Who knew Minnesota was bringing the noize? Rapper Tou Saiko Lee, has been blending hip hop with ancient tradition to keep the Hmong culture alive. The Hmong people, originally from Laos, came to America to escape Communist persecution in the ’60s and ’70s. Many settled in the Minneapolis area, which has come to support the largest Hmong population in the United States.
The New York Times interviews Tou Saiko Lee, bringing what’s best about America, our immigrant culture and how that culture breeds new art forms. Lee bridges hip hop culture with his Laotian roots, including music and spoken word he’s created, which includes chants from his grandmother, who performs with an oral form of Hmong verbal poetry.
Lee’s convergence of American culture with Laotian history brings to mind the pioneering efforts of Eric B. and Rakim, who sampled Ofrah Haza’s “Im Nin’Alu for their rap hit, “Paid In Full.” The track bridged the beautiful sounds of Israeli music with New York’s gritty, urban experience. Im Nin’Alu was also sampled in M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume,” a huge house record at the time. I can’t say for sure, but both classics were released by the long-defunct 4th & Broadway record label, which I’m going to guess licensed the sample and used it on both recordings.
The point is, Hip Hop has transcended its roots in from the Bronx and streets of L.A. to become a global sound adopted reworked by oppressed societies who are struggling just as African-Americans who created the format have experienced. When other cultures embrace hip hop and merge the street sounds with their own oral history, amazing things ensue. For example, Bhangra, traditional folk music of India, has merged with Hip Hop and that convergence has since emerged as a powerful musical force with a huge Indian following in New York City, led by the genre’s leading DJ, Rekha. And, disaffected Senegalese youth from France embraced Hip Hop to voice their issues, launching the divergent careers of rappers MC Solaar and Assassin.
Netmix gives props to Tou Saiko Lee for bridging Hmong culture and hip hop. The tradition of using Hip Hop to fuse the past with the present educates young people around the world that we can’t forget about our past because our past will always be tied to our future. Combining history with music they can relate to, innovators like Lee believe that their efforts will spur thought or action for others who follow to embrace and continue the message of those less fortunate. We have to keep the spotlight on the tragedies of our times.