Global Hit Hmong Hip-Hop

The World

For our global hit today, we’re going to mix a little “hip hop” with traditional Hmong chanting –and a dash of politics. Here goes:

Many ethnic Hmong came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. Today, more than 40,000 live in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area of Minnesota. A Hmong artist there is trying to use his music to get young people in his community to vote. He also getting some help from his elders — as we hear in this report from Marisa Helms.

Tou Saiko LeeTou Saiko Lee

Seventy year-old Youa Chang is rehearsing lines of Kwv Txhiaj, traditional Hmong poetry. She learned the songs long ago in Laos when she was a teenager. The poems are about honor, love, doing WELL in school and about how the Hmong people move from land to land, and don’t have a country of their own.

Sitting close to her is her grandson, Tou Saiko Lee. He’s waiting for his cue. Lee’s a rapper and he performs with his grandmother. The idea is to blend the sounds and rhythms of hip hop with the more traditional spoken word of Hmong poetry.

Youa Chang and Tou Saiko LeeYoua Chang and Tou Saiko Lee

Lee was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. On his left arm, just above his elbow, is a red tattoo — emblazoned with the time stamp “1979.” That’s the year he came to the United States.

Now 29-years old and a U.S. citizen, Lee is using hip hop to reach out to younger members of the Hmong community. He wants them to get involved politically and assert their cultural identity.

�Just because you’re Hip Hop doesn’t mean that you can’t be Hmong at the same time. You can be a rapper that raps about being Hmong. And that’s actually a cool think to do. It’s a hip thing to do. That’s why I’m very fortunate to grow up in the generation I have and be that bridge for the younger generation to embrace their culture.�

On this night, Lee takes the stage in a rough bar on the East Side of Saint Paul. This time, he’s singing with his brother and their Hip Hop band, Delicious Venom. Lee starts off the set with a passionate appeal to the crowd to vote on November 4th.

Lee: �I think this is one of the most important elections for the first time if you’ve never done it. You’re going to be part of history if you vote this year.”

The place is packed with young, hip Hmong in their 20s. Hmong Go-go dancers hold big orange signs saying “Go Vote November 4th.”

During a break in the show, Lee and some volunteers – including a go-go dancer or two – approach audience members and ask them to sign a pledge to go out and vote.

Lee’s trying to convince them that going to the polls is about claiming an opportunity.

�It gives them that power. Just as much as someone that’s a super rich celebrity, only has one vote. And so, like the everyday person has a vote. And I think it’s important for them to educate themselves on the candidates, and to understand the situation they’re in and what values align with what candidates END THERE..whether its’ we’re talking about economics or education like that.�

Lee’s message is working, with at least a few bar patrons, including twenty-three year-old Lyncy Yang of Minneapolis. She, like most Hmong, lives with several generations of her family.

�I think it’s really important for the youth to come out and vote because it will set more of an example for future generations and to actually voice what this generation is all about.�

Lee says his method of mixing popular culture and politics is new for many Hmong. But state senator Mee Moua, who is Hmong, says political activism fits right into the values of her community.

�Hmong Americans are very political animals. Remember we came from ancestors who fought for political survival for generations. The reason why we’re in this country is because our political instincts told us that we have to find an opportunity to survive politically.�

When Moua was elected in 2005, she became the first Hmong American legislator in the country, in part because of the hard work and support of the elders in Minnesota’s Hmong community.

Rapper Tou Saiko Lee is not forgetting those elders.

He’ll be driving them to the polls on Tuesday and translating for them. One of those elders is his grandmother and singing partner, Youa Chang. After 8 years, she recently became a US citizen and is voting for the first time on Tuesday.

After he casts HUIS ballot – for Obama by the way, Lee say’s he’ll call and text-message his friends to remind them to vote.

After the election, Lee plans to keep performing and rapping to inspire his community.

�I feel like arts and activism has always worked together for years and that arts that support activism can really inspire a movement.�

One of Tou Saiko Lee’s songs is “30 Year Secret”, about the tragic experience of the Hmong in Southeast Asia.

He likes it because it’s about surviving, against all odds.

For the World, this is Marisa Helms in Minneapolis.

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