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Hip-Hop Emcee Tou Saiko Lee Takes His Message to the Streets As He Mentors Young Poets

August 3, 2008

By Trisha Collopy, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Aug. 3–Tou Saiko Lee isn’t the kind of emcee who spits rhymes like nails, hunched over the mic like he’s holding off an attack.

No, he wants you to hear what he has to say.

Onstage with his band, Post-Nomadic Syndrome, in June, he bounces on his heels, plays air drums with the mic, makes eye contact with the crowd.

His lyrics, when he starts rapping over the guitar melody, loop and soar into the hazy blue sky behind the Minnesota History Center stage. Some of these stories took almost 30 years to find a voice.

Tou Saiko Lee, 29, is a rising emcee in the local hip-hop scene. His bands have performed at the annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop and at the Minnesota Sur Seine jazz fest.

He has mentored dozens of young poets, nurturing a burst of interest among Hmong artists in hip-hop and spoken-word poetry.

And he’s likely the only hip-hop artist in the country who raps with his grandma — in Hmong.

SANDWICH GENERATION

A stint in juvenile detention as a teen planted the seed for Tou Saiko Lee’s work as a rapper and a youth mentor.

Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1979 and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., and St. Paul, Lee was part of a generation that grew up navigating two cultures.

In St. Paul, his family spent a year living in the McDonough Homes public housing project before moving to Frogtown.

A year later, he was writing about his experience with racism and gangs for a media arts class at Washington Middle School. He was 13.

“It

was an intense time for Hmong people getting adjusted to America,” Tou Saiko Lee said of the 1990s. “Especially for youth. Kids didn’t feel connected at home and not to American society. There was a lot of: ‘Go back to your country.’ “

At 16, Tou Saiko Lee got involved in a fight between rival Hmong gangs that sent him to Boys Totem Town, a juvenile correctional facility in St. Paul.

The fight was life-changing: “Nobody died that day,” he reflected. “It could have been a lot worse than it was.”

Tou Saiko Lee started sending poems and song lyrics to a friend who was also locked up because of the fight.

“I was in this very blank space with no walls,” he said. “That’s what forced me to be creative. I couldn’t just do nothing.”

The two friends wrote about their families, about how they had ended up where they had. “There was a lot of regret in those letters,” Tou Saiko Lee said.

After Tou Saiko Lee returned home, his brother Vong Lee stumbled across the letters and poems.

“At the time, I was into rap, but I had never heard something that related to me directly until my brother got locked up,” Vong Lee said. “It really struck me. They were so passionate, also creative, reflecting on their lifestyle before

they got locked up, how they got there.”

Vong Lee was writing his own poems and raps, and the two brothers eventually decided to perform together.

They took the stage for the first time at a new performers’ showcase at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood.

“We did the show with no rehearsal. The beat we heard for the first time at the show,” Tou Saiko Lee said. “But the crowd response was good. The energy was there.”

Within a year, they began performing as Delicious Venom.

LIGHTING A FIRE

While Delicious Venom quickly developed an audience, the brothers didn’t get a positive reaction at home — their parents were worried about the negative reputation of gangster rap.

But writer May Lee-Yang said Delicious Venom stood out when they started performing at local Hmong arts festivals. The group members wrote their own songs rather than covering others’. And hip-hop was still new to the community.

“It was interesting to see Hmong artists rapping,” she said. “The other part was that they were also really socially conscious. … They weren’t just there as entertainment, they were there to talk about issues.”

At the time, Tou Saiko Lee was also performing his spoken-word poetry at open mics. Inspired by the Chicago spoken-word collective I Was Born With Two Tongues, he launched FIRE, short for Free Inspired Rising Elements, around 2003. This hip-hop and spoken-word group, which eventually grew to 10 members, brought together college-age writers with teens just starting to write.

Tou Saiko Lee pushed the group to perform at any venue it could, from open mics to Hmong arts festivals to Patrick’s Cabaret, Minneapolis Mosaic, the Fringe Festival and the college circuit.

“We performed for all types of crowds, from nobody there to hundreds of people,” said Tria Vang, one of the younger poets in the group.

For young writers like Tria Vang, a self-described “quiet kid in high school,” the experience was transformative. “It helped me get my confidence up, giving me lots of opportunities to perform,” he said.

“FIRE was hot,” Tou Saiko Lee said. “For the Hmong community to see Hmong poets is a big deal. Lots of young people saw us, wanted to do it.

“We were out to educate our community but at the same time perform at a lot of venues that Hmong people had not been repped,” he said. “People from outside the community were seeing us, saying, ‘I didn’t know Hmong artists did that.’ “

‘THE H PROJECT’

As Delicious Venom and FIRE were finding an audience in the Twin Cities, Hmong hip-hop groups were also forming in Milwaukee, California and even France.

In 2005, Tou Saiko Lee and other local artists helped bring together 16 Hmong groups for “The H Project,” which aimed to draw attention to the persecution of Hmong people still trapped in the jungles of Laos.

