Introduction by Deborah Wong, ethnomusicologist:
What you are about to experience is you are in the presence of a legend. I first heard Nobuku Miyamoto when I listened to her amazing album of 1973. I had memorized all of the songs of that album, so when I heard her live in 1993, I was blown away. Here, we feel the history of past Women Who Rock gatherings and the future. When we come together in this way, we feel the coming together of art, politics, and community building. And I experienced that when I first heard Nobuko’s work. 20 years ago she founded Great Leap, an organization that originally first focused on Asian American issues. But in 1992, after the LA Uprising, that shifted to address the complexities of communities in Los Angeles. I best describe her as a community artivista. I love that daily she is working at the community level. This morning a bunch of us learned one of her dance choreographies and am hoping we might be able to share it with you later. But for now, I share one of the gestures with you.
[Wong takes a bit step forward and opens her arms completely out to the side, a wide gesture of invitation.] So…this is Nobuko Miyamoto.
[Nobuko Miyamoto takes the stage.]
You all have been sitting for such a long time today, let’s stand and do some movement exercises. I don’t want you all to fall asleep!
[She has audience go through a series of exercises]
I am joined on this stage now by the legendary Monica Rojas. It is an amazing thing to be with you here today to experience such deep thinking and creativity. The thing is that I’m not stopping until I drop. I just turned 73. I don’t mind saying how old I am because women have been hiding their age, and at some point, you have to say you are proud of the years you have been alive and of what you have done. I can see in this room that there is an incredible amount of energy and humanity. I’m going to share a little song with you because I’m not a speech maker. Do we have music?
I don’t know why it took us so long for Asian Americans to find their voice through music. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was 17 years old when she married a picture of a man she never met; at 18, she then sailed across the Pacific and met him when she came off the boat. My other grandmother met my grandfather when she came off the boat. Somehow this Mormon woman decided she would marry my grandfather, and in doing so she crossed the borders of race and religion. The kind of racism and hatred of Asian Americans — there were all kinds of laws keeping them from coming into the country. Flash forward to 1942: I was just a baby, and WWII began when Japan dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor. It only took until the springtime to develop plans to move 120,000 people from the west coast into these camps. So, first we are in an unholy place, Santa Anita race track, sleeping in the horse stalls. A lot of young men wanted to prove their loyalty and fight in the war. My father felt that if he was in the camps, he would not go to war. So he volunteered to work on a farm in Montana where we went to pick sugar beets. And then if there was a chance to go to Idaho, we could say we had family there. If you were going to move inland, they would let you go. Turned out the farmer knew my grandparents, Lucy and Harry Miyamoto, and was out their wedding, so he helped us get out of there.
There, working at a trucking company, my father decides he will take us to a concert in Salt Lake City. We arrive, and go to a grand hall where we are on a balcony looking down at an incredibly beautiful orchestra playing Tchaikovsky. Suddenly, I felt I was part of this music; and it turned my world from a gray dusty childhood into a place of wonder and imaginement. When I got home, I would go and play my father’s records and dance. Though as a child, I had those early moments where I felt lost, I would then after play the music and feel embraced by another world.
In 1946, when we moved to Boyle Heights, my mother took me to a dance school, and that’s where, at the age of seven, I began to seriously study dance and began studying to become a ballerina. Sonia Sato was half Japanese American and Irish and a legendary presence. My mother was a frustrated artist who somehow learned costume design. Dance became a way for her to also belong as the mothers would sew costumes for the children performing. The music was European and the dance form European. I went to the American School of Dance in Hollywood. Now it was getting serious; I was in a professional school and getting scholarships. A Mr. Laury said that in order for me to become a dancer, I had to be twice as good as anyone else. I was 12, so it hurt me, but it also spurned me. I thought, I am going to be better than anyone else. It pushed me to prove myself. He helped me, and the other teachers pushed me into the front row and made me do things I didn’t want to do.
One level of my training was rigor. Mr. Laury would make me go to these auditions. TV shows were already on. I would go the auditions, and they would apologize, saying I was a good dancer but they couldn’t use me because I would stand out on tv. Finally, I went to an audition for THE KING AND I and then THE GIRLS, where Asians were actually “in” and Orientals on stage were the big thing. The next step was Broadway with FLOWER DRUM SONG. It was a big deal to be on Broadway. It was. But there was a song in FLOWER DRUM SONG called “Chop Suey,” and I remember looking out to the audience. The song was supposed to be making fun of this, but when I looked out at the audience of white ladies, I said to myself, “They look at us like Chinese food for white people.” That’s what we were to them. I had this feeling inside of me that I wanted to cross the color line and somehow get out of this situation.
It was 1960, and they were auditioning for the film WEST SIDE STORY. There were hundreds of dancers auditioning and somehow I got through and passed for Puerto Rican. You think that’s easy? There were only a handful of Puerto Rican women in the piece. Of course, it was an amazing experience. Not only were we dancing to incredible music and to amazing choreography, but it was an incredible story of racial clashes and inequities and of class struggle as well. So after that, I was like, now what? Where do you go from here? I started studying singing because I had a fear of voice, actually. A lot of others in WEST SIDE STORY were studying with this one coach, who I started to study with and who then introduced me to Billie Holiday and other signers. I thought, if you could choose your own songs, you could find your own voice.
