Dawen | “Music is the ultimate media. It can be anything; it can be any mood.”
What five-letter word evokes a hard-to-achieve combination of intellect, good taste, and humor? If you didn’t already know, oh, you will: Dawen is synonymous to classy—right down to the wine he was sipping on a Saturday morning. Let’s not even begin to rave about the oval-shaped burger he recommended at Father’s House in Culver City, because we’ll never stop. Join TheOtherAsians in this enriching interview with Dawen as he gives OAer Julie Zhan a taste of his signature candid, no beating-around-the-bush views on social issues, especially pertaining to Asian Americans. It certainly helps that he has a voice so smooth it even made Macy Gray melt, and combined with his soulful melodies, good luck not dropping everything you’re doing to listen to what he has to say.
- What takes up most of your time right now: Everything: music, emails, and correspondence
- Guilty Pleasure: Eggs and ketchup
- Favorite Color: [Haha] Yellow
- Relationship Status: Available
- Pet Peeves: Traffic, bad driving, auto-racism (amongst Chinese)
- What you look for in a girl: Well-read, inquisitive, self-assured. Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s not a bombshell but it’s who I usually end up with—crazy people.
- What kind of car do you drive: Honda Civic
- Can you speak/read/write Chinese: Yes to all 3 (elementary to intermediate); used to be fluent in Spanish; elementary Arabic
- Random Fun Fact: When I was 9 years old, my parents took me on a trip to Paris and we went to the Louvre. I accidently set the alarm off. I bought a hotdog, leaned against the lever, and the alarm went off
- Random Funner Fact: I can hula hoop for as long as you want
- Wow, we’re having so much fun here’s another fact: I am a book slut. A few favorites: The Joke by Milan Kundera, Autobiography of Malcolm X, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Misery by Stephen King
- What your Chinese name means: Da Wen means “good work”
OA: How did you get thrown into this musical world? Tell us the story of becoming Dawen.
DW: I’ve always known I was going to do music. As a kid, I loved classical music and I pursued it as a study. But I’d say my first vocal recital was my last: It was my senior year in college. I had finished one part of my life but it was clear to me I was still going to be doing music.
OA: What inspires and motivates you to write such beautiful music?
DW: Personal relationships and current events. I remember listening to a Curtis Mayfield album (1970’s soul singer; the godfather of soul) and from the first 40 seconds I was like, what the hell? He was talking a lot about the civil rights era, issues that mattered to him as someone who is black. I thought, you know, I never hear any music about things that I care about. So I started writing about experiences I had with regard to social issues—issues of prejudice and racism that affected me.
OA: Thank you for doing so! And what does music mean to you?
DW: I think music is the ultimate media. It can be anything; it can be any mood. It’s four-dimensional. I can sing about the club, a girl, or injustice in America. There’s so much capacity and range, it’s a communication between two things: the performer and the listener. And it goes both ways. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The energy that the performer feeds off is vital to the work that they’re giving out. It’s superficial and yet it’s visceral. You can rock out to Britney and Beethoven.
OA: Tell us what you think your musical style. We’ve heard it described as “R&B”, “soulful”, and “lyrical”.
DW: It’s soul and R&B. People are always the result of their inspirations. There’s jazz, funk, and pop in it.
OA: Speaking of which, who is your musical inspiration?
DW: Maxwell, Robin Thicke, Usher, Prince, and the more old school: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. I’m also influenced by people not in my genre like film composer John Brion. Even though he’s a jerk, Kanye West. Oh, and I’m a classical slut.
OA: What does your family think of your music career, given the generation and cultural gap?
DW: My mom raised me and she was the first person in her family to be a scholar instead of a politician. So I think when she was raising me, she thought, hey I did what I wanted to do. So I got a lot of support. I’m pretty sure had I lived in a cohesive mom and pop family, it would have been different. My brother has helped me produce. He’s been a big influence. My struggles started in school, starting out in the singer-songwriter scene. In college, more people, without having met me, would have believed I was an engineer or pre-med. My friends would start laughing because I wouldn’t have lasted a day studying pre-med. I just don’t have that type of discipline. I started off in Chicago at an R&B and hip hop showcase. I’d play in westside Chicago in downtown. I’d get up and hear snickers and grunts—that was a common occurrence. I definitely felt there was a lot of, you’re not someone I’d think of as being a part of the hip hop and R&B scene. I felt like as long as I was given a chance to perform, more often than not I’d get the crowd on my side. It’s a different crowd: it’s lively. They’d throw back a lyric at you. For example, in my song I said, “Put your swords down,” and someone said, “Dawen, you can put your sword down here anytime.”
