After meeting Malcolm X in 1963, Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama broadened her fight for Asian liberation to further include the Black cause. Though the friendship between the two activists continued in the period following their initial encounter, just 16 months later, Kochiyama held the civil rights leader’s head in her lap as he bled to death in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom, shot in the chest by gunmen.
The vision of Asian and Black union in resistance did not die with Malcolm X, nor did it end with Kochiyama’s own passing in 2014. As declared by renowned Chinese American composer Jon Jang’s “The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance” Saturday night, such a union between communities remains not only relevant, but also full of potential to advance the causes of oppressed peoples in the United States today.
Hosted by the Japantown neighborhood’s Buddhist Church of San Francisco, the event celebrated the lives and causes of Malcolm X and Kochiyama on their shared birthday, May 19. Reverend Ronald Kobata, resident minister of the church, offered the approximately 150 community members in attendance a warm welcome that resonated throughout the remainder of the evening. For both the church and the event, the reverend noted that recognition of the power of individuality and unity proves paramount— a community is beautiful by virtue of the diversity of its members.
Before introducing his musical group, the Jon Jangtet, Jang provided a brief account of how he and longtime friend, jazz saxophonist and master of ceremonies for the evening, Francis Wong, came into conversation with the Black resistance movement. “Black art, music and resistance landed on us,” he recounted, describing the influence of Black artists whose work the pair encountered growing up in the Bay Area. In 1987, Wong and Jang co-created their first record, named “The Ballad or the Bullet?” as an allusion to Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech. Their ensuing performance, Wong noted with a grin, marked their 101st recording together.
The Jon Jangtet accompanied the pair in the piece, titled “Prayer for Melvin Truss,” a tribute to the 17-year-old Black teenager shot to death by a San Jose cop in 1985. Jang and Wong each demonstrated their prowess with their respective instruments, with the former’s fingers flying over the piano keys with remarkable control and precision, and the latter delivering a high-energy saxophone performance with apparent ease. Just as Reverend Kobata had suggested earlier in the evening, each individual member of the group played authentically, different musicians working with different instruments, yet the result was harmonious.
The titular series of the event followed, with Jang joining poet, playwright and professor Amanda Kemp and the Jangtet for the four-part musical piece, “The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance.” The work, interspersed with bold, apt spoken-word poetry from Kemp, centered on the relationship between Malcolm X and Kochiyama. One segment featured recordings of Kochiyama’s own voice, urging listeners to “remember that you are our future,” followed by a solo from Jangtet drummer Deszon X. Claiborne. Eyes closed, Claiborne beat rhythmically upon the drums in a fashion so free and natural he seemed almost in a reverie.
Kemp and the Jangtet continued on to perform “Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!” a three-part composition addressing acts of violence committed against Black people in recent years. The work mentioned victims of police brutality, including Michael Brown and Mario Woods, as well as larger-scale racially fueled aggressions, such as the 2015 murder of nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
The event wound down gently, ending on a moving note of solidarity. Jang opted to close with the “Butterfly Lovers Song,” a composition predicated upon Chinese legend. As the band approached the final note, Kemp uttered a pristine final statement of hope. “We gon’ be alright,” she grinned, looking into the faces of the crowd before her. “We gon’ be alright.”
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].