ISA 2011 (SF Bay Area) – Movement in the making
International Secret Agents, or ISA, was founded by Far East Movement (FM) and Wong Fu Productions (WFP to provide an opportunity for Asian American artists to showcase their talents in large venues where they might never have an opportunity play otherwise. In other words: no one wants to help them? They’ll do it themselves. Please keep in mind that this started back in 2008, before FM was signed to Cherrytree Records and when WFP had barely started their Youtube channel. It was a noble goal by two of the more recognized Asian American groups in media, and you can read more about the history here.
ISA started with one show, which was easily sold out. Fast forward to 2011, and ISA put on three shows in the span of two months. The first two sold out, and the third is happening in a week. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t sell out as well. They have found their audience and made it the place to play if you are in the Asian American community. The purpose of ISA is more of a continued effort than a single destination, but they have already made incredible progress in just three years.
I was lucky to get tickets to the show in San Jose, which was actually called ISA San Francisco Bay Area, before it sold out. Some of the actors and musicians include FM, WFP, Kevjumba (Kevin Wu), Nigahiga (Ryan Higa), Kina Grannis, Cathy Nguyen, and more. I don’t intend this to be a review of the show; I’m sure that will be available on other blogs. I am more interested in sharing my thoughts on what this show means to me after (finally) experiencing it.
The first thing I noticed when I got to the San Jose Civic Center, because that’s just how I am, was the race, gender, and age of the crowd. It seemed like a vast majority of the people in line (which went around the block) was Asian, under 18, and female. I had no idea that I was so far removed from the target audience. I suppose it’s not shocking when you consider that I was there to experience ISA as a part of a movement more than anything, though I always wanted to see David Choi and FM at a proper show. I was with my younger brothers though so I felt a little less out of place.
Age was the factor that stood out to me the most. I think the fact that most of the people in the audience was in their teens is very encouraging sign. When Youtube became a mainstream service Asian Americans finally had a place in media to demonstrate their art and passion. While my generation grew up during the development of Youtube and related technology, these kids are the ones who have lived online all their lives. They will grow up knowing that there are such things as Asian American celebrities that weren’t always the butt of all jokes in a movie. Talk to anyone in Asian American studies and I’m confident that they will agree that most of the issues that we face as a community today are heavily impacted by the portrayal of Asians in the media.
That’s why my posts tend to focus on AA media. I believe that good representation in film, music, and TV will be an indication–if not the cause–of true equality in American society. Judging by all the younger people lined up, ISA is planting the seeds for greater things to come. This is the first generation of AAs who have musicians and actors to inspire them. Sort of like how Hong Kong action stars used to influence people like me as a kid: I could relate to the character more, so I naturally looked up to them.
I was glad to see how much of an influence the young stars are to the upcoming generation of AAs. Not only that, there were actually quite a few people in the audience who weren’t Asian, which is always encouraging to see. FM used to mention in interviews that we know if we have finally made it if an AA artist can perform anywhere in America without people making a big deal that they’re Asian. For example, if someone hears a song by FM on the radio and decide that they like it, then they will most likely want to go to an FM concert regardless of their race. As another example of this, the fan below refers to the performers as Youtube artists, not as an AA music and dance show.
David Choi was the first artist to go up that I actually recognized. He seemed a little shy on stage, but maybe that’s just his personality. I think he has a great future ahead of him. He’s a solid songwriter and really good live. His sound is really easy to accept, and I can’t help but wonder where he would be if race didn’t play a factor. Probably at least with an independent label. As this AA music community matures, I am confident that he will be one of the guys leading the way in romantic rock songs.
As I mentioned, I came more to see how the event would be like and what kind of impact ISA is having. Naturally I was very happy when Wong Fu Productions came on stage. They’re not performers, so they really only talked and showed their latest work. The audience reaction for every sentence they said was amazing. See for yourself:
When WFP first came out with the video Yellow Fever, I was not impressed because I thought it was a bit whiny and didn’t go anywhere with a topic worth exploring. Looking back, it was actually pretty well written for a couple of college kids who didn’t have a lot of experience. Since that video came out, however, it has been smooth sailing for them. They recently reached their milestone of one hundred subscribers on Youtube. WFP relies less on star power and more on story and concepts in their videos to draw views on Youtube, which makes this a very big milestone. Their supporters aren’t following them as a kind of idol worship. The focus is actually on the short films themselves. Over the years I’ve watched them develop and right now I think they are at a very professional level already. Not bad for a couple of college friends who didn’t go to film school, no?
When WFP was on stage, there was something about them that stood out to me. Age-wise, they fit in with the rest of the performers that day. Unlike most of them, these guys weren’t just here to entertain. They have no music or performance, and yet they could still command the attention of the audience for as long as they wanted. These are very important people and the audience knows it. We already knew they were leaders to some extent. They helped start the show, after all. But they have developed a reputation for themselves that goes far beyond that. They work hard, do things their way, and do not compromise their beliefs. I’m convinced that they are heroes to our community in the world of film.
The major turning point in my impression of WFP was when I read that they were approached to make a feature film, but the project was canned. WFP wanted an Asian male lead. The producers disagreed. WFP had better things to do than to negotiate. That is the kind of pride and leadership that our community needs to make any real progress in media. Sure, most people working in the film industry probably saw this as a bad decision, and felt that they should’ve just changed the lead. But that’s what’s magical. WFP doesn’t have to care what these people say; they are successful already and their best days are ahead of them. I’m looking forward to seeing the music video that they shot for Asian superstar Leehom Wang, for one, and I know it won’t stop there.
The last part of ISA was what tied the entire show together. I recently wrote that I was worried about the direction that Cherrytree Records was taking Far East Movement. When it comes to their live shows, you can throw all that out the window. This was the same energy that they had when I saw them years ago, but with a much more polished performance now that DJ Virman has been fully integrated. To say that they put on an exciting show is an understatement.
FM did a full set that night and reminded us why they were the first Asian American music group to have so much success in the mainstream. It’s practically impossible to be infected by their energy. Beyond the partying, however, it is really inspiring that FM hasn’t let the fame get to their heads. I mentioned before that they started ISA even before they were signed. Three years later they’ve had multiple top 20 singles and they haven’t forgotten their roots. This crowd, or rather the slightly older equivalent (ok, my crowd) was who supported them throughout the years. We hoped that they could do exactly this: be the leader that breaks barriers and supports the artists that are in the same shoes they were once in.
I think the following video clip perfectly captures what the results of their work is. FM and these other young pioneers built this entire community out of nothing. Next week’s show in LA is going to be the biggest ISA yet, with guest appearances by B.O.B and Sean Kingston. At one point this whole movement is going to reach a size that can’t be ignored by the mainstream. And at that point I’ll remember where it started.