Dang Felton Cooks Up His Own Style
Sound In Color is a new series from IPR’s Studio One. In this episode, Cece Mitchell goes on an adventure with Des Moines singer-songwriter Dang Felton and chats with him about his experience as a musician, teacher and home cook.
“My ability to perform music is my favorite part of being a musician. It sounds silly. But some people love being in the recording studio; some people love the promotion,” Felton said. “They love to build hype; I imagine some people love hearing their own recordings. I love being present in front of people singing and playing guitar. That is why I have always done what I do. Because that's my thrill.”
I had been wanting to get in touch with Dang Felton, an Asian-American singer-songwriter from Des Moines, because over the pandemic, he was posting incredible photos of the Southeast Asian foods he was cooking. Of course, I wanted to hear about where he was at musically, but, I will admit to the fact that I had a bit of an agenda when I asked Felton for an interview. I told him that he could choose a restaurant to meet up at, so we ended up at Haiku, a sushi place located right in the heart of the Drake neighborhood.
When I met up with Dang, he had just played his first show in a year and a half ー a stark contrast to his full-time working musician lifestyle before the pandemic. He had been at it for over a decade, most recently playing six to ten gigs a month. So, like everyone else, COVID-19 was a curveball for him.
Music is clearly Dang Felton’s life, not only being a working musician but also a songwriting and guitar instructor as well. The pandemic gave him a bit of time to spend on his other hobbies, like gaming, and to my excitement, poking around the kitchen.
Exploring Thai cuisine
You see, I’m Vietnamese American and I love Asian food. Dang Felton is Thai, and like me, he spent his Iowan childhood adoring the Southeast Asian foods his family would feed him. So over the past year, Dang’s been able to explore Southeast Asian cooking in ventures that he’s now turning into his own YouTube channel.
I asked him a bunch of questions about this YouTube venture over sushi, but when he off-handedly mentioned that he was headed to C-Fresh Market later that night, I just had to invite myself along…
“It wouldn’t be an Asian store if it didn’t have tiny aisles,” Dang said.
Dang’s Thai ethnicity is clearly an integral part of his identity and what he enjoys, and it was heartwarming to see him embrace who he is like that. Yet, Dang did tell me that, regardless, his racial identity as an Asian American has had an impact on the opportunities available to him in his music career.
I love being present in front of people singing and playing guitar. That is why I have always done what I do. Because that's my thrill.
“When I first started performing, I'd say about 10, 12 years [ago], it wasn't something that crossed my mind,” Dang said. “I've obviously always been aware that I was different, and that other people saw me different. But until quite a few years into it, I'd say more than half of my performing career, I wasn't completely aware of how [my race] actually affected my work, and the work that I could get. So, within the past three to five years, I would say in the past few years specifically, I noticed some places won't book me. Some people who run in the same circles as me, all these same folks that were playing and gigging weren't reaching out. They were very hard to get ahold of.”
That’s not to say Dang has been unsuccessful in his music career by any means. He’s been working as a full-time musician for many years now, It’s something that runs in the family.
“I'm a musician from my mother's side of the family and my father's side. I've been around music for 22 years,” Dang said. “I started teaching myself how to play guitar [...] maybe 16 years ago. I started on viola. I played viola for about eight years in public school. Loved it. I love the orchestra environment. I definitely wasn't a band kid. I can appreciate band culture, but I just wasn't a band kid. I wasn't very loud.
“Strings came natural to me. I mentioned that [...] I have music from my mother's side. My grandfather was a professional musician and he toured around the country. This was like, pre-Beatles, like just a road warrior before gigging was like a thing, I imagine.
“And then on my father's side; who is a war refugee from the Vietnam War, which is how he made it to the Midwest; he is also, to this day, a professional musician. So, I have this argument with myself, whether it's nature versus nurture. Obviously, it's in my family. I grew up around it.”
Dang channels his passion for music into more than just playing shows, though. For the past eight years, he’s been an instructor at City Voices, a local nonprofit that makes music education more accessible.
The mission of City Voices is to empower underprivileged students in the Des Moines area to launch their own successful careers in the music industry, and to reap the social, emotional, and academic benefits that music education provides.
City Voices primarily provides vocal instruction, but local musicians like Dang also teach classes on various aspects of music theory and production. Dang is their resident guitar teacher, and while I was visiting Des Moines, he showed me around their studios on Ingersoll Avenue.
“Here's my guitar room, which is only in some of the time because I'm going to show you our brand new recording studio in the basement,” he said. “Courtney Krause teaches songwriting here, it's kind of cool. So does Sarah Routh. A lot of working musicians, full-time musicians, also work with us too.
“Here is our recording studio [..] built over quarantine so brand new. I probably just finished setting up everything up six to nine months ago.”
Many of his students at City Voices are people of color and Dang is able to use his experience and perspective as a musician of color in Iowa to connect with his diverse student population.
“The work we do here is without any doubt, has a positive effect on all the students that come here [...] It's a high percentage of people of color. [...] Unfortunately, there's a kind of a pay barrier behind a lot of the arts that a lot of families can't really get past and in particular people of color, families of color. That's probably one of the most effective things we can do here is to provide opportunities and to be able to get on the same level as someone who maybe is able to walk right into a scenario like that,” Dang said.
In the face of barriers that he’s personally encountered as a music industry professional and person of color, Dang works to empower his students to overcome the discriminatory parts of the music industry.
“There's a lot of elitism in music and in the arts [...] the work that we do here is very aware of the barriers that all musicians have, but in particular, our students. [...] One of the best things I can do as an instructor here is prepare them for what is expected of them in terms of their promotion, their networking, how they're seen from other artists, how they're seen.
“To be honest, I have some friends get mad at me for using this word, but it's a very real thing: gatekeepers. You have to walk to exactly how they expect you to walk. So, there's a little bit of that, and the way I teach here, all the instructors are very aware of that. All of my students know that [...] it's kind of invisible. The barriers are invisible. No one is ever going to say, ‘Hey, I'm doing this. I'm a gatekeeper. I'm keeping you out on purpose.’ But it does happen. So all my students are very aware of that.”
The barriers are invisible. No one is ever going to say, ‘Hey, I'm doing this. I'm a gatekeeper. I'm keeping you out on purpose.’ But it does happen.
Before the pandemic, Dang was playing anywhere from six to ten gigs a month. Now, after an involuntary year and a half hiatus, he’s back to doing shows and City Voices is back to offering in-person lessons and classes. Yet, Dang still finds the time for plenty of video games and continuing his new pandemic-born passion of Southeast Asian cooking through his brand new YouTube channel.
“I really noticed [...] that I was enjoying what I was doing,” Dang said. “I was cooking every night for three to four hours, like, every single day and I wasn't sick of it. And month and month and month passed, and I still liked it. And I told myself that [...] if you like doing something, and you're going to be miserable. doing the thing you like or miserable doing the thing that you don't like turn, you pursue the thing that you like.”
Plus, he’ll be playing the main stage at CelebrAsian 2021 at Western Gateway Park in Des Moines this October.