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.