2008.041.008 Oral History Interview with Taiyo Na
New York City-born musician Taiyo Na first started writing rhymes at age 13. He started performing, first as a poet and then as a musician, composer, and producer. His critically acclaimed debut album, Love is Growth (2008), showcases his multitudinous talents as an MC, singer, songwriter and producer. Taiyo recalls his interview with poet and activist Fay Chiang at age 17, and reflects on how the music of Asian American artists and activists of the 1970s impacted his life and work. He remembers that Chiang’s stories about her experiences traveling around the country with her friends, connecting with communities, performing, and sharing their work, was exactly what he needed to hear at that age. Taiyo had encountered Asian American music of the 1970s through friends but it was only later after Chris Iijima passed that Taiyo fully appreciated the meaningfulness and importance of the lyrics and melodies. In his own music, he thinks that there is always a line of storytelling which seeks to articulate what he is going through and he finds that others are able to connect and resonate with this. He shares how music was an escape for him and a lot of other kids growing up and how it was a way they constructed their identities. When he is creating music, he often thinks about how he could help save these kids’ lives. He points to his song, Lovely to Me, Immigrant Mother, which came from feeling ashamed of being associated with his parents because they were Asian and immigrant. He wrote the song because he did not want anyone else to feel that way. Taiyo ends by noting that there was a conscious effort in the 1970s to create music that organizes the masses but he does not consider himself an activist. He believes that care for one another is not an activist mission; rather, it is a human being’s responsibility to care about each other.


I remember interviewing Fei Chang for a project when I was 17 and one of the things that she kept on saying she did back then in the 70s when she was like 18, 19, doing her thing as a poet and as an activist. Her and her friends, her and her crew, they just got in the car and drove to places all around the country, to connect with people, to connect with the community and perform and share their artwork, share their poetry and song. And that's exactly what I needed to hear when I was 16 and 17.

My path leading up to music was, um, I guess first through rhyming, from that, performing a lot as a poet, and then, more as a musician, as a composer, producer.

My music and poetry is pretty similar, there's always been a line of storytelling about articulating what I've been going through and what I've been going through can often reflect something that other people are going through. Learning about the legacy of Asian American artists and activists in New York City from the 70s on was extremely important, was integral. A lot of the Asian American music stuff from the 70s; I took a lot of that for granted for a lot of my life. Because I think I heard We are the children, I think I heard Grain of sand, you know when I was like 16 or 17 through friends. But I couldn't get down with it because it was like, all folkie and like, it was like, "Oh, my gosh, what is this stuff." You know what I mean?

But unfortunately, its one of those things you don't know what you got until it's gone, and when Chris Iijima passed, I started revisiting his music. It was only then when it really hit me. The songs they really were about something and they had great melodies along with it. Great poetry, great, real great words that articulated what it felt like to feel invisible.

Music was my escape growing up, and I think music is a lot of kids' escape. Not only there escape, but it's how they construct their identity. For the first time really trying to see themselves and make sense of the world and I feel like that's something I do think about a lot when I'm making music, is how can I save this kids' life, you know what I mean?

I have this song, Lovely to Me, Immigrant Mother, and whenever I get asked the question where this song comes from, I remember when I was younger, when I was a little kid, I hated being around my parents, I hated walking around or being associated with my parents. A, because they were Asian, and B, because they were immigrant and they had accents when they talked. So on one level I wrote that song because I just didn't want anybody else to feel like that. I hated that feeling of being ashamed of my own parents.

There's this line, "See her on the streets carrying loads of groceries, see her on the streets carrying loads of broken dreams". That line I remember walking around by Canal and Mott, it's like rush hour. All these mothers are carrying big heavy loads of groceries on home, to feed the whole family, of course. It's like wow, that's totally our experience.

In the 70s, I know that there was a real conscientious decision to make music to organize the masses, but I really don't feel like I'm an activist. But for me, what I believe is that, I feel like human beings in general have a responsibility to care about one another. It's not like an activist mission to care about one another. It's a human being's responsibility to care about each other.

I am Taiyo Na and I'm a musician.

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