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On 'For Every Voice That Never Sang,' Kishi Bashi Is Confident For A Changing World

Ishibashi was born to post-war immigrants from Japan, which, albeit slowly, the artist has conceptually embraced more in his music.
Ishibashi was born to post-war immigrants from Japan, which, albeit slowly, the artist has conceptually embraced more in his music.

Morning Edition's Song Project is a series where songwriters are asked to write an original song about the COVID era – our newest song is from Kaoru Ishibashi, an Asian-American musician and songwriter who performs as Kishi Bashi. The song is called "For Every Voice That Never Sang," about the feeling of being an outsider in your own country.

The pandemic gave Ishibashi a lot of time to reflect, but so did the cross-country road trip he took with his daughter; the artist owned a camper he barely used prior, as a result of constant touring. With it, he and his daughter travelled from Athens, Ga. and all the way to the mountains of the West Coast.

The artist has also been putting together a documentary about the Japanese-American experience, which largely involved the American West. When asked if he touched on the internment camps peppered across the western United States during their trip, Ishibashi says that his 15-year-old daughter was well aware of Japanese-American incarceration.

"But one of the things I did is kind of look through — we followed a lot of indigenous tribal history," he says. "We talked about settler colonialism and that kind of thing as we drove westward, our own manifest destiny."

Ishibashi's parents were post-war immigrants from Japan. It's taken him a while, but over the years, he's grown more secure in expressing those origins in his music — like in the song "Theme from Jerome," about a World War II-era prison camp in Arkansas: "And when they sleep / She'd sing this melody / To her beloved sons / Forgotten words from Japan."

The artist says you can't really understand the current rise in anti-Asian hate in this country unless you acknowledge that history. And the separation Asian Americans feel now is not new. "If you're not a part of the dominant culture, then you're always on the outside. So, at times, you know, you could feel included, like, NPR can ask you to write a song for them, you know?" Ishibashi says. "But at other times, you know, I'm still afraid to walk into, like, a full bar of drunk people. Just because I know that one thing they can say to me might set me back — remind me of my place in society."

Kishi Bashi spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about "For Every Voice That Never Sang," reflecting on the Atlanta shooting and seeking optimism in a changing world . Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin: Have you thought about how that fits into the larger racial reckoning in this country right now, as an Asian-American?

Kishi Bashi: I think being an Asian-American is a very complicated place in the racial hierarchy. So it was difficult to really for me to fully accept Asian hate. Because at the core, I'm thinking to myself, "What do I have to complain about? I'm still safe." But, you know, when it comes to violence, that's when I start to realize — these aren't just words. When you normalize hate speech — when that becomes something, like, your president says, that allows really awful people to to take it a step further.

When we called you a month ago, about writing a song for us, it was right after the mass shooting in Atlanta that killed six people of Asian descent. Atlanta's ... what — I mean, it's not that far from where you are in Athens, right?

Yes. It's like an hour. It's right around the corner.

How did you and your family — you're married. You've got a daughter. How did you all absorb that?

You know, I was really horrified. And then I realized, I think my perspective as an Asian male in this country is different than an Asian female. I felt unqualified to talk about Asian hate because I'm a male. I think Asian females really are vulnerable, especially. And they see a lot of this too. My wife tells me she's, you know, she's heard things. I haven't really heard anything personally.

So, you put together this song. Tell me about it.

It's about being on the outside of society, but also being on the outside of love. When you're pining for somebody's attention, it's just as painful as trying to become accepted in your community or in your society. And, I think, this song is a way to encourage people to keep your chin up, because the world is changing.

The original file name for the song is called "violin arpeggio." I really started by playing just what came to my fingers. I also got my friend Emily Hope Price, who's a wonderful cellist, to just send me a lot of cello. And it turned into this wonderful, huge sound.

How did you think about balancing — lyrically — the pain, the longing that you're trying to capture from the minority experience and a sense of optimism?

I think the sense of optimism is something that I've always tried to inject into my music. Because when you think about minority identity, you could go to town on how painful it is ... but a lot of people want to get out of that pain. They want things to heal them. So, you know, there's a statistic that I've really held on to and it kind of shaped my world view. And it's like, "50 percent of all school age children are people of color now." That means that the society of the future will be very, very different than what we see now. So, I try to remind that to people, especially, like, younger people who are really, really distraught — who think, like, the world is ending. It's not. It's kind of just beginning.

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