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Soul AwakeningDawen Wang, photos from

Soul Awakening

Dawen Wang synthesizes social commentary, soothing vocals, and delicate beats in his upcoming record, Awakening America.

By LiAnn Ishizuka

If you're looking for Asian American empowerment, you'll find it in the socially conscious lyrics of singer/songwriter Dawen Wang's smooth jazz tunes. This Northwestern alum, trained vocalist, and winner of the 2007 Avant Grande Music Contest sponsored by Starbucks and WXRT 93 FM radio, has a message from the Asian American community: we don't like being stereotyped.

But it's not as in-your-face as the spitting raps of Kiwi (formerly from the Native Guns) or the funky beats of Lyrics Born. Wang chooses neo-soul influences, reminiscent of Stevie Wonder R&B and jazzy Mike Phillips. His personal influences, Erykah Badu and Curtis Mayfield, are appealing to Wang because these artists can vocally convey political and social issues that affect their own communities.

Dawen (pronounced "dah'-win") Wang aims for this as well. In the song "Wake Up," it's as easy as flipping through the paper, turning on the telly and going to a movie. Wang pinpoints specific examples of where racism against Asian Americans still exists. To the beats of soulful percussion, Wang sings, "Just because you saw the movie Crouching Tiger, doesn't mean that I know kung fu" and "People say 'go back to where I came from' / I don't know what that's supposed to mean." He ponders where people get these misconceptions about what he, as an Asian American, is supposed to be. For a moment, it feels as though the song is a pessimistic rant of how the media perpetuates generalizations of Asian Americans, how "all men are equal" is just a pipedream. But Wang makes you wait for it. In the ending chorus, his voice staccatos with the call "Wake Up Wake Up," layered over his overaching point: "I can't get used to it, and I won't get used to it." 

Fueled from his frustration in college over how he felt he was perceived, Wang decided to create music that looked beyond the marginalized black and white issues that mainstream America often perpetuates. From there sprouted his formal beginning in serious music production. The creation of his music and lyrics is an organic process. Seeing something while walking on the street or hearing news reports can eventually turn into a new song.

Track two, "Ku Li," comments on the derogatory racial slur that described 19th century manual laborers from Asia. Wang emphasizes that U.S. history often overlooks this shame. Wang uses lyrics from the American folk song, "I've Been Working on the Railroad" to historically highlight the experience of a "Ku Li" or "Coolie" working "on the railroad, all the live long day." Wang also hints at the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act with lyrics like "Uncle Sam says I have no place in the Promised Land." Wang is careful with his words. He ends the song with: "I still hope those that follow find a better, a better, a better..." Wang isn't entirely clear what this "better" actually is, but I guess it means whatever we want it to be -- a better opportunity, a better livelihood, a better society. 

"I want to sing things naturally," says Wang. "I don't want to preach." He tries to convey balance through the five songs from his 2007 EP, combining both the personal and topical issues that make us who we are. Perhaps his songs come heavy-handed, but its subtlety is also present in the soft-spoken chorus, or in the repeated "chink" sounds which simultaneously signify both the racial slur and the literal sound of workers banging on railroad tracks.

Dawen Wang slows it down with "Put Your Swords Down," using beats that even Sade could rock to. His vocal ability is most apparent in this song, as Wang layers his own voice octaves above the regular baritone we're used to hearing, to act as harmony. This time, the lyrics and the message are more general. Perhaps this is his way of saying: lets agree to accept differences, whatever they may be. 

The last two tracks are Wang's break from social commentary. Wang struggles with how to say "I love you" in "The Predicament," while he celebrates an anniversary of a relationship with "Just You." This last song off Wang's EP has become my favorite, not only because of the rippling piano accompaniment, but because this is perhaps the most uplifting of all his songs. It's an anniversary and the guy offers "diamond rings" or "fancy trips," almost everything typical of what a woman would want. But instead of accepting his material gifts, she wants only him, "just you."  Sappy as it may seem, the song fits perfectly with the neo-soul genre Dawen Wang has so neatly found his niche in. 

On Wang's website it mentions that he's not just a singer. The Chicago based musician plays guitar, the piano, and the mbira dzavadzimu, a wooden board with staggered metal strings which is the national instrument of Zimbabwe. He took up the African instrument after wanting to step "outside the box" -- the "box" represented by Western music.

Dawen Wang is currently working on his 2008 album, Awaken America. Wang is also currently filming a music video for "Wake Up," slated for a November release. Click here to check out clips from his upcoming album and his 2007 EP.


Asia Pacific Arts