On Watching A Song for Ourselves: Chris Iijima

Poster for A Song for Ourselves

"A Song for Ourselves" (2009) by Tad Nakamura portrays the inspiring and poignant life of Chris Iijima. Iijima was a member of Yellow Pearl (along with Joanne Miyamoto and later Charlie Chin), a folk group that were troubadours for the early Asian American Movement. The group was based in New York and were particularly important for East Coast activists, who saw so few Asian American bands. Much of the poignancy of the film came from Chris' premature passing due to a rare disease and a defiant last interview even as he faced mortality.

Yellow Pearl was a part of and spoke to the times. They played everywhere Asian American (and differently-colored) activists were - rallies, colleges, conferences and marches. They wrote about the values and work that they, as well as many other activists around them, embraced.

Art as vehicle for political expression
What distinguished Chris was his view on art. As Chris says in the film, art was not distinct from purpose. As much as he was a singer, he was an organizer and came from an organizing family. He belonged to a succession of groups in New York City. Chris intended Yellow Pearl to tell the community's stories and about the Asian American Movement's work. Yellow Pearl did this with integrity, and dissolved when it felt its work was no longer necessary.

This is a view of art in contrast with contemporary views that elevate art above other things. Think of today's cultural studies that valorizes culture in and of itself and the separation of "political" artists from actual organizing.

Organizing as life
There's an interweaving of Chris' later and more family-oriented life with his earlier activism. Though he continued to be active, you could see that family took a larger part of his life, particularly when he moved to Hawaii and started a family. However, he continued to work around issues and spoke out against other unjust wars.

At the end of the interview, Chris said something I found very perceptive, that for those of us in Movement, we overlook that those times were a lot of fun and that he felt sorry for those who weren't a part of living in such a vibrant community, such a creative culture. For most of the people I know from those times, trying to completely live up to a set of ideals that you believed in changed their lives. So if you have that opportunity, it's something to grab onto.

Chris in these times
I'm not sure if the times in "A Song for Ourselves" seem like silent movies to younger people used to 3-D ones. I have taught classes about the period and sometimes played songs from Yellow Pearl to convey the culture of the times, but I'm not sure it connected. So many more diverse media channels surround today's generations. However, it's hard to believe that any of them have a more integral connection to their audience than Chris and Yellow Pearl had.