Documentary filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura first heard about Chris Iijima while listening to his parents talk about “the movement.” That movement was something that had happened eons ago, in the 1970s, a time when young Asian Americans were uncovering hidden histories, creating their own art and music and theater, and forming groups with names like the Yellow Brotherhood and Asian Americans for Action.
Iijima had been a part of all of that. He’d been in a band, released an album, had even toured across the country. When his parents spoke of him, though, he was just Chris, a musician and friend from the old days.
It wasn’t until Nakamura was an undergraduate at UCLA that he discovered just how revolutionary his parents’ friend was. Nakamura was listening to a song on one of those old records -- “We Are the Children,” from the 1973 album “A Grain of Sand” -- and heard Iijima and bandmate Nobuko Miyamoto sing of their solidarity with freedom fighters and migrant workers. They called “relocation centers” like Manzanar and Tule Lake “concentration camps” (Miyamoto was interned as a young girl, as was Iijima’s mother), and sang of watching U.S. war movies and “secretly rooting for the other side.”
For Nakamura, it was a revelation. “Growing up, if there was a singer, any singer, who was even part Asian, you’d go, wow, an Asian singer,” he says. “And here were Japanese Americans singing about being Japanese American, and just putting it out there.”
The experience, as well as Iijima’s untimely death in 2005 from a rare disease, inspired Nakamura to direct a documentary about the musician’s life. Tonight, “A Song for Ourselves” will have its premiere at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. In addition to the screening, the premiere will reunite two of Iijima’s old bandmates, Miyamoto and Charlie Chin, and will feature performances by the Asian Pacific Islander hip-hop acts Blue Scholars, Bambu and Kiwi.
“A Song for Ourselves” completes a trilogy of documentaries that began with Nakamura’s 2003 short “Yellow Brotherhood.” In that film, the director reveals how a Japanese American street gang from the Crenshaw district, the Ministers, begat a group of Asian American activists set on fighting drugs in their community -- the Yellow Brotherhood -- which, in turn, begat a Venice-based youth basketball league.
Nakamura’s second film, “Pilgrimage,” tells the story of a group of Japanese Americans who decided, in 1969, to trek from Los Angeles to Manzanar to draw attention to the experiences of the thousands who had been imprisoned there. Filled with rarely seen archival footage, the film begins with the camps but is really about how the actions of those early “pilgrims” sparked a movement -- and began an ongoing annual tradition.
For many, Japanese American history begins and ends with the camps. For Nakamura, who has become, at 28, a compelling voice for the Japanese American post-postwar generation, the camps are just part of a much larger history that also includes folk singers and rappers, the cultural renaissance and turf wars of L.A.'s Little Tokyo, and radicals and activists of every stripe.
All of which figures, in one form or another, into “A Song for Ourselves.” The film begins with Iijima, a native New Yorker, coming to Columbia University and being inspired by the 1968 student strikes, and quickly moves to his emergence -- along with Miyamoto and Chin -- as one of the leading musical voices of the Asian American movement. The trio played to packed houses across the nation and released “A Grain of Sand,” which is now considered to be the first album of Asian American music.
They also appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” as part of a special episode co-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The number they chose: “We Are the Children,” the song, with its references to internment camps, that had so moved Nakamura. “When we rehearsed it, the director of the show came down and said, ‘Uh, what else do you have to sing?’ ” Miyamoto says. “He said the housewives in the Midwest might think that it was subversive. Even John Lennon said, ‘Can’t you just fudge the words a bit?’ I finally exploded. I said, ‘You put us in concentration camps and you’re saying that we can’t sing this song?’ ” The director -- and Lennon -- relented.
The film is at turns celebratory and wistful, a paean to Iijima and the L.A. that, despite its rap as a town without a center or a sense of community, nurtured the artist like no other. “Chris was actually one of the first people to redefine the word ‘artist’ to me,” Nakamura says. “At UCLA, the self-proclaimed artists were real pretentious and I never wanted to fall into that category.
“But then Chris was very much an artist, but it was art for a purpose, art for building a community rather than just self-expression.”