Prach Ly came to the United States as a child with his family to escape Cambodia's killing fields. He grew up in Long Beach, California where he started rapping in English and Khmer about Cambodia's genocide, his community and life as an immigrant. Then he became a star in Cambodia nearly overnight after he released a homemade CD. The press dubbed him the first Khmer rap star and credited him with bringing hip-hop to Cambodia.
Prach Ly recently took a break from working on his latest album to perform at Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he spoke to VOA's Robin Chen Delos. Here he tells his own story.
"I am a musician. I'm from Cambodia. My name is Prach. And I was born in a concentration camp during the killing field.
Toward the end of the killing field our family escaped the war and went to the border of Thailand. And we stayed there at the border and we got sponsored to America,” Ly explains.
“And when I got to California in Long Beach everything wasn't all great or anything like that. It was poverty-stricken. There was gang activities. The back of our head was, you know, if you grow up past 18 years old you probably did pretty good because of all the activities there. We were ducking drive-by shootings and stuff like that.
But then that's when the whole poetry, that's when the whole hip-hop, that's when the whole rap music came. I was surrounded by that.
I used the karaoke equipment to record my music, my lyrics. I would go buy instrumental songs, and put my word over it. And I got a CD made.
The CD was like an autobiography, coming from the whole killing field process, all the way to America and the struggle in America. And for New Year I just passed it out. And a DJ from Cambodia, DJ Sop, he was there at the New Year. He took the CD back to Cambodia, he played it over the radio and everyone was calling in to ask who's the artist.
And then the government, they censored and they banned my music. And then some of the people who heard the music they argued, they said, 'Wait a minute, why are you banning his music? It's nothing in reference to the government -- it's just talking about history.' So now the people are going to the markets and starting asking [to ask] for it and buying the CDs.
And then Newsweek and Time magazine and Asia Week, they located me and they contacted me and they like, 'We just want to ask you a question: how do you feel about having the number one album in Cambodia?' I go, "What?!' You know, I never sent it there.
The important thing was the kids was asking the parents, it was more like an educational tool. They were asking the parents and asking the elders what had really happened during the killing fields,” he says proudly.
Concert held in Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington