Hapa Book Club: An Annotated Playlist + Reader by No-No Boy

Julian Saporiti

Throughout the month of May, KEXP is celebrating Pushing Boundaries – centering Asian and Pasifika voices locally and nationally in conversation with the Asian and Pasifika diaspora. In conjunction with a KEXP Live at Home session on our YouTube channel, No-No Boy's Julian Saporiti shares this guest essay.

I don’t see much distinction between my work as a teacher and my job as a musician. Order, flow, momentum, these concepts are of great importance whether writing out a setlist or crafting a lesson plan. When I sit down to make a syllabus, I often think through the course ahead in a series of playlists. I’m a child of mixtapes. The practice of gathering disparate texts and sequencing them in a unique order so they not only shine as individual works but as part of a whole, this is something familiar and enjoyable. 

Essentially, what follows is a short syllabus/playlist + reader aimed at celebrating and complicating “Asian American Music.” While it’s a fool’s errand to imagine there is one singular “experience” which Americans who hail from Asian countries share, this playlist + reader offers a set of layered and nuanced texts which, when consumed together, create an interesting conversation around “Asian American experience.” These essays and songs are pulled directly from several college courses I’ve taught on Asian American Studies. If you’re new to the field, this is not a bad place to start. I’ve annotated each work with some guiding thoughts and personal anecdotes. 

*Please note that this a companion piece to an article I wrote for Earthquaker Devices based around a conversation with Japanese Breakfast which inspired the song “Hapa Book Club” performed during the No-No Boy Live at Home KEXP session.

“Your Best American Girl” - Mitski

“It took me longer than it should have to even start pursuing art-making as a career, because I genuinely could not imagine my face being out there, performing on stage, being an artist. I wanted to make music by the time I was 15, and I was always the best in my school when it came to singing and music, but it didn't actually occur to me that I should then pursue my own art as something serious, until I turned about 18. Even then, I only really buckled down to make art for a living, because I realized I'd spent all my years in school being obsessed with music, that I hadn't learned any other skill or developed any other passion. So it didn't feel like a choice, it felt more like - I couldn't imagine how I was going to make it happen for myself, but I knew I had to, and I felt I had nothing else. I have always felt that I would have started pursuing music as a career by at least age 15 or 16 if I had been a cute white girl.” — excerpt from a 2017 interview with Mitski from my dissertation.

“Temple” - Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

It’s incredibly hard to seamlessly integrate difficult histories and family stories into your music and not come off like you’re virtue signaling or trying too hard. This song does the Vietnam experience of my mom’s (and Thao’s mom’s) generation justice. It’s cool. It rocks. It’s sad. And when you actually take it all apart and dive into the history behind the lyrics it’s devastating. 

“From The Back Of A Cab” - Rostam

First. Allow us to stretch our concept of “Asian Americans” beyond the East Asians (Chinese and Japanese) who dominate the representation and discourse in this community and do our best to include those of us from Southeast, South, Central and in this case Western Asian countries. 

Second, a quick story: Rostam is my favorite producer of the last 15 years. Hands down. The third VW record is the best blend of indie music and hip hop / electronic production ever made. I got a chance to meet this wizard at a concert in Rhode Island because one of my best buds Hamilton was playing cello for him. After the gig, Hamilton introduced me and said Rostam had listened to me and Hamilton’s old band Cellophony and enjoyed the album. That should have been a great moment. Me and Rostam talking shop, becoming best friends, exchanging voice memos of new song snippets. Collaborate? Sure why not, Rostam. I’m a little busy with school but for my new best friend, absolutely! BUT instead of saying thank you and telling him how much I adored his work (leading to inevitable bestie status), I said, “It’s always nice to meet a fan.” Fuck me. Moral of the story, don’t be a sarcastic dick and tell people you appreciate them.

“Wild, Wild East” - LuLing Osofsky

This essay is foundational to not only the No-No Boy project, but how I now see the world. LuLing, another brilliant writer friend from Wyoming days, helped me see the beautiful complications and twisted layers walking down the Walmart Asian foods aisle. She provided solidarity and articulation and curiosity; to be bold in exploring identities as mixed up as ours. Nothing has shaped my perspective on the concept of culture and being American like this text. “No matter which store, no matter which style… the cowboy boots around town are almost all made in China.”

Fight To Make It Up” - Takénobu

I love these guys. Beautiful songs, quilts of strings, nice harms. KEXP, why do they not have a live session? 

“Lord Knows Best” - Dirty Beaches

When I had the good fortune of interviewing Japanese Breakfast, I lamented to Michelle that while I thought it was rad to see her and Mitski and Jay Som all play shows together, I would like to see an Asian male rock star. She then introduced me to Dirty Beaches by saying “there’s the Asian American male stereotype that’s like very effeminate or whatever and this guy is like an Asian Elvis. And he’s like super masculine and handsome and writes these kind of low-fi, Elvis, crooner jams.” #representationmatters #asianelvisgoals

“Wild, Wild East” - Sunny Jain

My label mate on Smithsonian Folkways, Sunny makes super cool music; spaghetti western south Asian. It’s nice to see grandsons and daughters of colonialism take the after effects and bend them to their own will.

“Cowboys and East Indians” - Nina McConingley

Nina was a shining gem amongst an incredible crew of writers and scholars I used to hang with when I was in grad school in Laramie. Some real brilliant minds at my beloved UW. Her collection of short stories Cowboys and East Indians won a PEN Book Award for good reason and it helped me feel more grounded in a place I loved but didn’t always feel I belonged in. Great essay. Buy the book. Go pokes!

“Dream of Home” - Joyce Kwon

Another artist who examines their identity smartly, without falling into trying too hard territory. If you ever get to see her live, Joyce blends her gayageum (Korean Zither) with a background and ear for American pop and jazz. “Dream of home, but don’t go back there.” For any immigrant’s kid whose felt the oddness and let down of an old world homecoming.

“Diving Woman” - Japanese Breakfast

A rich layered, beautifully musicalized song taking up the specters of the diving women of Jeju Island in Korea and layering them into personal, intricate, economical lyrics surrounding notions of self, home and ambition.

“Crying in H Mart” - Michelle Zauner

Food, family, grief and loss: nothing more Asian American. Great essay. Buy the book.

“Hold Me Lover, Tell Me Lies” - No-No Boy

Companion film to the 1975 album produced for Carnegie Hall’s Voices of Hope Festival, 2021.

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