I knew I wasn't really being true to myself. There was a whole soul, singer-songwriter, rhythm and blues side to me. This song came about—"Love Is Growth"—originally as a persona mantra. Love isn't something that's fixed; love isn't that overbearing parent. Love is something where you want that person to grow, to evolve. Then this song came. It was a song that I felt was combining hip-hop and soul almost equally. It was melodic, yet had a strong groove, rhymes. I thought, this is the perfect example of what I'm trying to do – bringing beats and rhymes with melody and soul.

ML & DZ: Your raspy singing voice - is that something you recently established?

TN: I've always wondered that about myself, too. I used to be a smoker, so I guess my voice is just naturally raspy. I'm also a folk artist at the heart – I'm not professionally trained. I have training as an actor, but not as a musician. So the artists that have inspired me are the ones that don't get training… Bob Marley, a lot of hip-hop emcees… they're a bit raw and not clean-cut, but I'm not a clean cut guy, so for a number of reasons I've come across that way.

ML & DZ: “Immigrant Mother” is one of your most compelling songs – it sounds like you have a lot of family or home experiences that have added to your experiences. What were some challenges or supports from your family while you did music?

TN: My parents were supportive, but in a very detached way. As long as I did certain things, like keep up grades or get into a good school or job, they pretty much let me do what I want. My mom has been very supportive. She is my biggest critic, always saying how I could do better. She's great; she's an artist herself. She grew up drawing and painting, and is a creative spirit in her own right.

ML & DZ: I remember at Sulu Series, you said at age sixteen you finally decided to do music. What was stopping you before then?

TN: Hip-hop was how I started. Thirteen was when I first started writing rhymes. My neighborhood and high school friends would rap and rhyme – that's where it came from. They were always very rudimentary and ordinary rhymes. But I had always kept these writings and poems, very private stuff. It was not until I met Ishle at age sixteen when she really encouraged me and gave me the confidence to share my poetry. That definitely started my life and career as a professional performing artist.

ML & DZ: Do you remember your first gig?

TN: Yeah, I do; and Ishle introduced me! It was a reading through the Asian American Writer's Workshop. They had this huge program for young teenage writers, and selected two or three writers to read. That was like the first ever, I'd say, professional event. I was sixteen, and Ishle introduced me; nine years later, she introduced my album.

ML & DZ: I'm sure people ask you this all the time, but your music persona has shifted from rhymes to singer-songwriter. Are you going through different stages or has this been a continuous creative process?

TN: It's definitely been different stages. I started out as an emcee/creative poet and people like Ishle in the spoken word community taught me the power and the beauty of language, rhythm and performance… But after a while, I got kind of tired of it, particularly by the cliquey, catty scene. I felt there was more to art and life than just words. There was beats, percussion, everything beyond the logic of words. Spoken word does that to an extent, but music is something I could have a conversation about with anyone in the world.

ML & DZ: When did you first get involved with Sulu Series? How did you get around to becoming artistic director?

TN: Sulu came about very organically. When Katrina happened, a bunch of things were happening in New York that were really lacking. Me and a whole bunch of other artists were pissed off at how the Asian American community in New York were not united and didn't give a fuck about what was going on down in New Orleans. Usually, before then a place like the Asian American Writer's Workshop was a focal point of the community, where people could express their concerns… and the leadership of the AAWW at that time was very upwardly mobile. They were about catering to the burgeoning "condominium class", if you will.. and so they were really losing their sense of community consciousness. So when Katrina happened, we were so upset that there were no community organizations reacting to the tons of Vietnamese folks down there… displaced, losing everything… "why aren't we reaching out to them?" They weren't getting much play in the media… so we felt it was our duty to look out for our own.

We had a huge Katrina benefit. We pulled together something like thirty different organizations, leaders of the community, all for a huge benefit at the Imaginasian Theatre. We raised something like ten g's. Ten G's in the bigger picture is not that much, but we raised awareness of what was going on with Asians down south… which was of course neglected by the government. That big benefit was the first Sulu, and since then we've been having these monthly series ever since. I, by default, became artistic director. I never chose it. During the Katrina benefit, someone had to get those artists together on the stage. I happened to be the guy who knew most of them. This Sulu thing came by default – I never imagined doing it. And it doesn't really take that much work. (laughter)

ML & DZ: Last night, everyone was singing praises for you, saying how "Taiyo's the nicest, kindest person around… he's the best…" Are you willing to own up to this? Also, Magnetic North was talking about how, after coming to NYC, everyone told them to get in touch with you. What has your role been in helping artists connect to one another and grow?

TN: Even though I left doing spoken word, I felt broken hearted because I did care so much about our community and building those connections. Doing workshops and performances and reaching people like you. Nothing makes my heart sing more than to connect with people – it's my life and work. Whether it's music, talking to a guy on the street, or doing a favor for an emerging artist – it's something that I love.

ML & DZ: What is your advice for an aspiring artist just getting into the scene?

TN: Is he good?

ML & DZ: Let's say he is.

TN: Well call me, we'll get him out to Sulu. I remember the days when I was a teenager, the internet wasn't taken up like it has. I talk to people who say how different it is today. Back then, when you were an Asian American looking for a community or people or music, you had nowhere to go. Today, all you need to do is look on the internet. Today, there's so much knowledge at our fingertips. And if you do good work, it'll pay off – you don't have to schmooze or talk shit, the rest will follow.

ML & DZ: Your top five hangouts? Where can we find Taiyo Na?

TN: Haha you're really setting it up for stalkers. I can tell you my top five restaurants: ___ amazing thai restaurant in Elmhurst, madras café south Indian vegetarian restaurant in the east village, that Vietnamese restaurant in Flushing, a great Dominican restaurant in the Lower East Side called La Isla, and lastly, in Chinatown there's a basement-level Malaysian and Indonesian joint that my Malaysian/Indonesian friends say their parents go to.

ML & DZ: Any last advice?

TN: Soak in as much of college when you're in college. I was so immature in college; I wanted to be out there, working, doing stuff. I don't regret what I did, but if I were in college again, I would want to travel. Take advantage of the study abroad programs, grants, programs, researching… doing your thing. Some of my best times in life have been traveling as an artist, meeting new people and finding out more things about this country firsthand. That said, I know people who have traveled the world, yet still can't talk to their mother, or still have unresolved issues at home. You have to travel in that way, too.


  1. Anonymous said...

    have you ever dated outside your race?  

  2. Anonymous said...

    you are a very attractive man.  

  3. Anonymous said...
  4. Anonymous said...

    Are you in a relationship rn?  


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