The winner of this year’s InSession songwriting contest, which encourages up-and-coming Hmong musical artists, is Sarah Yang of Oakdale.
The contest, organized by the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), is now in its seventh year. This year’s judges included University of Minnesota composition professor Alex Lubet and previous winners Thomas Yang (no relation) and Oskar Ly. In winning the contest, Yang received a $500 gift certificate to American Guitar and Band in Maple Grove, as well as 20 hours of recording time at Essential Studios in St. Paul. “I’m going to buy a new guitar,” she says with a smile.
Sarah Yang performs “Broken” at the Hmong Arts Festival.
As with many of the Hmong residents of the Twin Cities, Yang’s past contains many different places called home. Yang’s parents were born in Laos, but later moved to California, where Yang was born. In search of greater job opportunities, the family moved to the Twin Cities. Now 16, Yang attends Tartan Senior High School.
Yang writes songs in both Hmong and English, and her lyrics often reflect her Christianity. One of the songs she performed at the contest’s finals was a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable. While drawing on these beliefs, she makes a conscious effort to frame her music more universally. “It’s kind of music based on problems, trials and tribulations that I go through. And it’s a way of giving people hope.”
Yang performs “Love at Home” at the same event.
Yang only started performing and writing her own songs within the last year, inspired by the many singer-songwriters in her church community and feels that the recording will be “a good jumpstart for what I want to do in the future.” She has her sights set on becoming a worship leader and performing at church conventions throughout the country.
Yang believes that events like InSession can help Hmong artists of all stripes, regardless of the style or message of their music. “It’s a good way to get it across to the Hmong community that they can write music,” she says, “a way to make sure that they use the talents they have.”
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.