What happens when hip-hop meets an ancient Southeast Asian poetry tradition in the American Midwest? Answer: an unusual collaboration between a young rapper and his grandmother.
The American immigrant story usually follows some basic contours. The first generation holds on tight to their old world traditions. Their children try as hard as they possibly can to become “American.” Then in the third generation, the grandchildren often turn back to learn from their grandparents’ culture.
At an outdoor farmer’s market in St. Paul, Minnesota, an elderly woman chants in the dialect of the Hmong people of Laos. She’s wearing a bright purple turban, a black dress with colorful appliques, a bright, shiny necklace and wrap-around sunglasses. Next to her is a young man, dressed in black with a baseball cap and jacket.
The young man is her grandson, Tou SaiKo Lee - a rapper and poet in a band called Delicious Venom. The woman is his 70-year-old grandmother, Youa Chang, a practitioner of the ancient Hmong poetry tradition of kwv txhiaj.
The Hmong are a tribal people from Laos who supported the United States during America's wars in Southeast Asia. When the wars ended, large numbers of them fled to the United States, where many settled in Minnesota. For Tou SaiKo Lee, this unusual paring with his grandmother began to take shape after a visit he made to Southeast Asia to explore his roots.
“I had the opportunity to go back to Thailand - I was born in a refugee camp in Ng Tai there," he said. "It was an amazing experience for me, discovering the arts through poetry, spoken Word.”
The trip drove him to explore the many varied methods the Hmong use to express themselves artistically.
“I knew that I really connected to kwv txhiaj in particular, which is Hmong poetry chanting,” he said.
And it’s little wonder why. His grandmother had been a kwv txhiaj poet back in Laos.
“When I was growing up I didn’t connect to it. It seemed like something that the elders did only," he said. "But I was definitely connected to hip-hop. But when I got a little bit older, I realized there was a connection from what I did to what she does.”
Kwv txhiaj was giving his grandmother a voice - using poetry to chronicle her experience. It was the same thing he was doing through hip-hop.
“I felt like it was important to fuse those two art forms together and showcase it," he said. "Show it to the younger generation to show that I can honor what the elders are doing.”
At the same time, he says, performing alongside his grandmother sends an important message to the older generation.
“Her teaming with me shows -- like -- elders that, Hey, maybe hip-hop isn’t the negative stereotypes that they might think it is,” he said.
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