Interview: Hmong emcee Tou Saiko


Can you tell me how you came to the Twin Cities?
I was born in the Nongkai Refugee Camp in Thailand in 1979. My parents were there because of the Vietnam War; they were forced out of their village. That was the same year that they moved away to Syracuse, and that’s where I grew up. I came to the Twin Cities when I was, like, 12. When my parents came here, it was just my parents and me—and then all the rest of my siblings were born here. My grandmother came here six or seven years ago, straight from Laos.

How did you first get interested in music?
I was always into writing. What happened was, I stopped writing because I didn’t really understand what it was all about. I started getting involved with gangs and stuff, and then I eventually was put into this juvenile institution. There was nothing to do, and I started to write again—I was writing about my life and what I was going through. And then me and a friend, we were at different institutions, we were sending our letters, poems, and lyrics to each other. From there, I eventually got out, and started wanting to do it more seriously. I didn’t start doing hip-hop music until I was out of high school. I graduated high school and then I started doing it with my brother [Vong Lee]. He caught onto our lyrics and then he started writing his own, and that’s when we started up the group [Delicious Venom].

“2Pac had a lot of really violent lyrics, but then you look a little further—there’s a lot of poetry in his lyrics. For me, that really opened up a door.”

Did you have a lot of music around when you were growing up?
My parents always played Hmong music, Laotian music, Thai music, stuff like that. I used to listen to like Skid Row and Guns ‘n’ Roses, and my dad used to listen to Van Halen. And then me and my brother listened to a lot of rap music, a lot of gangsta rap. I was into the Dr. Dres and the NWAs, stuff like that. And then I started catching on to 2Pac. And he had a lot of really violent lyrics, too, but then you look a little further—there’s a lot of poetry in his lyrics. For me, that really opened up a door.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Justin Schell on Tou Saiko’s response to an attack by radio host Jason Lewis and hear Delicious Venom’s recording “30 Year Secret.”

How do you characterize the place of rap within the Hmong community here?
During the 90s, it was all this very violent gangsta-type rap. The rap I was doing was on that side, too. That’s the environment we grew up in, and that’s a lot of what we heard too. And so that’s how it was perceived by our parents and other people. My parents were not digging the idea that we were rapping until I started doing spoken word poetry, thinking more consciously about what I was doing through hip-hop, and started going into schools and communities and doing it for the youth. I did this poem called “Generation After Generation,” which talks about our struggles and conflicts of the older and the younger generation, and how we want to be a part of this society in America, but want to hold on to our culture. That was something that connected to a lot of older Hmong people. And then my parents started to understand that what we were doing wasn’t negative, and they started to accept it. They even came to some of our shows. It became a more positive thing and it made me more passionate about building community, ‘cause I’m doing it from this artistic perspective.

Can you tell me more about Fresh Traditions, your work with your grandma and kwv txhiaj [traditional sung poetry]?
My grandma’s just an ill poet, she’s an ill MC. She doesn’t know how to read or write in Hmong, ’cause at that time, the written language wasn’t developed. And she didn’t get an opportunity to go to school in her generation. To learn kwv txhiaj, she had to either memorize it or freestyle it. So I wanted to collaborate and perform with her. I learned the connection of what I do with hip hop and spoken word poetry to what she does. That motivated me more as a spoken word and hip hop artist. And it seemed like everything I say is important because it’s recording our history. Kwv txhiaj, because we didn’t have a written language, was the only way we passed on our histories, along with the tapestry, the Paj Ntaub. And then when I see Melle Mel telling his stories about what was going on in his community, I just made that connection. And so I’m continuing on that tradition through this different style and language.

“My grandma’s just an ill poet, she’s an ill MC.”

What are some other musical projects you’re working on?
Post Nomadic Syndrome—PosNoSys—is a band that I helped form. I’ve always been into rock, too. I know there’s that whole era of rock-rap, too. I’m a huge Rage Against the Machine fan, of course. I always liked working with other artists, vibing off other artists. I got together with the guitar player Chue Feng and the drummer Shawn Mouachuepao, and then we just started jamming together and we were just inviting other musicians to collaborate with us—like vocalist Oskar Ly and bassist Tieng Hang. There’s this raw energy for me to be a part of, and just to let loose with my poetry through another form of music. We still do music that we feel is meaningful and makes an impact on issues that are important to us—such as addressing the negative media coverage of Hmong people in a song called “Get Justice.” There are differences, of course, but you know it’s still music, I’m still rapping, but it’s just a different style, and I’m doing it with live instruments.

One of the things you’re best known for is The H Project. How did that come about?
It’s the whole thing about art for social change, and wanting to write about our community and wanting to write about what we were going through. Knowing about this human rights issue, this genocide of Hmong people in Laos, we wanted to use music as a tool to really educate people about it and raise awareness about it. We made a call out to artists from all over the country, not just hip-hop artists, but rock musicians and poets, gospel artists and R&B and all that. And then we all came together and did the CD. And as artists, this is our contribution, this is our way of really helping, especially those organizations that are really out there and talking to politicians and all that. We wanted to be part of that motivating factor and we felt like we really connected to them in a very positive way.

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.