How an under the radar movement in Los Angeles may be showing us that the pop culture change we’ve been waiting for is the change we should be striving for.
It’s a gathering unlike anything seen since Harlem in the 1920s. On one side of the room you’ll find spoken word poets laughing and cutting up with YouTube newsmakers. A few feet away celebrated comedians may be in deep business discussions with producers and authors. Movie stars, graphic designers, and directors break bread with performers who are starting out, struggling, and grateful to glean knowledge from someone who’s “been there.”
The place: a breathtaking loft known as The SEED Center outside of Little Tokyo near downtown LA. The day: any given 8th - the eighth day of every month. The event: the collective brainchild of a few popular Asian American performers; including Dante Basco (actor, poet, writer, producer, leader of the lost boys, and Crown Prince of the Fire Nation), AJ Rafael (musician and YouTube OG), and Beau Sia (slam poet); known as #The8th. The purpose: a rallying of Asian Americans to, in the words of Basco during the October meeting, “create consistent, quality content” that that is written, directed, designed, produced, and released by and starring Asian Americans, for the enjoyment and consumption of ALL.
It’s a tough concept, in an industry that seems to have a vision that’s limited to black and white (but mostly white). Where black creators have had the temporary boosts (yet lasting legacies) of a Renaissance and, half a century later, a blaxploitation era where they were able to create genres that became the zeitgeist, Asian Americans in the industry have not had a similar trajectory. Latin American performers even had a short-lived pop “explosion,” but compare the early 2000s arrival of J.Lo and Ricky Martin to the second “British Invasion” that made multi-award winners out of the Adeles and Amys and seems to have no end thanks to the sudden acceptance of Sam Smith as the heir to Robin Thicke’s white soul throne and the reverent fanship of Florence + The Machine. Asian performers have broken through few and far between over the decades. Lea Salonga, John Cho, Ming Na, Lucy Lui, and yes, Basco, have their devoted followings and have maintained impressive pop culture presences, yet the great promoters, producers and directors of our era still seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Asian casting. Take Christopher Nolan for example, who cast two of Batman’s greatest Asian characters (villains, natch) with the so-not-Asian Liam Neeson and Marion Cotillard in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises respectively. Asian characters occupy a minimal percentage of mainstream lead characters, and aside from the occasional Bruno Mars or Far East Movement hit, the Billboard charts have turned a blind eye as well.
Basco, looking only slightly older than his famous childhood characterization of Spielberg’s most famous young antihero while sounding exactly the same, seems to have the solution. “We’ve got to change our mindset,” the actor said at one point as he addressed the assembled faces on #The8th, just one of many choice quotes he delivered during the evening. “Why aren’t we creating our own machine?”
It’s not necessarily the idea Basco’s proposing that’s novel, but it’s the ongoing execution of said idea through the function of #The8th that could turn notion into impact. These gatherings feature such influential faces as comedian Timothy DeLaGhetto, casting director Julia Kim, and rapper MC Jin who share their stories, motivations, and showcase their newest projects. Hearing Basco and Beau Sia trade thoughts in a casual, joking atmosphere is on par to hearing what a conversation between James Baldwin and Langston Hughes may have sounded like back in Harlem (or a young Alice Walker and Toni Morrison). When Basco and Rafael laugh at each other, it’s like Arsenio and Eddie sharing a laugh on late night television (or even their contemporary DeLaGhetto, cracking up his costars on “Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ‘N Out”). Because of these lightning in a bottle moments, word of mouth has turned into word of thumb, as Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr users begin to flood their feeds with quotes, selfies and OMG moments. “Everyone here is a part of making this happen,” Dante said truthfully, and though he was speaking to the crowd, he could have just as well been talking to the digital “here,” as artists and creators across the states who have been inspired by the monthly gatherings and the talent featured begin to fine tune their own output. #The8th movement is in no ways limited to California, and that could prove to be it’s greatest strength. There are talented Asians all over America. If they’re not being showcased in the current mass media, then, ahem, fuck that mass media.
It’s beyond surreal to have ‘beginners’ brushing shoulders alongside some of their biggest inspirations in such a casual, encouraging setting that continuously produces actual results (check out the trailer for CROSS, an upcoming short film that found its Filipino star Jason S. Mordeno when the director Gerry Maravilla attended #The8th a few months back; then pre-order XIV:LIX, the latest album recorded by Jin that has more than a passing connection with many associated with #The8th; and then stream Jason Chu’s “Letter To Jin” - first line: ‘fifteen and pimply, my friend sent me a message that said “Chinese freestyle on BET” / Intrigued by this emcee from Miami, Chinese kid with slanty eyes kinda looked like me’) and challenges those present at each congress to do MORE and to do so shamelessly.
In crude terms, who needs an Asian version of existing properties, or “colorblind casting,” when there can first be a version of something that features an Asian outlook, showing that the Asian American exists, is valid, is not monolithic, and is relatable? To do so would be to break down molded, crusty stereotypes and to embolden the idea of representation. Haven’t we as a society moved beyond casting Asians and other minorities only as dopey/uptight best friends and wise sage supporting characters?
There’s a magic in the air at #The8th, a spiritual electricity that is lighting up the atmosphere over L.A. This current generation has never had anything like #The8th before… And that’s precisely why it’s a necessity.
If you believe representation matters, then you definitely need to check out the goings on at #The8th.
As an additional teaser, here are a few of the awesome videos linked to / shown at / promoted and showcased at this month’s meeting.
MC Jin & Traphik - "I’m Not Him" (music video)
30 Something Else (starring Angelo Perez, Dante Basco, Cheryl Tsai-Perez, and Frieda Jane - "NFL (Not Fucking Likeable)" (web series)
Keoloha Mahone - "My Riches" (music video)
Niwt 17 Films - It’s Not You, It’s Me (web series)
Francis dela Torre - Blood Ransom (theatrical film)