Photo by Jeanne Rice”Cambodia, a land ruled by kings and gods, located on the mainland of Asia, bounded on the east by Vietnam, and on the north by Laos, and on the west by Thailand, and on the south by the Gulf of Thailand. Area: 69,898 square miles, approximately 181,035 square kilometers, about the size of Missouri . . . Boys and girls, are you listening to me? This is Cambodia 101.”
—Prach Ly's “The Temple of Peace (The Take Over!)”
The Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in Cambodia ended in 1979 as Pol Pot's twisted utopian dream of a self-sufficient farming-based communist state collapsed into war with an invading Vietnamese army. What the Khmer Rouge left behind was a nightmare of slavery, oppression, torture and genocide: nearly 2 million dead, with people dragged out to the killing fields, made to kneel in front of large ditches, and done in by bullets or a hard shovel blow to the skull.
Entire families were executed for the infractions of a single member, just in case anyone got any ideas about vengeance. Infants were slammed against tree trunks or impaled on bamboo sticks. Speaking a language other than the native Khmer could get you killed. Whole cities were forcibly emptied of people who were told their labors were more useful in the farmlands. Religion was declared illegal. Books, art and music were banned. Markets were shuttered, food became scarce, private property was outlawed, and money became worthless. Doctors, teachers and even people who wore glasses were executed en masse—anyone perceived as an intellectual might be an enemy of the state. It was all part of Pol Pot's grand plan: to cleanse Cambodia and start everything over again—including history itself—at Year Zero.
The occupying Vietnamese finally left in 1991, and a state of uneasy normalcy has existed in Cambodia since then. Free elections have been held, though they've been rife with corruption. Pol Pot died in 1998, but his bloody legacy still has an effect on the people's psyche. Parents aren't emotionally strong enough to explain to their kids what happened to relatives—or why they're having constant nightmares themselves. Students aren't taught much about the Khmer Rouge years in school, either, which some attribute more to a forgive-and-forget Buddhist culture than to an overt whitewashing of historical truths. A generation born after the Khmer Rouge era is growing up with only a vague knowledge of that period, their curiosity especially piqued whenever they feel something's being hidden from them.
And so it was that a 23-year-old Nike-wearing, knowledge-dropping rapper from Long Beach became a Cambodian superstar.
All he wanted was to have some fun, Prach Ly constantly explains, sipping on iced tea in a restaurant just across from Long Beach's Polytechnic High School. We're just a few yards off Anaheim Street, the heart of Little Phnom Penh—just as Little Saigon is the biggest enclave of Vietnamese outside Vietnam, this busy and vibrant area boasts the largest community of Cambodians outside Cambodia. It's pretty mixed, actually, with nearby black and Latino neighborhoods further peppering the cultural stew.
That's how he found hip-hop, Prach says. He grew up in Long Beach near a park where kids would come to battle one another freestyle, to see who had the better rhymes. Prach felt he had to represent his people, so he'd join in. He was good, and he soon moved up to rapping at parties. He even made some money.
“I'd get paid $100 for 10 minutes of stuff. Can't beat that!” he says between tea gulps. “I was just a kid. But then gangsta rap was getting big, and everybody started rapping about that—drugs and guns and cars and girls—which I wasn't into doing, so I had to kind of divide myself away a bit.”
He loved the storytelling inherent in hip-hop, he says, but he needed a new story to tell. After graduating from Jordan High School, he went to visit relatives in Florida, where he had the kind of revelation every artist needs. If he wanted to drop rhymes, Prach had to drop rhymes about what he knew best: himself.
Prach was born in Cambodia during the flood season of the Khmer Rouge's final year. His mother told him that moments after his birth, snakes slithered into their hut and swarmed menacingly around baby Prach; to their amazement, he wasn't bitten. Prach's family had had enough of the country's chaotic post-Pol Pot period and emigrated to the U.S. in 1983, enduring a miserable stint in a Thai refugee camp along the way. In 1987, they settled in Long Beach, then evolving into a kind of Cambodian mecca.
