Talented and seasoned musician, rap artist, writer and educator Taiyo, shares his perspective and experiences growing up as an Asian American. Check out his music video, We Belong ‘21on You Tube inspired by the March 16 deadly shootings of 8 Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k8euwSwXWU
A: Tell me about your name and what you do.
T: ”Taiyo Na” is an artist name given to me by some Filipino friends. It’s part of a common phrase in Tagalog that means “let’s go” or “us go.” My real name is Taiyo Ebato. I’m 38 years old. I’m a writer, educator and musician. I was born in Manhattan but my family is from Korea and Japan. I’m mainly known as a songwriter, but I also write poems, stories and essays. I’ve been writing creatively since I was a teenager, and sharing my work publicly for the last 21 years.
A: Can you tell me about your parents? What expectations did your parents have for you? Did they want you to do a particular occupation?
T: Both are from Japan. My mother has a little bit of Korean in her. My wife is Korean. I grew up with a lot more Koreans than Japanese folks. My parents immigrated here in the 1970’s. My mother’s side has a long history here in the United States for over 100 years. Some of my family were incarcerated during WWII, same as over 130,000 other Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at that time. My father’s side are country folk in Japan. I had a similar experience as other children of immigrants, but also in some ways I was different in that I knew I had family with a longer history here. Like other children of immigrants, growing up, I had to translate things for my mom and help her navigate life here.
I didn’t like a whole lot of Japanese food growing up, but now I appreciate it. That was my internalized racism. Up until I was 15, I didn’t want anything to do with Japanese culture. I just wanted to be “American,” whatever that meant at the time.
My mother is a visual artist. She always encouraged creativity and the artist’s path. My dad left the family when I was 13. I still have a relationship with him, but he’s never been vocal about things like career.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
T: I think Asian American is a political and cultural identity that I do identify with.
A: Did you experience any stereotypes growing up?
T: Growing up I experienced a lot of the stereotypes that are often attributed to Asian people. I think perhaps the most salient way those stereotypes were given was the way in which I internalized them, the ways in which I felt invisible growing up. Turning on the TV or watching movies I couldn’t see a mirror, I couldn’t see the depictions of myself. The only mirrors that I had growing up were Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and the Margaret Cho show and that was about it. And I think because of that, I took to basketball and Hip Hop culture early on since I was 10-11 years old. It became my first adopted culture. Hip Hop, of course as an art form, was invented by Black and Afro-Latinx people but there were Asians here and there, too. There are Asian DJ’s, graffiti artists, MC’s. Martial arts is a huge influence on Hip Hop, so those things made me feel more welcome with Hip Hop first. Whether it was on the basketball court, in school, in the neighborhood or hearing it on the street, we definitely got our share of, “go back to where you came from,” “do you speak English?”--a lot of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotypes. The weight of it all was how I internalized it. I felt like I couldn’t be anything, like there wasn’t anything to aspire to.
A: How did you overcome that?
T: It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I found a few Asian American communities here in NYC. Particularly, there was an Asian American youth conference that used to be held at NYU that started around 1996. I eventually became a part of their planning committee. It was through the Asian Pacific American studies program at NYU. I was also a part of the youth program at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop- -these organizations really brought me in and really helped me discover Asian American history, literature, music, art. They saved my life, psychically, spiritually, and emotionally, in all these ways. It allowed me to be able to make sense of myself.
A: You were into Hip Hop when you were young. How was that received by other people and did they think it was unusual?
T: In the 90’s it was a predominantly Black space, as it should be, but there was always at least one Asian person in the crowd or the group. I think a lot of East Asian folks, they have lighter skin than me, and grew up with a slightly different experience than I did. I was always categorized as “brown.” I had a shaved head, baggy jeans, I had my hip hop gear on, had fly sneakers, so I was swooped in with the other students of color, with the hip hop kids, the basketball kids. I did a bit of modeling in my early 20’s and these casting agencies always told me to show up to all the casting calls that are Black and Latino. Any time they were looking for some street and Hip Hop flavor, they said to show up to those things, you are one of them. It can be unique for an East Asian American person to be thrown into that crowd.
A: What do you think about the term people of color?
T: In terms of the umbrella term “people of color,” I definitely use it. I use that and BIPOC. I teach Humanities subjects, I teach social studies in a high school. I’m familiar and I know the legal history behind who was considered “white” and who is not considered “white” in terms of U.S. law. Asian folks, across the board, tried numerous times in various state and federal cases to try to have citizenship rights because they were not Black and therefore, would they be considered white? Each time they were shot down because they were classified as “not white.” They were in fact “Asiatic,” “Mongoloid,” “Malay.” Basically, we were part of the colored race. That’s really important to identify because the legal history is precisely what creates the foundations for how we feel erased, marginalized and invisible today. Purely in terms of numbers, our numbers are 6-7% of the country because for the first 150 years, we were excluded from it, excluded from immigrating here in large numbers. We’ve always been here in various forms as migrants, but perhaps the most cutting way in which those exclusion laws hurt Asian folks was we were not permitted to have families here, women particularly could not immigrate here and set roots down. Even though Asian folks have been on this side of the hemisphere for over 500 years, we are still considered foreigners, we’re still considered nobodies and that precisely has to do with U.S. history and U.S. law. So I definitely want to name that. Yes, our history is different from Black folks, Latinx folks and Indigenous folks but we do experience a common oppression and that common oppression is white supremacy and systemic racism. All that to say, yes, the umbrella term “People of Color” can often diminish the uniqueness of these various groups, but it is an important term when it comes to trying to unify us against the forces of white supremacy.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
T: I do in one sense. I also feel that if you look closely enough, everyone’s got something unique and everyone’s got something typical about them.
A: What message do you want to impart to people about Asians?
T: I think I want them to know just how brilliant the artists are, how incredibly complex and resilient our people are. I know so many brilliant artists and most Americans will not know who they are. I know their work and what they’re about and they are so amazing. If only people knew more of what they do.