By Vanessa Gentry
If asked to think about folk music and the political activism of the 1960s and 70s, people often come up with names like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. In contrast, most people probably haven’t heard of Chris Iijima, probably have never heard his lyrics about the Vietnam War and growing up Asian American in the 1950s and 60s, and probably don’t know that the legendary John Lennon once introduced a performance of his musical-activist duo group, Yellow Pearl, on national television. In the 2009 documentary, A SONG FOR OURSELVES, director/editor Tadashi Nakamura’s traces the life of Iijima through his work as an activist and traveling folk singer in the early 70s, to his teaching career and family life in New York and Hawai’i.
Iijima recounts his early years of activism: joining with others to protest the Vietnam War in groups like Students for a Democratic Society and yet ultimately feeling alone in organizations filled mainly with white students. Claiming to have had “no community growing up in New York,” he admits to “watching war movies with the next-door neighbor, secretly rooting for the other side.” His first sense of belonging, the beginning of what he and his family later called their community, came in 1970 when he joined other Asian American activists in the group Asian Americans for Action. Soon after, he and fellow activist Nobuko Miyamoto actively redefined mainstream perceptions of Asian American identity by writing and performing music with determinedly honest lyrics accompanied by a simple, accessible acoustic folk sound. Backup musician Charlie Chin, who joined Yellow Pearl a year after its conception, voiced his surprise after the first time he heard them perform: “I’d never heard Asians carrying on like this… They refuted what the mainstream was saying about us.”
The sense of connection and community that drew Iijima, Miyamoto, Chin and other Asian Americans together in the 1960s continued to sustain Iijima, even when he changed his career path and started a family. Iijima’s decision to settle down was not a relinquishing of his activism, however; it was an expansion of a viewpoint, a realization that his family life and his activism need not be mutually exclusive. It was the ultimate understanding that family and human connection need not be sacrificed for political change.
A SONG FOR OURSELVES is now available for educational, institutional, library and community group purchase or rental. Special features on the DVD include ‘Farewell Chris: Los Angeles Memorial,’ ‘Mother of the Movement: Kazu Iijima,’ Chris Iijima extended interview and additional photos and music.