Local singer/songwriter Rachel Wong made two appearances at Shoreline Community College Thurs., May 7 as part of Dr. Kate Boyd’s English 101 class “The Art of Change.” During each one-hour session, Wong performed several of her hit songs including “Perfectly Imperfect.” Between songs she talked about the art of social change and how to make a full-time career as a musician, followed by a student Q+A.
Dr. Boyd said her class is designed to “consider how a variety of visual artists, musicians and writers think about the relationship between culture and social change in their work and in their lives.”
Students will explore this theme both in and outside of the classroom and also through encounters with guest artists, such as Wong. Later in the series, artists Julia Freeman and Mari Ichimasu will also make appearances on campus.
In her set Wong, previously a marketing professional, talked about walking away from a lucrative career to pursue her passion. “It was scary,” she said, “but I realized how deeply unhappy I was and that I didn’t want to settle for the 9 to 5 that so many other people do because they think they have to. I never aspired to be a one percenter and that world was never where I felt I was meant to be.”
Wong has succeeded in her music career by becoming a jack of all trades. She handles her own marketing, graphic and web design and show bookings. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is worth it. “I’m happier living and working in a manner that’s truer to who I am,” she said.
She told students that, if they wanted to, they could turn their dreams into full-time careers too. “Anyone can upload their work to iTunes,” she said. “Anyone can learn to promote themselves.”
So what’s the purpose of going to music school then? one Music Department student in attendance wondered.
“It’s about finding the approach that’s right for you,” Wong said. “You can produce your music by yourself and be perfectly happy. But the benefit of going to school is networking and making connections. Part of my success has come from surrounding myself with a community of other artists who support and learn from each other. You don’t get that sitting at home.”
A Chinese-American, Wong also addressed issues of race and how people perceive her differently as an artist because of her ethnic heritage. “If I chose to be an actress,” she said, “Hollywood would only give me roles playing lawyers or doctors. As for mainstream female Asian-American singers, you can count them on one hand. Less than that probably.”
Wong’s music is deeply personal yet universal, exploring issues of depression, sexuality, race and self worth within the context of a culture willing to target people who buck societal expectations by remaining true to their imperfect selves.
Addressing these issues through her music is a form of self healing, but also a statement. “You don’t create in a vacuum,” she said. “As an artist, I think it’s your obligation to stand for something.”
According to Boyd, art doubling as social movement is at the heart of the Art of Change series.
“I believe art can teach us deep, complex critiques of our social formation,” Boyd said. “I hope to create more spaces on campus where we can look at art together, read fiction together and listen to music together because I think collectively experiencing cultural production can open up different ways of understanding power, violence, inequality and social justice issues more generally.”
Boyd hopes that the Art of Change series will help students learn to further explore the relationship between artists and their work “standing for something.”
“I believe art can help us expand how we imagine social change,” she said, “and imagine the kinds of communities we actually WANT to live in.”
Art of Change events are free and open to the public. Upcoming events in the series are:
Julia Freeman, Artist, Curator, UW Art Instructor, “Unmaking and Making: A Feminist Practice.” May 20 from 10:30-11:20 a.m. and 12:30-1:30 p.m. in Room 2346
Mari Ichimasu, Artist, “Travel Cats, Indie Comics and Punk Bands from Japan to the US: A Journey through Little Oze.” June 1 from 10:30-11:20 a.m. and 12:30-1:30 p.m. in the PUB Quiet Dining Room (9208)
Click the video below to see a portion of Rachel Wong’s live performance at Shoreline, covering Backstreet’s “No Diggity.”