Marxism and Asian-American Music: How Fred Ho used Marxist ideology to figure out the problems of Asian-American Music and how to solve them

With all of the discourse that has surrounded Asian American identity and music, sometimes it is refreshing to go back to a Marxian class analysis in order to understand the place of Asian Americans not only as a political and demographic category, but also as musicians. Fred Ho, a jazz musician and community activist, puts forth several ideas in his writing and music (What Makes “Jazz” The Revolutionary Music of the Twentieth Century, And Will It Be Revolutionary For The Twenty-first Century?, Kreolization And The Hybridity Of Resistance Vs. Cultural Imperialism and Asian American Music And Empowerment: Is There A Such Thing As ‘Asian American Jazz’) that returns to Marxist philosophy to answer this question of race and music, specifically jazz. It can be argued, then, that in order to understand the situation of Asian-Americans, Asian-American jazz, and authenticity as well as the solution to the struggles that they face, one should take a Marxist class-based analysis of society.

Marx and Engels famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 that history was guided by class struggle, beginning with the feudal classes and then giving way to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marxist ideology, in its analysis of capitalism, uses the concepts of base and superstructure. Base and superstructure explains the dynamic of society between the economy and society at large, where base represents the economic system and superstructure represents the various mechanisms and institutions that uphold the economy, which also includes the coercion of the dominant and the consent of the submissive through ideology in the hegemony model. This is something that is very important to Fred Ho’s works. Ho employs the Marxist concepts of base and superstructure repeatedly throughout his writing.

For example, take Ho’s piece on kreolization. Ho writes that “the ideological and social construct of ‘race’ arose with the colonization of the ‘dark’ peoples of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by the ‘white’ people of Western Europe as a pseudoscientific rationalization for the domination by a small portion of the world over the rest”. In other words, in order to understand the modern conceptions of race, especially in the capitalist world, one must understand race as a construct created to uphold the global capitalist-imperialist system. “Race” is used as a superstructure to maintain the capitalist-imperialist base, providing a justification for the subjugation of oppressed nationalities in order to turn out profits for the European bourgeoisie. There is something very important about remembering the use of race in order to uphold the global capitalist order, because it is necessary in order to find a solution to racism as well as understanding why people are being racialized and racially abused in this current day and age.

Furthermore, Ho expands on superstructure more in his kreolization piece by discussing the origins of Eurocentric music, writing that “while European national cultural and artistic did take hold, inevitably they were the result of the suppression, domination, and appropriation by the national bourgeoisie over folk and popular expressions of the peasantry of the working class. The high art and classical traditions are Eurocentric because they are bourgeois, that is, embraced and supported by the various European ruling classes.” These two sentences acknowledge two things that are very important in understanding culture, music, as well as racialization. The first thing is that Eurocentrism, which is basically European exceptionalism as well as the centering of culture and narratives on said exceptionalism, stems from capitalism in itself. Capitalism form the economic base of society. Eurocentrism, which is what Ho observes as the cause of the forced kreolization of African-American music by whites, is the superstructure. Eurocentrism could not have taken its modern form today without capitalism. The second observation from this quotation is that in the capitalist superstructure, European national culture and art came into existence through appropriation, as well as other coercive means, by the bourgeoisie. This is something that Ho expands on with regards to culture in modern American music, writing that the oppressor takes a huge amount of materials and information for their own gain (profit motive) at the expense of the oppressed. Ho cites the co-opting of African American music by white America as an example of this, writing that “through white cultural imperialism, these forms have been assimilated, and therefore become acceptably American”. Assimilation is used by the white imperialist bourgeoisie to uphold capitalism and to subjugate people of color. However, in a dialectical fashion, while this process of kreolization has been used to oppress people of color and maintain an oppressive power structure, it has also been used to maintain resistance by oppressed nationalities within the capitalist United States. This is real kreolization, where people of these nationalities freely mingle culturally. This is the resistance portion of the hegemonic power structure, and this is reflected in Ho’s music as well. In the song Lan Hua Hua, Fred Ho takes a Chinese folk song and gives it a jazzy spin to it, using instruments such as the saxophone to give it a kreolized feel to it, while also managing to incorporate elements of Chinese culture into it such as the singing, which resembles Chinese operatic singing.

Finally, Marxism, at least according to Ho, plays a huge role in understanding the solutions to the struggles of Asian Americans culturally by taking a very materialist stance on things. The Marxist ideology is one that is very materialistic, focused on the problems of this world (such as capitalist exploitation) and trying to give tangible solutions to them (such as socialist revolution). Ho recognizes that Asian American artists, especially in jazz, are struggling because of very material reasons, like capitalism! In his work Asian American Music and Empowerment: Is There A Such Thing As ‘Asian American Jazz, Ho understood that many Asian American artists struggle not only because it is hard for musicians in general to make a living, but also because Asian Americans do not have the political or economic power that they need to maintain a flourishing “Asian-American jazz” industry. Thus, Ho’s solutions are very material and focus on the dismantling of the capitalist-imperialist system, as well as “building our own alternative, independent institutions that don’t rely on outside funding, but instead develop a funding and organizational strategy of self-reliance”. Ho noted that many times Asian American jazz artists end up becoming imitations of typical American jazz music, and that some performers (especially female) end up reinforcing stereotypes in order to make it in the entertainment business. Following the concept of economic base and societal superstructure, Ho believes that the solution to this is economic self-sufficiency among Asian Americans in order for culture and true kreolization to flourish.

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