American Identity 101: A conversation with No-No Boy’s Julian Saporiti

by Rebecca M. Alvin

No country’s culture can easily be summarized in a neat little paragraph that includes all its many layers of identity. But for the United States, it’s something of an impossibility, complicated as it is by the many threads of cultural differences sewn together in the squares of the patchwork quilt that is American culture. It isn’t that different cultures influence our own; different cultures ARE our own. And so difference and diversity are the actual structure upon which our identity is based.

The idea behind Julian Saporiti’s musical project No-No Boy was to capture this idea and probe it in relation to American folk music, which seems to present a very specific image of what “American” is. For Saporiti, who began this project as a Ph.D. student at Brown University, the idea was to talk about “who counts” in American folk music by writing and performing songs about Japanese- Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, multi-ethnic children, Latin American immigrants—everyone who should count as American folks, but who is often left out.

All photos by Diego Luis

Saporiti will be performing at the Hawthorne Barn this Friday as part of Twenty Summers’ 10th season of shows in Provincetown at that historic location. He grew up in Nashville, the child of a Vietnamese immigrant mother, and an Italian-American radio promoter from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Navigating the expectations of cultural identity in the South as a child, he admits the strategy was to play up the white side of his heritage in an effort to fit in. But Saporiti does not see his own identity in these terms primarily. “At the end of the day, I find more commonalities in my identity, not through my race or my gender or sexuality, the way those have become so prioritized, but through my vocation as a musician. So a lot of times the thing that connects people, like on my 1975 album, you know, I talk about these Saigon rock bands that formed and took the music of the American occupiers and sort of turned it on its head and made this incredible, psychedelic, Vietnamese rock and roll, or these folks who formed a jazz band in this Wyoming internment camp. And so my connections to those people are through music, not necessarily through oh, we’re both Vietnamese or we’re both Asian,” he explains.

Musically, the approach is closest to country music, but the lyrics tell different stories. For example, in “St. Denis or Bangkok, From a Hotel Balcony,” he sings about cultural isolation: A soft language barrier / The child of an immigrant / Before the Banh Mi trucks were cool / Lunch table embarrassment. Or in “Tell Hanoi I Love Her,” where Saporiti sings: I keep no grudge against some Old World kin / Not letting go, now, that’s the bodhisattva’s sin / I named my Chrysler after Ho Chi Minh / Tell Hanoi I love her.

Saporiti attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and then ended up at Brown University doing a dissertation in Cultural Studies, which is where he came up with No-No Boy. This reflects yet another aspect to Saporiti’s identity—that of an academic and a teacher. The name “No-No Boy” refers to the 1957 book of the same name by John Okada about Japanese-American draft resisters. “In the spirit of being a teacher, I just named the collection of songs after one of the great Asian-American novels, sort of as a trick to get people to read a book if they looked up the name,” he explains with a laugh. The name eventually became a band name and now it’s found a life of its own, 
he says.

But No-No Boy is not just some project to create woke country/folk music; Saporiti is all about generating dialogue and self-reflection in all corners of the public sphere. For example, he says while at Brown a few years ago, everyone was up in arms about immigration policies that put children in cages, racial and gender discrimination, and other causes, rightly so, they had their own blinders on. “In a place where people are protesting nonstop about everything that’s on social media or whatever, it’s everything but how much money they have,” he points out. “That’s Brown in a nutshell, and I just got kind of sick of it.”

He moved to Portland, Oregon, and found the liberal protest movement kicked up many levels, but, he says, he saw the vitriol and hatred between the right and the left on both sides, with no one particularly interested in having a dialogue. “During the pandemic, our downtown was on fire for years straight,” he says. “And it wasn’t just the people on my side that were protesting. There was a lot of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and the right wing folks. And it’s very scary because I would go downtown and watch both of them 
kind of yelling at each other across the street. And you kind of can’t tell who’s who.”

Saporiti is well aware of the privilege his education affords him. 
And while he chose a more creative path for his dissertation and wound up recording with Smithsonian Folkways to get his message to a broader population, he is not saying that academia is irrelevant. On the contrary, he says, “The conversations that people were having in academia about culture and race and gender 30 years ago are now all we talk about in the mainstream. So they’ve taken a while to trickle out, but that’s where, by and large, they all got started. It overlaps with literature and fine art circles that are academic a lot of times, but that’s kind of what I saw. The stuff I was reading that was being written 30 years ago or longer is finally entering high school vernacular. That’s what people are so upset about in places where I come from. So, it definitely makes an impact. It’s just super slow. It’s like a generation delay.”

All photos by Diego Luis

But the conversations need to happen outside of academia. “I don’t know how many plays it has on Spotify or anything like that, but it’s a heck of a lot more than would have bought the book—that still wouldn’t be published at this point—of my research,” he explains. And Saporiti has taken his music on tour to rural areas and not focused on big cities, trying to get away from only a certain kind of dialogue, an echo chamber effect. “There’s so many different mediums that we can use to express all this knowledge. And I think more than ever, it’s super important to have these conversations like I’ve been able to, because of my folk songs, out in what we think of as ‘the middle of nowhere,’ but that are very real places to the people who live there.”

No-No Boy will perform an immersive, multimedia show at the Hawthorne Barn, 29 Miller Hill Rd., Provincetown, as part of Twenty Summers’ 10th season, on Friday, May 12, 7 p.m. For tickets ($30) and information visit 20summers.org. Twenty Summers also participates in the Card to Culture program that offers discounted admission for EBT, WIC, and ConnectorCare cardholders who email [email protected] with a picture of their card.

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