Khmer American Rapper Teaches a Traumatic History

Rapper Prach Ly. (Courtesy of the artist)
Rapper Prach Ly. (Courtesy of the artist)

In 2000, Khmer American rapper praCh (Prach Ly) recorded Dalama: The End'n Is Just the Beginn'n in his parents’ garage. With lyrics in both Khmer and English, the album retold the story of Cambodia’s killing fields in 1975 through 1979, when nearly a quarter of the country's population (1.7 million) Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Dalama made its way to Phnom Penh, received extensive airplay, and became number one in Cambodia — all unbeknownst to the artist. The album was not only credited with introducing hip hop to Cambodia; it introduced this history to a new generation largely unaware of its genocidal past. Ahead of his April 10 appearance at Asia Society Texas Center, Ly spoke with Asia Blog about his journey so far. Below is an excerpt of his interview. 

You were born in 1979 and escaped Cambodia with your family when you were young. What do you remember from that time?

Honestly, I don't know what year or month I was born. All my parents remember is that I was born at night during monsoon season and that it was toward the end of the killing fields, months before the Khmer Rouge started to retreat back into the jungles.

My earliest memories were when we were at the refugee camps, but even that was a blur. My first real memory was on the plane — on a flight to America. When the plane's door opened, I remembered seeing tears slowly flowing down my parents’ eyes. I can still remember that moment as clear as today.

What was it like growing up in Long Beach, California?

In Long Beach, we lived in an apartment complex in the projects on 69th and Long Beach Boulevard. There were at least 30 Cambodian families, and I was raised on welfare. Our neighborhood was infested with gangs, drugs, and prostitution, and we couldn't trust the police because we were racially profiled.

Still, our parents would tell us to go out and play. I had some of the best times playing “hide and seek” and “kick the can” on the street, but we were also in danger. I remember getting caught in the middle of drive-by shootings at least a half dozen times when we lived in those apartments.

In 2000-2001, your debut album Dalama: The End'n Is Just the Beginn'n became the top-selling album in Cambodia. Looking back 15 years later, what was that experience like for you?

Before my album, many schools did not talk about the killing fields. They did not talk about the U.S. bombings. They didn't want to teach it because it was "too controversial.” But when the kids started listening to the album, they started to question their teachers to a point where they had no choice but to talk about it. One of my proudest moments was when I got a letter from a teacher, who said she started teaching history without leaving things out. It’s been an amazing experience. With all the travels and people I meet, I couldn't ask for more.

Read the full article on Asia Blog.