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Our Complicity With Excess

To succeed in America means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past. Vijay Iyer’s speech to Yale’s Asian American alumni

By Vijay Iyer

You expect your college reunion to be weird, nostalgic, and alienating. You don’t expect it to serve as a metaphor for contemporary race relations. When I attended a reunion of Asian American alumni of Yale last month, I found it curious how much the event mirrored the ambiguous and often bipolar position that Asian Americans occupy in the landscape of American racial politics.

On the one hand, such a convening of New Haven-bred Asian peeps (the first ever, astonishingly) was the culmination of more than a century of Asian American activism at Yale, which graduated the first Chinese American to get a college degree in the United States (Yung Wing, class of 1854) and served as a radical hotbed in the ‘70s, when it fostered a historically important Asian American journal (Amerasia) and one of the most active Asian American student groups in the country (the East Coast Asian Students Union). The reunion, on the other hand, was somewhat more Harold and Kumar than Cheech and Chong. Elite colleges like Yale now serve essentially as front offices for financial services recruiting—in other words, the very inequity-producing forces that the earlier wave of activism was meant to dethrone. At Harvard, almost half of all students (!) rolled up to Wall Street before the financial bubble popped. While Yale has always been an artier school (only 17% of 2011 alums headed to finance), you could glimpse this schizophrenic split throughout the weekend’s programs, which featured both corporate CEOs and lefty agitators. At a certain point, you just started to wonder who the hell were these Asian Americans anyways? Are we people of color fighting for some New Left vision of social justice or are we what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “honorary whites”? Are we destined to vertically assimilate into the white-collar elite or are we, as a recent study showed, the poorest immigrant group in New York? In other words, are we activist-playwright David Henry Hwang or Tiger Mom Amy Chua? (Both of whom, incidentally, were in attendance.)

And so in this context, it was incredibly inspiring to hear the following speech from musician and intellectual Vijay Iyer. Asked to keynote the reunion, Iyer used the occasion to essentially try to answer this question. Talking about racial complicity, the piece hits on two intertwined issues: the role of Asian Americans as upwardly mobile minorities and the role of the artist as a potential transgressor within elite institutions. You need to read this now.

—Ken Chen


* * *


Dear friends – I am so happy and proud to be among you, gathering here for the first time as Asian American Yale alumni across generations.

Just for those who don’t know, I’m a pianist, composer, improviser, bandleader, electronic musician, and producer. I’m probably best known in the jazz world, but I’m also generally known for working both with and against that category. I recently joined the music department at Harvard as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.

I am no better than any of you at being Asian American, and probably don’t have any wisdom to offer today that hasn’t already been stated here by others. But what I would like to do is talk about us.

It’s especially interesting being back at Yale, which of course bears the name of a privileged, wealthy imperialist scoundrel who made his fortune in India. From 1687 to 1692, Elihu Yale was the governor of Fort St. George, the British East India Company’s post at Madras (now Chennai), India—home of my ancestors. He was then relieved of the post of governor due to his illegal profiteering and repeated flouting of East India Company regulations.

I don’t know if that makes him the George W. Bush or the Mitt Romney of the British East India Company, but anyway, it was his unchecked imperial marauding that set all of this in motion. He became wealthy enough that he could donate some of that money in the early 1700s, enough to get his name on the front gate. No matter what we do and what institutions we build, we’re still in his house, you understand.

Now that I am hanging my hat each week at that other centuries-old corporation of higher learning, just up the road in Cambridge, I am more and more mindful of what the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has called “complicity with excess.”

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Given all that, I guess I’d like to take success off the table for a while, and try some other ways to talk about us.

For most of my adult life, probably just like you, I’ve been thinking about “us”—about questions of community, belonging, identity, and coalition; about Americanness and Asianness. I’ve been intrigued in recent years by the work of legal scholar Karen Shimakawa, who uses the term “national abjection” to theorize the Asian American experience. It means that our lives here are characterized by a constant borderline status with respect to Americanness; we’re always right on the frontier of what it means to be American.

This has been more, I should say, than a train of thought for me, this question of “us.” Since I graduated from here in 1992, I’ve been a cultural worker out there in the world. I’ve made 18 albums, played hundreds of concerts, had my recordings and performances broadcast on radio and TV, and received literally thousands of reviews. I’m saying that not to boast, but to underscore that I’ve had the privilege of putting some ideas into practice, making work that inquires, proposes, and connects, and then actually observing the response, locally and internationally, more or less in real time.

