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Asian American Musician Counters Hate And Xenophobia Through New Album, 'I Am Not A Virus'

Photo Credit: McCoy Khamphouy
Album Art by Ryan Harrison
There's been an increase in violence directed against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. In Michigan, one jazz musician is finding his own way to bring awareness to the xenophobia.

There's been an increase in violence directed against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. In Michigan, one jazz musician is finding his own way to bring awareness to the xenophobia.

"I Am Not A Virus" is the title track off Jordan VanHemert’s new album. VanHemert teaches jazz and saxophone at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and identifies as Korean American.

When the pandemic hit, VanHemert was told by a colleague that violence against Asian Americans was not happening in the U.S., when in fact, incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes have been rampant throughout the last year.

“And then the kind of the energy that I was feeling, the frustration, not only from this person, while gaslighting me, but also from my own experiences,” VanHemert said.

News outlets nationwide have reported on elderly Asian Americans getting attacked in broad daylight in major cities from New York to Los Angeles.

The feeling that came out of that comment sparked something in VanHemert. He took that frustration and translated it into a melody he said sounds like determination and grit.

“I listened to it, it sounds to me like resilience. And it sounds to me, I would say not like hope, but like the idea of rising against hate,” VanHemert said.

Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate is an initiative that tracks anti-Asian hate crimes based on self-reported instances.

Stop AAPI Hate is made up of the groups: Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, and the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, the organization documented more than 3,700 hate incidents. However, those reports don’t account for the actual number, since not everyone reports incidents of discrimination.

VanHemert said he wanted to keep the theme of resilience running throughout the piece, as a reflection of the hate Asian Americans face during the pandemic.

The theme of resiliency is not only conveyed through VanHemert’s saxophone performance, but also among the band members.

As part of his compositional style, VanHemert gives artistic freedom to his fellow musicians.

In "I Am Not A Virus," drummer, Andy Wheelock, plays his interpretation of resilience.

VanHemert said he hopes other Asian Americans will feel seen through the piece.

"First of all, to my Asian American Pacific Islander community: I hear you, I see you. To other people who might not be Asian American. What I hope they get out of it is kind of a time capsule effect. I hope that they get this idea that, yes, anti-Asian racism is real. It's a problem. It's very pervasive in this country. Lastly, I hope that people take away that Asian Americans belong here. And we're here to stay.”

The closing track on this album, Arirang, is a reflection on VanHemert’s identity. Arirang is a Korean folk song about love, longing, and grief.

The start to Arirang is unconventional, with VanHemert asserting pride in his identity.

"What I wanted people to hear when they heard this iteration of it was, this is a Korean American jazz saxophonist who is proud of his heritage, is proud to be Korean,” he said.

On Arirang, VanHemert collaborated with pianist Lisa Sung, who also identifies as Korean American. VanHemert said the piece is a special symbol of their friendship, which goes back to 2018.

VanHemert and Sung played a gig at a Grand Rapids brewery.

“And she asked me, she came with these handwritten compositions and arrangements that she had. And she said, 'Can we play this music?'” he said.

That night Lisa’s father, also a saxophonist like VanHemert, was sitting in the audience.

"And something that I will never forget is that particular music was able to reach him, and it was able to touch his life,” he said.

"And when I hear [Arirang], I'm so proud to be Korean. It's kind of like our unofficial national anthem."

VanHemert said the Korean American community has been a rock for him during this period of increased anti-Asian hate.

"And I think especially when there are times that shake you, our community, our heritage, our identity, is a thing that can hold us up. And it has held me up throughout these difficult times,” VanHemert said.

The ending to Arirang is melancholy and solemn, similar to the traditional version of the song. That’s intentional, VanHemert said.

"I wanted the album to end on this note, because at its core, Korean American Heritage, Korean American identity isn't 50% American and 50% Korean. It is 100% Korean and 100% American. So, what I wanted to do with the ending was give the 100% Korean side something. I wanted to take the beautiful melody and harmonize it in a way that was a little bit more traditional.”

The ending to Arirang is reduced to just saxophone and piano. VanHemert said that wasn’t the way he originally planned it, but it was a happy coincidence because it conveys his friendship with Sung.

"And it is a setting that allows not only the music, and the particularly the melody to shine, but it also represents my relationship with Lisa, and how we love playing together,” he said. VanHemert hopes with “I am not a virus,” he can encourage other Asian Americans to defy the stereotypes society assigns them.

"This record for me is about dismantling stereotypes. It's about constantly working against what people think Asian Americans can be. For a lot of people Korean Americans, we’re put in a box that that doesn't include jazz saxophonist. But for me, this is who I am. And I'm proud of who I am."

Album Credits:

Jordan VanHemert, saxophone

Rob Smith, trumpet

Lisa Sung, piano

Kazuki Takemura, bass

Andy Wheelock, drums

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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