“We landed in America with nothing but flip-flops, T-shirts, and a couple of pots and pans,” Prach says. “I remember when my mom first stepped on American ground—I saw tears coming out of her eyes. That stuck in my head. My dad said that from there, it could only get better. Where else were we supposed to go? We just came from hell—where else can you go but up?”
“Dalama” is a word Prach just made up, he says. It's a combination of “Dalai Lama” and “dilemma.” And, he adds, “also a little bit of 'trauma.'”
The idea of “dalama” rose naturally out of his writings about the Khmer Rouge and his family's experiences—and it was a natural title for the album he cut in his parents' Long Beach garage two years ago, using a karaoke machine to dub rhymes over his beats and burning the final mix onto a CD. “No mixing board or studio!” Prach boasts. “I keep it old school! What you hear is what you get. And if you mess up, you gotta do the whole thing over again.” Prach considers Dalama (the full title is Dalama: The End'n Is Just the Beginnin') a demo that he'd love to cut over again. But for an album cut in a garage, it sounds great. And his message just screams through.
In “The Year Zero,” he's a victim of the Khmer Rouge: “These assholes laugh like jackals dressed in black/Strip me naked, tie my hand behind my back/Told me to choose one, the gun or the axe/They say I was guilty of rebelling against the revolution/Told me I got three seconds, then they're gonna start shootin'/On the count of one, I pray for my soul/On the count of two, for my family and my people/On the count of three, I was dressed in red/I took two shots to the head and [was] left for dead.”
In “The Letter (Prisoner of War),” he's a history teacher: “On April 17, 1975/The rise of the Khmer Rouge terrorized the countryside/Innocent cries, endless shooting, do-or-die/It's a revolution, population 7 million, everyone heard it/Within 3 days, the whole country is deserted . . . And those who wore glasses or different language-speakin'/Either executed or severely beaten/Doctors, teachers, lawyers, bureaucrats and merchants were killed/They say intellectual people is not needed in the field/Villages burned, schools turned into barns/There's nothing to learn but to listen and farm.”
And in songs like “Welcome” and “Child of the Killing Field,” he's just himself, one of a generation of assimilated Cambodians growing up without really knowing or appreciating what their parents went through to make a better life for them: “As soon as our feet hit the ground, my mom busted in tears/No words can describe a moment so rare/And right by her side my father was there/Staring at the sky, holding each other/Realized we survived the genocide.”
He rhymes mostly in English—his steady, deliberate flow at times reminds you of Ice-T circa “Colors”—but he switches to Khmer on several tracks, and he ends the whole thing on an upbeat note with “Jaey-Yo!”, all about the glories of Cambodian New Year, one of the country's major celebrations. For extra effect, sprinkled throughout Dalama are sound bites from old Khmer Rouge propaganda speeches and dialogue from the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, still the main reference point for Americans familiar with what went on in Cambodia during the late 1970s.
When Prach finished Dalama, he made up a thousand copies, sold it until he earned back his production costs, and then gave away the rest of his stock to family and friends. And that was it, he thought—time to get started on another.
Somehow, though, a copy of Dalama found its way to Cambodia, where it showed up on a radio show. And then people started asking about it. And then—thanks to the miracle of CD burning and the lack of copyright laws in Cambodia—hot-off-the-burner copies of Prach's album popped up in Phnom Penh record shops, some selling for as much $5 apiece. That's a lot, considering that the average monthly wage in Cambodia is around $30—and that's a telling indication of just how much of a hit Dalama had become.
But bootleggers had hijacked the title and artwork, replacing Prach's minutely detailed visual timeline of his journey from Cambodia to America (with skulls in a pile, a cart pulled by cows and the Angkor Wat temple on the left and the U.S. Capitol building, a Hummer and the Statue of Liberty on the right) with a photo of a small boy clutching a rifle under the legend “The Khmer Rouge: Khmer Rap”—and omitting any credit or mention of Prach Ly in the process.
Until an Asiaweek reporter tracked Prach down last April, Cambodia had no idea who their anonymous rap phenomenon was—and Prach had no idea he'd become possibly the first rap star ever in a country he hasn't seen since he was four years old.
