Tou Saiko Lee: Courage under fire


It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Hmong hip-hop in Minnesota—and specifically for one of its most well-respected and well-known figures, Tou Saiko Lee. In the span of two weeks, he’s been laudably profiled in a video piece for the New York Times and skewered by radio host Jason Lewis on KTLK.

PosNoSys will be performing with the French hip-hop groups La Rumeur and Ursus Minor on May 22 at the Triple Rock Social Club as part of the Minnesota sur Seine Festival.

Tou Saiko was born in 1979 in the Nongkai Refugee Camp in Thailand. He and his parents lived in Syracuse and Providence before coming to the Twin Cities in 1991. All of his other siblings, including his brother Vong who performs alongside Tou Saiko as Knowstalgic in the hip-hop group Delicious Venom, were born in the United States. As director of Creative Development and Outreach at CHAT (Center for Hmong Arts and Talent), a St. Paul non-profit organization that aims to nurture Hmong artists, Tou Saiko organizes the ICE Open Mic series at Metro State University, coordinates a number of after-school community classes and programs, and helps to organize the annual Hmong Arts and Music Festival. He also travels to California once a month to work with Hmong youth in Sacramento, one of the other large Hmong communities in America.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Justin Schell’s interview with Tou Saiko, hear Delicious Venom’s recording “30 Year Secret,” and read Betsy Mowry on the Minnesota sur Seine Festival.

Patrick Farrell of the New York Times contacted Tou Saiko and CHAT last winter. Soon Farrell and his crew came to the Twin Cities to follow Tou Saiko around for a weekend. They interviewed his family and Hmong activists and academics in the area, as well as capturing a performance by Tou Saiko’s rock-rap band PosNoSys, which stands for “Post Nomadic Syndrome.” Although some criticized the resulting video for mapping the Hmong community onto a stereotypical binary that equated “Hmong” with “ancient” and “United States” with “modern,” the piece was generally seen as a sympathetic and positive portrayal of Tou Saiko specifically and the Twin Cities Hmong community generally.

Tou Saiko is intimately aware of hip-hop’s place within the larger Twin Cities Hmong community. Many Hmong parents were suspicious when their kids starting bringing home CDs of 2Pac and Dr. Dre and started to rap like those artists. Tou Saiko said that his own parents did not like him rapping until he started talking about Hmong community issues, as well as performing in schools. One poem in particular, “Generation After Generation,” which explicitly talks about the struggles of the Hmong community in Minnesota as well as intergenerational conflicts, helped to alleviate some of this tension. In it, he explicitly links his own rapping to Hmong spoken oral poetry, kwv txhiaj, which he’s also performed with his grandmother Youa Chang, as Fresh Traditions. “My grandma’s just an ill poet,” he told me. “She’s an ill MC! I’m continuing on that tradition through this different style and language.”

None of this seemed to matter to Jason Lewis when he targeted Tou Saiko on his May 2 program. In question was a week-long event, organized by the arts and education non-profit COMPAS, that had Tou Saiko visiting Woodbury 6th graders to teach them about Hmong culture, hip-hop, rap, and spoken word. The students worked on individual pieces, as well as a collective poem to be presented at an all-school assembly. To make this assembly happen, students were pulled out of class. This was the fifth year that Tou Saiko has organized and led such workshops in Woodbury schools; before him, artists such as Desdamona and Frank Sentwali led similar activities.

On Lewis’s program, what started off as a criticism of deviations from a “back-to-basics” curriculum became an all-out assault on Tou Saiko, the immigrant and diasporic communities of the Twin Cities, and hip-hop itself. Lewis lambasted the Woodbury Lake Junior High PTA and teachers for approving such a program.

On Lewis’s program, what started off as a criticism of deviations from a “back-to-basics” curriculum became an all-out assault on Tou Saiko, the immigrant and diasporic communities of the Twin Cities, and hip-hop itself.

