A 6 person all Korean-American self-labeled folk-Americana rock band? Meet Run River North, a group of artists who is all this and more. In a society in which Asian Americans are perpetually perceived as “foreign” (and therefore not American) despite their historic presence in and contribution to the American landscape, coupled with their general lack of representation and supposed un-marketability in the realm performing arts, Run River North exists and continues to push forward. Considering the unique set of attributes that this band possess in the society that they navigate, the question of intentionality is one of the first things that come to mind. Intentionality in music in general and of musicians specifically, is something that is often analyzed and broken down for the purposes of uncovering meaning or perhaps “true” meaning. On the other hand, aspects of a musician’s repertoire that are deemed or even explicitly stated as unintentional, typically hold far less weight and are often pushed outside of the scope of analysis because they were not done with purpose. However, I would argue that these aspects should not be ultimately disregarded not only because they still inform an audience’s reaction, but also because they guide future intentional choices.
In my mind, there are more or less three levels of intentionality in music specifically and art in general. There is something that I will call “primary intention”, in which an artist (or artists) has a message or a point that they have thought about or has become important to them so that they actively manipulate elements of their work in order to convey it. This type of intention is meant to influence or have an effect on others, whether it achieves that goal or not. In a 2014 interview published on kcet.org with ½ of the members of Run River North (Alex Hwang, Sally Kang, and John Chong), band leader Alex Hwang gives his fans a glimpse of this type of intentionality when explaining the meaning of their song “Monsters Calling Home”. Hwang, who wrote the song before the band even formed, calls it a story “about immigration, and immigrant parents and families”. It is written from the perspective of the immigrant parents navigating their lives in a new place, almost existing between two worlds, the old home and the new. Hwang says that he wanted to humanize this group of people that he and others like him only saw as parents and state that as immigrants, family was now the only thing that they could truly call “home”. In this song, there is exists an explicit message that Hwang and the band is trying to put out the world even if their audiences (or even band members themselves like John Chong initially) only see it for the music and not the meaning. And it is this message that is the easiest for critics and audiences alike to catch on to and examine in greater detail.
Secondly, there is what I will term passive or “secondary intention” (for all my biology people think passive transport of material in and out of a cell by membrane channels). This level encapsulates aspects of the final product that have been included and purposefully decided on as a result of who the artist or the band and is, their likes and dislikes, etc. The difference here is that the object of their intention is themselves versus an external audience. For example, in the same interview, the band describes their musical aesthetic. The mix of each band member’s personal music tastes and the precedent of meaningful lyrics within the folk genre, ultimately led Run River North to the folk-Americana rock sound that they now have. Even so, their work is constantly influenced by elements thought to be external to the genre (so long as it pleases the members of the band) so that an audience might see the individuality of each member if they only look close enough.
Lastly, there is the third level of intention which I will call basic or “innate intention”. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure if I can even call this a level of intention at all when it might seem to better correlate with environmental factors or unconscious choices. Disregarding the semantics, I include this level to make the point that the results of these (perhaps unintentional) decisions end up influencing and having an effect on both the artists themselves and the audience. For instance, according to Hwang, Run River North did not set out to be an all Korean-American band. He did not actively search them out to ultimately make a statement (primary intention) or, it seems, even chose them because he thought Korean-Americans would vibe more easily with the songs that he had already wrote or something similar (secondary intention). In the interview, he says that the audition process was basically asking fellow musicians in his church “Do you like my song? And do you want to play on this song?” The result was an all Korean-American music group, a result that then influenced how the band connected with the music that they were playing as well as their music making process. Hwang later references the band’s song “Lying Beast” which incorporates aspects of a traditional Korean folk song called Arirang, a song that most members regularly heard growing up. Therefore, to include this piece of their ethnic background was not a difficult decision for the band to make. Run River North serves as a perfect example of how the results of decisions made out of so-called “innate intention” influence both secondary intention and primary intention by altering aspects of an artist’s or band’s self-image and impacting what messages they see as important enough to directly address or convey. So, whether it is truly intentional or not, the fact is that all intention, and perhaps even “unintention”, is not benign and worth analyzing.