African American entertainer C Crave – who grew up in a Cambodian-American community in California and claims a second ‘Cambodian family’ – is the ‘hottest rapper in Khmer America’.
American rapper C Crave’s biggest track begins with a pretty heavy intro: a brief history of the Khmer Rouge regime, spoken against the backdrop of the Los Angeles skyline. Soon, a tattooed woman appears – wearing an Apsara crown and an ornate neckpiece over an excess of décolletage – and the bass line drops.
“Shoutout to my Cambos,” the rapper proclaims, before launching into the hook: “Khnom chmooh [My name is] C Crave, khnom chmooh C Crave.”
The video then follows the rapper on a tour of the bridal shops, noodle shops and doughnut shops of Long Beach, California – home to the largest Cambodian-American community in the US. There is a bit of dissonance.
C Crave (born Christopher Cravens) is African American, and has never travelled to the Kingdom. But since posting a clip of himself rapping in Khmer on Facebook a year ago, he has become something of a celebrity in the Cambodian diaspora.
In February, the popular website Khmerican labelled him “the hottest rapper in Khmer America”. He now has thousands of Cambodian fans scattered across the world. This week, he was in Dallas for the unveiling of a new gate at the city’s Cambodian Buddhist temple.
Many of the tracks that the rapper has recorded over the past year reference the Kingdom. One recent song, She Know, features all-English lyrics, but the video centres around a traditional Khmer wedding (C Crave is the groom). Another posted in March gives itself away in the title: What’s Under That Sarong?
C Crave grew up in a Cambodian-American community in Stockton, several hours northwest of Long Beach, in the late 1980s. As a child, most of his neighbours were Cambodian immigrants, and he befriended their kids, some for life. He even learned to speak Khmer and lived with a Cambodian-American family for a couple of years – “my Cambodian family”, he calls them.
“I’m 100 per cent black,” the rapper explained in an interview this week from LA, via Skype. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t relate with [Khmer] culture, because that’s what I grew up around.”
But C Crave has by no means been assimilated. He moved away from Stockton at 18, and spent six years in the US Navy. He is nowhere near fluent in Khmer, he admits, and didn’t bring the language into his music until he saw the potential to attract attention. “As an entertainer, you have to always have something that differentiates yourself from the others,” he said. “For me, this is it.”
He’s not doing it alone – or in a vacuum. For Khmer Rap, C Crave worked alongside longtime friend Tony Sok, who also raps in Khmer. He has collaborated with Cambodian-American entertainer Hella Chluy, and considers him a mentor.
Freestyling in Khmer
Over the last decade, Cambodian Americans – many of whom grew up in communities like C Crave’s – have dabbled in Phnom Penh’s music industry. Three relatively recent arrivals – headed by manager Thatphun Bunma – have joined a label they say will bring a “Western” management style to its young artists, who have set their sights on the international market.
Rock Music was launched in January under the wing of oknha Kith Meng's Rock Entertainment Center, housed in a garish karaoke club on Monivong Boulevard. In the months since, they’ve signed 10 artists, including a K-pop quartet, soloists who dabble in R&B and two rappers.
One of the first artists they signed was Vid Cooler, a Cambodian who takes his inspiration from Western artists like Tyga and Eminem. He speaks little English, but has adopted an American-style delivery, and a certain aggression. “He replicates Enimem’s persona move-for-move,” Bunma explained. “And you know what, I think he’s the only [Cambodian] I know of to freestyle in Khmer.”
The 31-year-old spent six years of his life as a migrant worker, raising pigs in South Korea – a far cry from the inspiration for any American rap track. “I channelled the anger from that time into a persona,” he said this week.
Vid Cooler and the other artists have been mentored by Safidine Phar, or Kidflomatic, a rapper who grew up in a working class neighbourhood in Anaheim, California, who’s also been signed to Rock Music. The group joins a nascent – but longstanding – hip-hop scene in Phnom Penh. The first label, KlapYaHandz, was founded by Khmer-American Sok Visal in 2005.
KlapYaHandz now has only three artists, none of whom are on contracts. Visal said he welcomed another label on the scene, which he credits to the exchange between Cambodia and its diaspora. “You can’t make noise by yourself,” he said. “This is happening because of the two worlds – one wouldn’t be able to work by itself.”
Whatever their origins, Phnom Penh artists are making reverberations back in the US. “I do a lot of YouTube searches looking for new Khmer rap,” said New York-based Hella Chluy. “And I’m seeing the quality really advance, especially in Phnom Penh. [The music] makes me proud to be Khmer.”
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon and Alana Beitz
Like Hella Chluy, he films bilingual comedy skits – posted on his Instagram and Facebook accounts – that poke fun at things from interracial relationships to Tiger Balm to learning elementary Khmer. Some of C Crave’s videos have more than 1 million views, and he’s become a sort of social-media commentator for the Cambodian-American community, according to Phatry Derek Pan, who edits Khmerican.
“This guy doesn’t sleep,” Hella Chluy said via email this week. “And I think it’s great to see a non-Cambodian rapping and making jokes in Khmer.”
C Crave’s work also falls in with a growing trend of rap and hip-hop produced by members of the Cambodian diaspora, including CS and Tee-Cambo of The Cambo Movement and female rapper Honey Cocaine, a protégé of major-label artist Tyga.
Tee-Cambo and CS’s 2014 hit I’m a Cambo became a sort of theme song for their “movement”, which they gave a wide scope. A Cambo was someone who had “been there, done that, started at the bottom”, CS told LA Weekly.
Khmer-American rap arguably first went international in 2000, when a debut album by Battambang-born Prach Ly made it from the States back to Phnom Penh – and became a radio hit until the government banned it from the airwaves.
C Crave’s audience is international, too. He recently travelled to Australia for meet-and-greets with fans. He plans to make his first trip to the Kingdom at the end of the year. And last week, he released a raw cut of Khmer Rap – filmed with a single camera and no backing track – on a video platform focused on the Asian market, Soi Music TV. “I wanted people to see the unfiltered version of me,” he explained. “You still have sceptics.”
His MO has drawn criticism from those who think he’s posing – or appropriating. “The biggest [criticism] is always going to be: ‘You’re not Cambodian, stop trying to be Cambodian’,” he said. “But the majority of the people that have said that aren’t Cambodian themselves.”
C Crave’s work is admired from Khmer-Americans from the West Coast to Phnom Penh, often as a means of cultural transmission. Sok Visal, of Phnom Penh hip-hop group KlapYaHandz, plans to record a track with him. “He can start quite a buzz, being the first African American doing these sorts of skits in Khmer,” he said.
“Any bilingual content is worth commending, and he’s bringing in this history of African-American flamboyance,” said Pan, of Khmerican. “To get someone [like that] who has an understanding of the Cambodian-American scene . . . I can only imagine it becomes educational.”
“I heard him for the first time, and I was like: ‘Damn, he can rap in Khmer’,” said Vichheka Thor, a PR manager at new Phnom Penh label Rock Music, who also grew up in Stockton.
He added that C Crave recalled an African-American man in his neighbourhood. “He was fluent in Khmer,” he said. “He used to talk to all the old people, greet them with a jum reap sour.”
At first, it’s hard not to think that this novelty – a black man speaking and rapping Khmer – is what has garnered C Crave so much attention within the Khmer-American community. But perhaps he’s just redefined its bounds.
“I’d be naïve to think it didn’t help out,” he said with a laugh. “But me not doing Khmer all those years prior was sort of me not being true to myself.”