When Bao Phi steps on stage, he is in command of the audience’s experience in every aspect. He instructs listeners exactly what they need to learn. He projects exactly what they need to feel. He even induces exactly what their reaction should be. Jade Hidle learned this first-hand.
[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]
Nine shots fired. Nine stanzas written. In his poem “8, 9” Bao Phi—acclaimed Vietnamese American spoken word artist who has appeared on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam—remembers Hmong American teenager Fong Lee, who was murdered by Minneapolis police office Jason Anderson last fall. The title of Phi’s piece represents the number of bullets that hit Lee’s body (five of which entered after he was on the ground) of the total number of shots fired. Performed in April at State of the Word, an Asian American spoken word event organized by USC’s Visions and Voices and hosted by diaCRITICS’ editor-in-chief Viet Nguyen, Phi’s “8, 9” sharpens the focus on continued violence perpetrated against Asian Americans and the discourses that attempt to justify such state-sponsored racism. As you can see in the video below, Phi called upon Kelly Tsai, who also gave an engaging performance at the event, to illustrate and critique these discourses that, in the courtroom and mainstream media coverage, declared Lee a “gang member” and Anderson a “hero.”
In addition to commenting on and spreading awareness of current events pertinent to Asian Americans at large, Phi’s poems call for multiple voices to testify to the heterogeneity of Vietnamese Americans. This is especially important as we continue to be reduced to refugees or “model minorities” and our artistic productions are still expected to conform to one melancholy tale of war or “THE Vietnamese American experience.” His poem “The Nguyens”—titled to critique the view that we are all the same or that we all know each other—introduces a series of Vietnamese American characters of varied religions, sexualities, places, voices, and levels of “Vietnameseness,” in however many meanings that term may bear. Phi prefaced his performance of this piece with the point that when one story is imposed upon a marginalized people, many “get lost in the shuffle.” To combat this loss, Phi aims to “embrace the contradictions.” To witness how Phi’s voice moves from poignantly measured in this preface to downright powerful in his reading of the poem, view the video below. (This clip also features a performance of “Love, Angel, Music, Baby,” a commentary on Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls.)
The pauses, pitches, and power of Phi’s voice are further exemplified in his performance of “Prince Among Men.” An homage to the music of Prince, this poem follows Quincy Nguyen—loyal Prince fan, eyeliner and all—in his violent encounters with racism and homophobia growing up in the Midwest. Resonant here is how Phi articulates generational differences through music. The father figure is focused on the past in his love of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” (Phi asks, “What Vietnamese person doesn’t understand that shit?”), while Quincy is, in true Prince fashion, “destined for future sexy.” This generational gap, though, is bridged as Phi screams the father’s anger when he finds that his son has been beaten. The force and veracity of Phi’s performance allows the following line to reverberate, to inspire: “When it feels like no one lets you live at your own volume, you sing.”
Phi is no doubt a captivating performer. Throughout his set, he took pictures of the audience and engaged their voices with his call-and-response “Wow” piece featured at the beginning of the first video above. And, as I revisited his performance through the video footage of the event, I was able to more fully appreciate another layer to Phi’s relationship with his audience. Phi has cultivated the ability to both elicit laughter and command silences when warranted, sometimes navigating the audience between the two emotions in only a few lines of his poetry.
Then I remembered how, at the performance, I sneaked peeks at my younger siblings’ faces in the darkened ballroom. Both students at a high school where budget cuts have eliminated the time and materials for any significant reading of literature, let alone contemporary poetry, let alone a poet who looks like them or who speaks like/to them, my siblings smiled in discovery—in understanding—of Phi’s words.
Keep an eye out for Bao Phi’s upcoming book, Song I Sing, to be released by Coffee House Press this fall. diaCRITICS will keep you posted!
Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! After watching Phi’s performance through the magic of YouTube, do you connect to his poetry? If so, to what and why? Of what contemporary Asian American/Vietnamese American issues do you sing?