My life, my hustle, my pain, my struggle, my political and personal issues I’ve got to juggle.
Julie Phạm, PhD, is the managing editor of Người Việt Tây Bắc, the longest running Vietnamese newspaper in the Northwest, and writes for New America Media. She is the founder of Seabeez, a hub for Seattle’s ethnic media.
SEATTLE — The first time I listened to Nam’s music on his MySpace Web page, I suddenly was cast inside a Metro bus, rumbling through the streets of south Seattle, a bastion of immigrants and their children in an otherwise largely Caucasian city.
Listening to the artist simply known as Nam evokes the rain-kissed windows of the bus, the city’s rolling fog, the multitude of languages spoken, the vestiges of national costumes worn, and the sense of quiet pride we share in belonging to such a community.
There was something else too: the exhilaration of youth, tempered by a growing social and political consciousness and anticipation of the hard work to come.
His music is about, as Nam raps, ”My life, my hustle, my pain, my struggle, my political and personal issues I’ve got to juggle” in his song, ”Balance.”
On Valentine’s Day, Nam was the first Vietnamese American ever to rap at the anniversary festival of 206 Zulu, the Seattle chapter of Universal Zulu Nation, which is a nationwide organization dedicated to preserving, educating and promoting hip hop culture and music and empowering hip hop communities.
Here in the ”Rain City,” there is a growing number of underground Asian Pacific Islander hip hop artists, many of who are of Filipino descent, most notably ”Blue Scholars.”
”The Northwest has a large API cultural presence, so it’s inevitable that there would also be a large API hip hop presence,” said David Kogita (a.k.a. King Khazm), the head of 206 Zulu. ”It’s a reflection of the talent here. …It shows there’s an awareness of hip hop as a culture, a universal entity.”
In this minority, Nam is another minority: the only Vietnamese American hip hop artist who is actively recording. He released his debut album, ”Exhale,” in June 2008.
Nam, 23, sprinkles his lyrics with references to his being a Vietnamese American, a child of refugees.’
”I’m a Vietnamese youth living in America,” he said. ”I’m proud of my culture.”
”Nam” is Andrew Le’s stage name. His friends call him ”Drew” while his family members refer to him as ”Quoc Nam.”
Andrew’s parents came to the United States as refugees in 1979 and 1980. He was born in 1985 in South Seattle and has lived there ever since. Although he is an only child, he grew up in the proximity of his extended family — grandmother, uncles, cousins —and now lives in Rainier Valley with his mother.
Both of Andrew’s parents have worked at a Boeing Co. factory for 20 years.
Andrew was introduced to hip hop culture through graffiti art in middle school. As a freshman at Franklin High School, he recounts how he ”put down the spray paint and picked up the pen” and started ”writing and reciting my life down to the bone.”
”I discovered I really liked writing. I wrote in my journal, I wrote for the school newspaper, I always got As in my English class,” Andrew said.
His participation in the Isang Mahal Arts Collective, a group of API poets that use ”poetry as expression of struggle,” was part of his education in the spoken word. His senior project in high school comprised a three-track demo recorded in his friend’s basement.
The ”rice” in rap
Although Andrew grew up in a solidly multiethnic area, Vietnam figures largely in his storytelling and songwriting. In one song, he mentions the ”struggle between my two tongues.”
”My grandmother didn’t really speak English, so I spoke Vietnamese growing up,” he said. ”My parents had a strict no-English rule at home.”
Andrew has traveled to Vietnam three times, each time with his family. ”I think everyone should experience their homeland,” he said.
”The first time I went to Vietnam was in sixth grade,” Andrew said. ”For the first two weeks, I wanted to go home. During the last two weeks, I didn’t want to leave.”
In ”Beats, Rhymes and Rice,” a song he wrote and performed with Geologic of the Blue Scholars, Andrew invokes the war-torn homeland of his parents, how it has been ”32 years since [Vietnam] last heard the guns cry.” In the same song, the Filipino American Geologic raps, ”We’re just one generation removed from harvesting rice.”
Andrew’s mother, Huong Thi Le, said she is proud that ”he has not forgotten his roots, where he comes from.”
And although his grandmother doesn’t understand his English lyrics, Andrew said that she brags to her friends that her grandson ”makes songs.”
In his album’s title song, ”Exhale,” Nam raps, ”I just wanna see you smile knowin’ that you’re proud of me… Rebirth of a native son, fighting like a champion until the day is won.”
Even Vietnamese hip hop fans are a minority in the API hip hop community.
