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Filmmaker Kishi Bashi Visits Swarthmore, Presents Music as Tool for Social Change

Kishi Bashi playing violin on stage into microphone

When one imagines activism or social justice, thoughts of protests, rallies, and speeches come to mind. However, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and filmmaker Kaoru Ishibashi, who performs as Kishi Bashi, believes music can be a powerful tool for social change.

Bashi’s 2023 film Omoiyari was recently screened at Swarthmore, accompanied by a panel discussion and a live performance by Bashi and Mike Savino, a member of Bashi’s touring band who performs under the name Tall Tall Trees. The panel was moderated by Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Asian American Studies Program Coordinator Lei X. Ouyang, and also featured Assistant Professor of Music Tracey Stewart and Assistant Professor of History Vivian Truong.

The discussion focused on the inspiration and process behind Bashi’s film, which he attributes to a desire to negotiate his own Japanese American identity and bring attention to the overlooked history of Japanese American internment in the U.S. Despite these heavy topics, Bashi noted that the ultimate goal of his project was “all about finding humanity, so that we can work together to be able to enjoy ourselves above anything else and … to connect.” Omoiyari, after all, means to have empathy and compassion for one another.

Truong and Stewart echoed Bashi’s sentiments, highlighting powerful moments of solidarity during other points in history with the Japanese American movement. Ouyang also discussed Swarthmore’s connection to Japanese American internment through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASC). The NJASC was chaired by Swarthmore’s then president, John Nason, and worked to invite college-aged Japanese Americans from internment camps to college and university campuses.

The film screening and subsequent live performance by Bashi and Savino offered a space for audiences to see ideas from the panel play out on screen and in person.

“I think there’s a difference between an artist and a performer. An artist is somebody who makes creative statements to be provocative or to inspire,” Bashi says, while “performers and entertainers give people an opportunity to just enjoy themselves.”

Bashi, then, is squarely an artist for his work, and is not only about beautiful music. His music serves as a powerful message to remember the events of the past to better prepare ourselves for more compassionate futures. 

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