Is it possible to revisit one of the most troubling incidents in American history—one that's been largely ignored—and make it not only interesting, but also bring to light how powerfully relevant it is to the present day? With catchy, colorful rock melodies, strikingly imagistic lyrics, newly unearthed narratives from more than seventy years ago, and rare visual footage, Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama tackle that challenge with their new project No-No Boy. They're bringing this fascinating multimedia event to the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free show on Thursday, November 15, at 7:30 pm.
The duo take their name from a term common among Japanese-Americans during World War II. A "no-no boy" was someone who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States or serve in the military…since so many of them and their loved ones were imprisoned in concentration camps throughout the western states. The great irony is that out of the thousands of American soldiers who served in the war, the most decorated unit of all was the the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans.
That narrative is far better known than the forced relocation and imprisonment of nearly 130,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, most of them American citizens, beginning in the spring of 1942 and lasting almost the entire duration of the war.
As Saporiti explains, No-No Boy's goal is "to unfocus the large narratives and black-and-white arguments around which we have constructed history and community legacies, and instead, refocus on individuals, as a way in for the listener and student."
Aoyama describes it as "art-based learning, and slowing down history. The way to learn it is to start with your own own history, and then work outward." No-No Boy's performance will combine a full-band concert along with the stories of some of the most colorful individuals interned in the camps, in addition to both archival photos and home movies, many of which have never been viewed publicly until now.
"It's the complications we're interested in," says Saporiti. "Let's sit with the mess of history and then have a conversation about it, without any prejudgments."
Saporiti first conceived of No-No Boy in the days after the 2016 presidential election, when one of Donald Trump's advisors cited WWII Japanese-American internment as legal precedent for a crackdown on Muslims traveling to the U.S. At the time, Saporiti—the former frontman and primary songwriter of popular, artsy rockers The Young Republic—was researching jazz bands in the concentration camps. Each camp had one: many of those group members were in their teens. That struck a note. Now in the process of completing his doctorate at Brown University, he launched No-No Boy with his colleague Ayoyama, a strikingly versatile singer with operatic training and Japanese heritage. Her grandmother was imprisoned at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, interrupting her own years as as college student.
In their Lincoln Center debut at the David Rubenstein Atrium, which is presented in collaboration with Asian American Arts Alliance, No-No Boy will be performing songs from their new album, 1942. "I really appreciate how Julian and Erin have taken their history and ethnomusicology research outside of the academic bubble and turned it into something poetic and accessible for everyone, from music fans, to people who have lived these experiences," explains Meera Dugal, Programming Manager at the Atrium, who's responsible for bringing them to Lincoln Center.
The album opens with the achingly starry, Elliott Smith–tinged dream-pop guitar mist of "Pacific Fog" and closes with "Little Saigon," a mashup of Asian folk and Americana. In between, the songs explore interwoven narratives of imperiled refugees, defiant prisoners in the camps, forbidden romances, and echoes of those histories in the lives of current-day college students. Saporiti references his own own Vietnamese-born mother's story as well as his own experiences with racism growing up in this country.
But the album's eleven graceful, sparely arranged, mostly acoustic songs are only the tip of the iceberg. The duo now has written more than sixty songs, and plan to bring plenty of new material to the show at the Atrium.