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No-No Boy teaches Asian American history through folk songs

Julian Saporiti, who is half Vietnamese, half Italian, strums a guitar standing outside with an abandoned train car in the background.
Diego Luis
Smithsonian Institute
Julian Saporiti turned his Ph.D. dissertation in American studies into the musical project No-No Boy. Saporiti released "1975" this past spring; the album explores often ignored histories of Asian Americans and immigrants.

Julian Saporiti turned his Ph.D. dissertation into the musical project No-No Boy. He's released a number of songs that explore the untold histories of Asian Americans and immigrants.

Julian Saporiti was raised in Nashville. Growing up as a half-Italian, half-Vietnamese kid, he felt caught between cultures. That feeling inspired him to study issues of race and immigration. He turned that research into folk songs about Asian American history.

He performs under the name No-No Boy, which was taken from the John Okada novel about Japanese incarceration and a Japanese-American student's identity struggle, after he refused to fight for the U.S. during World War II. Saporiti’s music explores the stories often ignored by history, particularly those about Asian Americans and immigrants.

"They're not the stories of presidents or generals or war, necessarily," Saporiti said. "It's a story of what people did with a backdrop of war, like my mom and the Vietnamese rock bands that formed in Saigon when she was growing up."

First and foremost, Saporiti is a teacher; that’s why he turned his Ph.D. dissertation into a multimedia project. He figured a lot more people would be inclined to listen to an album than read a long academic paper. For Saporiti, music is, as he puts it, a “trojan horse” for teaching history.

"I wrote those songs to teach more about the people that I lived with in the States, the majority white people, that this is an Asian American, Japanese-American history, but it's a United States history," Saporiti said. "And for me, you can't really have an honest look at the past with which to then do better in the future if you don't own all of the past."

The songs range in topic from a Japanese-American jazz band that formed in an incarceration camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to another about Filipino history. One of the more personal ones is about his Vietnamese heritage. Nearly all of them include sounds recorded during research trips across the U.S.

He broke down the use of some of these field recordings in the track "Tell Hanoi I Love Her."

"The bass drum that makes up the drum beat for the song," Saporiti explained, "that's an old suitcase from a Japanese American internment camp. A lot of the clicks and stuff are from the internment camp barrack. A lot of the sort of, like, more tinny metallic sounds you'll hear in the beat as the song goes on, that's from barbed wire outside of the detention center in Dili, Texas."

Saporiti says attendees to his Seattle show can expect a show that’s almost like a home movie with a concert, plus a history lesson. And the fun and excitement of a Vietnamese wedding.

"It's a pretty simple project that at the end of the day. I've heard people say some really nice theoretical philosophical things about what I do, especially as an academic. But for me, it's just songs. It's just telling some history and hopefully it's positive," Saporiti said.

Updated: November 12, 2021 at 6:29 PM PST
The text was updated to give a fuller description of John Okada's novel.
Grace Madigan is KNKX's former Arts & Culture reporter. Her stories focused on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.