Bao Phi has been a visionary performance poet since 1991, and is the best Vietnamese spoken word artist out there, period. Heck, he’s in the running for the best Asian American spoken word artist right now. Here we share some videos of his performances–you have to see “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me”–and his thoughts on Asian American spoken word. He was born in Viet Nam and raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. A spoken-word artist and activist for the past 15 years, he has performed and taught at venues and schools across the nation, including the Nuyorican Poets Café and the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City, several National Poetry Slams, the University of Pennsylvania, Amherst College, the Kennedy Center, and Stanford University. Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and his poem appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. He has issued two CDs of his work, Refugeography and Flares, as well as a book, Surviving the Translation: Collected Poems from 1993-2002.
Asian Americans are often denied our place in history, especially those of us who are engaged in cultural art forms that take us off the beaten, mainstream path. In the rare cases where we are remembered, we are seen as ‘also-rans,’ people whose sole purpose was to diversify a scene rather than help create and define it – or curious tokens whom were able to find a way to be successful despite our race. Seldom are we seen or considered as a collective movement, or a group of people who have a shared history.
In this entry on my little blog, I’m hoping create a space where we remember how important Asian American spoken word artists have been to this decade, and how it in turn has impacted us – at least, through my own very personal lens. A lot has happened in the last ten years. The challenge was, how to begin? This is my blog, and it’s not like I get paid to do research and archiving – people would forgive me for being personal. I could write about some of the formative moments for me: meeting legendary community activist and poet Giles Li for lunch at Peking Garden before this decade even began. He is now one of my best friends. I’ve had the great privileges of sharing a mic with him many times across the country, and though he’s younger than me, he’s someone I look up to as a role model.
I remember participating in an Asian American open mic during the national slam in Chicago, and meeting this new group of Asian American spoken word poets that had just formed at the time, who called themselves I Was Born With Two Tongues. Though it was the first time I made the semifinals at Nationals, I was honestly more excited and invested in this large and vibrant community of Asian American artists and activists they were able to build in Chicago. Though this happened before the beginning of the decade, I had to include this because I feel it was a turning point: the Tongues could be seen as largely ushering in this era, not just for me but for Asian American spoken word poetry. When I saw them perform, I think it was one of the few times that my jaw literally dropped, they were such powerful writers and performers, what they were able to convey was what so many of us had wanted to experience for so long. They were also the first poets I met who had an agent: the amazing Jona Mercado.
I had the great joy to share a couple of shows with them through the years, and one standout was at the fresh beginning of the decade: it was the Tongues, me, show-stopping rappers the Pacifics, Chicago favorite Offwhyte, a young 19 year-old emcee/poet named Geologic from Seattle, and a big crew of multitalented Filipinos from the Bay called 8th Wonder – all of us on the same bill. I remember sleeping on the floor and eating Krispy Kremes, staying up too late, feeling nervous about performing for my peers, and never feeling happier.
There was the time at my first Nationals in Austin where I sat in a theater and saw the movie Slam Nation, being surprised that there was an Asian American featured, then meeting Beau Sia and Kelly Tsai in the street a couple of hours later. There was that “Angry Asians Show” at Asian Arts Initiative in Philly with F. Omar Telan and Yellow Rage, all of us feeling guilty for laughing so hard backstage (hey, aren’t we supposed to be angry for this show?) There were those low-paying shows, ones we would look back upon and see them as ‘paying our dues’ type of shows. One of those early ones was sometime in the year 2000, in the middle of nowhere, where Dennis Kim introduced me to an up-and-coming poet named Ishle Park.
I remember making long commutes back and forth to Chicago with some sisters who were forming a group called Mango Tribe, they were working on a show called Sisters in the Smoke. Telling ghosts stories in a drafty haunted guest house with 3 members of feedBACK after a show out east. Seeing Poetic License and wondering who that dope poet was at the end of it – then meeting Malaya Dimaapi when he unexpectedly walked through the door at a house party at Nancy Yap’s in Manhattan. I remember trading hilarious stories with working class heroes Proletariat Bronze, Taiyo coming from basketball games to meet me for tea in Chinatown. I remember the powerful feeling, meeting other Vietnamese American spoken word artists at long last – every time I met someone like Dandiggity, Jimmy Tran, Jennii Le, and Sahra Nguyen, I felt more and more of my pessimism melt away.
