A conversation between two artists on art, music, collaboration, motherhood, and what kind of ancestor to aspire to be.
Artist and educator Phung Huynh was introduced to Rocky Rivera’s music when she heard her guest feature in Ruby Ibarra’s song, Us. Moved by the song’s themes about sisterhood, empowerment and transforming the challenges of the immigrant experience, colonialism, and cultural assimilation, Phung played the song over and over again in her car. That song was set on repeat with her two young sons bouncing to the beats and swaying to the lyrics. Phung’s younger son, who was 8 years old at the time, had Rocky’s line memorized and chanted loudly, “We pullin’ up in a Jeepney, all of my soldiers greet me…” That led Phung to look up Rocky’s music and research her biography. The first album that Phung listened to was Nom de Guerre, and the song, Pussy Kills immediately took her by storm. So moved by her music, Phung felt compelled to make art with Rocky. Their first collaboration was the album cover for Rocky’s Revenge. Through a series of conversations and meetings, the reimagining of Rocky as Kali-Ma was birthed.
Phung: Rocky’s Revenge is such a powerful and unapologetic album that addresses ideas about redemption. What motivated you to make this album, and what did you want listeners to take away from it?
Rocky: RR was an album that came along during a time of great upheaval in my life, a time where I was drawing clear boundaries with friends, family and society. It was a direct medium for me to exercise my anger – an emotion that fuels a lot of my music and political ideology – in a constructive and creative way. So when I started the recording process at Women’s Audio Mission (https://www.womensaudiomission.org), where the project was funded through a one-year grant. I explored how anger could fuel a revolution within my own life that could ripple out against society’s ills. I also explored how anger is stigmatized and gendered and how women throughout history were vilified for being angry, and righteously so, which is why it sounds so unapologetic. What I want listeners to walk away with is for them to be at peace with their own anger and to exercise it through direct self-action, whether it’s to draw boundaries in their own life (like “Am I Lyin”) or find a target that is worth directing your anger (like “Rocky’s Revenge).
Phung: I am a visual artist, and so much of what I create is motivated and directed by imagery. Music and sound are secondary to me, and it takes me a long time to understand music. However, your work, the deliberate and confident composing of words, beats, and sounds never put a second thought in my mind. My pull and connection to your work were immediate. I have always wanted to ask you, if you were to make a visual art piece, what would it look like? What would it be?
Rocky: If I were to make a visual art piece, it would look like a mix of propaganda posters, sacred geometry and the color red. I am having a RED moment. I love collages and typography. And I am especially influenced by the Guerilla Girls campaign to advocate for more women artists, which I consider to be the predecessor to social media memes. If I were to paint, I would be a realist. I actually love your painting style and am so jealous that you can create your own art! Hip hop is fundamentally derivative (borrowing drum breaks from funk and soul hook sampling) so creating something entirely new is rare. I’m happy that my music translates to someone who thinks in a visual way.
Phung: We both value our ancestors and seek their guidance in the way we navigate our lives and how we raise our children. I live my life to answer the question, “What kind of ancestor do I want to be?” What kind of ancestor do you want to be?
Rocky: I want to be the kind of ancestor that my descendants honor when they are feeling alone and out of place, when they are taking a spiritual journey that requires them to leave the comfort of their circle and venture out into the world. I want them to be inspired by my courage and be influenced to make an impact globally and serve their people, whoever they feel their “people” are. I also want to be known as a happy and enlightened soul, because after a lifetime of being angry at oppression, I want to be content in knowing that my descendants are carrying on the fight and also know that they are enjoying the one life they have in all of its moments, big and small.
Phung: We are artists (creatives), educators (serving students who are underrepresented), and mothers (life-bearers). There are many times when we have to, in some way, code switch and navigate between our personas as the artist and then as an individual (participant of our community). This becomes very evident with the responses of our children whom we often have in mind when making the kind of art that we make. For instance, how do your children feel when they see or hear you rap your lyrics about “pussy kills,” or “repeat the mantra on the daily/ two words “fuck you”/ two more “pay me”? For me, how do my sons feel when they see my paintings of fully naked Asian women undergoing actions of violence related to plastic surgery?
Rocky: My son has always grown up backstage with his parents, so besides normalizing an artist’s life, both of his parents have to discuss what he hears when we play our music in the car and what we perform onstage. Actually, my son is the litmus test to what conversations can be appropriate to have when it comes to discussing misogyny and gender roles. He, as a young man, is taught early by society to take space, trivialize girls and their intelligence, and to “stop crying” or stifle his emotions. So when he sees his mother taking space onstage, urging women to fight back against misogyny, he understands that women are strong, capable leaders. And when I perform “Pussy Kills” or “Turn You (To A Feminist)”, both videos where he was on set, he understands the impact my music is making and what the greater lesson means, especially now that he has a little sister.
Phung: You and I are both artists of color, but we see our role as artist as primary to the role of artist of color. One of my greatest artist heroes is Charles White, and he is indeed an artist of color, but his art speaks volumes of his talent beyond his racial designation. He was born in 1918 in Chicago and died in 1979. He lived through two world wars, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and navigated an incredible art career while living through the most oppressive periods in American history. White served in World War II in segregated battalions, contracted bronchitis, and came back to a country that he went to war for and that would not honor him with civil liberties and privileges of his white peers. In 1940, Charles White said, “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” In many ways, our art functions as weaponry. Can you talk about how your art is a weapon?
Rocky: Thank you for wording that so beautifully, Phung, I’ve never had anyone make that correlation with my music. If there was any metaphor to describe the kind of music I make, it is weaponry, one that is honed through my upbringing as an immigrant in this country, as the youngest of three girls, through learning about my history via ethnic studies at San Francisco State, and aims true at my real enemies: imperialism, fascism, racism, sexism and the occasional disloyal friend or family member (haha) Like I said in the question of what kind of ancestor I want to be, I like a little brevity to punctuate my serious political ideology!
Rocky Rivera is an emcee and performance artist from San Francisco. She has released two mixtapes, three albums and seven joint projects with DJ Roza under the Rock & Roz series on Soundcloud. Rocky’s music is a journey into the spirit of resistance in the form of loud bass and energetic feminist anthems. Her latest album Rocky’s Revenge, was created in collaboration with Women’s Audio Mission and is available now for streaming and purchase on all digital platforms. Rocky Rivera was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States at the age of four. She is the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a military naval officer, and her mother worked as a nurse to support the family. (www.rockyrivera.com)
Phung Huynh is a Los Angeles-based artist and educator whose practice is primarily in drawing and painting. Her work probes the questions of cultural perception through images of the Asian female body in relation to plastic surgery. Phung is interested in how cosmetic surgery has created obscurity in racial identity and amplified the exoticism of Asian women. She is Professor of Art at Los Angeles Valley College where her focus is on decolonizing arts education and serving disproportionately impacted students. Phung Huynh’s father is from Cambodia where he survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Her parents met in Vietnam where Phung and her mother were born. Her family were refugees and came to the United States in 1978. (www.phunghuynh.com)