“I got this call, and [the reporter] told me it was a really big hit there in Cambodia. She told me I was a hip-hop star!” Prach says. “I didn't know what to say—I was just shocked. I didn't know how it got there because I didn't know anybody who took it over there. But at the time, a couple of stores had sold 700 or 800 copies. I wanted to know where the money was going because I knew it wasn't going to charity—it was going into someone's pocket. But I really couldn't do nothing about it.”
The buzz Prach's music generated in Cambodia was something totally new. Asiaweek quoted a Phnom Penh DJ as saying that Prach is “the first Khmer artist who is actually revealing something, and that touches a lot of people.” Undoubtedly, many Cambodian youths were hearing about the Khmer Rouge years for the first time through Prach's rhymes—his perspective from an ocean and a generation away let him say things no one else could.
“Most of the adults are still traumatized,” Prach says. “They have nightmares of that time, and they can't get over it. I mean, how can you get over your own race, your own people, killing you? For over four years, watching kids and adults getting killed in front of you, treating you worse than an animal? You can't.”
But Prach's peers in Phnom Penh and beyond still had questions about Year Zero, and as Dalama burned its way into more and more CD players, listeners found a way to focus their frustration. Yes, he's happy that he's famous, Prach Ly will say. He's happy people like the music, not so happy that he's been ripped-off—he has yet to see a penny from any of those CD sales. But the thing that really makes him happy, he says, is that the questions Dalama raised, in one way or another, got Cambodia's moldering history books—victims of a bury-the-past mindset—back in the schools.
“When I started out doing it, it was just for fun,” he says again. “I didn't really pay much attention to it. I just wanted something that would reflect my culture when I was growing up and what we went through. And I guess they loved it.”
So far, Prach has refused all offers to go to Cambodia—and he's had plenty. All expenses paid, even.
“When they asked me to go last time, it was when they were voting again,” he says. “But everybody knows it's corrupted, and I'm not gonna keep that in the closet. I want to go back, but I don't want to go empty-handed. I want to give something to the people. Say I do a show there, and I get paid—I want to give what I make back to the people there. I don't want to take money out because the country needs money. If I'm taking money out, I'm a robber of my own people.”
Instead, he's looking homeward—to Long Beach, where he'd like to one day build a genocide museum to remind people what happened in Cambodia, so it can never be repeated. But that's a ways off.
Now he's writing and gathering notes for the Dalama follow-up to be called The Education of the Lost Chapter, which he hopes to have finished by March 3, 2003 (he's awfully precise, this Prach Ly). Like most aural artists, he'd like to see it released through a major label (“I've had talks with record labels,” he says, “but as soon we sit down at meetings, they always want to mold me into something I'm not”) and is particularly fond of DreamWorks. But if there's no deal, that's okay—he'll just self-release the next one, too.
He still loves working his day job at a karaoke shop near the corner of Anaheim Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue—just enough to pay for food and gas, but he feels safe, and his older customers are always telling him stories of what life was like in Cambodia, before and after Pol Pot. He doesn't think he'll ever leave Long Beach, actually—he's always representing, and his silver and black “LB” ball cap has become something of a trademark. He has been producing music for his friends' groups, NorthStar Resurrec and Universal Speakers. He just got engaged. He lives on Peace Street.
And he gets fan mail all the time, some from people who liken Prach to the great singer Sin Sisamouth, who is as famous in Cambodia as Bob Dylan is everywhere else. It's a comparison Prach is uncomfortable with: Sisamouth was slain by the Khmer Rouge, the legend goes, after being marched out into the woods and forced to sing one last song.
“When I made Dalama, I never, ever thought there would be any impact,” Prach says. “But one of the letters I got was from this lady in Wyoming. She went to Cambodia and adopted two kids, and when she was there, she heard about me and wanted to get the CD. But everywhere she went, it was sold out. I don't know how she found me, but she wrote me and said she really wanted her kids to know about their culture and history. So I mailed her a CD.
“And then I got another letter from her, and inside was a picture of her kids,” he continues. “She said they listen to the CD all the time, that they don't really understand it now, but maybe when they're older, around 15 or 16, they'll understand it more.”
But this lady from Wyoming, she understands it right now, Prach says.
“She's not even Cambodian,” he says, “but when she listens to the CD, she feels freedom.”