Run River North: Representation, Race and Religion

As someone who does not consider herself to be religious, I completely understand the assumption that (Western) religious music is an organ-heavy, Latin-laced genre of music existing only in stale and ageing chapel halls.

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Perhaps you’ve moved past these unwelcoming assumptions, and have even listened to and appreciated a few religious pieces, whether Pie Jesu or Miserere Mei Deus, but still cannot ever imagine jamming out to these songs.  I get it - these pieces are written in a dead language, contain no beat you can tap your feet to, and seem to drag on for ages.

But not all religious or religion-influenced music has to be like this. Run River North - a six-member Korean-American band from San Fernando Valley, California - are an indie-folk-rock band producing music that is clearly influenced by faith and spirituality. Their eponymous début album released in 2014 , Run River North, contains songs which demonstrate these influences, but which also explore themes that many first or second generation immigrants like myself can relate to - a longing for home, the notion of identity - as well as the universal themes of love, friendship, and loss.

The sound should come first, the politics second.

I discovered the band via Shazam a few years back after hearing their songs playing in a café. Upon looking them up on YouTube and coming across their first homemade music video, I was in love. Apart from the obvious fact that their music is great, I remember my own shock upon discovering that the band members were ethnically Asian. Speaking to Riff Magazine in 2017, guitarist Alex Hwang reflected on the role of race in music: “When you look at us on stage you’re going to see six Asian-Americans and you’re going to immediately [have] questions,” Hwang said. “‘Are they related? Are they from America?’ All these things can potentially get in the way of enjoying the music.”

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When I reflect on this now, I cannot help but be surprised by my own reaction. Why was I so astonished to see people of my ethnicity creating indie music? Was it because I had grown up listening to Caucasian artists, or had always associated indie music with Caucasian artists? My own reaction demonstrated to me the importance of diversity in the arts: it helps young people, like myself, recognize that the arts are for everyone. An all-Asian group not based in Asia, singing in English, is definitely reflective of the global Asian diaspora; the knowledge that I, too, belong to this diaspora should not have resulted in me finding the race of the band members a surprise.  The fact that I did was personally eye-opening, and has shaped my views on music: the sound should come first, the politics second.

A quick run through their debut album: in summary, it’s brilliant. ‘Beetle’ is a pensive piece about existentialism and what it means to be alive; ‘Fight to Keep’ is the energetic song that catapulted them to fame, focusing on love and the strength one can acquire through faith; ‘Foxbeard’ is sonorous and thoughtful, meditating on the gravity behind the choices we make.

My personal favourite is ‘Banner’. This is a political piece which calls out those who manipulate religion to belittle others, specifically: the Westboro Baptist Church.

‘Screaming scriptures the devil already knows/ Won't get you any closer to heaven, or hell that you know/ [...] /Take off your petty crown/ There's enough love lost that needs help to be found’

The songs off of their debut album cover many relevant and topical issues - whether political or personal - which firmly work to solidify this band’s position in the 21st century. Additionally, Run River North must be recognised for more than their racial background and their religious influences. Their music is moving and brilliant, and the songs on their eponymous debut album cover a whole range of moods from upbeat and rousing to reflective and calm.  Here’s to Run River North!


MusicYasmin NguyenComment