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
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
(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
(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
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.
to Prach Ly introduction
courtesy of Jerry Gorman