Young Artist’s Rap Tries to Heal Cambodia’s Painful Past

HOUSTON, December 8, 2013 — Prach Ly, a 21-year-old Cambodian American rapper, had to give away his debut CD. Recorded in 2000 in his parents’ garage in Long Beach, Dalama: The End’n Is Just the Beginnin’ married traditional Cambodian instrumentation with hip-hop-flavored lyrics that told of the period from 1975 to 1979 when some 1.7 million Cambodians perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Prach had been too young to remember the genocide, but he had plumbed the memories of his parents and aunts and uncles, survivors who had immigrated to the United States, producing what he called a “hip-hop memoir.”

So Prach was as surprised as anyone when months later a journalist called to tell him that a copy of his CD had made its way to Phnom Penh, where it was a smash hit. Prach Ly of Long Beach, Califonia, was the most popular musical artist in Cambodia.

Cathy Schlund-Vials, a Cambodian American scholar who teaches at the University of Connecticut and is author of War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work, told Prach’s story and played some of his songs at a program titled Asian Genocide and the 21st Century Remembrance Through Art at Asia Society Texas Center.

She shared the stage with Anne Wilkes Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and co-curator of the recent exhibition War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath. The Texas Center presented the program in collaboration with HGOco, the community outreach arm of the Houston Grand Opera.

Prach’s album tapped a pent-up need among the young people of Cambodia. “More than 80 percent of the country’s population was born after 1980,” Schlund-Vials said. “So there are a couple of generations with no memory of the genocide.”

In subsequent CDs Prach has expanded the range of his references to include earlier Cambodian musical traditions, she said.

“He wanted to move his work away from just remembering those three years, eight months and 20 days and explore the fact that Cambodian culture was not only alive and well right after the period but was thriving and amazing before the Khmer Rouge.”

Tucker discussed the terrifying impulses that have modern prompted genocidal violence, illustrating her talk with photographs from the War/Photography exhibition. Her examples ranged from the Argentine “Dirty War” to the Bangladeshi war for independence (during which perhaps 3 million Bangladeshis died) to World War II and the Holocaust.

“One of the things I may never understand is that it is very frequent for governments who are about to kill entire populations to systematically photograph them before doing so,” she said.

“The Nazis did it, the Cambodians did it, the Argentinians did it. It was very systematic and thoroughly handled. Names were taken.”

A “perception of righteousness” seems to be driving the murderers, she said.

Ironically, in all three cases the photographs later were used to convict the perpetrators.

“It’s very, very important to understand that war is within each of us,” she said, “the capacity for inhumanity is within each of us.

“As a society we must monitor ourselves constantly against these impulses.”

Reported by Fritz Lanham


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