Recently, I discovered an indie folk-rock band, Run River North (RRN). While looking further into their music on YouTube, I was surprised to find that all six members are Korean-Americans from LA: Daniel Chae (guitar), John Chong (drums), Joe Chun (bass), Alex Hwang (lead vocals, guitar), Sally Kang (keyboards), and Jennifer Rim (violin). Influenced by the overpoweringly white demographic of indie bands featured on popular radio, I had been picturing a generic white group when listening to RRN, disregarding the possibility that anyone of color could be in the band. I was elated to see Asian American representation in such a white-dominated genre of music and upset that I hadn’t previously seen representation like this in American music. It made me question what is considered authentic American music, how Asian Americans (specifically RRN) fit into this picture of American music, and whether RRN’s presence is liberal or radical.
Obviously, the first thing to do was to Google a definition of “American music.” I found an Angry Asian Man blog post by Andrew Choi, the singer of St. Lennox, called “What is American music?”. He specifically discusses Asian-American ability to make “authentic American music.” As music is characterized by its history, lack of Asian presence in American music history may seem to exclude Asians from American music culture. Choi says, “Asian people are welcome to make music in America, but it’s not the same thing as being able to “authentically” draw on American historical cultural heritage in the way that others can (or so I am often told).” Yet, he believes that Asian Americans have full ability to make authentic American music and influence American music culture as “American music” only requires the use of American subject matter. Using this definition, RRN does produce American music. Their music, especially early songs, reflects their own lives (which they have lived in America) and their parents’ immigrant experience (which is an important part of American history).
Often, Asian Americans aren’t expected to be American in national citizenship due to the “forever foreigner” perception. The music medium is beneficial for RRN, and other Asian American musicians, because, without any visuals, a first-time listener does not see them through a racialized lens. For me, listening to them first and then seeing that they are Korean did not make me question how authentically American their music is; I expected them to be American because of their sound. Even if they were questioned as to how “authentically American” they are in race or citizenship, they ultimately do produce American music. RRN had a grassroots beginning as Hwang recruited friends and played for the first time as a band at the 2011 Kollaboration show. They played the song, Monsters Calling Home (MCH), which is about their childhood point of view of interacting with their immigrant parents struggling to achieve the American dream. As this topic deeply resonated in all the members, they called themselves MCH. The rise of an Icelandic indie folk-pop group, Of Monsters and Men (OMaM), provoked their name change in 2013. They didn’t want to be perceived as using OMaM to gain popularity, nor did they want to be confused for them. The name, RRN, represents their musical diversity as a river can range from being tame (laid-back, harmonious) to violent (loud, “rock-ish”). They also explain that their songs (particularly Fight To Keep, Growing Up, Run River Run) are written based on their own lives and experiences: about the immigrant experience, generation gaps, and being “dash American.” As their own American citizenship directly impacts the subject matter of their songs, their music is inherently American, therefore they produce authentic American music.
Nonetheless, no matter what type of music RRN produces, their mere existence in the American music scene is important and radical. Their presence in mass culture normalizes Asian American faces in the mainstream music scene, challenging the “model minority” stereotype and allowing others to see that visibility and popularity is possible to achieve as an Asian American. However, their music itself is liberal. Their previous songs have atypically been about immigrant narratives; however, they are not nearly as socially or politically driven as A Grain of Sand was. In addition, their recent songs have diverged from topics relating to their racial identity. For example, Salt Pond focuses on conflicts they’ve had as a band (which honestly isn’t a topic as common as love), but without Asian American subject matter, RRN’s uniqueness is watered down and conforms to mass culture. As one of the only fully Asian American bands, they bear the burden of representing Asian Americans whether they want to or not. Objectively, they don’t actively engage in Asian American social and political issues. Though I personally wish they would do more with the public power they have, in reality, they’re just humans passionate about music and happen to be ethnically Korean, so how much are they required to do for the Asian American community? I’m not sure how much responsibility RRN specifically must bear — it’s up to them to use their agency. Nevertheless, their ability to stay true to themselves and create music they enjoy allows them to keep moving forward as the only fully Korean-American indie folk-rock bands. As representation itself is a big first step, I hope that RRN inspires other Asian Americans to pursue the arts to further normalize Asian American existence in mass media and culture.
Check them out!!!