New songs of the South defy stereotypes
Vietnamese soul to Bosnian rap to African-American reggaeton
By BRIAN FEAGANS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/10/06
The youngest of 10
children, Yên Nguyen sat mesmerized on his patch of brown carpet in the cramped
The TV flickered with
Michael Jackson as Yên pointed into the king-of-pop glow. That, he said with
the temerity of a 7-year-old, is what I want to do.
Impossible, grumbled his father, a tiny but well-muscled paper
mill worker who had fled Vietnam for western Michigan when Yên was an infant.
"Do you see any Vietnamese on TV?" Yên recalls him saying. No, Yên
replied, but "I could be the first."
Yên, who considers the
arrival of Black Entertainment Television a formative event, hasn’t made it on
his favorite channel. But 25 years later, the Lawrenceville father of three is
A security guard who
moonlights as a soul singer, Yên is part of a small but growing breed of
performers who cut against the cultural grain in metro Atlanta. As home to both
a red-hot music scene and one of the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant
populations, the city’s clubs and Myspace pages pulse with the beats of a new
Bosnian rap. These are the sounds of the melting pot mixing.
Like performers everywhere,
the stereotype-defying performers dream of the big time. Some say not looking
the part might help. Others fear industry pigeonholing dooms their chances. All
feed off the doubts of others.
Yên, for one, set out to
convert the dubious, including the man in the living room that day.
A love offering
Before passing oaken plates
for the love offering, emcee Kevin Lemon leads the gospel festival in prayer
and introduces one more performer. "Would you please put your hands
together for Ye-, Ye-" he says, studying the unfamiliar name on his
The spiky-haired Yên
(pronounced EE-ang) bounds from the pews at First Baptist Decatur and onto the
stage. Having learned to sing gospel with an otherwise African-American choir
in Kalamazoo, Yên is used to being the only Asian in the room. He scans the
crowd knowing some out there, maybe many, are wondering what one woman actually
yelled at one event: "Can that Chinese boy sing?"
The question lingers in the
cavernous sanctuary as Yên eases into the first few notes of "You Are the
Center of My Joy." The keyboardists start an octave lower than Yên likes,
forcing him to lay off the gas. But a minute into the song, Yên’s voice builds,
Then the horsepower kicks
Dwarfed by the hulking
church organ behind him, Yên opens up the pipes inside his 135-pound frame. He
bends at the knees and points skyward. "All that’s good and perfect comes
from you," Yên booms.
A few people rock back and
forth in their seats. The crowd is feeling him now. "You’re the heart of
my contentment," he sings, "hope for all I do."
Yên’s voice lifts most of
the 150 or so people out of their seats, including members of the much-revered Atlanta
Maria Rowland, a gospel fan
seeing Yên for the first time, can’t help but jump to her feet and clap, even
as she clutches her 22-month-old daughter, Mikayla. Rowland sways, then closes
her eyes as if to inhale the sound with ears alone. When her eyes reopen, the
big voice is still wearing a size small red T-shirt and a loose-hanging gray
"He’s Asian, and he
can sing gospel music," Rowland says during the love offering to benefit
the American Heart Association. "I mean sing."
Can I get a witness?
Yên, 32, is trying to take
his act beyond gospel festivals and charity events. He spends Saturdays at a
Lawrenceville studio recording an R&B album due out early next year. This
in addition to nights at his security job and days working toward a degree in
recreation management at Gwinnett Tech.
Yên senses some family
members wondering why he doesn’t move on and accept he’s never going to have a
career in music. They wish he’d at least sing in Vietnamese. Asian refugees
don’t move to America so their children can be soul singers. That’s what
they’re thinking. "You hear ‘Oh, he’s too Americanized,’" Yên said.
"They don’t understand that not all Asian-American kids grow up to be
doctors or engineers."
Yên knows that kids today
can still be told that, in a commercial sense, there are no Vietnamese soul
singers. "We’re supposed to be timid, quiet people," Yên said.
