Prach Ly wasn’t born yet when the Khmer Rouge regime plunged Cambodia into darkness, but his rap lyrics tell an accurate tale of the anguish and violence that plagued Cambodia during those years.
“If you don’t do what they say/ In the plastic bag where they let the bullets spray/ Anything goes so be careful with yours/ It’s terrible/ The Year Zero.”
Those lyrics from “The Year Zero!” and other songs on “Dalama…The Endin’ is Just the Beginnin’” is a unique compilation of songs by the Cambodian-American rapper about his family’s struggle to survive Pol Pot’s reign and his attempts to assimilate into America’s melting pot.
The CD has become one of the hottest-selling records in Phnom Penh, with thousands of copies sold at music stores and markets here.
But the sales haven’t brought Prach fame. Copies of the CD, titled “Khmer Rouge” in stores here, don’t contain his name, so no one knows who he is. But it’s become a popular buy, especially among young Cambodians and tourists.
Prach, which is his stage name, didn’t even know his CD was on sale in Phnom Penh until he was told by a reporter.
“How can they sell it without my permission?” Prach asked. But after thinking about it a moment, he decided that he didn’t mind. “That’s cool, though. I’m happy it’s popular over there because that’s my homeland.”
Prach handed out copies of the album only to his friends in Long Beach in the US state of California. One copy eventually made its way to Cambodia, and pirated versions of the CD are widely available at markets and music stores.
Prach wouldn’t even recognize the CD cover that is sold in Cambodia. His own has a picture of the Statue of Liberty among temples and a palm tree to symbolize his Cambodian-American background.
The version that sells in Cambodia plays up the Khmer Rouge angle, featuring a picture of a little boy with a gun, lying in a rice field. The song titles are also different from those on Prach’s original CD, which he recorded in his garage. Much of the music playing behind Prach’s vocals is taken from the “2001” album by the popular West Coast rapper Dr Dre.
The CD begins with a quick lesson on the basic facts about Cambodia, and then goes into rap songs about the Khmer Rouge era. He also recounts his trying upbringing in California, where he became involved in gangs.
Prach says the purpose of his CD was to tell a story and to educate future generations about what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era.
As Prach says in his song titled “The Khmer Rouge” on CDs here: “Now I’m on a quest for the truth to reveal/ Cuz I still feel the pain of all the lives sold/ From the Khmer Rouge, the gang that put Cambodia into a hell hole.”
Because he was a baby during the Khmer Rouge years, most of what Prach knows of that dark period he learned from his parents and history books.
“I had aunts and uncles who were killed,” Prach says. “My parents almost died, too, and they remind me of that every day.”
The first time the reality of what happened to his country hit him was when he saw the movie “The Killing Fields.” Clips from the movie are featured in some of his songs.
“It gave me goose bumps because it’s the first time I could picture what had happened,” he says. “And I’m surrounded by my people here and no one is really doing anything, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Prach hasn’t returned to Cambodia since his family—except for an older brother living in Battambang province—left in 1979, when Vietnamese troops forced the Khmer Rouge to flee into the jungles. His family spent four years in refugee camps along the Thai border before they reached the US, a moment described in his song “Welcome.”
“As soon as our feet hit the ground my mom busted in tears/ No words can describe a moment so rare/ And right by her side my father was there/ Staring at the sky, holding each other, realized we survived the genocide.”
CD-World owner Chy Sila saw the potential in Prach’s CD, which he first heard from a friend who made a copy of the original, and decided to market it. He designed the “Khmer Rouge” cover a few months ago, and made hundreds of copies of the CD. He first began selling it in his store, and later copied versions of his CD showed up in other music stores and at the markets.
“A lot of people rap, but they’ve never heard a Cambodian guy rap,” Chy Sila says. “A lot of the young guys who buy it feel so proud. But it’s strange that no one knows who made it.”
Sophoann Sope Hul, also known as DJ Sope, believes he was the first to bring the CD to Cambodia last year. Sophoann used to live in Long Beach, but moved back to Cambodia in 1992 and is now a disc jockey for two Phnom Penh radio stations.
“The CD is an inspiration, something new in Cambodia for the new generation,” DJ Sope says. “All Khmer music is the same, and this is the first that says something real in rap form. No music has ever done that in Cambodia.”
Still, DJ Sope stopped playing the CD on his radio shows after the first few plays because he felt it was too controversial, especially with the government going through a review of the Khmer Rouge draft law.
“It’s controversial here, so it can’t be played,” he says. “But if you get away from the politics and just listen to the music, it’s amazing. He’s the first Khmer artist who is actually revealing something and that touches a lot of people.”
It isn’t the first time someone has described Prach’s CD as controversial. When he pitched it to US record labels, one company official asked him if he was trying to start a revolution.
“But you can’t deny it. The whole world knows this was a holocaust,” Prach said. “All you can do is remind people what happened so it doesn’t happen again.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)