The criticism surprised Tou Saiko. “The kids were all excited and the teachers were very supportive with what I was doing,” he says. “When I hear those comments that ‘this kid has not spoken a word until this week,’ I think that’s what’s important in doing these residences.”

Tou Saiko also questioned Lewis’s assumption that the rapper is misleading the students into believing they can all be professional rappers, that school and education are only a means to a high-paying job. “We’re not teaching them to be career artists,” he says. “We’re teaching them to express themselves, to speak up, and to be more open to a lot of different possibilities in their life.”

According to Lewis, the event was symptomatic of American schools’ capitulation to politically-correct “diversity training.” Schools must “teach Western culture before we start going into all the other cultures,” and he explicitly calls out Hmong and Somali communities to learn “our culture” first and assimilate to American culture, with little indication of just who fits in that cultural vision. Tou Saiko says that many of Lewis’s views sounded familiar. “I grew up getting comments like ‘why are you here?’ and ‘go back to your own country!’”

Tou Saiko and others believe that Lewis’s statements betrayed a lack of historical knowledge regarding the Hmong situation. Many of the Hmong in Laos, including Tou Saiko’s own grandfather, fought against the Pathet Lao Communist government with CIA backing, and many were settled in the US by the American government. Further, Tou Saiko—along with others at CHAT including executive director Kathy Mouachuepao, multidisciplinary artist Katie Vang, and others—helped to organize The H Project, an album by artists representing different styles and regions designed to raise awareness about the thousands of formerly American-allied Hmong soldiers murdered in Laos.

“To hell with Shakespeare, to hell with Tennyson, to hell with science and math, we’re going to teach our 6th graders how to be a hip-hop MC.” -Jason Lewis

By the end of his program, Lewis went so far as to link the Woodbury project to the downfall of Western civilization: “To hell with Shakespeare, to hell with Tennyson, to hell with science and math, we’re going to teach our 6th graders how to be a hip-hop MC.”

“For him to be so upset,” Tou Saiko told me while sitting in the offices of CHAT, “I must be doing something right.” Many groups, including COMPAS and other arts-based activism groups called and wrote in protest to Lewis and KTLK. CHAT, which has asked for an official apology from Lewis, invited him on to their Monday night KFAI radio program, but Lewis declined, citing “time conflicts.” He told CHAT that his remarks were not meant to attack Hmong culture, but rather as a criticism of the use of taxpayer money to fund something other than a back-to-basics curriculum.

Tou Saiko is currently working on a musical response to Lewis with fellow MC and spoken word artist El Guante. He stands by his assertion that his work in schools is important. “Being this kid that didn’t have a voice, being shy, and then actually finding it through hip-hop and now having the opportunity to teach it to other kids and giving them the opportunity to have that voice, I feel like that’s my ultimate goal. And people like Jason Lewis will never discourage me. They can never say anything to make me stop.”

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

Update, 5/17/08

The Parent-Teacher Association of Woodbury’s Lake Junior High has released the following public statement.

Tou Saiko Lee, a respected COMPAS resident artist, was invited to teach our students a spoken word poetry unit for the fourth year in a row. Lake PTA worked in conjunction with the 6th grade teaching team to bring Mr. Lee to our school. He taught students to create their own poetry and learn presentation skills while learning about Hmong culture, which is consistent with our district’s student achievement and diversity goals. Teachers see their students’ enthusiasm and creativity greatly enhanced by Mr. Lee’s teaching and they provide positive evaluations on the outcome of this unit each year. Parents were provided with information about Tou Saiko Lee several weeks prior to his work with the 6th grade students. Nearly half of those parents provided free-will donations to help Lake PTA pay for the cost of this residency. Tou Saiko Lee’s spoken word poetry unit provides a diverse learning and enrichment opportunity that would not otherwise be provided in the regular school day.

17 thoughts on “Tou Saiko Lee: Courage under fire

  1. I completely agree with Jason Lewis’ assessment of this situation. Instead of being a place to learn essential skills for future work and productivity, schools are becoming some sort of social experiment with our children as the test subjects.

