A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years.
At 36 years old, Chanthy Sok, known to his fans as “CS,” has experienced more than most people in a lifetime. The hip hop artist tells his story of pain and redemption through his music.
“My struggle was coming from a war-torn country, raised by a single mother who's probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, raising six kids living in somebody else’s living room. That struggle was real," he explains.
From Cambodia to California
CS's mother brought the family to Long Beach, California, where he experienced poverty, bullying and prejudice.
"It was basically the simple rules: go to school, stay away from trouble, if somebody hurt you look the other way, and get home," he says. "Those are the rules. But when you leave the household, it’s a different story. Those rules don’t apply. You can’t run from the bullies forever. You can’t run from racial slurs forever."
Without support from home or his mother, CS joined a gang, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
"Ain't nobody love me at home so I felt like I’m going to go out whatever pain inflicted on me was going to be easy for me to inflict on other people, because my mama... that’s my life," he said tearfully, "though but I’m just glad that I got out of prison not the criminal not the tainted background not the tainted individual."
Wake up call
While in prison, CS says he had time to think and finally understood his mother’s struggles. He also found a way to give voice to his pain through rap music. More than a year after he was released, CS continued to work on his music, and ended up on the cover of an arts and entertainment newspaper in Los Angeles.
CS is one of a growing number of Cambodian Americans using hip hop to express themselves because it is the music of the urban communities where they grew up.
“We’re not saying we’re the best representation for Cambodians. We’re not. I think that I’m the best representation for the people who went through the struggle like me for the people who didn’t have a voice like me," CS says.
“A lot of these artists do their music as if it’s a sense of duty, as if this is their way to pay respect to the survivors to the victims of the genocide," says Seak Smith, who produced Cambodian Music Festival in Los Angeles this month, bringing together artists from around the United States.
"This is their piece of the voice that they can project to the world," she notes.
Smith says, as with any music of the younger generation, hip hop is not embraced by everyone in the community.
"There are older generation Cambodians here in the U.S. as well as in Cambodia who really don’t like the representation of Cambodian hip hop, feeling like it brings some kind of negative vibe to the culture and losing its tradition," she says.
In his songs, beyond talking about his own struggles, CS is working on infusing traditional Cambodian music into his work. According to Smith, many artists not only want to get in touch with their roots but are trying to connect with musicians in the Cambodian Diaspora locally and around the world so the artists can have a voice again after surviving the horrors of genocide.