The Moon Represents My Heart:
                          Music, Memory and Belonging



       This listening tour is inspired by the original MOCA exhibition
    -- The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging




Is your radio always tuned to the same station?

Are you a mixtape of different sounds and voices?


Musical tastes often solidify in our formative years when we’re asserting our place in the world. We try on the hairstyles, fashions, and speech patterns that go along with the music we choose to buy, listen to, play, or obsess over. If it fits, we adopt it as our own.

For the Chinese community in America, musical tastes can carry a political charge: what we choose to listen to is a way to align with or against a world view. Our music might be a cultural home.


An iconic song like Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart,” which inspired a MOCA exhibition of the same name in 2019, could be a surrogate for the homeland left behind and a reminder of who we really are. But what do we mean by “Our music”? How do we begin to define it?


     The Moon Represents My Heart -- by Teresa Teng


Think of this site as a massive mixtape of some of the music that matters to Chinese in America. It is organized into sections that bridge an expansive range of musical genres, approaches, and artists. 


In one section, we consider the relationship between traditional Chinese opera and rap music. Another brings together Asian American Movement music and underground rock in Beijing. Karaoke culture is contrasted with church singing. 


Each section ends with a playlist of the songs mentioned. Click on the HEADPHONE icon to listen to the playlist using a virtual cassette player.


Or you can click here to listen to all playlists as VIRTUAL CASSETTES.




By free-associating in this way we hope the site will prompt you to actively explore how music, memory, and belonging are connected.




Source Materials: Opera, Chinatown Sounds and Hip-Hop

For five weeks in 1930, opera superstar Mei Lanfang and his troupe packed New York’s National Theater for performances of Peking opera, a musical genre little known to audiences in the U.S. Could these Midtown audiences tell the difference between Mei’s Mandarin singing and the Cantonese-language operas being staged in Chinatown? And what of Mei himself? No documentation exists of Mei Lanfang visiting Mott Street to see what the chop suey craze was about, but one has to wonder how he related his interpretation of classical Chinese theater to the daily life of Chinese in America during the Exclusion Act era.


                   Chinese Opera -- by Mei Lanfang


If Mei Lanfang did venture into Chinatown back then he might have been impressed by the wealth of music being explored beyond Cantonese opera. Walking its streets, he would have encountered muk’yu, a form of Toisanese folk singing exemplified by Ng Sheung-Chi (“Uncle Ng”), who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. If he was here in the 1960s, he would have encountered doo-wop from the all-male group the Cathays or Motown-inspired vocals from the all-female group the Fortune Cookies. What would Mei Lanfang have thought of China Doll, a 1940s Midtown nightclub offering chop suey on the menu and pop music and dance revues on stage? Even today, amateur musicians gather in a corner of Columbus Park to jam on traditional Chinese string instruments like the erxian or pipa— a daily cypher of traditional Chinese musicianship.


     Uncle Ng Comes to Gold Mountain -- Ng Sheung-Chi


There are over 350 regional operatic genres in China, but Cantonese opera has the deepest historical roots in America. As early as 1852, the Hong Took Tong troupe performed in San Francisco, then traveled to New York to do shows at Niblo’s Garden just north of what is now Chinatown. So what did Cantonese opera sound like to New York audiences in the early 1850s? According to one observer, the wailing Cantonese speak-singing, the plucking pipa, crashing bells, and weeping strains of the bamboo fiddle sounded like “a compound of distressed cats, an old pump handle, ungreased cart wheels, a poke on a tin kitchen, and the spiritual rappers in communion with the infernal regions.”


Read that last line again: “...spiritual rappers in communion with the infernal regions.” Coming from someone talking about Cantonese opera in the mid-19th century, finding the word “rappers” here is notable. Was this trash-talker channeling a future in which rap music and all its various strains have become pop music vessels for feelings of marginalization and oppression? A future in which rap helps to preserve and popularize regional dialects like Cantonese and Sichuanese?


