After volunteering at a vigil for the March 16 Atlanta-area shootings that left six Asian women dead, 14-year-old Phoebe went home to Lexington, picked up her guitar and notebook, and sat on her bedroom floor.
Before that vigil, Phoebe, who requested to use her first name for privacy concerns, had never seen so much unity. Collective grief had changed her community, the people she knew her whole life — “and I felt like I had to write about it,” she said.
She finished the lyrics for “We Are Proud to Be Asian” in 30 minutes. The melody came out even faster. Phoebe, an aspiring musician, set up her phone in the corner of her room, filmed herself singing, handed a sheet of lyrics to her mother, and went to bed.
By the time she woke up, a multi-part movement was already in motion. Over the next two weeks, faculty from Berklee College of Music would produce a music video for her song featuring 18 Asian-American youths from all over Boston. And organizers from more than 40 groups were inspired to plan an April 11 Proud to Be Asian rally on Boston Common, with the goal of getting Asian-American history into school curriculums.
“This movement is by our youths, for our youths,” said Hua Wang, co-chair of the New England Chinese American Alliance. “It’s not just a music video anymore. It’s a catalyst for the entire community.”
But before the song became a catalyst, it was just an idea. That first night, after Phoebe went to sleep, her mother sent the song to friends and friends of friends.
“I heard the song the next morning,” Wang remembered. “We knew we had to get it recorded.”
Two days later, Phoebe went to her mentor and music tutor, Berklee professor Edvard Lee, with the same piece of paper she had passed to her mother.
“It all happened so fast,” Lee said. “We talked about the song, I chatted with her mom, and that weekend we started recording and filming the music video.”
With the help of the Chinese American Association of Lexington and some friends, Phoebe’s mother organized 18 kids from all over Boston to take part in the music video. Lee had also enlisted the help of Northeastern grad Yalan Peng to direct and edit. Exactly one week after writing the song, Phoebe sat in Lee’s studio, meeting kid after kid who had already memorized her creation. Because of COVID-19, everyone sang separately or in small groups in the studio. “It was surreal,” Phoebe said. The video will be released at the rally on Sunday.
For Lee, 39, being tasked with mastering the song at the center of Sunday’s rally thrust him into the middle of this fast-moving project. He was introduced to members of countless Asian associations and met dozens of teens, parents, and siblings while recording the song.
“When I was young, there wasn’t this effort,” he said. “And I wish there was.”
Days before Phoebe came to Lee, his Asian mother-in-law was pushed into the street and injured. But helping out with Phoebe’s song isn’t about him or his family, he said. It’s about Phoebe’s generation, and making sure anti-Asian racism ends with people his age.
“We as an Asian community are taking a lot of inspiration from Black Lives Matter, to speak up on the injustice and unfairness,” Lee said. “We are definitely a community that is not known to speak up. I think we want to change that for our children.”
That’s what Phoebe’s song turned into — a way to use the voices of the youth for the youth. During the rally on Sunday, Phoebe and a few other teens will be teaching the song to the crowd. They expect over 1,000 people to show up. At 4:11 p.m., Phoebe’s words will ring out through Boston Common:
“It is time when we speak up, we sit up and we stand up strong.
We are proud to be Asian, staying quiet is not an option.
People who are lost to violence, we will say their names.”
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.