Breaking bread with Isangmahal felt like coming home to family, I remember how easy it was to laugh and joke around them even though we all had just met. I remember introducing myself to Jane Kim and shaking her hand at the first Summit in Seattle, how she hosted me for my first ever show in San Francisco, and now I am thankful for how her community activism over the years has become such an inspiration to me and my life. I remember a weekend retreat with Marlon Esguerra, Giles, Adriel Luis, Ed Bok Lee, and myself; our intention was to create an Asian American men’s spoken word super-group along with Robert Karimi, Jason Bayani, Beau, and Dennis – but playing poker instead. I remember hearing Theresa Vu and Direct rock a live show for the first time and being so thrilled and inspired I almost collapsed. I cheered until my throat when hoarse when I traveled to the Nationals in Michigan as a spectator and watched Jaylee Alde mesmerize every audience member who heard him. I remember seeing Stephen Bor for the first time in Texas, and was just floored when he delivered the poetic coup de’ grace, “We speak English, but we don’t speak the same language.”
There was that time I was rocking a performance in front of a huge Vietnamese American crowd in Westminster organized by the amazing women of Mai Piece, and realizing that Yen Le Espiritu, one of my heroes, was in the audience. I got to reconnect with activists and artists like Ravi Chandra, Shailja Patel, Tony Nguyen, Momo Chang, Pratap Chatterjea and many more at the 2009 National APIA Spoken Word Summit in 2009 and I was inspired and blown away by the energy and talent of the next generation of poets there.
Many more stories, but what about the local ones? Like seeing Robert Karimi get the most raucous and well-deserved standing ovation ever at the Loft. D’Lo, Regie Cabico, Juliana Hu Pegues and Rain Sonic performing one of the most perfect shows I’ve ever seen at the Equilibrium 5 year Anniversary Queer Asian American Spoken Word show (full disclosure, I was curator and organized both shows – if you don’t like it, get your own blog). I remember feeling lonely being the only Asian American at the early local slams, until this playwright named Ed Bok Lee started coming up and performing some of the best spoken word poetry I’ve ever heard in my life. Christy Namee Eriksen, a student at Hamline, started to kick mind-blowing, beautiful poems coming from her experience as a Korean Adoptee. I remember seeing Nomi battle and thinking, damn, this raw dude can’t possibly be from Minnesota. Established artists such as David Mura, Sherry Quan Lee, and the late Vijit Ramchandani and the late Esther Suzuki, supported Asian American spoken word artists long before it was popular to do so. Seeing scores of Hmong and Southeast Asian artists and musicians come up in Saint Paul through the amazing I.C.E. open mics organized by community organizers like Tou Saiko Lee and Kathy Mouachepao, it was like they were creating a breathing Asian American history here in the Midwest. There were the shows where community organizers and artists came together to raise awareness and funds for Fong Lee and Chai Soua Vang, where many different people came together and brought up difficult questions regarding justice and equality. This decade I met two local Sri Lankan American women – one a breathtakingly talented visual artist named Chamindika Wanduragala, the other a supernaturally gifted dancer named Pradeepa Jeeva – who created Diaspora Flow, which changed the local art scene forever (and to whom on a personal level I will be forever be grateful to for introducing me to one of my best friends – whatup Thuyet!) And last but not least, I remember listening to a poem by longtime artist, activist, and inspiration Juliana Hu Pegues, a poem she had written to the slain Lily Wang, and being moved to tears.
