Activist Songbook

by Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis

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With Activist Songbook, composer Byron Au Yong and lyricist Aaron Jafferis explore how civil rights organizing and music intersect to inspire action and sustain the fight towards equity.

Working with interviews of Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Asian refugee organizers, Au Yong and Jafferis create material for a Songbook to gather individuals and collectives to energize efforts towards counteracting racism and hate crimes.

The project results in a collection of 53 songs and raps initially prompted by the beating and murder of Vincent Chin, as well as organizing movements towards justice.

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released September 6, 2019

Activist Songbook launched as part of Asian Arts Initiative’s 25th Anniversary in May 2018, with rally songs taught on buses and more. It continues in multiple cities through November 3, 2020.

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Byron Au Yong San Francisco, California

Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world.

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Track Name: Invisible (live)
LILY
AND THAT’S WHEN THE WORLD STARTS SPINNING.
THIS IS NOT THE END, VINCENT.
THIS IS A BEGINNING.”

VINCENT
IT’S MY BACH’LOR PARTY. IT’S DETROIT.
IT’S 1982.
SO DRINKIN BEERS AT THE STRIP CLUB
IS THE GREATEST THING TO DO.
THE DRINKS AND EYES ARE ALL ON ME.
FOR ONCE I KNOW THAT I CAN’T BE
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.

TWO GUYS SHOUT AT ME ABOUT
LOSING JOBS TO JAPANESE.
NOW, I’M CHINESE AMERICAN
BUT THAT’S NEWS TO GUYS LIKE THESE.
I’D LET THEIR WORDS SLIDE RIGHT THROUGH ME,
BUT TONIGHT I REFUSE TO BE
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.

WE GET INTO A FIGHT.
THEY LOSE.
THEY’RE WHITE.
THEY’RE USED TO BEIN RIGHT.
IN THE PARKING LOT,
THEY SWING AND SWING
THEIR BASEBALL BAT AT MY HEAD.
THEY THINK THAT ONCE THEY KILL ME,
I WILL BE INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.

LILY
THIS IS NOT THE END.
THIS IS A…
I CANNOT BEAR A CHILD…
I CANNOT BEAR YOU DYING.
THIS IS NOT THE END.
THIS IS A…

VINCENT
WILL I BECOME INVISIBLE
IN THIS MOMENT, WHEN I DIE?
WILL MY FIANCÉ AND MY MOTHER
HOLD MY BROKEN HEAD AND CRY?
TELL ME YOUR LOVE IS HOLDING ME.
TELL ME THAT I WILL NEVER BE
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.

LILY
When your killers get off and get let off with a tiny fine
by a judge who says “These aren’t the kind
of men you send to jail,” I know that if we stay invisible now, we will fail.
If men did this to my son, they will do it to another’s son, or try.
So I’ll fight to make sure no other mother’s son will die.
When we see your killers freed, we all begin to bleed
from the blunt trauma to our heads, from the baseball bat in front of us
so people like us across the country start saying “Vincent, you were one of us.”
And though you don’t get justice, I feel us getting stronger
and maybe, Vincent, this is when I begin to feel we’re no longer
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.

LILY
THIS IS NOT THE END.
THIS IS A BEGINNING.
YOU WILL NOT BE INVISIBLE.
YOU WILL SET THE WORLD SPINNING.

VINCENT
I WILL NOT BE
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.
I WILL NOT BE
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE.
INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE. INVISIBLE...
Track Name: We Are Leaders (live)
CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
In movies in China, I saw U.S. high schools
and thought you all smiled and shook hands at lunch.
The first things I learn at South Philly High
are racial slurs, curses, and how to get punched
in the back of my neck by two kids who laugh and jet
down the hall, and I face the wall while my face falls
cuz even my Chinese classmates act like there’s no tears
on my cheek – they pass me, don’t ask me, they don’t even speak
up about the fact that they too got beat up
last week, cuz they don’t wanna be cast as weak
so we each keep it to ourselves – and when we do finally meet,
it’s Chinese kids here, Vietnamese kids here,
each blaming the other for the beatings we’ve come to fear:
Chinese kid gets jumped, we say it’s cuz the Viets made trouble
with the Black kids who look at us each and see double
and decide to attack us, and why does that happen and—

STAFF MEMBER
Be silent. Don’t speak of these beatings.
Be silent. Don’t try to translate them.
Be silent. You don’t speak good English.
Be silent. And silently hate them.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
I keep a journal of beatings of Chinese kids first,
don’t invite Vietnamese to our meetings, which makes things worse.
We each maintain our silence, the lunchroom divided
into these immigrant islands of language,
hiding our pain with the self-reliance we came with.
We get harassed in the caf, and there’s no help from staff
so I skip lunch, hide myself in a ESL class
and some Chinese students begin to join my fast
but it’s not yet a movement, cuz we can’t get past
the fact that we and the Vietnamese kids are so different
til a teacher we both love is about to lose their position,
and a Vietnamese student leader shares their petition
with us Chinese students, and even though the teacher
still gets removed, that little movement proves
though we lost that moment, we did not lose –
cuz if we can come together, we can win.
The school separates us by our tongues, by our skin,
where we’re from, where we’ve been, so we think we will never
break the boxes they got us in. But

CHOIR
BE SILENT.
I WILL NOT

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
Every time we come together, we win.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
When people of color come together, we begin
to recognize the bigger struggle we are in.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
Every time we come together, we win.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Every time we come together,
the staff in their beautiful English, tells us

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & STAFF MEMBER
Calm down, let it go, let’s move on.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
From the principal on down, they promise

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & STAFF MEMBER
More security and well-trained teachers.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
They promise

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & STAFF MEMBER
More cameras and random security features.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
They promise a lot, and nothing is what we got.
We got thirteen Asian students hospitalized in one day.
At first we just wanna make the Black kids who did this, pay:
arrest them, suspend them and send them away.
But the older generation of Chinatown leaders
say that’s exactly what this racist system is tryina teach us.
In Philly schools way back, people attacked people.
Fifty years back, it was white attacking Black people.
To right this wrong, we need to fight that evil.
Then Black students teach us

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
The school’s failing us too –
It’s not “Who beat up who?” This school is cheating me and you.
Push youth of color out is what this school is about.

