How I Realized The Music I Love Doesn’t Belong To Me
I wish I could tell you what drives my love for Motown music. It’s insufficient to simply state that my music tastes have largely been shaped by parents and that their album collection has had a lasting effect on me. They didn’t realy subscribe to any single genre or artist. Every dinner, the musical accompaniment ranged from The Partridge Family and Bob Marley to Antonio Carlos Jobim and the Bee Gees. At my mother’s behest, I would examine their extensive CD collection, look for a title that I had never heard before, insert the plastic disc, and hit play. Each night, a new sound would set the tone for the meal. Each night, a new discovery.
As I navigated my way through their discography, I found myself gravitating away from The Beatles and towards the Jackson 5. Doo wop tunes like “Please Mr. Postman” caught my ear. The soulful voices of Marvin Gaye and Al Green soothed me.
And then one night, I picked up a greatest hits album by a group I hadn’t played before. The Temptations.
Listening to The Temptations made life sizzle. Songs like the leg-shaking “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and the sweetly swaying “My Girl” compelled my shoulders to sway and my feet to step in directions I had no previous awareness of. The way David Ruffin’s rough, masculine voice grates out the first seven words of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” made me want to drive my knees into the ground in front of a woman before I knew what romance or love was. As a 10 year old Korean-American boy living in Hong Kong, I can only imagine that my parents thought I was some sort of cultural anomaly. From that moment on, they would tell me that I had “soul.” I didn’t know what the word meant or where it came from, but if it described someone who enjoyed the voices of David, Melvin, Paul, Otis, and Eddie, then I’d wear that label with pride.
What I didn’t realize that at age, what I continue to remind myself, is that while this label was mine to wear, I had done little to earn it. Though the sounds, the rhythms, and the harmonies that I adored were mine to enjoy and dance to, the stories that inspired this art were part of an identity that I could never fully understand. However, I could continue to learn about, appreciate, and share the narratives that touched me in a way no other art form has.
At some point, I, now living in a suburb just outside of Boston, watched The Temptations, a mini-series that premiered on NBC in 1998. It being 2002, I caught the program during the wee hours on VH1. At 1:00 am, I would sit in front of our basement television. The warm glow from the screen would cast a blue tint over me as I watched each part of the 4 hour broadcast. And though my toe would tap to familiar songs, the narratives that chronicled the highs and lows of these legends overlapped with a history that I had learned about but never considered as existing in parallel with the music of this act from Detroit, MI.
To me in my early teenage years, the 1960–1970s were a bygone era. A time where many of America’s idols — President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X — were romanticized and heralded as the kings of their generation. The civil rights movement fascinated me: the grainy black and white footage of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, watching Bull Connor unleash a fury of water hoses and attack dogs on protestors linked arm in arm with one another, and African-Americans being ripped and pulled, spit on, and harrassed. Killed. I didn’t know that the music I loved was created in this moment. A moment where the line between twisting and shouting the night away, symbolizing a night of celebration and joy or a nightmare of dread and pain, could be nothing more than the gaze of a young boy’s eyes.
There’s a scene from the miniseries that remains stuck in my memory. The group is on the Motortown Revue tour. They perform for segregated crowds. The stresses of being couped up on a crowded tour bus starting to weigh on the members. On a sun drenched day, the bus catches a flat. As three of the passengers attempt to replace the tire, an omnious pick up truck drives by. The white driver give them a glare. The truck continues on, but then quickly turns around. It picks up speed. Suddenly, a young white man, shotgun in hand, pops out of the passenger window.
“Get your Freedom Rider asses back up North!” he shouts.
He lets loose two shots off in the air. The passengers duck, scream, and run back onto the bus. David Ruffin runs after the truck, wrench in hand.
“I got something for your asses!” he yells.
Group members called for David to come back to the bus. But what Otis Williams says sticks in my mind.
“What’s wrong with you? You don’t have no gun!” he admonishes. What’s wrong with you? A stranger brandishes a firearm against his brother, yet Williams can only express his angst towards the man he knows. This is the only way to protect the ones you love.
In 2002 — hell, in 2017 — I don’t know if too much had changed. What I did know was that if I ever had a flat tire, the idea of a drive by shotgun warning was never something I had ever had to consider. During the 1960s, both of my parents were still living in Korea. There weren’t many people my family know personally that could share their experience with us, or bring nuance to the perceptions we possessed at the time. In a town that was predominantly Catholic or Jewish, where I was one of five Asian American students in my grade, where many black students in my grade came from a inner city partnership, how could I find education and understanding that wasn’t bound by the pages of a textbook.
It’s not that my family and I didn’t see the gap that existed. At home, when I brought up the frustration or the anger one has to feel as an African American, the dinner table quickly filled with quiet nods and agreements.
Then we’d continue to eat.
The Temptations are an American vocal group notable for their success with Motown Records during the 1960s and 1970s…en.wikipedia.org
Anti-blackness in the Asian American community is not a discreet, whispered sentiment. It's a blatant belief that's…www.huffingtonpost.com
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About the writer
William Yu is currently a freelance writer and former advertising senior strategist. During his experiences at TBWA\Chiat\Day and SapientRazorfish, Yu worked on brand strategy and digital projects for brands like BNY Mellon, Accenture, Verizon, and Mastercard.
Yu created #StarringJohnCho, an award winning (2016 Shorty Award for Best Use of Hashtag and the 2016 American Advertising Federation Mosaic Award for Multicultural Digital Campaign) social movement that literally shows you what it would look like if today’s Hollywood blockbusters cast an Asian-American actor as their leading man. The project has garnered over 1 billion impressions worldwide and continues the conversation regarding the lack of Asian-American representation in film.
His work has been featured domestically and internationally from major media outlets such as The New York Times, BBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
He is based in New York City.