April 12 marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of Fred Ho, the subject of my documentary, Fred Ho’s Last Year. Although he was my friend of over 20 years, I would say that he made the greatest influence on me in 2013-2014, where I had the honor of chronicling some of the highlights of some of his last months on Earth. I often look back on our time together, which had an indelible imprint on my life, and in a sense, defined my identity as a filmmaker and gave my life a renewed sense of meaning. But even the meaning of Fred’s impact changes, as I continue to learn more about his life, and the people who represent his living legacy meet the challenges of carrying the struggle on. In other words, Fred’s legacy continues to change, because the dialectic among people in Fred’s circle continues to be fluid.
Fred Ho fought to overturn every field which he entered, striving to question their premises and holding others to the rise up to the principles they espoused. Although he adamantly promoted his arguments, he was well known for radically changing his position. He developed over many years unquestionable achievements of provocation in the fields of politics, Asian American identity, and music, with very little separation among the three. Spreading his creative efforts over such diverse fields, rather than dissipating them, served to combine into a quantum force that impacted whatever he said, whatever he did, whatever he created with an undeniable revolutionary energy.
Provocation as a Career Management Style?
What does it take for Asian Americans, who are mostly ignored as artists, to make their mark in any artistic field? Fred Ho’s approach is legend. The hard-ass way he set about achieving his goals, has drawn as much attention and sparked as much debate as the achievements themselves. Did Fred Ho’s acerbic temper contribute toward the formation of a disciplined band of musicians and wonderful collaborations with librettists and directors? Or did he achieve his goals despite his outbursts, and the subsequent resignations or firings of key collaborators? In the same way as the genius Charlie Parker lost gigs because he couldn’t control his drug habit, did Fred Ho give up national fame because he was a control freak?
Since the counterfactual is always a weak argument, Fred Ho wins the argument. Since it is improbable that an Asian American man would rack up such a unique set of accomplishments, it follows that these things would not have been achieved were it not for his discipline, his demanding the best from the people around him, his provocative style, and his (sometimes unfair) critiques of people. He is the Asian American Tony Robbins, because he shows how the positive of positive thinking can overcome even racism. He demonstrates that if you want to accomplish anything difficult, you have to be prepared to be difficult.
Towards an APA approach to art.
“Key to Ho’s compositions was the notion of ‘the popular avant-garde,’ a formulation that sought to resolve the contradiction pondered by Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno, and other cultural radicals. At its heart were two truths: that there is nothing intrinsic in “popular culture” that requires it to be so woefully manipulated by the narrow horizons of the market, and that the avant-garde should not only be the purview of the elite.” Alexander Billet, “Fred Ho’s Far Out, Radical Journey,” Jacobin, 4/21/14.
Fred struggled with the question of how one makes Asian American art. His initial answer was to incorporate authentic Asian instruments and musical forms into the African American musical forms of “jazz.” When Fred Ho began the Chinaman’s Chance and The Bamboo Strikes Back, he sought to bring in Asian instruments, not in a superficial way, but by using them as intended, with the cadences and the tunings indigenous to the instrument, while creating a fusion with African American forms — an Afro-Asian multicultural music.
But when you leap to 2013, in the latest performance of Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon, directed by Sonoko Kawahara, Fred Ho nearly abandons the project of fusing authentic asian forms. Instead, Ho and Kawahara focus on the subjective experience of Asian culture, as filtered through television and manga. Fred said that the show answers the question, “How does an Asian American kid experience Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon for the first time?” and so, instead of looking for the objective Asian culture, he explores the subjective experience of an alienated Asian American on the periphery of culture, who is trying to construct an Asian American identity with very little access to Asia.
The Project of Afro-Asian Unity in Struggle
Fred’s passing took place in the same year as the passing of the celebrated Asian American activist Yuri Kochiyama. Both figures were admired by college students who sometimes misunderstood them as self-caricatures (Fred, as the crazy-dressing iconoclast with the giant saxophone, and Yuri as the nice, civil rights supermom who survived the bad old days of Japanese internment). But they defied these stereotypes for those who looked deeper. In fact, both of my friends were super-knowledgeable uncompromising leaders of the radical left, who forged a link between Asian American and African American struggles, and were accepted in both communities. This Afro-Asian component was one of the themes which defined them, and which is often lacking in the struggles of today. Today Asian Americans on campus define increasingly themselves by ethnicity, such as Filipino American or Chinese American, with much less interest in pan-Asian unity. With interest in Asian unity fading, these students are two steps removed from the Afro-Asian consciousness that Fred and Yuri represent. Has their message been lost? We need it now more than ever.
In my experience as a lawyer, a person with a lot of assets invariably leaves a lot of conflict in his or her wake, as many claimed heirs argue over the inheritance. Fred’s assets were greater than most, because he left his message, his art, and his recordings, and the whole world legitimately has a claim over this legacy. The bottom line is that there will be an ongoing dialectic over the carrying on of the Fred Ho legacy and what that exactly means. And this is fitting. Fred is as controversial now as he was at any time in his life, and it is likely to stay that way.
Most of those controversies have to do with Fred’s existing audience. For my part, I have had the honor to introduce Fred to new audiences in theaters on the East and West coasts. And it is fascinating! Because along the way, I invariably meet people who knew an entirely different dimension of Fred Ho. For example, I have recently had the pleasure of hanging out with Jon Jang in San Francisco, who not only collaborated with Fred on eight recordings and performed all over the Bay Area, but was a loyal cadre in League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), and drew Fred deeper into that organization. In fact, I am pretty sure that they were best friends, as Fred would stay at Jon’s home during his many long visits to the Bay Area in the days of LRS.
And Jon Jang has nothing but terrible things to say about Fred! I sensed that Fred is permanently under Jon’s skin, and I would not be surprised if the feeling had been mutual. Perhaps Jon’s grievances have merit, because no one can doubt Fred’s infuriating nature. But what must really eat Jon up is the realization that in fact, Fred often meant to infuriate. Perhaps Fred might have smiled at Madonna’s statement, posted today: “If you don’t like me and still watch everything I do — you’re a fan.”
It doesn’t seem so long ago that Fred passed away. I often think about how much of an effect he has had on my life, that he gave me the discipline and the confidence to accomplish a feature film project (and now I am deep into two more projects). I think about the excellent friendships I have made through the making of the film. I think about the people he has influenced, how they are all still engaged in doing great work: Jon Jang, Anne Greene, Ben Barson, Joseph Yoon, Youn Jung Kim, royal hartigan, Sonoko Kawahara, Diane Fujino, Marie Incontrera, Quincy Saul, Marina Celander, Spirit Child, Kanya Almeida, Masaru Koga and Winston Byrd, to name only a few. And I think of all the people who continue to be inspired by Fred Ho who will never get to meet him, and how perhaps his music will live long after any of us.
Steven De Castro