                               Cantonese Opera


This link is not as far off as it may seem; in the '90s a sub-genre of rap music made the unexpected connection between ancient Chinese culture and life in America’s African American inner cities. Staten Island crew Wu-Tang Clan, named after the kung-fu film Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983), punctuated their classic 1993 album Enter the 36 Chambers with choice snippets from martial arts films. It expressed a spiritual affiliation to the cool, philosophical fighting style embodied by Bruce Lee and the cult classic Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985), a hybrid Blaxploitation kung-fu coming-of-age story.


Classic early '90s albums like 36 Chambers, Dr Dre’s The Chronic, and Nas’s Illmatic found a hungry audience with young Asian Americans looking for alternatives to mainstream pop music. Indifferent to Cantonese and Peking opera, they were entranced by a budding new musical form that spoke to their anger and alienation. This generation of Asian American hip-hop heads produced national stars like Invisible Skratch Piklz, Mountain Brothers, MC Jin, Far East Movement, Key Kool & Rhettmatic, and Awkwafina.



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Tenderness: Looking for Home in Cantopop, Mandopop, and Yellow Music


There’s an irresistibly sappy quality to eighties and nineties Chinese pop ballads, the kind of music you hear at a restaurant or karaoke bar. Those weepy strings, the air of chintzy splendor, and melancholy lyrics about far-away love—like the audio equivalent of soft neon lights. A good love song taps into hopes and feelings that often exceed our own private imaginations. But an expression of desire isn’t a promise of a happy ending. We turn to pop music when we can’t find the words for ourselves.


Any history of Chinese pop music must reckon with politics. In the twenties and thirties, Shanghai was entranced with shidai qu (modern songs), or as it was known to its critics, huangse yinyue (yellow music), a derisive term for the fusion of big band jazz and traditional Chinese songs that composer Li Jinhui popularized. But throughout much of the twentieth century, and particularly after the rise of Communist rule, the sound of music bent to government imperatives. Love songs were now patriotic in nature, addressed to the nation itself; songs about private sentiment or personal desire were actively discouraged.


                   Little Drizzle -- by Li Jinhui


Meanwhile, in non-Communist Taiwan and Hong Kong, locals began making pop music in Mandarin and Cantonese. On the surface, these were pop songs like any other around the world, soft and sweet odes to love and longing. But they took on a different meaning as they traveled across borders, offering listeners far from home visions of a dream-world.


In the nineties, there was a thriving industry for stars who could dominate both stage and screen, like Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, and Leon Lai, the “Four Heavenly Kings” who were famous wherever people spoke Chinese. Witness the crowds boarding buses in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to go to Atlantic City or Mohegan Sun Casino, where enterprising promoters have, since at least the early nineties, thrown lavish concerts with the Chinese-speaking world’s biggest stars. And occasionally, this circuit worked in reverse. Just as Chinese singers of the eighties could be taught Japanese to expand their appeal throughout Asia Pacific, Chinese American kids, like Irvine’s L.A. Boyz or the Bay Area’s Coco Lee, could be taught to rap and sing in their native tongue.


                  Goodbye Kiss -- by Jacky Cheung


What have pop songs represented to Chinese people far from home? There was no bigger star in the Chinese-language universe than the Taiwan-born singer Teresa Teng, famous for songs like The Moon Represents My Heart and Tian Mi Mi. Throughout Asia, she was hailed for her gorgeous, sentimental tunes—she was a truly global pop star, singing in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Japanese. But in mainland China, where political music was still dominant, she was a “ghost” who spread through a network of tape players and drifting radio waves to remind citizens of blissful possibilities. There are stories of Teng’s My Native Land playing in Tiananmen Square, and students, seeing something subversive in her emotional intimacy, bursting into tears. Did love and reunion become a metaphor for something else? Can the song itself become a kind of home? When she died of a respiratory attack in 1995, at the age of 42, it was a tragedy felt around the world.



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Amateur Hours: Ecstatic Performance in Partying and Worship


The first notes of your song pour out and in the private KTV suite, aglow in soft neon lights refracted from every mirrored surface, everyone goes silent. The music video is typical KTV, sentimental and campy, and is distracting just enough to mellow out your anxious stomach. Your audience is on delirious edge, ready to follow your vocal lead until they can scream-shout the chorus. The instrumental opening draws to an end and the words appear. Someone hands you the mic.


Karaoke’s ground zero was a bar in Kobe, Japan in 1972. In Japanese, karaoke literally translates as “empty orchestra,” a name that implies loneliness— a band missing its singer. Karaoke is an invitation to fill in. Understanding karaoke’s appeal to the innate crooner in all of us, some Mandopop producers deliberately write songs with easy-to-follow melodies and tonal range for the mediocre singer.


Beyond the generic appeal of momentary stardom, what is behind the transformative power of karaoke in Asian culture? Why are two-person karaoke booths being installed in China’s airports and in the food court of Flushing’s New World Mall? Maybe the answers can be found in church. Like a karaoke room, church is a space of performance and music in service of transcendence— amateurs struggling to find the right pitch to scrolling lyrics on a video screen. In the late 1800s over half of New York’s Chinese community were enrolled in Sunday schools organized by Christian missionaries. Chinese music performances, English lessons, and faith intermingled in these classes.


             Encouraging Female Rights -- by Qiu Jin


The struggle for modern China was animated by mass singing. In the mid-1800s, Protestant missionaries, European merchants and American imperialists used music to reinforce the teachings of the Bible and gather support for uprisings seeking to overthrow the Qing dynasty. In fact, the Taiping Rebellion was soundtracked by an anthem adapted from a hymn that the rebellion’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, learned from a Baptist missionary from Missouri. With the Qing Dynasty teetering at the turn of the century, cultural activists looked to music to help reform society and form healing nationalistic bonds. “School Songs” were created for children to group sing about virtuous morals as part of the Qing Dynasty’s ultimately futile Self Strengthening campaign.


The founding of a new China at the beginning of the 20th century came with different message music for the masses. The symphonic piece Yellow River Cantata fed off the grandeur and mysticism of China’s spinal waterway to stoke nationalism in a time of war. In other nationalistic songs, women were being called to military service as part of a modern ideal of femininity. This was high stakes karaoke.


          Boundless Oceans and Vast Skies -- by Beyond


But actually, karaoke always feels like a big deal. For Hong Kong-ers of a certain generation, “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” by the pop rock band Beyond is a sort of alternate national anthem. Singing it at karaoke might make a new immigrant feel the chorus even more keenly. The opening lines, “Today I saw snow drifting through the cold night". With the cold, my heart and mind drift off to faraway places” gives language and voice to feelings of dislocation and homesickess. Performing it well at Winnie’s in Chinatown during that karaoke bar’s heyday could have created a communal experience of belonging as spiritual as church singing.


Ecstatic moments of karaoke performance are usually channeled through the most unreligious of common cultural denominators— the formulaic pop ballad. Song choice is key. What will sustain the energy of the crowd? What will make everyone sing along? How will you “fill in” and make everyone believe?



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Sound Clashes: Electronic Music in the Diaspora


From arena stages to suburban recording studios, Chinese have held down background positions as DJs, producers and engineers. Their sounds have brought communities together in genres of music that are not normally associated with Chinese people, but are no less a reflection of life in the diaspora.


Recording engineer Rod Hui shaped the urgent, noise-based aesthetic of Public Enemy’s sample-heavy classic hip-hop albums It Takes a Nation… (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) that intensified the pitch of Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s revolutionary rhymes. Around the time of Jamaica’s independence in 1962, Vincent “Randy” Chin and his wife Patricia were producing records for reggae artists. While the lyrics on these recordings were also often political, it wasn’t until Jamaican producers created “dub” music in the 1970s that the instrumental sounds were able to capture the mood expressed by those lyrics. Clive Chin, son of Randy and Patricia, worked with musician Augustus Pablo in 1973 to produce what is believed to be the first dub record. Meditative, with isolated and slowed-down compositional elements, dub’s most noticeable characteristic was the spatializing echo effect—an apt sonic metaphor for living in a diaspora where sounds near and far, past and present, are experienced simultaneously.