This trajectory of mine has primarily taken place in the west—in North America and Europe—and it’s been in the context of one of America’s most racially fraught forms of cultural expression: this strange, composite, and contested thing called jazz. This is a music generally understood either in terms of Black power or through white liberal notions of colorblindness; either as an African American community force, or as a fetishized idea of American Blackness consumed by whites here and abroad.

I’ve found myself right in the middle of conversations about race for most of the past 20 years. Now I’ve managed to maintain a stable and consistent presence in the jazz world; by any measure I’ve been one of jazz’s success stories, and at this point I have no bitterness; I just observe how things unfold. For example, I’ve seen my work described repeatedly (mostly by white men, who tend to do most of the talking in jazz) as “mathematical,” “technical,” “inauthentic,” “too conceptual,” “jazz for nerds,” “dissonant,” “academic,” and just last month, a “failure.” Over the years a racialized component emerges in such language—basically a kind of model minority discourse that presumes that Asians have no soul and have no business trying to be artists, especially in proximity to Blackness, which is, in the white imagination, a realm of pure intuition, apparently devoid of intellect. No such critique, I should add, is typically leveled at white jazz musicians, of which there are many.

Back in the early 1990s I found myself in a PhD program in physics at UC Berkeley. I also found myself apprenticing with elder African American musicians in Oakland. And I found myself connected to a community of Asian American artist-activists, the musicians’ collective known as Asian Improv Arts, formed more than 30 years ago by Jon Jang, Francis Wong, Mark Izu, Fred Ho, and others.

Asian Improv was inspired directly by a legacy of African American coalitional politics and activism. Circumventing the superstructures of the music business, they started their own record label (which generously hosted my first two albums) and they present their own annual festival, the San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival, and countless other events for the Bay Area’s massive Asian American community. They use their mutual Asian heritages in different ways: not merely to create some kind of exotic Asian jazz fusion, but as zones of creative inquiry, as ways of articulating multiplicity, as a critical project of de-fetishization and anti-Orientalist reconstruction, and finally, as a practice of community organizing. Their performances became a space and an occasion for Asian American communities to gather and build.

They embraced me into their ranks as a young creative Asian American musician. At the time it was an open question to me, whether South Asians were welcome in Asian American coalitions. The demographics on the west coast were a bit different, with generations-deep Japanese American and Chinese American communities, and meanwhile the South Asian American community was barely 30 years old. We weren’t yet present in any large numbers, except maybe in Silicon Valley and in Queens. And more to the point, there wasn’t yet any sense of unity between South and East Asians. It felt a little awkward—I remember thinking, maybe we weren’t quite ready or perhaps mutually willing to consider ourselves to be in similar predicaments.

This was compounded by northern California culture’s imperial relationship to all things Indian. It’s ground zero for white America’s fascination with yoga, meditation, incense, tanpura drones, tablas, shirpas, baubles, bangles, and beads. (Of course it continues to this day—if you are in the Bay Area in the next few weeks, you should go visit the Asian Art Museum’s rather problematic exhibit on yoga. Alongside this exhibit, my friend, the artist and designer Chiraag Bhakta, has created a fascinating intervention, a massive assemblage of ephemera with the controversial title #Whitepeopledoingyoga.

White-people-doing-yoga was the context in which I found myself 20 years ago, as a South Asian American navigating and resisting the exoticizing, incorporating tendencies of white American cultural omnivores. Because of the circles I traveled in as an artist, I noticed a similar tendency in the way that whites in the Bay Area dealt with jazz, hip-hop, and all things Black: not as a defiant assertion of Black identity and community, but as the fetishized trappings of cool—something white people could wear, collect, or otherwise incorporate into white subjectivity.

There was also the fact that South Asian Americans were so new, people didn’t really know who or what we were. We hadn’t yet emerged en masse into mainstream culture; that only began to happen in the 1990s, as my generation came of age. We were the first generation of children born to that post-1965 wave of carefully curated immigrant doctors, scientists, and engineers from outside the west—we were a new kind of American, with aspirations, a degree of class and educational privilege, and a certain amount of cultural invisibility.

I remember when I mentioned to an Anglo-American percussionist that I was putting out my first album on the Asian Improv label, he said to me, insinuating that I had made a grave error: “I didn’t know India was in Asia.” I told him that India is in South Asia, which is probably part of Asia. His retort was, “Well, in that case, I’m Northwest Asian. Can I be on your label?” It was a small step forward from when my eighth-grade classmates yelled names like “Sanchez” and “Felipe” in my direction. We were primarily a mystery; our experience was framed by difference; we were mostly unconsidered, our existence largely unacknowledged.

