By Susan Chang
The future of Asian American representation in the music industry has hope in the hands of DJ Richie Menchavez. I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Menchavez this week, to learn more about his background in the music industry and his music platform and radio show, Traktivist.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Filipino American Richie Menchavez is currently living in Los Angeles, working full-time as creator for Traktivist, the “premiere platform to discover, promote, and historically archive music made by Asian North Americans”.
Aside from being founder of Traktivist, Menchavez has been a DJ for over 20 years. Coming from a musical family, Menchavez’s biggest influence that got him into DJing, however, is his cousin, who is eight years older than him. During his childhood, Menchavez would mix records with his cousin, and in high school, he had formed a mobile DJ group with his friends. His experiences led him to DJ for San Francisco Bay radio station 94.9. It is through these early encounters with the DJ sphere that spurred him to pursue it as a career. “I just enjoyed collecting, searching for music,” Menchavez said.
His interests in Asian America began in 1998, a decade after the Asian American music movement had just become very strong and visible. He interned for Classified Records, a record label that was mostly Asian American-run and signed on artists such as Jocelyn Enriquez and Pinay. That same year, a friend of his from the Asian American R&B group KAI released a debut under a major record label.
By the 80s and 90s, Asian American musicians had begun to more actively present their work to the public and more explicitly link themselves with the Asian American movement, giving rise to the idea of “music of Asian America”. Classified Records, on the other hand, while well-known among the Asian American community for its mostly Filipino American staff and recording artists, was careful to distance itself from being an explicitly Asian American or Filipino American label and sound. Rather, they wanted to downplay ethnicity and instead place the spotlight on the artists’ talent and sound.
“Before, we were consumers of music,” Menchavez said.
He gained better insight into the world of making it in the music industry during the process of conceiving Traktivist. His approach to get American music-listeners to look beyond the “Asian-ness” of talented musicians like Jocelyn Enriquez and KAI included moving from a passive to a more active approach to understanding music.
Though Traktivist was launched just last year in March, Menchavez first conceived the idea for a platform promoting Asian American musicians back in 2005. A friend of his created SideWok Radio. In old-school fashion, CD’s were sent to the duo to play and mix, and the show featured Asian American-made music. The show fell through, however, and Menchavez made another attempt to revive the show in 2008. It wasn’t until Traktivist came along that Menchavez’s vision for an Asian American music platform was here to stay.
Traktivist, a combination of the words track and activist, incorporates much of the platform’s goals. Track, which not only refers to the music tracks the website and radio show leave for listeners to discover, also references the tracking of the progress and evolution of the music of Asian America. Activist refers to the advocacy of Asian Americans in the music industry. The name embodies both the ideas of music as tools of advocacy as well as music growing out of cultural and political movements. This intersection of music and activism can be seen in both the emergence of 20th century Asian American Jazz movement and the more recent #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Traktivist’s website features the latest music releases, interviews, and news from Asian American musicians. Menchavez also hosts a radio show for Traktivist, which can be heard on Soundcloud and TuneIn. The latest show explores Filipino American identity in the mobile DJ scene with Dr. Oliver Wang, professor of sociology who has written publications on Asian Americans in the music industry. Menchavez cites Dr. Wang as one of his mentors.
Others who have inspired Menchavez in his career in the music industry include Dr. Wendy Hsu, an expert in ethnomusicology, his own DJ group PMD, and Kormann Roque of Classified Records, who taught him the experience of DJ radio. Menchavez’s wife has further inspired him to not be afraid to follow his passion, the fuel to keep Traktivist alive.
Menchavez himself can be considered an activist “in the sphere of music”, as he says. From his internship with Classified Record in the 90’s, to the birth of his ideas of a “central online hub” for Asian American music in the early 2000’s, Menchavez has been involved in the pioneering efforts of Asian America to present their musical and artistic talents to mainstream America. With Traktivist, however, when talent agencies, record labels, and others of mainstream society are asked to name any Asian American musicians, they “should have no excuse to say ‘I don’t know of any’”, Menchavez says.
When asked about his favorite musician or band, Menchavez believes that such a question is hard to answer. He listens from anything from hip hop, to R&B, to classical music. “How I would answer that question now would be different than I would have answered it in college, or even five years ago,” Menchavez explains. But a platform like Traktivist allows people to “re-answer” that question in the course of their lives. “Traktivist is an archive,” he says. He explains that as listeners dig through that archive, they see “how much has been left out” of their own exposure to music and of the culture and history of the music industry.
Menchavez hopes that not only that he will still be a DJ ten years from now and for the rest of his career, but also that Traktivist will still be the premier platform for Asian American musical talent. On Traktivist, “people care about the music and the talent,” he says. He hopes that people will continue to care about the music that Asian Americans produce. “Ten years from now, I hope that Asian Americans’ identity isn’t a hindrance in the music industry,” Menchavez says.
Visit Traktivist here.
Listen to Traktivist on Soundcloud.
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