On a dusty patch of grass near Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune, a crowd gathered last week at twilight.
The small stage didn’t look like much, and neither did the few woven mats and rows of folding chairs, set up a few meters from the road. But when Cambodian-American rapper Prach Ly took the microphone, it could have been a concert. Local children chanted along with his music, or jumped onto stage to breakdance.
Prach Ly, however, seemed less a celebrity and more an older brother—friendly and familiar.
Yet until a few weeks ago, Prach Ly had no memory of Cambodia. Born in Battambang province in the last months of the Khmer Rouge regime, he fled the country with his family and grew up in Long Beach, California.
Prach Ly’s music preceded him here. Dubbed Cambodia’s first rap star by the press, he crafts lyrical rants about the horrors of genocide, the joys of escaping and the dissonance and hardships of displacement.
When he put out his debut album, his outspoken words and hypnotic beats captured a wide audience that, to him, was invisible. Without being aware of it, he helped introduce an entire nation to hip-hop music.
The CD—which Prach Ly titled “Dalama: The End’n is Just the Beginnin,” but which was released in this country as “Cambodian Rap”—became a bootleg hit and a radio favorite here, until it was removed from the airwaves by government censors, he said.
Now 25, Prach Ly is back for the first time since his parents wrapped his infant body in a blanket and trekked for weeks to the Thai border.
“I’m not here to start a revolution,” he said, “but if it does, it does. I say what I see, and I see what I say. I’m working on my last independent album…and when it comes out it’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows and a lot of people are going to be upset. I don’t really care. I’m not going to mention names, but they’re going to know who I’m talking about.”
True to his word, Prach Ly is working on a song titled “Therapeutics,” a rap that dances nimbly around politics in Cambodia, with lyrics like “Whatshisname hisself was a former Khmer Rouge.” He says he’s not interested in politics, but he delves into historical and current events with the same audacity that first made both immigrant audiences in California and listeners in Cambodia take notice.
Prach Ly’s raps meander from English to Khmer and back so fluidly it seems he hasn’t noticed it himself. He has the image of a US rapper down cold—photogenic scowl, baggy shorts, a diamond stud in his ear. But his tattoos depict traditional Khmer masked dancers, and the flash of gold around his neck is a Buddha pendant—Prach Ly says he is a practicing Buddhist.
Prach Ly says his return to Cambodia has been a homecoming. During his visit, he’s planning a reunion with an older brother he has never met.
The rapper is here for three weeks on a delegation for Cambodian Living Arts, a project of the NGO World Education that seeks to revive the traditional and contemporary arts in Cambodia.
Prach Ly said he had not planned to perform on this visit, but he hardly seems able to resist. He performed in Phnom Penh for an AIDS/HIV awareness event. And in Siem Reap, he agreed to do a show for 50 schoolchildren—but, he says, 10,000 villagers showed up.
Prach Ly’s lyrics make no secret of the fact that he grew up on the other side of the world. His raps blend a love of Cambodia with a head-spinning split consciousness that seems to resonate with the refugee community. His parents were both traditional musicians before the Khmer Rouge, he says, and he grew up hearing traditional instruments at home.
But outside of the house, the music of rap artists like Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg was all around him.
He raps about the hardships of growing up a poor immigrant in the US, hopscotching from one rundown government funded housing project to the next.
“At the age of 11 or 12, I witnessed my first homicide,” he says.
Growing up in and around Long Beach, Prach Ly says, racial tensions were high, and he became involved with gangs and street wars with other racial groups. “If someone was sharpening a pencil it wasn’t so that they could take a test, it was sharpening a pencil so they could stab somebody,” he says.
After what he says was a racially motivated drive-by shooting at his parents’ house, Prach Ly was shipped off to the US state of Florida, to live with a brother who had been a teenager during the genocide. After hearing his brother’s stories about the Khmer Rouge, Prach Ly decided to scrap his early raps, which were about “guns and cars and girls, all brag stuff about stuff I didn’t have,” and he began rapping about the history of himself, his family and his country.
He became a lone voice amid many who wanted to forget, he says.
Prach Ly recorded his first CD in his garage and passed out 1,000 copies for Cambodian New Year celebrations in Long Beach. The album found its way into the hands of a Phnom Penh DJ and then became a bootlegged hit in Cambodia.
Chy Sila, owner of Phnom Penh music store CD World, designed a cover—a photo of a child in a rice field holding a gun—put the CD in his store and sold about 700 copies, never even knowing the artist’s name, he said.
“Some local people started to understand rap because of this album,” Chy Sila said.
NCK of the rap group Phnom Penh Players says that his group’s music was first inspired by Prach Ly and other Cambodian rappers overseas to create new sounds with greater local significance. And DJ Siday, seen regularly on CTN-TV, has been producing exclusively Khmer-language rap for the past four years.
Unlike Prach Ly, however, both NCK and DJ Siday find it prudent to stay away from political issues. “I don’t do anything that affects the government, I don’t do anything biased for any party,” Siday says. “I do for entertainment.”
Prach Ly is now working on a third album. He has sold nearly 100,000 copies in the US, taken his show on a 23-US state tour, started his own label, Mujestic, and been offered deals on major record labels.
In 2001, Prach Ly says, Cambodian production companies invited him to tour here, promising thousands of fans would attend. He says he felt he had to decline: “I don’t want to make money in the country because I know the country needs money.”
In the meantime, he continues to keep the memory of what has occurred here alive.
“Its only been 30 years, and no one ever talks about [the killing fields],” he says. “It’s just they’re still bleeding because of that. The wound is too fresh, it hasn’t gotten scabbed yet. They’re still vulnerable.”
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)