"I’m not. I’m going to be heard. Somebody’s got to knock down that
After escaping Vietnam,
Yên’s family landed in Parchment, Mich., where a church had agreed to sponsor
them. He shared a bedroom with three of his brothers and, being the smallest in
his family in a 900-square-foot home, never remembers sitting on the floral
His father, a political
refugee who fought for the South Vietnamese, had worked for the Postal Service
and owned a general store there. But speaking little English left him few
options in "The Paper City." So he took a job at the mill that made
the parchment paper for which the town is named.
When Yên would visit, he’d
see his father hoisting giant bales of raw paper into the maw of a roaring
machine. Other millworkers would marvel at the 5-foot-6, 130-pound man handling
bundles nearly as big as he was. Yên’s father could outlift many a man in Parchment,
a co-worker once said, even the burly ones.
Yên, meanwhile, had fallen
for Stevie Wonder and the Motown sounds out of nearby Detroit. He joined the
Kalamazoo Mass Choir and flourished as a gospel singer. The choir director,
also the voice of a local R&B program, took Yên under his wing, eventually
making Yên a soloist. The choir director, like Yên, enjoyed the surprised looks
of exceeded expectations.
The experience was rich but
for one thing. Yên’s father attended a couple of concerts but didn’t seem to
enjoy the music. "Afterward, he wouldn’t really say much," Yên said.
"The one thing he did say is, ‘It was loud.’"
Gospel of Yên
The names of Yên and his
wife, Bien, together mean "Calm Ocean." And, as the parents of three
boys, they live in a household that’s anything but.
tsunami," Yên jokes as Isaac, 6, and Jossiah, 10, spoon seedy gobs from a
jack-o’-lantern on the kitchen floor of their home near Lawrenceville.
Yên and Bien sip pearl
jasmine tea in a dining room with cloth-covered chairs and a wall-mounted
candle rack that look Pottery Barn new. A Marvin Gaye CD box set rests on the
Bien, who works for the
city of Decatur, writes the lyrics to many of her husband’s songs. She penned
an ode to Yên’s father and the sacrifices of immigrants like him. It’s titled
At times, Bien performs
with Yên, too. The duet won a Vietnamese Idol competition in Seattle two years
ago with a version of "A Whole New World," the "Aladdin"
theme song. "We won just enough money to pay for the trip," Bien
Yên laughs, too, but not as
hard. He’s still simmering over something Jossiah told him an hour earlier at
dinner. When Jossiah had asked to join a football game on the playground at
school that day, the other kids laughed, telling him he couldn’t. "You’re
Vietnamese," they said. "You’re too small."
The news has Yên ticking
off the accomplishments of Dat Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American linebacker who
didn’t let the "undersized" label stop him from earning All-American honors
at Texas A&M and playing seven years in the National Football League. Yên
vows to print out a picture of Nguyen for Jossiah to take to school.
"The next time you go
up to them and show them the picture," Yên says. "Being Vietnamese,
you can do anything."
Yên’s own father was never
so explicit. He lived the lesson bale by bale on the banks of the Kalamazoo
River. All the heaving and twisting took a toll, however. Yên’s father ruptured
a disk in his back. Then another. And another. Eventually, he had to retire.
Even then there was little
rest. He was diagnosed with cancer.
Yên, who was attending
Kalamazoo Valley Community College at the time, rented an auditorium and, with
the help of some fellow performers, organized a concert for family and friends.
More than 100 people attended, including Yên’s father.
The elder Nguyen didn’t say
anything after the performance. But later that night, he called Yên into his
bedroom. Yen didn’t know what to expect. Though known to joke around with Yên
and his friends, his father could be harshly critical, too. When Yên would play
soccer, his father would note how many times his son had kicked the grass, not
But now, as he lay in bed,
his tone was upbeat. In his typical mixture of Vietnamese and English, he told
his son to stick with the music. Then he said something Yên will never forget:
"You know, you’re really good."
Yên’s father lost his
battle with cancer a year or so later. At the funeral, all the children —
nurses, teachers and engineers among them — gathered to honor the man who had
lifted so much with so little.
Yên paid tribute best he
could. He sang soul.
Links to YEN: