A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America

May 2011
"Grain of Sand Rehearsal at Folk City c. 1971," copyright Bob Hsiang, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine Spring 2011 Cover Image

by Sojin Kim
This article originally appeared on the 
Smithsonian Folkways Magazine website, and can be viewed there in full, with accompanying media.
Spring 2011

In 1973, three young activists in New York City recorded A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. Singing of their direct lineage to immigrant workers as well as their affinity with freedom fighters everywhere, Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin recorded the experiences of the first generation to identify with the term and concept Asian American—a pan-ethnic association formulated upon a shared history of discrimination. They sought a connection to their cultural heritage; to claim their historical presence in the United States; to resist their marginalization; and to mobilize solidarity across class, ethnic, racial, and national differences. Music provided a powerful means for expressing their aspiration to reshape a society reeling from a prolonged war, ongoing struggles against racial inequity, and revelations of the Watergate cover-up. As writer and activist Phil Tajitsu Nash would state many decades later, A Grain of Sand was “more than just grooves on a piece of vinyl,” it was “the soundtrack for the political and personal awareness taking place in their lives.” Equal parts political manifesto, collaborative art project, and organizing tool, it is widely recognized as the first album of Asian American music.

A Grain of Sand was produced by Paredon Records. Over the course of 15 years, Paredon founders Irwin Silber and Barbara Dane amassed a catalog of 50 titles reflecting their commitment to the music of peace and social justice movements. In 1991, to ensure its ongoing accessibility, Silber and Dane donated the Paredon catalog to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, through which these recordings and their original liner notes remain available to the public.

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