Among the lines of scholars, storytellers and indie rockers, you will find Julian Saporiti. Currently at Brown University as a Ph.D. student, the singer/songwriter has successfully turned his ethnomusicology research into performance to highlight the multitude of experiences of Asian Americans across history.
Saporiti is coming to the University of Michigan on Feb. 20 to perform with fellow Ph.D. student at Brown University, Erin Aoyama. I interviewed Saporiti on the phone to talk more about his journey as a musician, intellectual and Vietnamese American.
Saporiti grew up in Nashville, Tenn., during the 1980s and 90s. His mother came to the United States from Saigon to escape the Vietnam War while the rest of the family went to France. She met his Italian-American father in San Francisco, and they eventually moved to Nashville to pursue his career in the music industry. As a result, Saporiti was always surrounded by art.
“Music and art was all around me because my dad worked for a record company when I was growing up,” Saporiti said.
“It was this really weird childhood experience like hanging around country music stars in Nashville. Art has always been something I’ve been encouraged to do because my mom is a painter. She’s an oiler painter and does really amazing work so there was always this house full of paintings. And my dad played guitar and he played old records from the 60s that I loved, listening to people that he would work with. There was always not so much an encouragement to do music, but it was always something that was there. There were always opportunities there because there were literally instruments around the house, and so my brother and I have made our livings as artists in one way or another.”
After touring Europe and North America with the band, The Young Republic, Saporiti further pursued his passion for history. He took classes at Vanderbilt University, got his master’s degree in American Studies at the University of Wyoming and became a songwriting teacher. Eventually, he ended up at Brown University to get his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and indie American studies. Throughout it all, Saporiti’s identity and upbringing as an Asian American remained central. Though his family was successful, he still faced racism growing up.
“Probably like most kids of color in the United States can reckon with, there’s this disconnect with between how you feel and what you see in the mirror and then also what you see with movie screen and in the radio … Within this good childhood there were these moments of cutting racism on both a macro and micro level,” Saporiti explain.
“There were very strong memories that I didn’t deal with until I was an adult: of little kids in the Walmart slanting their eyes at me while their dad was right there and my mom was right there. Or just like actual verbal abuse towards my mother from groups of white teenagers on the street. Or physical altercations in locker rooms when I was a kid. Those kind of things, you have to dust off, or otherwise you would go nuts, but that stuff gets internalized, especially compounded with macro-racism of growing up in a place like Tennessee where you are surrounded with pickup trucks with Confederate flags on their tailgate or in our State Capitol building. There’s a bust of Nathan Forrest, who was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. So as you get older, you realize, how much does this state that I love really want me?”
As a result, Saporiti now uses music to convey the diversity of experiences held by Asian Americans: From internment camp survivors to refugees to kids like himself. Hopefully, this music leaves the audience reflecting on the stories it tells.
Saporiti and Erin Aoyama, his musical partner and fellow doctoral student, use the genre of American-style folk music to illustrate such stories, a way Saporiti believes is the best to convey emotions behind these traumas. To him, the sound creates nostalgia for history some haven’t heard before. The juxtaposition of genre and narrative is subversive, appropriating what some may think of as “white folk music” to tell stories of people of color.
“Erin’s great, because … One, (it’s important) to put in a female voice within this project and two, because her grandmother was incarcerated in one of the Japanese concentration camps during World War II in Heart Mountain, Wyoming,” Saporiti said.
“So, working with that community very closely in the last five years, it’s really important to have that representation on stage when we’re singing a lot of these songs about Japanese internment. It’s really great, because she is able to sing and harmonize on a musical level but also tell stories on her family’s experience or her own really cool research. It’s a good partnership on a scholarly and musical level.”
What is also captivating about Saporiti and his work is his seamless integration of academia and art. Putting his research into song allows a sense of ambiguity, leaving room to tell multiple stories while urging the audience to remember the history.
“I am able to carry a lot more through these songs than just writing essay after essay,” Saporiti said.
“There’s a couple different things I’ve worked from as a songwriter. I worked from photographs, I’ve dug through archives and films of these different topics that I work on in Asian American studies, so I’m constantly watching old home movies of Chinese-American families or looking at pictures of old Chinatowns or videos of the Philippines or Southeast Asia during the 20th century or photos of Japanese internment camps. There’s those, and there’s interviews that I’ve conducted. There’s conversations that I just have with kids who grew up like me in Middle America and what that balancing act is like and turning those stories into songs. And there’s also just like reading scholarship that we read in graduate seminars and dealing with those theoretical concepts and turning those articles into songs as well. Whatever comes at me in the graduate student process, instead of turning that into a term paper, just turning it into a song. Which then goes back to some of these audiences and interacting with them more, which I find beautiful. It makes me work harder, because the reward is a lot greater.”
Saporiti discussed representation and other important issues facing Asian Americans today, calling attention to the complexity of the Asian American understanding of identity.
“I think data disaggregation is really important,” Saporiti mentioned.
“Like separating out what Asian American means. Like what is the difference between a Filipino-American community of health care workers in California compare to a Cambodian recent immigrant community in New York that’s the most impoverished community in the country compared to Japanese Americans who have been here for four or five generations and doing incredibly well socioeconomically I think that is a big issue for Asian Americans just sort of the, while not negating the fact we’re here and there is this pan-Asian, pan-Asian-American project, there has to be some recognition and solidarity within these different communities to bring folks up.”
The interview with Saporiti was thought-provoking, to say the least. His experiences as a Vietnamese American may resonate with many other young Asian Americans. At the end of the interview, Saporiti closed with words of advice.
“Know your own history, specifically,” Saporiti said. “Understand how those complex histories of imperialism, of immigration, of all these topics that bind all of us together in the United States more or less of displacement are kind of not direct analogues to each other as far as the Black experience or the Asian experience or the Hispanic experience or whatever you want to call it, but they are echoes of the same kind of prejudice and the same kind of imperialist practice and we have to make sense of those. It’s a lot better that we make sense of those in conversation to each other. For me sitting down, playing a concert, telling a story and projecting visuals is a lot easier for that to happen. To let people’s brains take this information in and hopefully make some connections whether it’s at that minute or two years down the line.”