STAFF MEMBER
Be silent like these Asian kids do.
Be silent – when bad teachers help you fail.
Be silent, Black and Latino kids too.
Be silent, or we’ll silently put you in jail.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
The school separates us by our tongues,

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
by our skin,

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
where we’re from,

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
where we’ve been,

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
so we think we will never break the boxes they got us in.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR

every time we come together, we win.
Every time we come together, we win.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
When people of color come together, we begin
to recognize the bigger struggle we are in.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
Every time we come together, we win.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Every time we come together, I tell ‘em: We are

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
youth.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We are

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
leaders.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We have the power

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
to make a change.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
I believe this.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We are

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
[fill in the blank: immigrants; trans; etc.]

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We are

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
leaders.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We have the power

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
to make a change.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
I believe this.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Silently we recognize the school system is broken.
Quietly we start to speak the things that were unspoken.
Call up a reporter – soon the news is in the open.
Seek out leaders in Chinatown, let their teachings soak in.
First: stop goin to school; our safety cannot wait.
Meet daily in Chinatown. Stop. Translate.
English, Vietnamese, Mandarin languages.
Spread the word in all of them, remember whose campaign this is:
everyone’s.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT & CHOIR
Boycott!

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We’re meeting:
give breakfast and lunch, different people leading.
First day, thirty students show.
Facebook, Snapchat, phone calls let ‘em know.
Second day, fifty kids, then sixty, we grow
to seventy boycotting school for eight days
we make our own school, march, rally, make waves.
Vietnamese, Chinese, together get things done.
Two lawsuits against the district – which we win, / one by one.

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
One by one, Black student leaders start to come to every action.
The more our struggles come together, the more we gain traction.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
& BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We are not anti-each-other, we are anti-violence.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We are tired of our voices being smothered into silence.

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Silently they pushed us out, but now we’re feelin our pull.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
Silent’s how we started,

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
& BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
now our voices gettin loud ‘n full.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
On our own,

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
we’re breakable,

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
& BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
together we be powerful.

CHOIR
WE WILL NOT
BE SILENT.

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
We shake the whole school system, make ‘em sign a settlement,

BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
dedicate more resources and make sure they are better spent,

CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
& BLACK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT
start a student movement to make schools nonviolent,
cuz we will not be silent.

The system separates us by our tongues,
by our skin,
where we’re from,
where we’ve been,
so we think we will never break the boxes they got us in.

But every time we come together,
we win. Every time we come together, we win.
When people of color come together, we begin
to recognize the bigger struggle we are in.

Every time we come together, we win.
Every time we come together, I tell ‘em: We are
youth.

We are
leaders.
We have the power
to make a change.
I believe this.
(If cast includes Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese or Vietnamese speakers, repeat
chant in these other languages.)

We are
[fill in the blank: immigrants; trans; etc.]
We are
leaders.
We have the power
to make a change.
I believe this.
Track Name: Survival Is Resistance (live)
My family is from
somewhere where clean earth and water
used to run together
from the backs of people’s homes
to the front edge of forever.

But the earth and water there
were swallowed up or slaughtered
til the only food was air
and hungry mouths would stare
down the hungry mouths of guns,
til the earth was only watered
by the blood of daughters and sons.

The country washed my family’s blood
from its hands and teeth.
The country tried to wash their brains
clean of culture and belief.

But my grandparents knew
who they were was never wrong
and before they passed on,
they passed on who they were in song:

When a country tries to crush us,
deny our existence,
music is survival, and our survival is / resistance.

Resistance is the crater of the bomb
we turn into a pond to fish in,
the old clothes and songs
our broken hearts are stitched in
when we see our new home in the distance,
because our survival is resistance.

(end of audio excerpt)
My family came here,
a land where clean earth and water
are bought and sold together
from the backs of people’s homes
to the front edge of forever,
where the cost of land is so high
that most families live below,
so food and money run dry
and prisons overflow
with whole rivers of people
whose only crime is being here
when there’s no other place to go.

This country tries to wash our blood
from its hands and teeth.
This country tries to wash our brains
clean of culture and belief.
But my grandparents knew
who they were was never wrong
and before they passed on,
they passed on who we are in song:

When a country tries to crush us,
deny our existence,
music is survival, and our survival is / resistance.

Resistance is the tiny patch of dirt
we turn into our kitchen garden,
the rice bowl and songs
we hold our whole heart in
when we sing a new life into existence:
every child’s arrival is resistance.

We’re gonna make this place
a land where clean earth and water
run hand in hand together
from the backs of people’s homes
to the front edge of forever,
and the steady stream of prisoners
will dry up, and the streams
will fill with water that’s as free
as our daughters, sons, and dreams,
and my children will know
who they are is never wrong
and before I pass on,
I’ll pass on who we are in song.

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