Last weekend’s Cambodian Music Festival showcased Cambodian-American talent from all over the US – from psychedelic rock to gangster rap to pop music parody
Performing in front of a crowd of hundreds on a rainy evening last weekend, Los Angeles rappers Chanty Sok and Yung Tee shouted out their signature refrain: “I’m a motherf---in’ Cambo”. In another act, Phanit Duong, Cambodian America’s answer to Weird Al Yankovic, parodied the likes of Drake and Justin Bieber in broken Khmer.
The diversity of America’s Cambodian artistic scene, from the Hennessy-chugging gangsters in Long Beach to the competitive prahok eaters in New York, was showcased last weekend at the Cambodian Music Festival in Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre.
With an estimated crowd of 600 – including about 400 Cambodians – and live coverage from a local Los Angeles TV station, organisers and performers alike expressed hope that the Kingdom’s diaspora was starting to make its mark in America.
Sok, better known by his rap name CS, was among them. Having once opened for Grammy-winning hip hop artist T-Pain, an event he said made him realise the payoff of hard work, Sok throws down beats accompanied by a grim back story that rivals that of 50 Cent or Eminem.
Sok rapped for the first time at age 12, the same year he first joined a gang to get revenge for a friend’s murder. By age 25, he was sentenced to a decade behind bars for armed robbery. Now a free man, he returned to Long Beach last year to tell his life story through music. He said the festival, which was the first of its kind, was a breakthrough moment for “Khmerican” artists.
“It was the greatest moment, the pride, the joy the excitement – we really did something special,” said Sok in a phone interview from California.
Seak Smith, the PR/marketing consultant who organised the event with her husband Brian, said that the show’s success was particularly impressive given the heavy rain that threatened to clear the outdoor venue.
“As far as the excitement level and energy and the people in attendance, it was definitely a success, and the show itself I think was phenomenal,” she said, adding that the festival aimed to give a platform to the varying styles of Cambodian-American musicians.
The show’s lineup demonstrated that diversity, with acts ranging from light-hearted pop rock to hardcore hip-hop. Although the internationally known psychedelic rock band Dengue Fever headlined the show, most performers, such as Sok, were relatively unknown.
Sok’s most recent single, I’m a Cambo, which he produced alongside fellow Long Beach rapper Yung Tee, is a no-holds bar account of thug life.
He said the lyrics, which includes the refrain: “I’m a motherf---in’ Cambo/Go hard in the paint/Hennessy is all I drink”, has generated criticism within his community for negatively depicting Cambodian-Americans. But Sok said he is only expressing one facet of Cambodia Americana.
“I’m not representing the people who don’t want to be represented, but I want you to know this is what makes me a Cambo – and I’m a motherf---in’ Cambodian like this,” he said, adding that his discography maps his transition from wayward teen to community leader.
Born in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp in 1978, Sok’s family, originally from Svay Rieng, immigrated to the United States in 1982, eventually settling in Long Beach in 1986. It was there that he discovered hip-hop as a way to cope with the harsh realities of inner-city life.
He said: “For me, it was a place where people would accept you when no one would accept you – I got to learn a universal language. That played a very big role in the Cambodian community, because that taught us so much about adapting into a whole new society.”
But the pre-existing black and Hispanic communities of Long Beach, he said, were largely hostile to the influx of Cambodian refugees in the 1980s. Racial slurs like “nip”, “chink” and “dog-eater” became commonplace graffiti on his apartment building.
“When you move into a community that already has a set place for the people around it, and they see some different faces moving in, it becomes a problem,” he said, adding that race relations have since drastically improved in Long Beach.
Joining a gang was foolish in hindsight, he said, but understandable given his young age, vulnerable status as a “minority within a minority” and the murder of his friend.
“I was a kid, how was I supposed to deal with that emotion?” he said.
But singer and comedian Duong, who goes by the stage name Hella Chluy, said he uses his act to poke fun at Cambodian parents’ fear of their children becoming gangsters.
Short, stocky, and always seen with his nerdish black-rimmed glasses, Duong said his fans approach him on the street to ask in his trademark mock serious scolding voice: “Do you want to be a gangster?!”
It is an inside joke, said the 31-year-old comic, among all first-generation Cambodian American youth.
“All the Cambodians can relate, because all our parents’ lectures were identical. Everything we did was gang-related to them, whether we wore our hats backwards, or bandanas, or baggy jeans,” said Duong, who grew up in Seattle but currently works as a real estate agent in New York.
Duong’s shtick is taking international pop hits and covering them in what he admits is his bad Khmer. Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend, for instance, became Boypren, while Psy’s Gangnam Style was turned into Sra T’Nam Style.
Duong’s YouTube channel is also stocked with non-musical skits, such as a prahok-eating contest between himself and another Cambodian-American, who promptly vomits after the first bite, and the self-explanatorily titled video How Khmer Play Basketball.
His cult following, said Duong, has made him something of a minor celebrity in Long Beach.
He said: “I can walk through the streets of Long Beach in California and people will stop me and take pictures – it’s amazing.”
But while Sok and Duong both came from large Khmer communities on the West Coast, rapper and R&B singer Pisey Duong’s lyrics reflect the isolation he experienced living outside the culture. Born in Phnom Penh shortly after the Vietnamese liberation/invasion, Pisey Duong, who goes by the stage name JL Jupiter, ended up as one of the few Cambodians in Camden, New Jersey.
He said: “I’ve just been known as ‘that Chinese kid’ – when I tell them I’m Cambodian they have no idea what that is, so they put me in the Chinese category and called me Bruce Lee.”
Despite the racism, Pisey Duong said that he managed to fit in with the local hip-hop community, which was mostly black and Puerto Rican, where he picked up rap and R&B. He did not, however, take his Cambodian heritage particularly seriously at first.
He said: “When I started rapping, it was mostly just street hip-hop stuff where I was trying to be the baddest lyricist in town. It wasn’t until about five to six years ago that I went solo and aimed toward my roots.”
Even today, said Pisey Duong, much of his music is less about being Cambodian and more about the personal struggles common to people of all ethnicities. But the point of the show, said organiser Seak, was to highlight the Cambodian-American experience from across the country in whichever way the artists saw fit.
Ultimately, it also served to promote the Khmer culture lost in the decades of destruction that led to the rise of the Khmer diaspora in the first place.
She said: “Along the way, the mission developed into helping rebuild the music scene, considering what happened in the ’70s. So it became a grander mission to showcase all the art that Cambodians can contribute to the music world.”