    It’s intellectually dishonest for this author to imply that Jason Lewis is telling immigrants to “go back to where they came from”, or that he’s some sort of xenophobe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Expecting immigrants to assimilate is a necessary part of becoming an American citizen. This includes understanding American history and having a good understanding of why we all enjoy the freedom that we do.

    Yet most of our children are coming out of our public schools with precious little understanding of how they came to be free in the first place. Not only are we not encouraging assimilation by our immigrant population, we are creating generations of ill-informed people who know more about ethnic culture and rap music than they do about Thomas Jefferson.

    Jason’s frustration comes from the fact that our tax dollars–the fruits of our labor that are taken from us and used for purposes that we apparently have no say in–are supposedly being used to ‘educate’ our children. Yet data continues to show that American students are lagging behind most of the industrialized world when it comes to science, math, and literacy. So what do our schools do? They begin spending more time on social issues–which should be the job of the parents–than on actually teaching technical skills that will help them be productive citizens once they reach adulthood.

    To portray Jason’s statements as an attack on this young Hmong gentlemen when he was simply voicing his displeasure with how our tax dollars are spent in the public school system is dishonest, and exposes the author as nothing more than a provacateur.

  2. Jason Lewis secretly wishes he had a Hmong or new immigrant friend who can introduce him to some good old soccer tournament food or being able to actually visit the Hmong, Latino and Somali flea markets and festivals around the Twin Cities. I’m sure he has snuck into several of them lately, who knows? I know, the guy regularly goes out for some authentic Asian food and while he feeds his face, he wishes these people, you know, the Vietnamese American cooks and waitresses who tended him will just assimilate on the spot…and feed him some good old American meat and potatoes instead? I know, Jason Lewis has been to many many Asian countries in his life, and knows just how it felt to be among a sea of millions of black hair and brown eyes. I bet you Jason Lewis do have some Asian American and even Hmong friends. But, shhh, don’t tell that to his listeners, they might think he’s some kinda hypocrite. Come on, Jason, tell us none of this is true. Please?

  3. Lewis must have had a conniption fit with Jeremiah Wright’s views on education. Listening to his diatribe regarding teacher’s unions, pta’s etc. I am not surprised at his ripping a rapper. How he equates Homer’s Oddessy and Shakespeare as the essence of education is beyond me. But then he did let loose with the “A” word, equating assimilation with Americanism. I just hope he doesn’t choke himself to death wrapping himself in the American Flag. But in balance, I’d rather be praised by the NY Times people and damned by Lewis and his KTLK than the other way around! BTW, I was going to listen to the whole Lewis thing, but have “time conflicts”.

  4. Jason Lewis is chicken crap. Unless he has the courage to actually do his show from the corner of Lake and Bloomington, or Marion and Como, or Central and 19th. I’d like to see Jason Lewis say the same things at the upcoming Hmong soccer festival at McMurray Field. I can get him a booth next to the Lao Family PA system where he can do his show live, anf for free!

    But, I guess from the comfortable and isolated commercial office at 1600 Utica, between highways 394 and 100 (KTALK)…and his commute back and forth from some downtown condo or somewhere…Jason Lewis can and will say anything about people who don’t look, act, or think like him…from a relative safe distance, of course.

    Like I said, chicken crap as chickens would have it.

  5. You guys are taking a lot of stuff out of context. I am a Hmong person who agrees with Joey and Jason Lewis. I work hard, pay my taxes, state and local, not to have my children (3 school children) learn about other cultures before the American culture. These liberal, socialist experiments do not belong in the schools. The schools are there to teach traditional subjects, period. It’s not as if the schools don’t have arts/music/sports and other extra-curricular programs.

    Also assimilation is a must. Yes we need to remember, practice our traditions and cultures, you have that freedom to. You also need to remember that you are in America now, you need to understand the what priciples and values that the country that you live in, was founded on.