          Welcome to the Terrordome -- by Public Enemy


How does sound create a meaningful experience of space? Some music, like Public Enemy’s combative hip-hop, seems engineered for the deep listening experience of headphones on loud subway rides. Other kinds of music are meant to gather people together, like Jamaican sound clashes where opposing sound system crews competed and dub took root. While dub’s main vehicle was the sound system—described as the “community’s heartbeat”—its pulse was controlled by the DJ.


At Vancouver’s “Love Dancing” parties (2009-2013), Chris Wang spun deep, dubby records from the “dance music continuum.” By echoing the joyous vibe of David Mancuso’s downtown Manhattan parties at the Loft during the 1970s disco era, he (trans)formed the rock-obsessed music community with his genre-defying sound system. A “Love Dancing” DJ alum, Daniel Wang’s music production emulated the lush, melodic orchestrations of disco. Partially inspired by reruns of Dance Fever he watched as kid in Taiwan, his mid-1990s house-disco tracks would later soundtrack “voguing” dance competitions in the African American gay ballroom scene in New York. For Daniel, Chris and the Jamaican sound system DJs, their sets were a reimagining of the contested spaces inhabited by diasporic peoples, turning bars, clubs, basements, warehouses, and recording studios into fluid zones of individual expression and collective experience.


Transitioning to a darker vibe, Hsi-Chang Lin (DJ Still) fashioned dystopic soundscapes through noise-inspired “turntablism”—aesthetically more akin to the frenzied distortion of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing than the virtuosic cutting and scratching of DJ Babu, a pioneering Filipino American DJ and producer, who coined the term. As the backing DJ for the experimental hip-hop group Dälek, DJ Still always opted to isolate and amplify the sonic imperfections of his source material instead of compositional fragments like an open drum break. He often put the vinyl aside and treated the turntable like a microphone, sticking the stylus in his mouth and drowning the audience in the ambient noise of his agonized cybernetic screaming.


Likewise, C. Spencer Yeh’s early live compositions of looped and layered bodily gurgles, burbles, tongue clicks and lip rolling recalls his traumatic childhood memories of learning a new language in a new land, while also coping with a speech disorder. According to Pan Daijing, Berlin-based producer and performance artist, going deeper and darker is not a pleasant process, but it allows the artist and the listener to “confront the darkness of your personal experience” and “bring you to a brighter side later.” Organizing sound can be therapeutic.


                          I -- by C. Spencer Yeh


DJs and producers know that sound is spatial, a concept that helps them reimagine the recording studio, the sound system experience, and the dance floor. Whether stripped-down dub, noisy hip-hop or deep dance tracks, Chinese DJs and producers in the diaspora shape social settings in response to their immediate surroundings, where migration leads to new hybridities and contested sites of culture.



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Disciplines: Western Classical Music and Experiments in Noise


For many Chinese American youth, learning Beethoven on the piano or Bach on the violin is a requirement, a way for parents to instill discipline. Classical music training is a parental tool of Yale professor Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” worldview in which cultural refinement means being able to master the violin. In direct rebellion to such a view, experimental noise artist C. Spencer Yeh furiously improvises on his violin during recent performances—perhaps attempting to exorcise the “model minority” within. Yeh is the anti-Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrity celloist whose early success in the 1980s popularized Western classical music in Chinese communities.

In China, the cultivation of musicians in the Western classical tradition began in the nineteenth century through cultural contact with Christian missionaries, and gained in prestige during the push for modernization during the 1910s and '20s. Even though its popularity waned during the Cultural Revolution when those instruments were seen as tools of Western imperialism, classical music continued to thrive in Chinese diasporas. During the 1960s, middle-class immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan brought their century-old interest in cultivating Western classical music, and a number of symphonic orchestras for Chinese American youth emerged.


Today, there are over a dozen such music societies in New York. The Children’s Orchestra Society was founded in 1962 by violinist and music professor H.T. Ma, Yo-Yo Ma’s father. Another, the Si-Yo Music Society Foundation, was founded in 1966 by Sau-Wing Lam, Jean Lam, violinist Ma Si-Hon, and pianist Tung Kwong-Kwong to support newly arrived musicians and composers from pre-Cultural Revolution China. They were among the first to organize classical music concerts and workshops for youth in Chinatown. These repertories focused on Western classical music, but some also performed Chinese folk and operatic pieces—a hybridity that resonated with many downtown experimental music spaces. In the 1980s a generation of musicians from the Central Conservatory of Music in China, including composers Tan Dun and Chen Yi, gravitated to Columbia University, where most studied with Chou Wen-chung and were exposed to postwar avant-garde music.