Many second-generation Hmong learned about the “forgotten” Hmong through documentaries that circulated in the early 1990s.

“A lot of Hmong kids were shocked,” Vong Lee said. “They didn’t know anything about it. In the younger generation, it was not discussed. The reality is so harsh, it’s hard for anyone to talk about.”

The project pushed the brothers further along the path of socially conscious hip-hop as they wrote one of their most powerful songs, “30-Year Secret,” with local rapper Doua Vang.

The song opens with an image of a child born behind enemy lines and follows the Hmong journey from ethnic cleansing in the jungles of Laos to their efforts to make a new life in some of the toughest urban neighborhoods of the United States.

“We’ve never seen such a huge emotional response, how that song connected listeners to their family or siblings, how they cried listening,” Vong Lee said.

Listeners from as far away as Thailand and Australia have downloaded the song from Delicious Venom’s MySpace page, Tou Saiko Lee said.

When the band performed at a Hmong student conference in Michigan, “We had the whole house singing along to ’30-Year Secret,’ ” Vong Lee said.

FRESH TRADITIONS

Songs like “30-Year Secret” appealed to teens and college-aged fans, but Tou Saiko Lee also found a way to connect with older listeners.

Another of his side projects, Fresh Traditions, pairs two generations onstage together, with Tou Saiko Lee rapping as his grandma, Youa Chang, performs the Hmong poetry chanting known as kwv txiaj (pronounced gu tieh).

Tou Saiko Lee said his grandmother, who doesn’t speak English, was the first to notice the similarities between his hip-hop performances and kwv txiaj, which has its own rhythm patterns. They’ve performed together at Pangea World Theater and Intermedia Arts, among other venues.

A poster for one of their events shows Tou Saiko Lee in baggy hip-hop gear, his grandmother in traditional Hmong headwrap and dress, both of them in shades.

Mai Neng Moua, founder of the Hmong literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice, said she sees a strong connection between Hmong oral tradition and current spoken-word poetry and hip-hop.

“What I see Tou doing is modern-day kwv txiaj,” she said.

Tou Saiko Lee recently won a Jerome Grant to travel to Thailand with his grandma. There, they’ll meet an aunt who also practices kwv txiaj.

“I want to learn it in its essence but present it in a way that the younger generation can pick up on,” he said.

RHYTHM AND POETRY

When he’s not performing, Tou Saiko Lee spends much of his time working with young writers.

At the Success Beyond the Classroom Young Authors Conference at Bethel University in May, Tou Saiko Lee’s classroom quickly spilled over with students who wanted to take his hip-hop and spoken-word class.

Tou Saiko Lee came in late, a little startled by the size of the crowd. Then, he moved chairs to make room for at least a dozen extra kids.

“So, you all know what rap stands for, right?” he asked the students. “Rhythm and poetry.”

Later, he teaches them what it means to “represent” the places they’ve lived before an audience. Turns out, there’s a lot of Edina in the house.

It’s a testament to the elasticity of hip-hop that a first-generation Hmong-American artist can pass a tradition with roots in the Black Arts Movement to a group of (mostly) white kids from the suburbs.

Tou Saiko Lee has organized writing groups at McDonough Homes, his old neighborhood, and through the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. He also organizes monthly Innovative Community Forum — or ICE — open mics at Metro State University. The venue has given many Hmong artists their first chance to perform.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a place like (this), an organization I could go to that was safe,” he said. “I didn’t have many male Hmong role models doing positive things.”

“A-Red” Pao Vue, 22, a local rapper mentored by Tou Saiko Lee, said he has huge respect for the way his mentor “grabs kids off the street” and teaches them hip-hop and poetry.

“I was joking with him a couple of months ago that I needed him when I was 14,” Pao Vue said. “I don’t see any other people doing what he does.”

THE FOURTH ELEMENT

As Tou Saiko Lee prepares for a busy August, performing with his band at the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop, a Hmong arts festival and two Republican National Convention protest shows, he can’t help dipping into one more new project — a comic book called “Orphan’s Battle Cry,” with a Hmong hero.

Tou Saiko Lee said when he was growing up, heroes like Spider-Man fascinated him. “It was the concept of justice, the concept of being mysterious, of being able to save people.”

The central character in “Orphan’s Battle Cry” is from an era of warriors but has distorted memories of where he’s from in a plot that echoes Hmong history. The Hmong, who are spread over areas of China, Thailand and Laos — and now the West — don’t have their own country.

There is speculation that the Hmong originally migrated from Mongolia and even Iceland, Tou Saiko Lee said.

“It is frustrating, not knowing where we have a home,” he said. “But we accept that we are people who are nomadic, who can adapt to any culture.”

And when it comes to superpowers, Tou Saiko Lee has already found his.

“Poetry is a superpower,” he said. “It can inspire people.”

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