Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Q&A with Singer-Songwriter Dawen, embarking on New York "American Me" Tour

Photo courtesy of Ed Kwon

Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Dawen embarks on his solo acoustic tour tomorrow at the Silk Road Café in New York City. Dawen will be spreading his soulful vibes coast-to-coast and across the globe on his American Me Tour, which will showcase some intellectually powerful lyrics, wrapped in his neo-soul style.

Dawen launched his debut album, "American Me," at a live Los Angeles release party this past September, and is continuing his tour throughout New York and Hong Kong this month.

I had a chance to catch Dawen for a quick Q&A before he hopped on his transcontinental flight.

Let's start off with a bit about your music. How would you describe your style?

Some main influences of mine are Erykah Badu, and I'd have to say a vocal influence from Maxwell. I'm deeply affected by the influential jazz of Charles Mingus. I'm also inspired by Stevie Wonder.  Bob Marley is another figure I absolutely love, because a lot of the music that he made was palatable and also very serious in terms of its socio-political message -- which is something that I consistently admire.

How do you describe the topics of your songs?

Broadly speaking, they're pretty personal. They range from social issues that I feel are important to personal relationships, things that I've gleaned from my life.

When people ask me about the content of my music, I'd actually say it's multifold. I'm very proud of being American and I'm very proud of my Asian heritage. In the music I write, I like to embody all of it: the sense of being Asian and American and being really comfortable and proud of my heritage.

It's not conscious per se, but I do want to express myself in a way that I think is lacking currently -- to be proud to be Asian... I want to focus on the joy of being really happy for how I was made.

You mentioned some of your inspirations for your songs involve a socio-political message. What is your own message through your songs?

I don't really think of them as messages. I kind of think of them as issues that are important to me. I never want to come off as preachy; I never want to come across as having an agenda. I just kind of want to empower myself by being able to define who I am through music. I think one of the things that people of color, minorities in America face everyday is struggling with self-definition. We're constantly being defined by people who don't represent who we are. And that is a big issue.

I noticed that you have a song that Hyphen readers might get excited about, called "Hyphenate." Can you explain the idea that you're trying to express through that song?

It's more upbeat than the rest of the album, and it [uses] wordplay. I meditated on what that little dash means... I thought, what is that little dash between Asian and American? In literary terms, sometimes people interpret it as a barrier, a grammatical, literal barrier. If you're hyphenated in the way you identify yourself, you end up being neither label. Some people perceive it that way, and I wanted to express that in a song.

If I have a hyphen in my name, I am neither Asian nor American -- I'm kind of in this weird void. That's sometimes how I perceive it.

There's also a contradiction in myself. Sometimes I just want to be known as just American.

The lyrics, which you can find on my [web] page, go into this broad story I'm sure anyone of color can relate to. It talks about encountering someone who asks you, "where are you from, what are you? Where are you really from?" [It expresses] the need to claim heritage and identity in a land that consistently refuses it to you.

How do you see yourself in relation to the community of Asian American artists?

In terms of Asian American music, since moving to LA I've been really exposed to how diverse it is. I have to say that any chance I can, I really celebrate the fact that the music being made by Asian Americans is as diverse as that umbrella term implies. One thing that people kind of criticize as well is that Asian American music doesn't have a very distinct sound. I choose to think of that as a blessing. You can have pop that is Asian American, you could have R&B that is Asian American...

There's a huge movement before me, and that has really enabled me to be where I am today.

Where are you from and where are you going?

In a nutshell, I was born in Boston. I moved to Hong Kong for high school, and for college I came back and moved in Chicago for a very long time. And now I live here [in Los Angeles]. I kind of feel like a globe trotter. I joke to people that if I keep this up, I'm going to end up in Hawaii in four years.

That's not a bad place to end up. Back to the tour -- you seem to be packing light. Is your band coming along?

This New York tour is a solo acoustic tour. I wish I could bring my band with me. I hope to in the near future, but for now, it's just me and my keyboard.

 How do you expect your Hong Kong fans to receive your music? Will they be able to relate to your songs?

I think Hong Kong is going to be really crazy. It's similar to New York, but on the other side of the world ... it's very cosmopolitan. And I think having its history as a foreign colony is going to add a lot to the environment.

I'm not really sure, to be honest, but I am very excited. When I grew up in HK, I had friends who were born in Hong Kong, but then I had friends from New Zealand, from Sweden, and I think it's going to be a very diverse crowd, and different at the same time from a New York audience.

I know that a lot of them will have roots in the United Kingdom, but whatever it is, it'll be a different perspective.

I hope that the music will spark some thought as well as be powerful. I hope it's something people enjoy and can nod their heads to at the end of the day.

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Dawen will be performing on Friday at the Silk Road Cafe at 9:30 pm in New York, NY.

To view his other tour dates and locations, click here.

Visit Dawen's site for more information and songs from his album, "America Me."

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