In my conversation with composer Byron Au Yong, we discuss why writing well “is a power”; his childhood experiences with bullying and how music was a “shield”; the importance of affinity groups and centering his music in social justice; why love is an agent for change and protest; and the importance of continuing to “counteract the hate” and white supremacy.
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2:50 – “If you hear a child sing, they’re trying to comfort themselves.” How music provided solace for Byron and a way to process the multiple Chinese languages of his family plus “the healing powers of music.”
4:27 – How Byron’s Chinese immigrant parents raised him to be English speaking and his experiences growing up in a multilingual family.
6:23 – Byron’s experiences in musical theatre and how his aunt encouraged him to audition for “The King and I.” Byron talks about the strict delineation between composition and musical theatre in higher education institutions.
8:32 – Why Byron centers his music and creative work in the larger context of social justice.
9:07 – How Byron was bullied in school, living in a white suburb, and how he instinctively used songs as “a way to shield myself.”
10:12 – “Who is like me in the world?” How Byron found his way in college as he navigated the largely white landscape of his composition program.
12:25 – “Writing was my way out.” “Being able to write well is a power.”
16:08 – Gary Fukushima. Byron talks about how he was siloed in music school as a “classical composition” major and how this tracking perhaps limited his access to jazz improvisation. How this led Byron to the avant-garde and experimental music. “We’re trapped in Western art music, how do we escape?”
19:34 – “The cracks are made larger but the cracks have always been there.” How Byron found his way toward ethnomusicology and musical diversity. “Western classical music is not the only music in the world.” The importance of breaking down hierarchies and making them more “horizontal.”
23:16 – The importance of lifting up and embracing Black Lives Matter.
23:40 – Byron’s project, Activist Songbook, and his work interviewing Asian immigrants, refugees, organizers, and activists.
24:13 – The importance of continuing to “counteract the hate.” “People of color are the global majority. White supremacists have to be scared because they don’t actually have the numbers.”
25:14 – “The last four years have been a disaster.” Why young people are yelling and why “they SHOULD yell.” The importance of protest.
27:29 – “Ultimately, I’m intersectional but there is something about affinity groups.”
28:29 – Why we need to figure things out within our own groups and why white people need to figure things out “on their own,” without burdening BIPOC to provide that education.
28:39 – Why storytelling, music, and artifacts are important vehicles for social justice and community building, especially through a community curating process.
29:22 – “Sometimes, a ‘learning’ feels like a ‘robbing’ without any reciprocation.” On appropriation and the importance of reciprocity.
30:22 – “As hurtful as it may seem, some of our relatives are clueless.” How white people are not the only perpetrators of white supremacist thinking.
30:30 – Why love is the agent for change and how it can make difficult conversations with loved ones possible. “It becomes part of your toolkit.”