BY VICKI CHAN
Special to the Examiner
Prach Ly’s sister was eating in a noodle shop in Cambodia. Suddenly, a gunshot later, the man sitting next to her fell dead, and she was covered in his blood. This was over 25 years ago, during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, but she experiences traumatic flashbacks to this day.
After over 30 years since the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge — leading to the genocide under Pol Pot’s regime — many Cambodians today still struggle to find closure.
Cambodian rapper Prach Ly hopes his music can help in the healing process and educate young Cambodian Americans about the past. He performs at the Seattle Center’s Cambodian Cultural Heritage Celebration on Saturday, Aug. 12
Prach is working on completing his album, “Dalama: Memoirs of the Invisible War,” which will conclude what he started with “Dalama: The Endin’ Is Just the Beginnin’” and continued with “Dalama: The Lost Chapter.” The trilogy delivers a history lesson about Cambodia’s genocide laid over hip-hop beats. All three albums are released through Prach’s own record label, Mujestic Records.
Newsweek calls the 25-year-old “Cambodia’s first rap star,” though his initial rise in fame was accidental and unknown to him. Prach recorded his first album, “Dalama: The Endin’ Is Just the Beginnin’,” in his parents’ garage with a karaoke machine, microphones and a tape player. At the 2000 Cambodian New Year celebration in Long Beach, Calif. where he currently resides, he passed out copies of his album. DJ Sop, a well-known deejay in Cambodia, was at the celebration and took a copy back to Cambodia. Cambodia’s loose copyright laws allowed the album to be widely bootlegged.
One day a reporter in Cambodia called Prach to interview him about “Khmer Rap,” the number one album in the country. Prach reacted with confusion, having never made an album under that title. The reporter recited some lyrics, which Prach surprisingly recognized as his own. Apparently, in the bootlegging process, the cover and name had been changed. The album became “Khmer Rap” with a nameless artist. His original artwork for the cover was replaced with a picture of a Cambodian child with a rifle.
His machine-gun rapping transfixed young Cambodians as he told them the story of their parents’ life under the Khmer Rouge. They began to ask questions about that time and era.
“It’s amazing,” DJ Sop told Asiaweek. “He’s the first Khmer artist who is actually revealing something, and that touches a lot of people.”
Though he was born in 1979, in the final months before the Khmer Rouge fell to Vietnamese forces, Prach has heard the stories of the era from his family members. In 1989, he moved to Long Beach, which contains the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia, many of whom were survivors of the genocide. While collecting material for his songs, he faced difficulty coaxing stories out of people whom he calls “living documents.”
Prach recalls, “[The elder Cambodians] were not open at all. They just want to forget.”
Prach thinks that talking about what they experienced and witnessed rather than keeping it buried inside would help the survivors heal. He approaches this through his music, starting by discussing Cambodian culture. From there, he says, “It is part of our past that it happened, so it is part of our culture.”
In 2004, he contributed original music to Catherine Filloux’s play “Eyes of the Heart,” a production of the National Asian American Theatre Company that ran in New York City. The play is about a middle-aged Cambodian woman, Thida, with psychosomatic blindness as a result of her witnessing Khmer Rouge atrocities – not an unusual affliction.
Plays like Filloux’s, his own music, and other similar artworks are important in fostering conversation, Prach says. “They make people question people, kids question parents, kids question teachers – some children don’t even know about the Killing Fields. They think it’s a myth.”
In his song “art of fact,” he raps:
There’s a gap in our generations between the adults and kids,
But since I’m bilingual, I’ma use communication as a bridge.
Rapping in English and Khmer, he reaches out to both younger and older generations, Cambodian and others. While enjoying his street-style rapping, younger people are educated by his lyrics discussing what has been left out of history textbooks.
“Even though it’s music, it’s still the truth. I’m telling true stories,” he says.
Older audiences find him appealing for his use of Khmer. His music occasionally features multi-instrumentalist Ho C. Chan providing passages of traditional Cambodian music. Before the Khmer Rouge, his parents had been traditional musicians, so he grew up to the sounds of traditional instruments at home.
His songs also include dialogue from the film “The Killing Fields” as well as audio from a Pol Pot-era BBC documentary. These clips, combined with his lyrics, articulate what some people may think or feel but are too scared to say and give them strength. Also, rap is somewhat similar to a Cambodian “ayai,” when two poetry masters hold a wisdom competition in continuous rhymes.
He names his albums “Dalama,” a word that he made up. “I was thinking about drama, trauma, the Dalai Lama,” he explains. “Dalama is the story of my life, my autobiography.”
His lyrics detail Cambodian culture and history as well as his own life, including his family’s escape across the Thai border and his upbringing in Long Beach.
In January 2005, Prach spent three weeks in Cambodia as part of the Cambodian Living Arts delegation. A project of the nonprofit organization World Education, Cambodian Living Arts strives to revitalize the arts in Cambodia, both traditional and contemporary. Though Prach had made no plans for any performances during his visit, he put on an impromptu show in Phnom Penh at an AIDS/HIV awareness event. Additionally, 10,000 villagers turned out for a performance in Siem Reap for which he had originally agreed to do for 50 schoolchildren.
Overall, Prach is optimistic about the future for Cambodians. Cambodia has been improving its reconstruction efforts, and the money currently being sent into the country is now tied directly to reforms. Prior to 1999, corruption was rampant in the government, slowing the rebuilding process. Aid money — mostly from the United States, Japan and Western Europe — was held by the national government with too little trickling down to the poor rural areas. In 1999, the major donors began imposing strict foreign aid conditions, forcing the national government to reform.
Meanwhile, Prach continues to do his part, educating, communicating and sharing hope. His song “Welcome” tells of his family’s initial arrival in the United States. Paraphrasing what his father said to his mother upon stepping off the plane, he raps:
Realize we survive the genocide and still together
Thvay Bongkum (lok yey-lok ta) and praise to Buddha
‘cause from that point on, it can only get BETTER