  6. See? I was right, Jason Lewis does have a couple of Hmong friends he can use to justify his bigot and immigrant fear mongering ways. Even some Hmong, like this “Conservative Hmong”, which is really an oxymoron when you think about it, are willing political footballs for the Jason Lewises and Tom Banards of the world to kick around. Good for you. I hope Jason Lewis makes you his “Tonto” sidekick on his show, then we know our community have finally arrived in red neck, Minnesota. Go ahead, see if your soul will be wondering back for some steamy rice with broiled chicken and papaya salad on the side. But, you’re probably be laughing away with Mr. Lewis about how ridiculous and backward Hmong people are, and why they can’t seem to assimilate with meat and pototoes…as only you have been able to mastered. Wow, dude, Hmong conservative goes Jason Lewis…that’s gotta be a first1

  7. Do you know what your kids listen to these days on the radio? The CDs they buy? The CDs you buy for them?

    Compare that to what this rapper has to say then you know might just know who to blame -and that’s not this rapper.

    If you took the time to check out the curriculum, maybe you and Jason Lewis wouldn’t freak out and realize that Creative Writing is an American value.

    Guess what, assimiliation of refugees would not be an issue if places around the world were not at war. Do you call war an American tradition too? Cause that’s all ever seems to happen.

  8. anyone that is able to link cultural and artistic diversity education to the downfall of a [western] civilization is xenophobic.

    plain and simple.

    xenophobes, please broaden your perspective for the sake of my unborn children.

    tou, keep doing your thing.


  9. I listened to the entire show and was apalled that Jason Lewis would promote using “coersion” to force people to learn “American” culture, whatever that is. He said we didn’t need to legislate it but we can use coersion to get people to learn American culture. He goes on to bash the PTA, one of the last bastion of democracy created by the people for the people of that community, as a bureaucratic–not in alignment with conservative values of government being run by real people not career politicians. Worst of all, he equates teaching hip hop emceeto the downfall of the American academic performance.

    After listening to his show and observing how little critical thinking his callers use, I walked away having learned that it’s folks like Jason Lewis andh is audience–the people who puts food on his table–that are the reasons why the American intellect is vaccuous and academic performance has remain low.

    An interesting positive from the show is that Jason Lewis is an advocate for the arts in our schools. Unbelievable but true.

    It’s a known fact–which Jason conveniently left out of his show ebing the arts advocate he is–that art and music increase the academic achievement rates of all students who participates in it consistently. If Jason Lewis is genuinely interested in improving the academic achievements of our studetns, he would not be so dishonest with his misleading statements and educate his listeners rather than further facilitating their ignorance. I can only surmise that Jason is a smart man who knows the research but has to make inaccurate and inflammatory statements because his listeners do not have the capacity to think beyond what they are being fed.

    Tou, keep doing what you do. It’s teaching artists like you who are teaching our kids the skills to be creative, imiginative and think outside the box–none of which sitting in a classroom and learning science and math can teach. Art also teach community, again something math and science can’t teach. Listening to Jason Lewis’s show, it one can walk away thinking he’s a rich man who is being paid well to spew his spread ignorance and keep our public school students from learning the skills to think, be creative and innovative.

  10. Why don’t you assimilate to the American culture already Jason? It’s a damn melting pot. Oh Jason, you conservatives who bring nothing but shame to this very nation. And what’s up with that accent? This is America, not Europe idiot. I Kan’t Believe It’s Not Butter!

  11. In response to the first comment made by Joey…”we are creating generations of ill-informed people who know more about ethnic culture and rap music than they do about Thomas Jefferson.”

