The first single from Dawen‘s debut album, “American Me,”which was released back in September, wastes no time stating his passion for Asian American identity. “Flip through the paper, turn on the telly, go to a movie,” he croons in his supple, silky soprano. Then he slips into the first verse:
Just because you saw the movie Crouching Tiger
Doesnâ€™t mean that I know kung-fu
And just because Mr. Yan has an accent
Doesnâ€™t mean that Iâ€™ve got one too
People tell me I â€œspeak good Englishâ€
Or that Iâ€™m â€œtoo thin to be Bruce Leeâ€
Where do they get their preconceptions
Of what Iâ€™m supposed to be?
That’s his first single, but the first track on the album, is more blunt in addressing the inequities of many immigrants of color to the U.S.:
Welcome to the USA
Freedom is your right
Land of opportunity
Only if youâ€™re white
Welcome to the USA
Sea to shining sea
I give my money, give my life
Still they stare at me
Welcome, Welcome, heyâ€¦
On the third track, “Ku Li,” Dawen weaves in the lyrics from the folk song, “I’ve been working on the railroad,” into a stunning statement about how Chinese immigrants were treated as slave labor during the taming of the American West.
What’s amazing, despite such in-your-face lyrics, is that Dawen wraps his message in an incredible wealth of warm musicality, starting with his soulful R&B vocals to his must-be-classically-and-jazz-trained keyboards and his guitar work, and his hooky instincts for get-in-your-head melodies and late-night funk bedrock rhythms.
The album is a mellow, low-key wonder that can play in the background or zoom into the foreground with the sharply-observed social activism of the first eight tracks.
Then, Dawen switches gears for the final eight songs, which focus on love and romance (with a dark turn on “I Hate Jay,” in which the broken-hearted antagonist takes care of his rival and mutters, “no more Jay…”).
Given the 1970s-sounding tone to Dawen’s keyboard settings, which for me evoke the glory years of the Fender Rhodes electric piano (I’ve been listening to lot of late Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield recently), “American Me” would have been split into a two-LP set if it had been released during the vinyl era, with the political side collected as a concept album like Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and the rest on a second disc like Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Gaye released those two separately, but they’re now available on one CD.
Dawen also reminds me of another Motown superstar: Stevie Wonder, in his funky 1970s period. In fact, Dawen’s political songs recall for me the incisive social commentary of Wonder’s “Living for the City” from his landmark “Innervisions” album.
I’m late to Dawen’s generous talents. He released his album at the end of summer, and he’s been posting videos, including cool covers, on his YouTube channel. Fellow Asian American blogs such as Angry Asian Man, 8Asians and Slant Eye for the Round Eye (the ones on the West Coast, where lucky fans can see a wealth of AAPI performers regularly) have been singing his praises for months.
So I started to just write up a post announcing the musician’s quickie tour of New York City clubs, when I took the time to buy his album off Amazon’s MP3 store (it’s also available from iTunes). After listening, I had to write something more substantial about his music.
The album’s a keeper, y’all. Dawen is a real talent — he puts to music the kind of stuff that slam poets and spoken word artists like Beau Sia and Kip Fulbeck are putting into words, and that Asian American and Pacific Islander bloggers are putting into their posts.
He’s an authentic, important voice within the AAPI community of artists. But the album; see his shows.
Here are the details of his NYC dates:
12/4, Fri â€“ Silk Road CafÃ©, â€œFive Points Variety Hourâ€ w/Alfa
8:00pm 30 Mott St
12/5, Sat â€“ Vassar College, Asian Studentsâ€™ Alliance w/ slam poet Beau Sia
8:00pm Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
12/6, Sun â€“ The Bitter End, â€œSinger-Songwriter Sessionsâ€
9:45pm 147 Bleecker Street
12/7, Mon â€“ Googieâ€™s Lounge (above the Living Room) w/ singer-songwriter Cynthia Lin
7:30pm 154 Ludlow St, 2nd Floor
Dawen heads to Hong Kong for some performances after this week. Here’s the video for “Wake Up.” Be sure to check out Daween’s YouTube channel for more.
Wow Gil, what a fantastic write-up! Thanks for such a thoughtful and glowing review. Glad you enjoy the album and that it resonates with you. Hopefully Dawen can swing through the Denver area in the near future.
I hope Dawen can swing through Denver sometime too, although to be honest, I’ve become terrible at going out to clubs to see live shows. I did that as a music critic for almost two decades, so I’m not big on hanging out in clubs late into the night… I’m an old fart! 🙂
Great to read your review of an artist I love! What a voice Dawen’s got. I love his album and am glad to see you feel the same way.
Thanks, Maura! Like I wrote, I knew Dawen’s name but hadn’t heard his music until now, and I was thoroughly knocked out.