Let an old man reminisce. If it seems like I’m bragging, then consider this: a Vietnamese refugee grows up in Phillips, south Minneapolis, the youngest in a large and economically poor family, and becomes a poet. I joined the South High speech team while holding down a job pushing carts at Cub Foods. Quincy Troupe came to speak when I was a sophomore and was the first to introduce the idea of loving language, especially the ones spoken by those of us marginalized people. As driven and inspired as I was, I didn’t think poetry would take me anywhere. I loved poetry – but the idea of a poet touring was unheard of, for an Asian American and especially for one without an MFA, as I later was told in college. I was determined to be a poet, but was sure I’d always be working at a restaurant or some other job to pay my bills. I was also told by some of my peers that I wasn’t a real poet, what I did was just really ‘street talk.’ Although I had a lot of support, especially from Native American writer and mentor Diane Glancy, I also felt like a lot of people wish I didn’t exist. Poets were not on HBO back then and we certainly didn’t travel as much. I was 21 the first time I got on a plane since I got off the one that brought me to this country when I was six months old. That I was able to experience and benefit so much from poetry, that I was able to travel and get paid, that I was able to find and help create such an incredible national APIA community of spoken word poets, does not make me conceited – it humbles me.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t all good. That show I mentioned where I met Ishle? The people who flew us in, didn’t bother to pick me up at the airport, and as this was before cell phones, they also didn’t tell me I was on my own and where to go (I’m no diva, but a ride to the show would have been nice ). There was that time a walk amongst friends almost became a street fight in Brooklyn. There was a show me, Dennis, and Emily Chang did, where we crashed on a couch to help the organizers save some money only to have a young woman who was angry with her boyfriend yell at us for sleeping on that couch. All the missed planes and lost luggage, the late paychecks, the fights and shouting matches with racists/sexist/homophobes who just had to try and start something with me or my friends, the shows where you sensed that you were there out of a need to fulfill some diversity requirement rather than because someone wanted to hear your poems – there were plenty of bad days. Not to mention the minor irritations: I can’t count the number of times I was mistaken by non-Asians to be Beau or Alvin Lau.
Then there are the places that screwed me over because they knew I was inexperienced and had no contract in place – or worse, the places that screwed over the older, more experienced me, because they knew they could afford lawyers and I couldn’t. I’ve been booked for shows by people who said they had no money while passive-aggressively suggesting that, if I really cared about community, I wouldn’t charge money at all – only to discover I’d be sharing the stage with some big name Asian artist, actor, musician, or comedian who was paid 10 times more than me and who doesn’t care about the community. Don’t take my word for it, just ask them during the Q & A whether or not they care about Asian American people and they’ll tell you.
And yet these are the folks our community treats like rock stars, because they shared a catering table with George Clooney or breathed the same air as Taylor Swift. All the while great community artists and organizers such as Giles Li, Siwaraya Rochanahusdin, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Juliana Hu Pegues, Tou Saiko Lee, and Kiwi, go vastly underappreciated in relation to the years of love, hard work, and talent they’ve committed to our communities all over the country. I’m sick of hearing Asian Americans say we don’t have leaders. Sure we do. We’re just crummy at supporting them.
And unfortunately, my own record is not untarnished. I’ve been guilty of being self-righteous, hypocritical, petty. I spoke poorly and in an ill-informed manner about one of my peers to a local paper. There were times I made errors on my own schedule and let down people who had supported me. There were times I did not give enough credit or thanks to people who worked really hard on things that I benefited from. Looking back, there were times I wished I was more diplomatic, and other times where I wish I had put aside the fakeness and just put up my fists and fought.
But I’m trying to focus on the positives here, because at least for me, this decade has had much more good than bad, and much of that has to do with this amazing, fractured, imperfect and beautiful community of artists. It is no exaggeration to say that these people have saved my life. I’ll end with a list of notable Asian American independent CD’s. I toyed with the idea of writing about chapbooks or specific poems instead, but when it came down to it, I remembered hearing a poem by Helen Yum while I was driving in my car, a poem that resonated with me so powerfully that I had to pull my car over on Franklin and weep. The power of these CDs is that the voice of the poem lives beyond time, and moves beyond borders. If I was a lonely kid, the only Asian in the middle of a corn field, or a weirdo artsy Asian living in the heart of Little Saigon, it wouldn’t matter – a poem on a CD can reach me, and can change my life, a voice can touch me then, and now.
