These Tiny Desk Contestants Set Stories Of The Asian-American Experience To Music

Jun 17, 2018
Originally published on June 19, 2018 3:35 pm

The NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest may be over this year — NPR Music was proud to award the honor this year to Naia Izumi — but Weekend Edition isn't done highlighting the impressive talent who entered this year's contest.

Entrants Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama, two doctoral students in American Studies at Brown University, create songs that illuminate the Asian-American experience in their multimedia project No-No Boy. The pair's Tiny Desk Contest submission "Two Candles In The Dark" tells the story of Aoyama's grandmother who was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

"These are a lot of the stories from our own family histories or from families that look like ours and they're not stories we learned growing up," Aoyama says. Another one of No-No Boy's songs, "Vĩnh Long," narrates the trauma of death and displacement that Saporiti's family went through during the Vietnam War.

No-No Boy is currently traveling around the country, presenting the Asian-American experience through song to a diversified audience. As Aoyama puts it, the goal is to inspire others to "challenge how we teach the history" of marginalized groups.

For Saporiti, No-No Boy's music not only sheds light on racial prejudices from long ago, it also applies to history unfolding now.

"You see these echoes and these reverberations of this history of incarceration, of immigration bans, of refugees being treated poorly happening now in such deafening volume that to take these examples that we personally touch through our families, but also touch through scholars [and] to make that resident to today's audience is a really important thing," he says.

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And now we're going to talk about some music that came out of an unlikely place - the American Studies Department at Brown University. That's right. The Ivory Tower produced one of the outstanding entries to this year's Tiny Desk Contest. NPR Music staff flagged the video for us. Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama, two doctoral students at Brown, created songs that illuminate the Asian-American experience in their multimedia project "No-No Boy."


NO-NO BOY: (Singing) Don't it feel like a movie, teaching this girl how to Waltz? Left feet, she might have three, but she sure feels nice in my arms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached Julian and Erin at the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

Welcome to the program.

ERIN AOYAMA: Thanks so much.

JULIAN SAPORITI: Thanks for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erin, let's start with you. This song, "Two Candles In The Dark", is about your grandmother.

AOYAMA: Yeah, so this song was written about a place, the root cellar at Heart Mountain, which was this internment camp out in Wyoming where my grandmother, along with around 10,000 other Japanese-Americans, was incarcerated during World War II. And the root cellar was built by the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated there to store vegetables and things like that. And it still exists on their grounds, but it's completely falling apart now. The roof is caving in. There's an old car inside of it and a lot of beer cans and things like that because it's a place where, even after the camp closed, teenagers would go to hang out and spend time, which is also kind of how it functioned during the war years, as well, in that teenagers would sneak out around the barbed wire and, you know, go hang out down in the root cellar and get some time away from their parents and their families.


NO-NO BOY: (Singing) Wind around past the skaters and punks, just looking for a cut in the wire.

AOYAMA: So the song we sing, "Two Candles In The Dark", is kind of a speculative piece thinking about what it would mean to sneak out. My grandmother was about 20 years old when she was at Heart Mountain. So thinking about living in a one-room barrack with her older brother and her parents and trying to get some time away, find a little bit of light in a really dark place, finding joy and finding life, even from within a prison camp.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it's important to tell these stories?

AOYAMA: Well, I think for both of us, that personal peace is really important, that these are a lot of the stories from our own family histories or from families that look like ours, and they're not stories that we learned growing up. So I have memories of going to the library in my town and taking out every single historical fiction book that existed on the shelf and just loving history so much but never getting to see any families that looked like mine or any last names like mine in the textbooks or in the books I was reading.

SAPORITI: Yeah. For me, the answer to your question why this is important now is because you see these echoes and these reverberations of this history of incarceration, of immigration bans, of refugees being treated poorly happening now in such, like, deafening volume that to take these examples that we personally touch through our families but that we also touch through scholars, to make that resonant to today's audience is a really important thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen now to a song, Julian, you wrote about your Vietnamese great-grandfather. This is "Vinh Long."


SAPORITI: (Singing) Got a family story of some Viet Cong king. If I had been born in '54, might have done what he did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the backstory here?

SAPORITI: Like Erin's family, like so many people's families, there's this trauma that lingers. There's this displacement. And in the case of my mother's grandfather, there is assassination and death. He was in the Assembly of South Vietnam - you know, this country that doesn't exist anymore after the reunification of Vietnam or the fall of Saigon, depending on which side you were on. He was in his family's home - our family home - in Vinh Long, couple hours outside Saigon, where my mom's from. And my mom was there. Our whole family was there. And during the Tet Offensive, a grenade was thrown by just two Viet Cong teenagers into the house, and he was killed.


SAPORITI: (Singing) There's the crack and the flash. And like that it was over.

And that's kind of the story behind the song, thinking about not only that death that lingers in the family but also sympathy for the other side and how terrible war is for everyone.


SAPORITI: (Singing) Nobody sees the light until that bomb goes off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julian, as a last question, how has this sort of affected and changed you, doing this project, talking about your own personal experience and meeting people and talking to them about theirs?

SAPORITI: I think it's just taking all the knowledge that we have, the massive privilege of just sitting with at Brown, and then actually getting on the road, playing shows, talking to people and collaborating. It's looking at academia as something that doesn't have to be I think where it's been cornered in the public imagination but also sort of the actuality of it, which is kind of an elite, institutional thing, where we speak in this jibberish that only we can understand. And that's not knocking that jibberish. I love writing that way. I love reading that in that language. But we have to get out, especially right now, and share these ideas, share these histories. And I think that's what this project has allowed us to do.

AOYAMA: Yeah, I think it's also for me really challenged what we think of as history and how we teach history, which is kind of a question I've been mulling over when I started grad school, this idea of, you know, American history is so much broader than what we're able to teach in a yearlong course or put in a textbook. And so this project has given both of us a lot to think about as far as, you know, how can we take these songs and these videos and these stories and put them in the classroom and think about them as kind of lesson-plan modules and asking a lot larger questions of what we can think of as learning history, what that capital-H history looks like or how it can change even before you get to grad school.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama from No-No Boy. You can see their Tiny Desk Contest video on our website, They joined us from Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu. Thank you both so very much.

AOYAMA: Thank you so much, Lulu.

SAPORITI: Thanks for having us.


NO-NO BOY: (Singing) 40 years ago... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.