Eddy Kwon quietly sips tea at Bloc Coffee in his Price Hill neighborhood, his big brown eyes peeking over his laptop screen. His small physical stature belies the size of his brain, his heart and his growing love for the city of Cincinnati.
He probably doesn’t look like what you think an agitator should, but there’s no question about it: Kwon is intolerant of the status quo and has no problem expressing it and pursuing work that takes aim directly at it.
Kwon describes himself in multiple ways — performer, composer, teacher, activist — that allow him to engage differently for his various projects.
But after spending time with Kwon, it’s clear that these versions are simply running on parallel paths toward some yet unknown destination. They frequently meet up, cross, diverge or completely change direction as he uncovers new ideas or continues to learn and assimilate new information.
The idea of constant learning seems to be a centerpiece of how he approaches his work and his life. When asked what else he’d do if he had to choose an entirely different life path, he says, “Probably a monk. I love that kind of tedious searching and exploring.”
Kwon speaks frequently of learning — not just in the sense of academia, but a more holistic “life of learning.”
“In the Kingian non-violent approach to social justice, the first step is to educate yourself,” he says, “to make sure the change you’re encouraging is already happening inside of you.”
'Taking it as it comes'
Kwon isn’t a native Cincinnatian. Born in Minneapolis just a few years after his parents immigrated, he’s a first generation Korean-American. He grew up there, playing violin and punk guitar before coming to Cincinnati as an undergraduate in jazz studies at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music
Since graduating in 2011, Kwon keeps finding reasons to stay.
“It has never felt like I decided to stay,” he says. “It has never felt like I made a decision to stay here or made a decision not
to go. I’ve been taking it as it comes ever since graduating.”
Kwon has more than immersed himself in the local arts scene over the past few years — he’s quickly become a leader and a driver of it.
He recently landed his first official full-time arts job, taking over as Director of MYCincinnati Youth Orchestra
following founder Laura Jekel’s departure to become Director of Creative Placemaking
at Price Hill Will. The free youth orchestra program is inspired by El Sistema
, a revolutionary program in Venezuela that uses music as a vehicle for social change.
Leading MYCincinnati means Kwon guides group and private lessons, orchestra rehearsals and frequent performances.
The Contemporary Arts Center commissioned him for both an encore performance and a new work last month. The CAC is partnering his MYCincinnati Ambassadors with world-renowned musician Jens Lekman for a performance at the Woodward Theater
Nov. 20, where they’ll perform arrangements from composer Van Dyke Parks as well as new work by Kwon.
In his spare time, Kwon plays violin and guitar with The Happy Maladies
, an experimental folk/indie rock band that CityBeat
critics (among others) describe as “engaging,” “dynamic,” “adventurous” and “riveting.” The foursome released its third album, self-titled The Happy Maladies
, this past summer and did brief tours to the East Coast and in the Midwest.
'It's toughened me up a bit'
To say he’s being embraced by his adopted home would be an understatement. But like any romance, it’s not all roses, and it certainly wasn’t love at first sight.
“My first few years here, I didn’t really like it,” Kwon says.
Cincinnati observers will admit that racial tensions between blacks and whites are generally still strong in the city. Kwon widens the perspective.
“It’s often made clear to me that I’m usually the only Asian American within a few miles,” he says. “I frequently have to address that in interactions I have with people here. Almost every day I have to deal with micro-aggressions like someone passing me on the street and saying ‘Ni hao’ or ‘Konichiwa’ and expecting me to stay quiet. Or worse, like someone trying to aggressively confront me because of my race. They’re usually trying to be funny. It’s a power play.”
Kwon says the stereotype with Asians is that they won’t stand up for themselves and they’re meek.
“I feel like I’m always trying to address the issue,” he says. “And if the issue is that someone thinks they can push me around without me doing anything about it, then I have to directly address the core of it.”
He doesn’t relay this story with visible anger so much as disappointment. You can tell that he likes Cincinnati the place but struggles to feel comfortable here as a Korean American.
This kind of interaction has clearly informed his work, specifically with his MYCincinnati students.
“It has shaped me,” Kwon says. “It’s neither good nor bad. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been shaped by it, but in a lot of ways I didn’t have a choice. And it does help me connect with the students of color that I work with.
“A lot of the ways they’re shaped, they don’t have a choice in. Or whatever choice they believe they have is often an illusion. In that way it’s helped me be more compassionate and empathetic. And it’s toughened me up a little bit.”
Yet none of this conflict seems to bring him down or slow him down. Instead Kwon uses it for forward propulsion.
“A big part of my identity is as an artist, a musician,” he says. “A lot of my work now is researching and educating myself to learn how I can better use my voice and my platform as a composer, organizer and curator to not only voice my opinions and my perspective but to also give an opportunity to others to share their perspectives, especially persons of color, women and queer folk.”
Those themes were evident in his MYCincinnati Ambassadors
program, which began with three months of intense and critical group discussions with his six collaborators around issues of social justice. Kwon culled their personal stories into a 40-minute performance piece that “weaved in all of their stories touching on themes of sexism and patriarchy and catcalling the street, racial profiling and being accused of shoplifting, bullying and teen suicide,” he explains.
MYCincinnati performed free concerts resulting from that collaboration in April in multiple locations across Cincinnati.
'Creating art at the highest level'
Kwon talks of numerous influences: his older sister, herself an activist who inspired him to play violin; his teacher father and his social worker mother; writer and social critic James Baldwin; performance artist Laurie Anderson. They all factor prominently into his conversation, but one other influence stands out as a clearly powerful guide on his path — his childhood violin instructor.
“She was a great combination of strict hard-ass but still very warm and musical and expressive,” he says. “She instilled in me from the beginning the idea of creating art at the highest level that you can.
“I’m pushing myself toward something. And every moment I’m trying to fuse the different aspects of my life that are not yet fused. If there’s any direction or goal right now, I don’t know, I’m just trying to combine them.”
It’s easy to glimpse Kwon’s parallel paths as performer, composer, teacher and activist influencing the work he creates and his approach to that work. They might not be perfectly fused or equally represented, but each of their voices can be heard if you listen.
And if you haven’t listened to Kwon yet, you really should.