Tien Vo, a 26-year-old Vietnamese American who grew up in southwest Seattle, said, ”When Nam came out, I felt a sense of pride [that] he too has the same background as me. He could have been Chinese or Cambodian, but that he’s Vietnamese is like a bonus because I get to support a brother.”
”There’s a closeness I have with his music. With the song ‘Beats, Rhymes, and Rice,’ I’ve listened to it a million times. I know about the triple-digit heat, the Vietnamese selling banh mi,” he added. ”It makes me miss Vietnam.”
Andrew’s music also speaks out about the current plight of Vietnamese and foreigners in America in general, of those who ”travel across the lands, working with our foreign hands.” In ”Sing Along,” he addresses human trafficking, using as an example a story of a 31-year-old woman who goes overseas to work.
”Her owner’s taking all the money that she earned to keep, plus he takes advantage of her every time she goes to sleep…she sacrifices her dignity to support her kids….we hope you can hear us as you’re singing through your tears because this happens to millions of women every year,” he raps.
Another line talks of perseverance, ”What’s a sista to do but to stay strong, keep singing your song and I’ll be there to sing along.”
Meaningful music in the 206
While his Vietnamese culture shines through his music, so does Seattle, or what locals refer to as the ”206.” Area references such as ”the Rain City,” ”rice and beans on Beacon Ave.,” the ”sun is shining off the Sound” and the ”needle in the sky” abound in Nam’s music.
Nam’s fans have called such music ”hip hop in its true essence.” That is, positive lyrics with a conscience. In it, you will not hear the boasts of possessions, the ”women and cars,” foul language, or the gangsta glorification that characterize mainstream rap.
In 2007, Andrew began volunteering and then, until recently, working at Washington Asian Pacific Islander Families Against Substance Abuse (Wapi-fasa), a nonprofit helping API youth deal with chemical dependency and substance abuse issues.
The kinds of stories he heard at Wapifasa, of families with drug and alcohol problems and the domestic violence that often accompanies those problems, are featured in his music.
Although he said he believes he eventually will be able to make a career at being a hip hop artist, his ”backup plan” is to get a degree in chemical dependency counseling so that he can become a drug counselor at a place like Wapifasa.
Greg Garcia, Wapifasa’s executive director, wanted to start a hip hop project to teach youth how to use equipment to produce music. Andrew approached Garcia about using the Waspifasa’s recording studio to record an album.
That album then became Wapifasa’s hip hop project’s guinea pig.
Andrew recorded the first third of the album at Wapifasa and the rest at his friend’s house, Kogita’s Black Lab studio. Along with his own money, Andrew’s parents helped him finance this album.
”I wanted to give him a gift, to support him,” his mother says.
Andrew spent about a year writing, producing and recording his songs.
The result was ”Exhale,” which, like an author’s first novel, is often autobiographical in nature.
”I love Drew’s lyrics,” Garcia said. ”Unlike a lot of other hip hop artists, he’s not afraid to reveal himself. His music is very personal, conscious.”
Of the music, Kogita said, ”He has an interesting dynamic. His music is coming from a conscious lyrical standpoint, and there’s a lot of energy in how he conveys his message. There’s a good balance between lyricism and street.”
After hearing Nam perform at his album release party in 2008, Võ contacted him about using his lyrics to teach her students about history, reading, and literacy. She is a teacher of fifth and sixth graders at White Center Heights Elementary School in southwest Seattle.
Vo said, ”His lyrics are positive, they speak of an immigrant background, a hard-knocks life that my students can relate to. His music speaks to the struggle.”
She and her students analyze the metaphors in Nam’s music. ”You would think that fifth and sixth graders are too young to understand such deep lyrics, but they do understand. They like the way he words things, the beats, and they like learning through the music.”
Thoughts of a rising son
When asked to compare Nam’s music to other hip hop artists, Garcia said, ”He’s just Drew. He has his own style, his own perspective, which makes him stand out.”
Andrew said that he is eager to keep learning, writing and producing music.
”I recorded with Drew recently. He’s gotten a lot better since his first album,” Garcia said. ”He will continue to develop as an artist.”
”Thoughts of a Rising Son” is the title of Andrew’s blog, another outlet for his writing.
”I’m a son, on the rise,” Andrew explained. ”I keep growing as a person, as an artist.” His album ends with the song, ”Thank you.” ”It’s been a long journey, it’s just the first chapter, there’s more to come,” he raps.
Yes, there is. And we will keep our ears open to hear how this young artist grows.
originally posted on New America Media.
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