Pat Suzuki was a Japanese American singer. She invited me to Seattle and offered to reopen a club for me, allowing me to live in a hotel for 8 months in order to train vocally. That is why I love Seattle and find it a dear place because it gave me the opportunity to train and be on the stage 6 nights a week to develop my voice. But at the same time, coming into the club were young people from the University of Washington organizing against the war. So I’m singing in a nightclub, and there’s a war going on, and my brother might get drafted. I started questioning the relevance of my singing. I went back to Los Angeles and volunteered for the McCarthy campaign; it was a chance at the age of 27 to step out and get involved. I met a friend who introduced me to a documentary filmmaker named Antonello who said he was making a documentary about the Black Panthers and asked me to help him with the project. In 1968, I did not know that meant I would be diving into the sea of revolution.
We shot in Los Angeles and Toronto. All the Panthers were working jobs and running political projects at the same time. It was a time the police were heavily harassing them. They had education classes and clinics; I would go to the classes and see how they were working to help the community, and it started to make sense to me about what the struggle was about. I got called a sister. I felt part of a family, that they understood what Japanese Americans went though and defined that history as part of their own struggle. So then we went to New York City to record the Young Lords Party and the Break for Kids program there. It was a fantastic gathering of hundreds of people organizing. This Japanese American woman tapped me on the shoulder, started grilling me about my family and where I was from. Her name was Yuri Kochiyama. She had six children in Harlem who went to freedom schools in Harlem, and she got arrested for going up the Statue of Liberty in solidarity with Puerto Rico. She was a link between Asian, Latino and Black communities. When Malcolm X got shot, she ran onto the stage to cover his body with hers. She asked me to come to Asian Americans for Action. It was the first time I’m in a political group with Asian Americans, young people and elders together, all planning to go to Chicago because they wanted the Japanese American Citizens League to make a statement against the Viet Nam War. I go, not sure about the Asian American thing. There, for the first time, East and West Coast as Asian Americans together for the first time, like today at this conference, people of like minds discovering that we aren’t just isolated groups but a movement.
One day we went to visit Black Panthers who had just lost Fred Hampton. Crazy how these young people were not threatened by this. We walked the streets and ran into Native Americans protesting for better housing. They pulled us into their circle, had us smoke pipes with them, and told stories about the prophecy of 5,000 years of evil followed by 5,000 years of good with change following warriors of the rainbow coming together. We went back to the church, and we sang to the guitar. I saw an Asian American man with Yellow Soul who was a natural songwriter, and the two of us wrote a song that night. The song was the “People’s Beat,” based on what Fred Hampton used to say. The next day at the conference, we sang that song; there were elders and radicals, all Japanese Americans. And it was one of those moments where we could all feel that we had never seen ourselves singing our own songs. It was a magical moment when we realized that we needed this song and more songs like this. After that, Chris Iijima and I wrote five songs. We wanted to know more about what was happening on the West Coast, and we went to LOs Angeles, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento, and started across the country taking on the stories of what was going on — like the Internet — but doing it the hard way. We made stories from the hunger for cultural voice, doing something that speeches could not do.
Not only did it help to bring together Asian Americans. I lived in the Upper West side with PUerto Ricans and African Americans. At night time, it was a great thing because the Puerto Rican rhythms and music would fill the street. But the rich people in the high rises would call the police and ask them to stop. As the Asian American cluster, we were starting to notice what was going on. There was a squatters movement taking over buildings targeted for urban renewal (aka removal), moving in families rent free, and having people watching over it all from the outside. Police were afriend to move them out. We said, we need an Asian drop in center, a store front. So we got the help to do that, established one, and were told to take over a building. We cleaned it out and waited for the police. We wanted to show that we were strong and revolutionary. So we named it Chickens Come Home to Roost, like what Malcolm said. But we were cool chickens.
So after three years of doing this work, I did an album, GRAIN OF SAND, and Yuri comes along and introduces me to a beautiful warrior who had been with Malcolm since 17 and was just a visionary person. He worked with hospitals in the Bronx helping people get off drugs through acupuncture. I was torn about going back to LA. Sometimes the universe asks you to do something you could not imagine otherwise. I was pregnant and could not imagine going back to my community, wondering if Japanese people would accept me if I had a black child? He said, they will talk about you at first, then they’ll move on. Once the child was born, my family came around. Ten weeks after, I got the call in the middle of the night that said our son Kamal’s father had been shot and was dead. I went to NEw York City. He was ten weeks old; I had to go back, walks the streets of his father and feel his presence. We stayed at his mother’s house; this was the third son she had lost, two of them by gun. Attallah was working to set up a mosque in Harlem, and they were attacked. I was thinking, I wonder how many black mothers have raised sons by themselves, not just one but many. I wondered how I would do it, how I would make up for this loss. And I remember vowing that I would make it up to her somehow. I didn’t do it by myself, but with the help of a community, my sisters, who gathered around us. And this child gave me a reason to do the work; he grew up in the Buddhist church. When I was teaching dance, he would sleep while the Taiko drums were playing. Then I started created pieces with my band, WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW, and that led me to start creating larger musicals for the stage, the first being CHOP SUEY. As Deborah Wong said, in 1992, with the LA Uprising, my organization became a multicultural organization.
When my son went away to college, he called me up and said, “I just became a Muslim.” Then 2001 happened, 9/11, the Twin Towers. I knew I had to do work that would bring Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists together. In a way, Kamal’s life has intertwined with me as we do work together. And then he became a father, and I have four grandchildren. I really began to think about what kind of world we are leaving these children, what kind of life will they have with the planet we are leaving. I began to go to Native American gatherings. They would call, “All of my relations, Mother Earth, Father Sky, all relationships, two legged and four legged.”
We all have to look at our connection to the earth. Grace Lee Boggs is a person who urged me to think about the healing of the earth. And with that, a last song.