OA: In your song, “Wake Up”, you touch upon the fact that racism, stereotypes, and generalizations are still very much a part of society. Any particular personal stories that sparked this song?
DW: “Wake Up” is derived from quotes and things I’ve heard growing up. “Go back to where you came from” was said from my neighbor in Boston. “You’re way too thin to be Bruce Lee” was another thing someone said to me, which is funny—what does that even mean? First day of college, people would say I spoke good English. Uh, yeah, I’m from Boston. I have two types of people: people all for it, and people that are so over it—stop whining, get over it. But I think a balance is best, having a positive visibility for my demographic. And the reason why I care so much is that Asians and Chinese Americans who have been through negative experiences aren’t going to lie down and take it. A point about FM: they’re actually extremely socially conscious. It used to come out in their earlier songs. They’re adopting a different style. The way they behave, they’re very supportive of the Asian American community. And being vocal about it is huge. As far as I’m concerned, FM is an inspiration to me in their music and the way they give back. So for me, would I love to be on the radio? Yes, but I never want to forget what community I came from. It’s the community that gave me my start and foundation to move forward.
OA: Your album is called “American Me”. What is the significance of that title?
DW: Because it was about a lot of important issues, I wanted to convey that. It’s about identity, national identity. This is what America is: diverse. I’m proud of who I am. I’m calling out in a friendly manner to all my brothers and sisters, for the all the head way we’ve made. It seems I never get the sense that we’re proud of it. There needs to be pride. We need to stop using “Asian American” and “fobby” as disparaging terms. We need to think of Asian as something that is beautiful.
OA: Being proud of who you are, what does it mean to be Chinese American to you?
DW: It means to be multicultural, diverse, and to have the best of two different things. Being multicultural is only a good thing. They don’t compete with each other. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I can enjoy rice, play mahjong, sing karaoke, and still be as American as apple pie. And back to the beauty thing: you know in the 70s, there was a black beauty movement. It coincided with girls wearing fros. You never feel as Asian Americans that we’re “the shit”. But it’s time. I feel what FM is doing is so cool. A lot of my friends didn’t even know they’re Asian. They just know they’re cool, How else can you expect for people to love you unless you love yourself? When we go clubbing, how come we say, “Oh my god, there are so many Asians here.” We don’t hear Latinos saying, “Oh my god, there are so many Latinos here.” Why do we do that? It baffles me. I think we’re like that because Asian Americans in general still really want to fit in.
OA: Why don’t you attach a last name to yourself?
DW: It’s more concise, it’s easier to remember, it’s five letters. Wang was a distraction. You know, some of my favorite R&B artists, Maxwell and Brandy, don’t use last names. It’s more concise.
OA: Given that you’ve performed in Asia and you’ve been in the music scene there, would you ever consider a career overseas?
DW: Hell yeah! I’m bilingual, but I’m brushing up on my Mandarin. I haven’t written a song in Mandarin yet, but I want to. Winter of ’09, I went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it was crazy: first time performing in a different country for me. The issues I talk about were so specific to America, I didn’t know how it would translate, but no one minded. The music translated. Another reason why the Taipei show was crazy was I fainted after. I’d been touring the states and Asia all within 3.5 weeks, and my body just gave out. I was dehydrated. I wasn’t used to that exertion yet. I was basically on adrenaline for an entire month.
OA: Make sure to take care of yourself so you can keep spreading your music! Any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
DW: I’m doing my college tour and doing a bunch of keynote speaking. I’m performing on March 9, 7:30pm at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. I’ll be competing for $10,000. And they’re famous for booing you like crazy.
OA: Any words of wisdom for aspiring musicians and fans?
DW: This is a quote from PK [founder of Kollaboration]: “Hone your craft.” Whatever you do, be so good at it that when the right time comes, you can do your thing. People who are pursuing something their parents aren’t on board with, just stay focused, be passionate. Passion and hard work wins at the end. You can compel well-meaning parents and they’ll see. Try to see it through their point of view. Try to compel them with your passion. Convince them that you can succeed and excel at what you do. You’ll win them over.
Interview by Julie Zhan
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Julie Zhan
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