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MC Lisha breaks musical and gender boundaries

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With a new album to be released just in time for the Water Festival, MC Lisha is bringing Cambodia's underground hip-hop scene into the light

Photo by: Heng Chivoan

MC Lisha records at Klap Ya Handz studio in Phnom Penh.

MC: WHAT'S IN THE NAME

In hip-hop culture, the term MC, or Master of Ceremonies, has come to

define the role of rappers. An MC uses rhymes to introduce or praise

the DJ, to get the crowd on its feet, to demand respect for his or her

status or to comment on society. "That's how rappers used to call

themselves in the late '70s and early '80s. MCs used to host live

shows, concerts and street parties, and rap to the crowd to excite

them, with the help of the DJ. I think the word rapper already existed

at that time but wasn't really used. A rapper is simply a person who

raps," Cream said. The MC-as-rhymer originated in the dance halls of

Jamaica. At such gatherings, an MC would introduce musical acts by

giving a toast in rhyme directed at the audience or the performers."

But people used to rap even before the birth of hip-hop," Cream said.

"Black people from Africa, or look at the famous Cambodian cha pei

masters such as Kong Nai or Prachoun," Cream said. "They don't sing,

they rap. They tell stories but they don't sing. They just try to

follow a particular beat or groove."

Hip-hop in Cambodia has only recently begun to take root, but the genre now has a solid foundation as exposure to it increases and the handful of creative performers and producers in the Kingdom break new ground by pushing traditional boundaries.

Fuelling the Khmer hip-hop surge is one of its pioneers, Sok "Cream" Visal, a co-founder of the collective production company Kap Ya Handz, which opens doors for talented up-and-comers to showcase their skills through recording and live performances.

MC Lisha in the game

MC Lisha is one of only a few female Cambodian rappers and a protege of Klap ya Handz. The 26-year-old has been on the scene since the '90s and could be considered a veteran of the genre in her own right.

Her new album will drop in time for the Water Festival in November with the help of Cream and Klap Ya Handz, which mentored the young MC and produced her tracks  on the 2003 compilation Phnom Penh Bad Boyz.

MC Lisha says the 12 tracks on her new album are "100 percent original". She began work on the record in June and wrote all the lyrics, with Cream and Klap Ya Handz taking production credits.

"MC Lisha has been in the game since the end of the '90s, and she's ready to tell that to the new generation, which sometimes claims that they were the ones who started this whole hip-hop thing," said Cream.

The mother of two young boys, Lisha usually writes her lyrics in the evenings after her sons settle down for the night.

"I like to write about things that connect to society," she said.

"I use my lyrics to educate young people. I like to give hope to those working hard - especially women who come to work in Phnom Penh from the countryside. I want to tell them not to give up," she said.

"Sometimes I come home tired, but everything becomes all right when I see my babies' smiling faces," she said.

"I want my music to empower other women, whether they are housewives or working hard to make a living."

Multitalented

Lisha's life has taken many twists and turns, but music has remained a permanent fixture. She has a strong connection to a variety of modern and traditional styles.

"I studied traditional Khmer dance at university, and then I used to be a pop singer from the age of 17 to 20. I also used to work at a bar and sing every night," she said.

"I also play the piano and I can play the drums a little," she added. "When I worked in bars, sometimes when the musicians would go to the rest-room I would take over for a bit," she said, adding that she first got interested in hip-hop while working at a radio station.

The light is ahead ... I sense that people are looking for alternative music.

Lisha's forthcoming album will combine her trademark rhymes with traditional Khmer music.
"We mix traditional Khmer music with hip-hop. While older Cambodian people want to keep their music original, I would like to tell them to try to understand that we are doing this because young people generally don't pay attention to traditional Khmer music," she said. "If we mix it in with hip-hop, then at some level they will hear it."

Veteran performer and producer Cream is hopeful and believes in Lisha's success.

"Lisha doesn't have that ‘Freshie Girl 2008' look, but her whole persona, plus fresh attitude, plus experience, plus lyrics, plus message are embodied in her charisma," he said.

"We live in a culture that respects elders and education. And Lisha's old enough to get the attention of the younger generation because of her life experience and because of the things she's saying," Cream said. "I hope that I am not wrong, but I think Cambodian women will listen to Lisha."

Lisha is also an experienced performer, with previous gigs at the Riverhouse Lounge and the Plaza Hotel, among others.

"The last gig I did was about a month ago at a theatre. It was a promotion for a new kind of car that will be imported to Cambodia," she said.

 "I rapped a song about the treasures of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat and our beautiful countryside, and everything connected to the land," she said, adding that while she was born in Phnom Penh, she remains a country girl at heart.

Hip-hop in Cambodia

Cambodia's burgeoning hip-hop scene has yet to break into the mainstream.

"I think the scene is a little bit loose. It's made of struggling artists and producers," Cream said.

Klap Ya Handz has played a vital role in encouraging young artists and promoting the art form.

"Klap Ya Handz is doing its best with the means that we have. I've struggled for seven years before deciding that it was time to get to the next level, and the time is now," he said.

"Still, we don't have a big structure. It's just me doing everything and my brother Vises ‘Bong Touch' at the recording studio, and the artists.

"The Khmer hip-hop scene is filled with kids who see the ‘coolness' of being in the game, or they only see money and fame," he said. "The new generation is listening to hip-hop, but they don't get enough to get hooked on. Klap Ya Handz and its artists, including Lisha, Pou Khlaing, Kdep, Yungsterz, Aping and Da Krop will try to give that to the new generation."

Cream acknowledges that female rappers in Cambodia face obstacles to earning respect and appreciation, but he hopes the message of artists such as Lisha will empower more Cambodian women.

"The light is ahead ... I sense that people are looking for alternative music, something different, something more original than remakes of foreign songs," he said.

Lisha also feels confident that more young people will embrace hip-hop and find meaning in creativity.

Once the new album is complete, she will support it with gigs at clubs and bars around the capital.

"There will be a compilation CD released soon to be given to DJs around Phnom Penh, a few sponsored concerts and maybe a major concert at the end of the year."

She expects the next few months to be busy. "Cream told me to be prepared."

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