By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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.'"