About - Joyce Kwon
Joyce Kwon | singer, songwriter & zither player
Joyce Kwon, voicekwon, gayageum, Joyce for Thriving, Joyce for Thriving 2020, Dream of Home
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Artist Statement

 

I’m a contemporary folk musician of the diaspora, rooted in the Black American Music of John Coltrane and Bessie Smith as well as the Korean traditional music of gayageum player Sung Keum-Yun and my ancestors. And though I make songs that can register as pop—the folk music of today—my practice has nothing to do with genre. I’m a folk artist in the sense that my practice has been built on a series of discipleships under nurturing musical mentors and culture bearers. My work is shaped by creating, performing, and teaching as a community-engaged artist.

 

My debut album “Dream of Home” has been featured in the Korea Times and Radio Korea in Los Angeles, on EBS and the traditional music station in Seoul, and on the critically acclaimed podcast “Moonface.” I began writing the album songs, which explore Asian American identity, while in Seoul to study gayageum, a traditional 12-string instrument, on a grant from UC Berkeley. The gayageum is a tangible reminder of my late teacher’s grandmotherly love and great pride in the traditional music of our homeland, which she also instilled in me, before passing down her instruments.

 

It was only after taking up the gayageum—which embodies a history of oppression and resistance in its sound—that I finally began to understand jazz clearly as Black American folk music. Years of schooling in jazz, culminating in a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music, trained me to be a polished, professional musician but also had the insidious consequence of framing the music as a colonialist fantasy. Unlocking a real understanding of Black American Music with the gayageum as a key and touchstone led me to find my own voice as an Asian American musician—in a mold modeled on that established long ago by Black Americans. They’re kindred musics, having grown out of distinct folkloric cultures merging with musical forms and vocabulary of a new place, and recognizing the relationship between the two has given me the clarity I’ve sought after for the better part of my life.

 

Anchored by the newfound clarity, I’ve had the opportunity to share my songs with hundreds of young students at nearly a dozen schools around South LA as well as with elders residing downtown, taking my music where folks congregate. I’m committed to growing as a placemaker/keeper, composing and performing an evolving folk music that springs from my experience as a new American, inviting others to sing along. My hope is to re/claim space for marginalized peoples, using music to amplify the declaration that we belong, and to celebrate the beauty and resilience of all our communities.

 

 

For a curated roundup on the first of each lunar month of what I’m up to, working on, and listening to, subscribe to my newsletter. Or say hi 👋🏼

Photos by Gianina Ferreyra