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How Hip-Hop Brought A Young Hmong American And His Grandma Together

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a story of a hip-hop artist and his musical collaborator. The artist is Tou Saik Lee. He's Hmong American, and his collaborator is his grandma. Emily Bright reports.

EMILY BRIGHT, BYLINE: Tou Saik Lee's parents immigrated from Laos in 1979. His first language was Hmong, but he lost a lot of it when he started kindergarten in English.

TOU SAIK LEE: Growing up, I felt a disconnect from my culture, honestly.

BRIGHT: As a teen, he got into hip-hop, and he started writing his own in English, inspired by Tupac Shakur's stories about empowering his people and family.

LEE: I believe that getting into hip-hop and spoken word poetry was a way to have a voice in the United States.

BRIGHT: He started performing around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

LEE: (Reciting) Lost in translation, our languages faded, misplaced in this cage, we engage up the mountains and breathe in the clouds, (speaking Hmong)...

BRIGHT: His grandma, Youa Chang, came to one of his spoken word performances shortly after she joined the family from Laos. She told him afterward that she didn't understand what he had said, but she got what he was doing.

LEE: (Reciting) The melodic, symbolic words vibrate through us internally, verbally crushing our senses...

BRIGHT: It reminded her of kwv txhiaj, traditional Hmong song poetry. The words are lyrical, with their own rhyme schemes and rhythms and room to improvise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUA CHANG: (Reciting kwv txhiaj in Hmong).

BRIGHT: Lee's grandma couldn't read or write, but she could perform kwv txhiaj by heart. When a local theater staged an event that encouraged Hmong artists to collaborate, Lee thought, why not ask his grandma?

LEE: She just said, tell me where to be, and I will be there to perform with you. I didn't really know what to expect, honestly. I just thought, well, this is an idea. We'll see how it turns out.

INSKEEP: They practiced alternating stanzas, him in English, her in Hmong. They performed that night standing side by side onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANG: (Reciting kwv txhiaj in Hmong).

LEE: (Reciting) My mind expands from nomadic adaptation (unintelligible)...

BRIGHT: When local filmmaker Kang Vang saw them perform, it was their outfits that struck him first.

KANG VANG: His grandma came out in the same sunglasses that Tou was wearing. And I was wondering if it was a gimmick or not, you know. But it wasn't. You know, that's who they are. And it was very honest. And yeah, it turned out to be an absolutely beautiful thing.

BRIGHT: They kept performing together for 10 years, until Youa Chang passed away in 2017. Her grandson says she connected with audiences right away.

LEE: Grandma was very humorous, very charismatic. I remember right after the show, she had this huge fan base just surrounding her. And I had, like, five people (laughter) or something. And I just remember thinking, Grandma was meant for the stage.

BRIGHT: After one performance, Lee recalls, his grandma asked him to write down his phone number. He didn't think much of it until a few days later, when he got a call from a young woman.

LEE: And then I asked, how did you get my number? And she said, your grandma told me that you're looking for a wife. And then I was thinking, whoa, Grandma's trying to hook me up. It didn't work out, but I knew that's Grandma, really - she's looking out for me.

BRIGHT: Their performance also helped Lee understand the life she'd lived before coming to America.

LEE: One time, we were booked for a school, and we were running behind a bit. So I was really rushing. But Grandma would just reach out, and she would ask me to slow down. Later, I realized that Grandma, when she lived in Laos after the Vietnam War, there were a lot of landmines that were left behind. And one of them exploded, and a little piece of shrapnel hit my grandma's leg. And so then it made me really think about - to be really considerate about our elders' stories and their history.

BRIGHT: Their performances helped spread that history and art form to a younger generation.

VANG: There's always that mentality that you're kind of lame if you're into traditional arts.

BRIGHT: Filmmaker Kang Vang, who also teaches citizenship at the Hmong Resource Center in St. Paul, says the performances by Lee and his grandma changed his mind.

VANG: This is our art form. This is our hip-hop. This is our music. Once you understand it, you're just like, wow. There's so much that I had no idea our language was capable of.

BRIGHT: Tou Saik Lee is working on a memoir about the time he spent performing with Youa Chang. It's called "My Grandma Can Freestyle." He continues to use performance to connect across generations in both Hmong and English.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Bright in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.