Joy Ruckus Club Feature w. Kublai Kwon - 8/20/2021
Interview by Claire Liu - Illinois, USA
The Joy Ruckus Club, founded and run by Asian artists worldwide, is the largest Asian music festival in the world. Organized by Kublai Kwon, the festival made its debut last year in August of 2020 and has since organized six separate festivals, including Joy Ruckus Club 4 which runs from August 25th through to September 5th of 2021 and marks the first anniversary of the Joy Ruckus Club. With a wide variety of stages around the world, a focus on greater support for pan-Asian music, and a truthfully progressive purpose, the Joy Ruckus Club aims to support Asian culture as a whole through this festival over the course of 10 days, 14 stages, and 250 artists of Asian descent.
Prior to starting the inaugural Joy Ruckus Club Festival, Kwon worked for years in the music business industry through tours and concerts, including the Asian Hip Hop Summit. His interest in hip hop began when he was a Romantic literature and poetry PhD student at the University of Southern California (USC) after he bought hip hop CDs in university town stores and began listening to them more heavily.
Once he was placed into the Thematic Option, an honors program at USC, Kwon developed his own class on hip hop as poetry. "It's not really that crazy actually... My focus as a student was Romantic poetry. When I started getting into hip hop, it changed my whole opinion of literature. I was like, 'these are basically the romantic poets of now,'" Kwon said. He specifically drew comparisons to widely admired authors such as Homer or Shakespeare, as both writers were largely dependent on the performance of their work to be successful. "The famous writers and poets in English literature are basically like rappers... Literature has always been that way, but we forgot that," Kwon stated. He also cited bias and the refusal to give recognition to leading Black artists as major factors in the rejection of hip hop artists as writers or poets.
While Kwon has become a highly experienced and skilled member of the music business industry, he originally started throwing and organizing events to break even. "That's not even about business, that's just about being responsible," Kwon supplied. “As with any major event, there are simply factors to be taken care of.” Kwon argues that the best way to learn is simply through experience. Though schools can help develop skills such as problem-solving or organization, the actual content of the industry is mostly learned on the job. "The only way you can get knowledge in the music business is to do the music business," Kwon said.
Throughout the shows he threw, Kwon was consistently deliberate in booking and working with Asian-American talent. "I was the only one throwing the shows, the Asian shows, or at least one of the few," Kwon recalled. However, with these events he rarely received enough backing which made the process more difficult to continue due to this lack of financial support. With all of the expenses and requirements, very few events could be conducted each month and they barely covered their costs. Nevertheless, these obstacles began to change along with the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soon after the pandemic started, Kwon began to observe the "emergence of the virtual show." After witnessing other smaller festivals and performances, he realized the potential of utilizing the worldwide-web. "I started to see that it was already a part of the future of music," Kwon said.
In the origination of the Joy Ruckus Club, there were many reasons and circumstances that contributed to Kwon's actual realization of the festival. Particularly, as most Asian festivals are limited to the month of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, he wanted to express his frustration towards this restricted sense of pride and rights for Asian-Americans. "Isn't that the whole problem with the scene? That we think we only need one month and that's enough? Isn't it supposed to be that we demand no less than year-round [support]?" Kwon asked.
Another substantial contributing factor to the creation of the Joy Ruckus Club was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. In his original idea for the Joy Ruckus Club, Kwon was debating the artists he would feature to raise support for the BLM movement. "Is it more meaningful, as an Asian person, to bring an alliance with the Asian community?" Kwon asked himself. Once answering with the positive, Kwon set about planning the first Joy Ruckus Club festival which was dedicated to the BLM movement and raised donations for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Especially after he witnessed hypocritical organizations and individuals taking advantage of BLM as a "trend," he resolved to step forward and represent the Asian-American community in support of the Black community. "I gotta set this straight. I gotta come in and represent the Asian community right... that's a really important part of who I am," Kwon stated.
After finalizing the idea and proposal for the Joy Ruckus Club, the process of putting it together flew by quickly. Kwon was able to work with Bandsintown, a music website, to help put the platform together. The festival received an immensely positive reaction with about 700,000 viewers on the festival’s Twitch stream. Afterwards, he was approached by Sessions, an Asian-American owned live music streaming platform, who helped with many of the following Joy Ruckus Club events. Especially as the flexibility of virtual festivals allowed them to be hosted more frequently, Kwon began organizing and adapting more virtual shows so that he could maximize the goals he wanted to accomplish.
One of the key aspects of the Joy Ruckus Club festival is also its focus on supporting pan-Asian music and artists. The execution of this, however, is much more complicated. "It's not that simple. There are so many pockets and you have to approximate the best representation that you can for all of it," Kwon explained. Still, with his years of accrued experience and skill in the industry, he worked to integrate this focus into the framework of Joy Ruckus Club. With the expansive nature of virtual festivals, he focused on creating international stages for a broader audience. "The whole world through the internet can encounter this show, so therefore doing the international stages makes sense," Kwon stated.
Despite his current success and experience as a force in the music industry, Kwon described his journey as a difficult and often lonely path. "I've never had funding or backers, probably the closest are honestly these live-stream platforms, they're backing me for these shows... before that my whole career I didn't really have anyone like that so it was basically just me, " Kwon recalled, "... if you look at the Asian-American scene with Asian-American organizers, it's very small." As the lack of support for progressive members of the Asian community can also negatively affect this, Kwon makes an effort to consistently embed his experiences and learning into his organizing.
However, Kwon postulates that the lack of cohesion and strength in the Asian-American community has much deeper roots, specifically in the lack of knowledge, awareness, and accessibility regarding the history of Asia and Asian-Americans. "[They are] things that we can't have a conversation about with anyone. No one wants to talk about it. You go through your whole life as an Asian basically not knowing who you are," Kwon said. While he identifies himself as a history buff and pushes himself to research the history of Asia, and Korea specifically as he is Korean-American, he is also aware that this is not an option or possibility for many others.
Still, he hopes that through his work and the work of other Asian artists that younger generations can learn more about their identities and establish long-lasting change, despite the current apathy from many in the Asian-American community. "If these things keep happening, Joy Ruckus Club or Asian Hip Hop Summit, it basically can influence the next generation... then they have the chance to get educated about themselves, maybe through this," Kwon stated. As the generational cycle continues, he argues that the Asian-American community must provide greater support and address the issues of distinct cultural identities and educational awareness within the community. Though the future is uncertain, events and festivals like the Joy Ruckus Club continue to push for greater diversity and equity within music, encouraging younger Asian audiences to explore their culture and history.
This or That with Kublai Kwon:
1. Books or movies? - Movies
2. Winter or summer? - Summer
3. Singing or dancing? - Singing
4. Cake or pie? - Cake
5. Chocolate or vanilla? - Vanilla
Connect and follow the Joy Ruckus Club at the following links!