Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Prach Ly - The Rapper
photo of Ly Prach Ly speaks to FRONTLINE/World about his personal journey from Cambodian refugee to Cambodian-American hip-hop messenger. This interview has been edited for clarity.

You were born in Cambodia and escaped when you were very young. Do you remember what life was like in the refugee camp?

I was born in 1979 near Siem Reap and Battambang, in a farmland area called Prach. My mom named me after where I was born, but the name also means "wise" or the guy who gives the king advice ... . Prach can also mean "someone who talks a lot."

We left for Thailand in '81 to '82 ... we fled like every other refugee ... . We traveled by night because we wanted to stay out of sight, and I remember my dad saying he carried me because there were lots of booby traps, and every other day you'd hear an explosion. My mom walked until the skin of her feet peeled off, like a banana peel, and then my older brother had to carry her.

We stayed for like a year and a half in a Thailand refugee camp. The Philippines was for a month or two. Then we came to America. We landed in Florida.

What was your earliest memory of arriving in America?

When we got here to America, we had nothing but flip-flops and pots and pans ... .

When we were getting off the plane, I turned around and I saw my Mom cry. I saw a teardrop form in her eye and then I saw my dad wipe it from her cheek. He said in Khmer, "Don't worry about it, it can only get better from now on." We came from hell so there's basically nowhere to go but up.

How was it growing up in southern California, in Long Beach, as a person of Cambodian heritage?

Other kids would call me "chink," "chong," "dog eater." They would call me names, it was stereotyping. (And) "chinky-eyes," "slanty-eyed," "gook." But I became friends with everyone, not just White people, but also with Blacks and Hispanics. I get along with everyone.

You were so young when you left Cambodia, yet your music constantly makes reference to the genocide. How did you come to know the stories?

(My parents) would tell me these stories before going to bed, not just about the Khmer Rouge, but also about the beauty of Cambodia, about the king before the war, when the country was neutral, about the war and then the Khmer Rouge taking over. And I kind of painted the picture in my head, I added it up ... .

My sister, she told me about how she was sitting eating noodles in a shop in Cambodia, then all of a sudden she heard a gunshot and this man next to her fell dead. His blood was splattered all over her. She still has trauma and flashbacks from seeing this. Just to see the expression on her face when she told me that, it still gives me goose bumps.

My second oldest brother, I remember him telling me how the Khmer Rouge would feed you so little. They would let you eat rice soup, which is a couple of grains of rice in the water ... they would boil it, with those few grains of rice, and that's what you'd eat -- rice soup. They would have to hunt lizards because there wasn't enough to eat, so my brother would sneak out of the camp late at night, to get some kind of animal, and then he'd run to my sister's camp and leave some food for my mom.

(The story of the genocide) was inside of me, it kind of built up. So I just wanted to explore that, share it with people.

When you were younger, you used to write a lot of poems. How did you get into hip-hop?

I was listening to Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, Run DMC and Public Enemy, whatever was on the radio. (Hip-hop) was like a hobby to me. At the park, (I got into) freestyle battling ... you just go and meet up with some friends. First somebody makes fun of somebody, like a "your mama" joke, but in a poetry way and a rap way and you just go at it with each other and then the crowd determines who wins. The other rappers were Black, there was no Asian around, it was just me. And I kind of put it down for them ... .

First they didn't take me really seriously. They said, "Oh, this guy is trying to do Black music, he's trying to rap, he's trying to take hip-hop." But rap isn't really just Black music because if you kind of root it down, in Cambodia ... they call it "Ah-ye" ... it's kind of Khmer Rap. ... they do the same thing in front of the campfire, where all the friends get together and they just go at it with each other, in rhymes. I already had that in my blood ... .

So I just used whatever I had to paint a picture of myself. I derived my poems from my parents, and from my brothers and sisters, and the ladies at the apartment complex I was living in at the time ... .

Did your parents encourage you in your music?

My dad would call it jungle music because there was a lot of bass in it. (My parents) said, "You better go to school, don't go out so much." Listening to music is okay, but they would hear profanity and say, "Why are you listening to stuff that has cussing and the N word?" And I would try to explain to them, "Hey, this is what's happening right now." My parents (are) more happy with it now 'cause I'm aware of what happened [in Cambodia under Pol Pot], and I'm spreading it in the right way. In any of my music, I don't use the N word. I cuss only if I have to make my expression, not because it rhymes. They're proud that I'm reflecting the culture.

Why should Cambodian-American youth know about this part of the culture -- the history of the Cambodian genocide?

They should know about it so that history doesn't repeat itself. And this is one thing you don't want to repeat. You learn about the Civil War and the history of the Pilgrims, but this is one more thing you have to learn about, because due to political turmoil and wars, you can end up in that situation and you'll knock yourself in the head and say, "Hey, how come I didn't think about that? It happened before and now why are we letting it happen again?" ... It's a very dark era and you have to shed light on it.

Some people may say, "Prach, you didn't grow up under the Khmer Rouge, so you're not qualified to talk about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era."

From what I've heard, I'm taking the stress off them ... the people who wanted to say something but were scared to speak out. And I swear to God, or I swear to Buddha, sometime when I'm in the booth, when I'm actually rapping some of the verses, I feel possessed ... . I don't feel it's me, someone else is trying to speak out.

So what are you channeling when you rap? What is it that's possessing you -- anger, rage, an insatiable curiosity?

It's just justice. That's how I feel. The people have been murdered, they need justice.

You can say bury the past ... but if you bury something, that means it's dead. And if it's dead, if the spirit don't rest in peace, it's going to come back and haunt you. Right now, most of the people that I know, they are having insomnia, they can't sleep, they are still going through depression ... even though they're in America, sometimes they wake up in the middle of the night and still see the same old things. They need justice ... .

I don't believe in vengeance, I don't believe in killings, but I do believe in justice.

Back to Prach Ly introduction

GO TO - Sophiline Shapiro - The DancerChanrithy Him - The Storyteller

Photos courtesy of Jerry Gorman