- MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
- Oxford University Press
- Volume 36, Number 4, Winter 2011
- pp. 159-173
In 2006, rapper Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) declared—by way of album name and title track—that “Hip Hop is Dead.” Critical of commodification and corporatization, Nas’s dire pronouncement reflects a dismal state of hip-hop affairs. Born out of late 1960s civil rights struggle, focused on communal activism, and invested in self-determinism, hip hop (which includes break dancing, deejaying, emceeing, and graffiti) was from the outset a multidisciplinary vehicle for youth-driven, political resistance. In the twenty-first century, however, progressive politics are hard to find in contemporary radio, television, and film. More focused on “bling” than social change, concentrated on platinum sales and apolitically marketed, mainstream hip hop is—with a few exceptions—mostly talk and no action. As Tricia Rose warns, “Hip hop is in terrible crisis. Although its overall fortunes have risen sharply, the most commercially promoted and financially successful hip hop—what has dominated mass media outlets such as television, film, radio, and recording industries for a dozen years or [End Page 159] so—has increasingly become a playground for caricatures of black gangstas, pimps, and hoes” (1). Through impending catastrophe and frames of “crisis,” Rose, like Nas, lays bare hip hop’s present-day plight. Indeed, as its “overall fortunes have risen,” hip hop’s function as an artistic outlet for the oppressed has fallen by the corporate wayside, eschewed in favor of profitable stereotype, sensational violence, and celebrated delinquency.
In the face of such “crises,” inclusive of problematical marketability and watered-down politics, hip hop still holds the potential to engage and the power to convey what Grandmaster Melle Mel of the Furious Five famously declared was “the message”: the concomitant revelation of and protests against social injustice. In fact, one only needs to turn the radio off and tune into YouTube. There can be found certain Southeast Asian American rappers who are taking the hip-hop underground by storm with lyrics, rhymes, and samples that challenge human rights abuses, large-scale disenfranchisement, and state-authorized violence. From Hmong American Tou Saiko Lee’s songs about CIA “dirty wars” to emcee Nam’s raps about Vietnamese American refugees, from rapper Geologic’s lyrical treatment of the US occupation in the Philippines to Cambodian American group Seasia’s cadenced negotiation of Southeast Asian poverty, hip hop remains a site of resistance and a space for socioeconomic and sociopolitical critique.2 Equally important, such Southeast Asian American rappers— shaped by war and linked by region—are transnational cultural producers who fuse “country of origin” arts to “country of settlement” aesthetics, yoking “over here” concerns to “over there” problems.
Correspondingly, Lee, Nam, Geologic, and Seasia reframe and revise the domestic and global terrains of hip hop. Such Southeast Asian American rappers engender what rapper/cultural critic Mos Def repeatedly argues is the ultimate point of hip hop: to politically engage, actively question, and produce knowledge. In so doing, Southeast Asian American rappers are “droppin’ transnational science,” educating listeners and fellow emcees about war, US foreign policy, displacement, immigration, and discrimination. 3 These social justice aesthetics foreground this interview with Khmer American rapper praCh (Prach Ly), a founding member of the Southeast Asian American “return to politics” hip-hop movement.
Known in hip-hop circles as the pioneer of Khmer Rap, praCh was born in Cambodia and raised in…