Nurtured both by the Asian Improv collective and by a number of crucial elder African American mentors, my overall “project” as an artist developed in the 90s. I’ve done a lot of different things, mostly characterized by conjuncture, collaboration, and community. I have developed collaborative projects with other South Asian Americans, other Asian Americans, African Americans, and other people of color, as a way of considering, enacting, testing, and perhaps critiquing notions of community.

What is a community? A friend of mine, political scientist Cara Wong, in her book Boundaries of Obligation, defines community as “an image in the mind of an individual, of a group toward whose members she feels a sense of similarity, belonging, or fellowship.”

Community, in other words, is very much the work of our imaginations; this was Benedict Anderson’s key insight. And exactly because of this imaginative power, a notion of community has important real-world repercussions. As Professor Wong demonstrates in her book, “self-defined membership can lead to an interest in, and a commitment to, the well-being of all community members… regardless of one’s own interests, values, and ideology.”

In the years since 9/11, the South Asian American community has been challenged repeatedly, and common causes with others have led us to imagine ourselves bigger. As the African-American writer Greg Tate told me in fall 2001, “Welcome to racial profiling.” We have had to embrace our own religious and cultural diversity—Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains; Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indians, Afghans, Bhutanese—as well as other communities of color—Arabs, Middle Easterners, north and east Africans, east and southeast Asians, all of their diasporas, and yes, African Americans and Latinos—because of a common predicament, a common cause, a common atmosphere of fear, surveillance, suspicion, and paranoia, and the persistence of inequality.

Also, as we have become one of the most affluent and nominally “successful” demographics in post-1960s America, rapidly amassing wealth in our communities, we have had to develop new empathies to understand our place in the world, our relative positions of privilege, even as we endure a daily onslaught of microaggressions and find ourselves still repeatedly dismissed or undesired in mainstream culture.

We have had to remind ourselves that Dr. Martin Luther King adopted the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, that our freedoms as Asian Americans are spiritually yoked to the struggles for justice for the African Americans and other minorities who built this country.

This morning I flew here from Florida, one of the states in the US where it is still not yet illegal to shoot and kill unarmed black children. So today I have to ask “us”: what is our relationship to that ghastly truth about America?

Last fall I was in Atlanta with my family, and we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site. There is a beautiful statue of Mahatma Gandhi at this site. There is also a trenchant quote from Dr. King on display. It says, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

I want you to know that, all titles aside, I am first and foremost an artist. As an artist I ask myself Dr. King’s question every day. What am I doing for others? To this end I have pursued three main goals. First, I have strived to generate a consistent, un-ignorable, complicating presence in the landscape of culture. As African American innovators like Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix found, in the face of a culture that would deny them, it becomes necessary for an artist of color in the west to defiantly announce to the world: I am a fact.

That kind of defiant presence—the same kind you get from M.I.A., or Himanshu Suri of Das Racist, the kind that coolly roars from the margins—has the power to disrupt and transform culture, to hearken and inaugurate a new America. That kind of defiant presence also has the power to activate and mobilize the imaginations of others like ourselves: young Asian Americans in our global diaspora finally seeing themselves represented positively in culture, finally empowered to dream a little bigger.

My second main goal has been to initiate and sustain alliances with other artists of color, from Amiri Baraka and Haile Gerima to Teju Cole and Mike Ladd, so that we can imagine, build, and enact a concept of community that transcends heritage, nation, and creed—so that we can really become an undeniable force: a disruptive multitude, imagining and bringing forth a new reality.

The third goal is to articulate and demonstrate a commitment to social justice. As Yo-Yo Ma has said, and as I always remind my students, a life in the arts is a life of service. I invite all of you who are political activists and community organizers to collaborate with the artists in your midst, so that our missions can serve your missions—so that we can activate radical imaginations in order to bring about necessary action.

What I humbly ask of you, and of myself, is that we constantly interrogate our own complicity with excess, that we always remain vigilant to notions of community that might, perhaps against our best intentions, sometimes, embrace a system of domination at the expense of others. Can we radically submit ourselves to the pursuit of equality and justice for all? If we choose to call ourselves Asian American, can we not also choose to be that kind of American that refuses to accept what America has been, and instead help build a better America even for others, who might not immediately seem to “belong” to us?

In the end, who do we mean by “us”? For me, if I choose to belong to a coalition, a community, an “us,” it must mean, we who remember the past; we who care about the future; we who are compassionate, generous, patient, and committed deeply to the welfare of others; we who agree that naming ourselves as an “us” is not an end, but a beginning. Thank you, and keep fighting for justice for ourselves and for others.


Tweets from the keynote



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