I know that this is limiting. Though I asked for help, it’s a very biased list. It’s also a difficult prospect because some of our really great and important artists, such as Sham E Ali Al-Jamil and Stephen Bor, don’t have CDs. The ?Nation of Immigrants? compilation of Minnesota poets of color and indigenous spoken word poets, which contain essential Asian American poems such as Juliana Hu Pegues and Latina poet Tatiana Ormaza’s poetic duet “Under the Table” (one of the greatest poems of all time), Christy Namee Eriksen’s “What Would Harry Holt Do?”, Ka Vang’s “Extraordinary Hmong”, Preeti Kaur’s “Empty Field”, and Ed Bok Lee’s “Secret to Life in America,” is not on this list because the CD is not completely Asian American. Before you accuse me of being a separatist, let me tell you that I believe whole-heartedly in cross-community alliances – in fact, I was the producer and curator of that project.
Some artists, such as Blue Scholars and Denizen Kane, released more than one standout album during this decade, but I decided to include only one CD per artist/group. As much as it was limiting, I had to come up with some rule set or else I’d be all over the place. Would I include Foxy Brown? What about Pussycat Dolls, whose lead singer is of Asian mixed race heritage, or other more popular acts such as Norah Jones or Linkin Park? Basically, I went with my gut and my own collection, with a little help from my friends, and asked the question, what independent Asian American spoken word poetry recordings, hip hop, and music should be noted here, which otherwise may have flown under the radar and be lost to history?
Something that was also tricky: my own CDs. When I first started writing and researching this blog entry, I was determined not to mention my own CDs. However, I received several threats from my peers, who told me that if I did not include my Refugeography CD, produced by the great Larry Lucio, Jr., that I would be dissed, battled, and yelled at for the remainder of the new decade. I still feel weird about including it in this list, so my compromise is this: I just mentioned it in this paragraph. There. It’s in this blog entry but not on the list. Please don’t battle me/diss me etc. At least not for the entirety of the next ten years.
Understand I don’t have any special credentials that give me the right to create such a list and I’m not going to pretend that I’m being objective. This is, once again, my blog. But I will say that the intention here is not a competitive one, but rather one that bookmarks a place in our community history, and should be looked upon as the beginning of a discussion rather than a comprehensive view.
Last thing I’ll say: when I reached out to people for ideas for this list, the vast majority of APIA artists wrote back asking me not to put their CD on the list. They didn’t want to take slots away from an artist that they felt was more worthy of mention than them. This was coming from some of our greatest community artists. It is amazing to me, the depth of talent combined with humility that the people on this list represent. It’s just another thing that makes me proud to be an APIA spoken word poet, and it strengthens my resolve about creating a space where our place in history is marked.
In no particular order, here are my picks of the Best Asian American Independent Recordings of the Decade (thanks to people who contributed to this):
Hilltribe, Summer School Mixtape
Prach Ly, Dalama: The Lost Chapters
Mountain Brothers, Self Vol 1
The Himalayan Project, The Middle Passage
Power Struggle, Hearts and Minds
Key Kool and Rhettmatic, Kozmonauts
The Pacifics, The September First Project: Long Overdue
I Was Born With Two Tongues, Broken Speak
feedBACK Poets Collective, feedBACK Poets
8th Wonder, 8th Wonder
Beau Sia, Dope and Wack
Kay Ulanday Barrett, Since My Body
Blackbird Elements, Saving the Roots Mixtape
Taiyo Na, Love is Growth
Native Guns, Barrel Men
Ishle Park, Work is Love
Lyrics Born, Later That Day
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Infinity Breaks
Kiwi, Writes of Passage
Blue Scholars, The Long March EP
Robert Karimi and DJ D-Double, Self: The Remix
Bambu, …exact change…
The Skyflakes, Calling In Sick
Guante and Big Cats, An Unwelcome Guest
Chantz Erolin, The Good Company EP
Senbei, AAS 550: Asian Americans of Mixed Heritage Mix Tape
Various, The H-Project CD
DJ Phatrick featuring various artists, Asian American Hip Hop for Dummies
– Bao Phi originally posted this writing at The Star Tribune
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