Kollaboration: Setting the Stage for Visibility and Empowerment

The soul/R&B group The Primaries performs onstage at West Hollywood's The Troubadour club during Kollaboration's annual showcase. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

A long line formed outside legendary doors of The Troubadour, the famed West Hollywood music venue that has hosted acts from Elton John to Guns N' Roses in its storied 57-year-old history. Long queues before showtime outside its hallowed doors along Santa Monica Boulevard are certainly not at all uncommon, but what was different on this late June evening was the predominantly 20s-30s-aged Asian American crowd.

They were here to see Kollaboration. No, not a band, nor a festival, but rather, a movement.




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Kollaboration was founded in 2000 by stand-up comedian Paul "PK" Kim to help give fellow young Korean American performers a platform to pursue artistic and entertainment endeavors -- especially within the context of the generational divide centered around their parents' traditional career expectations, coupled with the reality of the lack of Asian American representation in the entertainment field. Though the "K" in its name references its Korean American and L.A. Koreatown origins, Kollaboration eventually expanded to serve the broader Asian/Pacific Islander community, and became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2006, with 14 regional chapters in the U.S. and Canada. Seeking "empowerment through entertainment," its most well-known event is an annual talent showcase/competition featuring emerging Asian/Pacific Islander artists.

Koillaboration helped launch the career of many now-established Asian American artists, most notably the hip-hop group Far East Movement, whose electro-rap single, "Like A G6," hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in November of 2010. The group first performed at Kollaboration just five years prior to their chart-topping success. Run River North, a local band featured on KCET's "Studio A," performed their first song at a Kollaboration showcase.

But stardom is neither promised, nor is it the objective of Kollaboration. Rather, it's to empower artists by creating community.

"We're not here to produce glamorous stars, not here to create Asian superstars," said Stephen Kim, one of the show's organizers, and executive director of Kollaboration's Los Angeles chapter. "Together, people with passion can make a difference."

The showcase consisted of five acts, all of whom primarily in their 20s, which included
FOURTY4B, an a cappella vocal group consisting of UC Irvine students, Filipina American singer Julianne Manalo, a former "American Idol" 2010 semifinalist from San Diego, Phanith Sovann, a Cambodian American singer, songwriter and pianist, Korean American singer/songwriter Julynn Kim, who was previously signed to a major recording label, and The Primaries, an 8-piece R&B/soul group consisting of UCLA music students. The acts each performed a brief set and were judged by a panel consisting of composer Gingger Shankar, classical musician Christopher Tin, and writer (and Artbound contributor) Oliver Wang.

The judges deemed The Primaries, who wowed the crowd with its musicianship, stage presence (each member was mummy-wrapped in colored paper streamers), and band composition, which included a three-piece horn section. Fronted by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Ryan Yoo, the band had auditioned to qualify for last year's Kollaboration show, but was rejected.

"We didn't even think about winning, we just thought about putting on a good show," said the 21-year-old Yoo, a UCLA ethnomusicology major. "Even if we lost, we still had a lot of fun. It was just a dream come true for me to play at the Troubadour."

The band will go on to compete in "Kollaboration Star," a showcase featuring the winners of various regional shows, here in L.A. in November.

For Julynn Kim, the show proved to be a good learning experience for her budding musical career.

"I learned that there's a lot of prep work that goes into doing a show," said the 22-year-old singer from La Crescenta, who, like Yoo, was initially recommended to audition for the show via word-of-mouth from a friend. "Writing good songs, with a good melody, practicing, getting ready."

Though the competitive nature of contemporary outlets as "American Idol," "The Voice," "X-Factor," and their ilk have relegated art to a mere competitive sport, the community atmosphere and ethos of Kollaboration seemed to downplay that aspect, as many of the artists congratulated each other at the end of the evening, not only as co-competitors, but, no pun intended, collaborators on something even bigger.

The crowd packs the floor at The Troubadour in West Hollywood to see Kollaboration's annual showcase. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Unlike African American entertainers, who traditionally worked through the "chitlin circuit" of black venues before achieving their own mainstream success, and establishing their own industry institutions such as Motown Records and the BET network, or Latino artists, who can rely on the inter-continental support of the broader Spanish-language community, the Asian American community has long lacked the systems, channels, and behind-the-scenes executive resources those communities enjoy. Coupled with traditional racism within the mainstream entertainment industry, and despite a few notable examples of success, Asian American faces are still rarely seen in the pop music world. And while genres like K-Pop and J-Pop are taking the world by storm, the shared cultural heritage by Asian Americans is dwarfed by those genres' language differences, aesthetics, and cultural dynamics, which don't relate at all to the Asian American experience exemplified by the cultural clash between East and West. By and large, the Asian American music scene largely exists via YouTube, ethnic festivals, and other Asian-only media and venues.

Kollaboration's organizers know there's still more work to be done.

"We're trying to create the stage, the platform, safe spaces," said Minji Chang, executive director of the overall Kollaboration organization. "We're collecting our own stories, that represent our generation...Because our story is usually told by other people."

She also explained that another important aspect of Kollaboration is to create a community of artists that give back and engage the Asian American community. Aside from talent shows, the organization also produces events which raise awareness for social justice issues, such as a planned concert to benefit efforts to stop Human Sex Trafficking in the U.S.

Chang also hopes to continue growing the organization -- which boasts some 260 volunteers across the U.S. and Canada -- through developing leadership among its 14 regional chapters, and sustaining the Kollaboration movement as a whole, including teaming up with the African American and Latino communities.

"Collaborating is hard," said Chang, "But entertainment and the arts are all about positive expression. We celebrate that by telling our own stories."

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