For Cambodian rapper, 'words are weapons'

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - Leaning on a very American tradition, Long Beach-raised Cambodian-American rap artist praCh Ly wants to inspire nothing less than revolution.

It may be actual, it may be spiritual, it may be intellectual, but it's revolution.

The peripatetic song writer will be performing at the Cambodian New Year Celebration Saturday at El Dorado Park, where he will continue to preach his messages of awareness and resistance.

Throughout American history, music has given voice to revolt and social comment.

So, it's no accident that when Ly, who goes by the stage name praCh - with a capital C to honor his Cambodian heritage - starts dropping tracks and lyrics, he's thinking about the message.

Heck, even his Web site, mujestic.com, proclaims "it's not just music, it's a movement."

Calling what he does "edutainment," praCh's lyrics are bold and critical of leaders and societal issues in the U.S. and, particularly, in his home country.

In a track of his new album, praCh preaches "I'm trying to raise awareness, being careless is what got us into this mess."

Ever since "Yankee Doodle" was used first by the British and later by the Colonialists to mock the other side, music has been a powerful instrument in the social dialogue either to promote change or support the status quo.

That trend has continued through the generations from "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" to "Over There" to "This Land Is Your Land" to "We Shall Overcome" to "American Soldier." From John Philip Sousa to Joe Hill to Bob Dylan, songwriters have used their art to spur causes and promote points of view. Whether it's Pete Seeger asking "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" or Lee Greenwood proclaiming "God Bless the USA," radically different voices and perspectives have found homes in music.

For praCh, it is important that Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans remember where they come from and to embrace their history for all its good and ill, from the glories of the Angkor empire to the tragedies of the Pol Pot era, to the American urban blight of poverty and gangs.

As a U.S.-based musician, he says it's imperative to say things his countrymates abroad cannot.

This is particularly true in a time when journalists and activists in Cambodia have been either censored or jailed and convicted in absentia for remarks critical of the government and its policies.

Human Rights Watch has blasted the Cambodian government for what it calls a "campaign of harassment, threats, and unwarranted legal action aimed at consolidating its rule by silencing the political opposition and peaceful critics."

PraCh himself says he has been the target of threats from the ruling regime in Cambodia.

Against this backdrop, the messages are all the more timely.

"I've met a lot of artists (in Cambodia) who want to speak out but are under a gag order," praCh says. "There's no balance. You're either rich or you're poor. I feel I have the opportunity to speak out."

And that's what he does in his third album, a double-disc - one in Khmer, one in English - entitled "Dalama: Memoirs of the Invisible War."

The album has been essentially done for a year now, but is still only available digitally on his Web site, while praCh negotiates with distributors to release the actual CDs.

In the interim between when the rough draft of "Dalama" first leaked and it's current iteration, there have been tweaks and changes, praCh's version of "Leaves of Grass," but the essential message has remained the same.

"Dalama" is praCh's most overtly political work, as he takes Cambodian leadership to task for the state of affairs in a country where he sees youth who are aching for change.

"The last two Dalamas were more about the killing fields and my past," praCh says. "This Dalama is more about the present and future."

And by having an album in both languages, praCh is able to deal with the dichotomy he feels as both a Cambodian and an American.

On the Khmer disc, praCh takes on a number of issues of modern Cambodia both directly, in songs such as the incendiary "I deClare war" and metaphorically in "Keeping it Reil."

On the English side, songs such as "Fragile" and "Therapeutic" rail against corruption of both sides of the Pacific from the ghettos of California to Cambodia.

Musically, the album is notable for its blending of Khmer classical and folk music with raw Western rap stylings.

Like many rappers, praCh is often a character in his own narrative, injecting himself into the songs. And sometimes it can be difficult to separate where the character and the person diverge.

So, when praCh writes, "I'm target for death, they want to delete my existence, I'm a high-risk threat, the leader of the resistance. The battle for tomorrow, its start today. Afraid of no one, that's just how I was raised," it can be hard to know where the lines merge and split.

As much as praCh says he's trying to make his stories less about himself, he just can't help it, because it his experiences that inform the work.

Recently praCh has been touring with his music, he has also been involved in several film projects and has been getting into script writing.

PraCh has several gigs in Long Beach later this month then travels to Jacksonville, Fla., where he will perform at Celebrate Asia 2010.

In a perfect world, praCh would like his music to inspire people to action. And if his words can't cause revolution, maybe at least, as he says in "Therapeutic" "my words are weapons turning music into medicine. it's ... Therapeutic."

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291

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