On Thursday night, the Student Coalition for Asian-Pacific Empowerment hosted its third annual InspirASIAN conference, an event aimed at putting USC students in contact with members of the Asian-Pacific-American media community.
The panelists included Dante Basco, a slam poet and voice actor for Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in which he played Zuko; Jenny Yang, a comedian and writer; Taz Ahmed, an American-Muslim activist and USC alumna, and Traci Kato-Kiriyama, a multi-disciplinary artist.
Despite the conference’s emphasis on reaching out to the Asian-Pacific-American community, SCAPE aimed to make the night accessible to all USC students. Alex Kanegawa, a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism and social media chair for SCAPE, saw this as distinguishing from the mainstream media.
“There’s a lot to be learned,” Kanegawa said. “I don’t think this is something that only Asian people will care about; these artists are talented. I think it’s a good gateway into L.A. culture, and these are important figures in their local community.”
SCAPE’s goal of empowering USC’s Asian-Pacific-American community has prompted it to ally with community centers seeking social justice. Kanegawa also stressed that the panel’s gender ratio, with women as three of the four panelists, aimed to promote another under-represented community.
This emphasis on social justice of any and all kinds found itself in all the speakers’ performances.
Kato-Kiriyama lead the evening with her performance poem “Desire,” which looked at lesbian relationships. One particular line, “what made a girl a girl was the ability to be an object of desire / but not an object to be desired by me,” expanded the scope of the event beyond Asian-Pacific-American issues.
Yang followed Kato-Kiriyama’s performance with a stand-up bit. Her brand of comedy, based around deconstructing Asian stereotypes, started with a freestyle rap completely in Chinese. For those who did not know Chinese, this caused a strange discomfort, which Yang promptly made fun of.
“I’m playing really hard right now,” Yang said, “You’re like ‘oh, did I walk into the wrong room. I thought this event was for all Asians, why is this so Chinese?’”
Yang’s comedy ranged from jokes about pi, to jokes about how pi jokes only enforced the Asian stereotype. By playing on the audience’s discomfort with these stereotypes, she highlighted the modern conditions of racism.
Ahmed’s poetry dealt with her experience growing up as a Bangladeshi-American. Her poem “Mantras of Silence” played on the adage “if you don’t have anything good to say, say nothing at all.” Ahmed claimed that this statement had paralyzed her during her youth.
Basco shared poetry based on his character from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
“So, if you don’t know what Avatar is I can’t help you,” Basco said. “But on my Instagram, you know those 15-second videos, I wrote some 15-second videos for Avatar. Here’s the first 15-second poem.”
After that, Basco shared a medley of poems dealing with his Catholic and Filipino heritage, which silenced the room.
Yang went on to discuss the many identities that play a part in her life.
“There’s so much that we are,” Yang said. “I identify as Chinese, Asian-American, because that’s a political choice. A woman. Female. Feminist. Somewhat everything. There’s so many. I didn’t come out of the womb or college thinking I would do stand-up comedy. I definitely identify these last few years as an artist, writer and stand-up comedian.”
Then, jokingly, Kato-Kiriyama replied, “All of the above.”
Becky Houser, a freshman majoring in animation and digital arts, found the panelists’ comments on art to be insightful.
“I like what all the panelists had to say about expressing yourself through art,” Houser said. “Especially as part of the Asian American community, because I am half [Asian]. Because I’m in the cinematic arts school, that really struck a chord with me.”
Carolina Chiou, a freshman majoring in fine arts, felt the evening was marked by strong performances.
“I really liked Jenny’s rap in Chinese, and I actually understood it,” Chiou said. “I liked Taz’s performance too. I liked what she said about Muslim women and how she wants to change everyone’s view … Everyone’s just focused on how repressed [Muslim women] are, but if that’s what they believe in, they should do what they want.”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.