    First, what cultures are ethnic and what ones aren’t? The word ethnic seems to relate to such words as heathen or uncivilized…is that your feeling about non-European Americans? Just a guess. At least that is my reaction to Jason Lewis’ frustration with spoken word being taught in the classroom.
    I would like to say that if you want to talk about learning American history then one should know that our history includes Thomas Jefferson and Hip Hop. The really amazing thing is that Hip Hop includes more information and story telling about who we are as a nation then good old Thomas J. Also, hip hop is intelligent musical poetry as well as entertaining expression of the people who create it and their history. I have learned a great deal about the people I share this country with through the power of hip hops sounds, and it has led me to a better understanding of the music that it is influenced by-jazz, soul, blues, gospel and so on….
    There is no history without art history. There is never anything negative about bringing art into the class room. Besides my love for hip hop, didn’t Jefferson believe in Divine Will? I guess that means Tou Saiko was supposed to happen and Lewis should just let it go?

  12. I am from Minnesota, grew up there, I don’t live there anymore but its good to hear so many people able to talk about these issues and without having to bash each other~because I’ve seen how growing up the things I learned in school really were actually quite limiting when you look back on it. I’ve had many talks with people from all walks of life and I find out there was a lot that the schools didn’t give me a chance to learn. Do parents actually really know what their kids are learning? Not unless, they really sit down with them and talk to them.

    No one kid is the same, how they learn, what they find value in, and how they are being treated~or mis-treated, all depends on so many factors: How they are raised? Who are there loved ones? If they have any, what is their environment filled with? What lessons are taught, and what kind of disciplines are kept?

    True, what people think is best is what history has told works…however, the world and society continues to evolve~it changes, for better or for the worse is not important, the fact is it does! And with changes, comes new ways to understand those changes. I believe what Mr. Tou Saiko Lee is doing with his music, his teaching, is he is providing hope for those kids and people. He shows you, you don’t have to be a certain color, certain culture, have certain beliefs, to live and breathe this life…and so many kids because they are so limited to the world they see everyday need that. Heck, and by the looks of it, adults need it too! And if it helps keep kids learning positive things, providing them a safe environment, building relationships with their peers WHY THE HECK ARE YOU WASTING TIME TRYING TO PREVENT SOMETHING THAT HELPS THEM???

    “Keep the Fire Alive”

  13. I think Jason Lewis’ publicity stunt worked. He knows the Hmong community is strong and he knows innovative creative teaching in schools is working…so why not bash them all so that he can get some publicity for his faltering show. I’m tired of seeing his conservative smug on those damn billboards, get a real job.

  14. If I may add alongside the many comments siding with the tremendous things that Tou has done: Lewis is full of bullshit. Tou Saiko is dedicated to doing the things he does for many purposes — if only the whole world could see and understand his reasons to keep doing what he does, I think everyone would be very greatful. These kinds of activities are truly not a waste of money. There are other things rather than just knowing how to calculate numbers or learning about the US’s history. I mean, us Hmong people took a great part in the US’s history, and no where in our books do they mention what we did to help this country out. Education through the school systems don’t teach you everything you need to learn about life. IT only teaches you, oh, maybe half of the things you need to learn. By taking part in these kinds of classes, I believe that people get a chance to express themselves in a way where they can’t in a classroom. Writing poetry is far more than just your tax money, it’s becoming who you are. So people who are too naive to get that —you’re definitely missing out.

  15. Wow, you don’t know anything about child development, or education. Or about REFUGEES. Lol this is actually quite ironic, because you really do show how utterly un-educated you are and how much more you need to know about American history. The Hmong are not immigrants like your people. They have an agreement with the US to fight during the Vietnam War. When we lost we left them breaking our part of the oral treaty. Only after many years of life in hellish refugee camps, churches, aid groups, even the UN finally convinced the US to accept responsibility for our role and allow refugee migration to the US, because there was no place else for them to go. They have a right to maintain their identity and community, just like Native students do. Oh yeah, and we all pay taxes for schools so they must reflect what we all need. What adolescents need more than anything is a positive self-identity. If you advocate constant assimilation, you will end up with communities very disaffected by the marginalization of schooling. Good luck getting through the rest of your life being so under-educated. 

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