US Rapper Has Lesson for Cambodia’s Youth

Few eyes are watching now, and Akil, a rapper from the US musical group Jurassic 5, calls over a Phnom Penh youth who minutes before was spinning like a top on the ground in a breakdancing move.

The boy is hesitant but smiles. He stands in the shade of one of the centers run by Tiny Toones, which teaches breakdancing to children from poor areas of Cambodia’s capital.

Akil furtively hands him a small wad of dollar bills. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he says. “You’ll make a lot of money doing what you’re doing. Alright?”

The boy, who has been practicing for about six months, nods. A lot of money. Akil doesn’t mean diamonds and flashy cars, which some might associate with rap stars. Making a living would be enough.

“Because that’s the bottom line, you know. People are poor.” he said. “And hip hop is an avenue to make money. It’s a billion dollar industry.”

Akil, who has gone by the name Akil the MC since Jurassic 5 broke up in 2007, and whose given name is Dante Givens, is friendly and enthusiastic with the kids. He grew up in in south central Los Angeles, and he sees parallels between the places in the US where hip hop emerged and Phnom Penh.

“Hip Hop was born out of poverty-stricken conditions,” Akil said. “There’s a lot of kids out here I see that may be orphans or whatnotÉ. That’s the same element that hip hop was born out of, and so it’s definitely fertile ground to change people’s lives.”

“It gives them other alternatives,” he continued. “If you’re only exposed to these other elements, such as drugs and crimes or whatnot, those are the only things you are going to do.”

Hip hop brought Akil to Phnom Penh, where he performed at Pontoon on Wednesday after a New Year’s eve show in Bangkok. He had been to Southeast Asia a few times before, he said, but never to Cambodia. He plans to spend a few days here and return to Bangkok and then the US.

It was a bit of a coincidence that brought him to Tiny Toones. June Kaewsith, aka Jumakae, who is from the US state of California and is working with the organization, saw a flier for his performance and went to Pontoon to find him. She knew Akil because he was slated at one point to judge a breakdancing contest in CaliforniaÑa fundraiser for Tiny Toones.

Akil was 13 when hip hop came on the scene, and he began his relationship with the art form as a DJ and then a breakdancer. To the delight of the Tiny Toones kids, who treated him with reverence, he showed off some quick footwork when he arrived. Later, in the center’s small studio, he freestyled over a beat interwoven with a sampled Sinn Sisamouth track, the Cambodian singer’s voice filling the background. The music was created by Phann Nam, aka Peanut, an American of Cambodian descent who is teaching the kids how to make music.

Music, break dancing, it’s all connected, Akil said. “Hip hop has four different element that they talk about: B-boying, emceeing, grafittiing and DJing.” A B-boy is a breakdancer, an emcee a rapper, and a DJ makes the music. Grafitti is another element traditionally associated with hip hop.

Today, rap has moved to the forefront, Akil said. “Back in the days and stuff we accepted the B-boys, we acceptedÉthe grafitti artists. It was all a part of one culture. That’s what I don’t see right now. It’s like you break and stuff or do grafitti then that’s called backbacker or underground hip hop.”

Jurassic 5, Akil said, “stayed true to pushing the sound and style of that old school flavor, that original flavor.” The group, for example, was chorus-heavy, something common in early rap music, and offered a sharp contrast to some mainstream hip hop stars. Akil said he grew up listening to rappers like Houdini and Run DMC, and he quickly summoned a few lines from “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five: “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

He declined to say why Jurassic 5 broke up after four albums, though he offered a few hints: “You just grow, I’ll just say that, you just grow,” and “I had a problem with their decision-making.”

But, at 38, Akil is making a living from hip hop. Maybe it can help some of the kids at Tiny Toones too.

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