                      Water Music -- by Tan Dun


More recent experimental projects show that even when the genre calls for turning against tradition, filial piety draws Chinese experimental musicians closer to their roots. Cantonese opera star Chong Siu Lau’s daughter Flora Yin-Wong resisted traditional music before confronting its personal influence on the mixtape City God. On the EP “Fallen Angels,” Hiro Kone deconstructs her mixed-race identity to focus on memories of Hong Kong. Improviser Charmaine Lee attributes her impact as a vocalist in the experimental noise scene to a childhood of jam sessions with her bebop-obsessed parents. In a reversal of roles, attorney Hewson Chen helped realize his physician father’s dream of becoming a musician on Taiwanese Folk Style. With fatherly approval coming much later in life, producer David Eng used his business acumen to turn a humble basement recording studio in his parents’ suburban home into a haven for hip-hop production in the 1980s. More recently, Los Angeles beatmaker Mike Gao earned his PhD in music technology and developed the award-winning production software, PolyPlayground, an innovation that collapses samplers, sequencers, synthesizers and other studio functions into a single iPad app.


                        Island -- by Hiro Kone


How does filial piety sound—like the dramatic and technical artistry of classical music or the discordant language of experimental noise? Maybe playing the right notes at the right time and creating jarring sound compositions are related by more than their aesthetic properties. Artists and musicians have shown that respecting the social order can take many forms, that in some instances, filial piety is not only about parental control, but also as a source of creativity.



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Abstracted: Creative Encounters in the Margins


Before Chinese immigrants could sing for themselves, they were the characters in someone else’s drama. In 1897, for example, the vaudeville duo of Bob Cole and Billy Johnson wrote The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon, billed as a “strange amalgamation twixt these two funny nations.” A decade later, William Jerome and Jean Schwartz composed Chinatown, My Chinatown, which became a popular jazz standard in the thirties. Neither work offered a particularly textured depiction of the Chinese American community.

It’s strange revisiting these moments now, given their aggressive stereotypes. In the early days, Chinese American performance reflected a life lived primarily in the margins, like the small, local Chinatown organizations that specialized in keeping older folk traditions alive. The “chop suey” circuit thrived in Chinatowns throughout the forties and fifties. Their bawdy take on popular music was famously dramatized in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song.


'Chop Suey' from Flower Drum Song -- Original Broadway Cast 


The history of high-profile Chinese musicians in the West is relatively brief. Those growing up Chinese in America have often looked elsewhere for inspiration. Our heritage is our history. But we find community and the raw stuff of identity, the stuff that moves us forward, in the most unlikely places. If you grew up in the eighties, maybe you identified with the rebelliousness of punk, or the outsider synth-pop of Erasure and Depeche Mode. If you were born a few years later, nineties hip-hop was where you learned your sense of pride or swagger, electronic dance music the foundations for community.


For Stephen Cheng, the son of a diplomat, music held the key to bringing China and America together. He was a popular, congenial performer in fifties New York, appearing on Broadway, as well as radio and television. But he grew interested in fusing together different styles. In the sixties, he formed the Dragon Seeds, which imagined a meeting point between jazz, funk, rock, and Chinese traditional music. His musical excursions brought him to the West Indies, where he became a minor star in Trinidad and Tobago. In Jamaica, he cut a seven-inch single called Always Together, adapting a Taiwanese folk song to Lee’s rocksteady riddim.


              Always Together -- by Stephen Cheng

At the same time, Chinese culture has inspired a range of musical experiments, from the modern composer John Cage’s Music of Changes, inspired by the I Ching, to the post-punk artist Winston Tong’s post-punk explorations of language and identity, Theoretically Chinese, to electronic music producer Fatima Al-Qadiri’s Asiatische, an imaginary trip through China. Far from The Chinee and the Coon or Chinatown, My Chinatown, these were attempts to commune with the more ephemeral possibilities of Chinese culture and aesthetics. There’s no more famous example of cross-pollinating energies than the Wu-Tang Clan, a group whose entire mythology is a loving hodge-podge of Chinese kung-fu flicks and martial arts philosophy.


