Hyphen APA Heritage Month Profiles: Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin

May 6, 2011

Nobuko Miyamoto. Photo by An Rong Xu.

Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin: Melody of a Movement

As two-thirds of the acclaimed folk trio Yellow Pearl, Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin (along with Chris Iijima) are credited with composing the soundtrack of the Asian American movement. The trio came together at an Asian American college conference in 1970. “The first time I heard Chris and Nobuko was the first time I played with them,” Chin says. “I had been a professional musician for eight years but had never played to an all-Asian audience. We went on and, as they played and sang, I played lead guitar in between verses. I was impressed with the [lyrics] and the fervor with which they sang.”

Charlie Chin. Photo by An Rong Xu.

They went on to perform at community centers, colleges and schools across the United States. As veterans of the civil rights movement (Chin had marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Miyamoto had produced a documentary on the Black Panthers), the group determined that their music would be chiefly a political tool. “We had a job to do, and that job was to deliver a message: Inequality, racism and sexism should be wiped out, and as Asians, we had helped build this country and had a right to be here,” Chin says.

Although the group was only together for three years, their music articulated a unified Asian American identity for countless youth. Their album, A Grain of Sand -- which Miyamoto describes as “a collection of poems, graphics and songs, stacked in a yellow box the size of a record album that would disintegrate over time” -- is now a part of the Smithsonian Collection where, far from disintegrating, it will live on as part of Asian America’s cultural and political legacy. Fans can buy or download it on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

Miyamoto is now the founder and artistic director of Great Leap, a Los Angeles-based Asian American arts organization that expanded its mission to promote multicultural arts after the 1992 LA riots. She continues Yellow Pearl’s mission of cultivating change through the arts -- though she admits that her mediums have evolved considerably since she first began making music. “In those days, folk music was in, now it’s hip-hop!” she says. “But I do see lots of powerful voices. As young people, leaders, you must find what you love to do and mix it with your beliefs -- write it, sing it, practice it, live it.” 

An Rong Xu is a documentary photographer based in New York City. New York City native Judy Lei is a student at Smith College.

Check out all of the profiles in our APA Heritage Month series.