Khmer Rap

Long Beachs Prach Ly drops rhymes about the Killing Fields

The buzz Prach's music generated in Cambodia was something totally new. Asiaweek quoted a Phnom Penh DJ as saying that Prach is "the first Khmer artist who is actually revealing something, and that touches a lot of people." Undoubtedly, many Cambodian youths were hearing about the Khmer Rouge years for the first time through Prach's rhymes—his perspective from an ocean and a generation away let him say things no one else could.

"Most of the adults are still traumatized," Prach says. "They have nightmares of that time, and they can't get over it. I mean, how can you get over your own race, your own people, killing you? For over four years, watching kids and adults getting killed in front of you, treating you worse than an animal? You can't."

But Prach's peers in Phnom Penh and beyond still had questions about Year Zero, and as Dalama burned its way into more and more CD players, listeners found a way to focus their frustration. Yes, he's happy that he's famous, Prach Ly will say. He's happy people like the music, not so happy that he's been ripped-off—he has yet to see a penny from any of those CD sales. But the thing that really makes him happy, he says, is that the questions Dalama raised, in one way or another, got Cambodia's moldering history books—victims of a bury-the-past mindset—back in the schools.

"When I started out doing it, it was just for fun," he says again. "I didn't really pay much attention to it. I just wanted something that would reflect my culture when I was growing up and what we went through. And I guess they loved it."

So far, Prach has refused all offers to go to Cambodia—and he's had plenty. All expenses paid, even.

"When they asked me to go last time, it was when they were voting again," he says. "But everybody knows it's corrupted, and I'm not gonna keep that in the closet. I want to go back, but I don't want to go empty-handed. I want to give something to the people. Say I do a show there, and I get paid—I want to give what I make back to the people there. I don't want to take money out because the country needs money. If I'm taking money out, I'm a robber of my own people."

Instead, he's looking homeward—to Long Beach, where he'd like to one day build a genocide museum to remind people what happened in Cambodia, so it can never be repeated. But that's a ways off.

Now he's writing and gathering notes for the Dalama follow-up to be called The Education of the Lost Chapter, which he hopes to have finished by March 3, 2003 (he's awfully precise, this Prach Ly). Like most aural artists, he'd like to see it released through a major label ("I've had talks with record labels," he says, "but as soon we sit down at meetings, they always want to mold me into something I'm not") and is particularly fond of DreamWorks. But if there's no deal, that's okay—he'll just self-release the next one, too.

He still loves working his day job at a karaoke shop near the corner of Anaheim Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue—just enough to pay for food and gas, but he feels safe, and his older customers are always telling him stories of what life was like in Cambodia, before and after Pol Pot. He doesn't think he'll ever leave Long Beach, actually—he's always representing, and his silver and black "LB" ball cap has become something of a trademark. He has been producing music for his friends' groups, NorthStar Resurrec and Universal Speakers. He just got engaged. He lives on Peace Street.

And he gets fan mail all the time, some from people who liken Prach to the great singer Sin Sisamouth, who is as famous in Cambodia as Bob Dylan is everywhere else. It's a comparison Prach is uncomfortable with: Sisamouth was slain by the Khmer Rouge, the legend goes, after being marched out into the woods and forced to sing one last song.

"When I made Dalama, I never, ever thought there would be any impact," Prach says. "But one of the letters I got was from this lady in Wyoming. She went to Cambodia and adopted two kids, and when she was there, she heard about me and wanted to get the CD. But everywhere she went, it was sold out. I don't know how she found me, but she wrote me and said she really wanted her kids to know about their culture and history. So I mailed her a CD.

"And then I got another letter from her, and inside was a picture of her kids," he continues. "She said they listen to the CD all the time, that they don't really understand it now, but maybe when they're older, around 15 or 16, they'll understand it more."

But this lady from Wyoming, she understands it right now, Prach says.

"She's not even Cambodian," he says, "but when she listens to the CD, she feels freedom."

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