        Da Mystery of Chessboxin -- by Wu-Tang Clan


Musical inspiration is wondrous and messy, a road that travels every which way. Questions of power and representation attend these examples. Yet performance and creation begin as leaps of faith. Rather than making something your own, it is about seeing how you can make your own new world. In the early nineties, Wendy and Amy Yao and Emily Ryan were teenagers who dreamed of resisting their stifling, suburban upbringing in Southern California. One night, they snuck out to see the pioneering riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile play, and, inspired, they decided to form a band themselves. Evading nosy parents and making do with borrowed instruments, Emily’s Sassy Lime was a revelation. They would eventually record an album for the legendary Kill Rock Stars label before disbanding in the late-nineties. As one admirer of their frenzied shows recalled, it was a din of punk chaos, wild improvisation, and encouraging on-stage banter: “Whatever, just play.”



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Movements: Beijing Rock, Asian American Folk, and Songs of Revolution


In 1969, the singer Barbara Dane and the activist Irwin Silber founded Paredon Records in New York City. They wanted to preserve the sounds of political protest, not just in America but worldwide, linking the struggles of the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement with communities in Mexico, Greece, Cuba, and Lebanon. In the early seventies, Dane and Silber released two albums that foretold radically different versions of what it meant to make music as Chinese people.


Two years later in 1971, Paredon Records released The East Is Red, an opera produced in Beijing to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Listening to it now, The East Is Red offers a forceful snapshot of Chinese music throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-76): rousing and patriotic, dramatic and proud, a commitment to one another as well as the land beneath them.


                             The East Is Red


However, once restrictions on Western music and culture loosened in the late seventies, patriotic anthems like these began to seem dated, and other genres rose in popularity. The Chinese pop imagination was initially defined by songs like John Denver’s early eighties hit, Take Me Home, Country Roads, and acts like the British duo Wham, whose 1985 tour marked the first time a Western pop act had played inside post-revolutionary China.


Eventually, what had previously been underground began surfacing in the mainstream, with eighties and early nineties Chinese rock artists like Cui Jian, Dou Wei, Black Panther, and Tang Dynasty. By the 2000s, “post-revolutionary” (or sometimes just “post”) became the catch-all descriptor for youthful experimentation, from noise and avant-garde composition to the underground rock scene, captured in the photography and film of documentarian and musician Zhang Yang. Thousands of miles away from their origins, musical subcultures like punk and hip-hop found a new spirit to animate them, blurring the lines between Western forms and Chinese desires.


                   Black Dream -- by Dou Wei


In 1973, Paredon Records released A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Although it centers on the story of people far from their origins, it too documents their search for a new spirit. The recording artists were a trio consisting of Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin, and their music was faithful to their inspirations: the struggle for civil rights, Black Power, the folk movement. A Grain of Sand documented the energy coursing through spaces like the Basement Workshop, where young people explored the raw materials and piecemeal nature of an emerging Asian American identity.


                             Yellow Pearl


Subsequent generations of Chinese Americans continue exploring this relationship between who we are and the sounds we make, sometimes in ways that express a forceful, self-conscious desire to create something entirely new. Throughout the eighties, Fred Ho and Jon Jang chased jazz toward its most radical directions, weaving Chinese motifs and immigrant tales into their wild, politically outspoken compositions. Others embodied these connections in less forthright ways, carving out space in punk rock, hip-hop, and dance music.


Music has always been a part of how we understand ourselves, whether as performers or fans. It helps us imagine our place in the world. To the artists of the 2000s, A Grain of Sand is a historical oddity, if it is known at all. But that spark of defiance remains, even if it aspires to a different kind of belonging. As the path-breaking rapper Jin teased on “Learn Chinese,” his 2004 debut single: “Yeah, I’m Chinese/And what?”



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