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Cambodian Rap Is Starting to Blow Up in Long Beach

In May, two Long Beach rappers released a music video for "I'm a Cambo" — an anthem to their shared Cambodian heritage, in the style of Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” or Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”

In the video (below), the two emcees stand near a rooftop pool in downtown Long Beach wearing flat-billed hats and tank tops, rapping over a club-ready beat similar to YG’s “Who Do You Love?” as slow-motion clips from Long Beach’s Cambodian New Year parade flicker past.

As with any good summer anthem, the chorus comes hard, fast and often. It’s a little rough, but its phrasing is infectious, and its message is at once a rallying cry for those who understand what it means to be a Cambodian in Southern California and an aggressive introduction for those who don’t. I’m a motherfuckin’ Cambo/Go hard in the paint/Hennessy is all I drink/I’m a motherfuckin’ Cambo?...


Already, the video has more than 50,000 YouTube views, a number that has only increased in the weeks leading up to the first Cambodian Music Festival, scheduled for Aug. 3 in Hollywood and expected to feature half a dozen Cambodian rappers from across the country.

Most of the song’s views have come from websites and social networks geared toward Cambodian-Americans, Khmer-Americans or Khmericans — all words that have been used to describe those who grew up in America after their families fled the Khmer Rouge.

But “Cambo”? It’s an utterly contemporary term, embraced and disseminated in song for the first time. What started as mere shorthand has turned into affectionate slang, even the beginning of a movement. It’s a term that many young Cambodian-Americans say reflects the gang culture and hard-knocks life that have characterized their experience.

For Yung Tee, who wrote “I’m a Cambo” and performs it with fellow Cambodian hip-hop artist CS, a Cambo is someone who has “been there, done that, started at the bottom.”

Some of the older generation resent the term; some commenters on the video say it does a disservice to those who worked hard to avoid street life. But, CS says, “We’re not trying to represent every Cambodian — we’re just representing who we are and where we came from. We are a new, different breed of Cambodian. We can carry on our tradition even though we’re more American.

“It might not be as positive as it looks, but at least someone has a voice now.”

Rappers CS and Yung Tee
Rappers CS and Yung Tee
Photo by Danny Liao

In an era when Asians have been painted as the model minority, Cambodians often are overlooked. Their native country is the oldest kingdom in Southeast Asia, but they’ve suffered decades of trauma and loss at the hands of their own.

“We’ve been slept on for so long. No one ever knows what Cambodians are — no, I’m not a ‘Nip’ and I don’t eat dogs, man,” CS says, referencing the ignorant comments he grew up hearing. “We’re minorities within minorities.”

CS himself was born in a concentration camp run by the Khmer Rouge (“It wasn’t no refugee camp”). Under the party’s quest for a communist, agrarian society, an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed from 1975 to 1979 — by execution, by disease, by starvation. Hundreds of thousands of others, including CS’ family, fled the “Killing Fields,” seeking asylum from the nightmare their homeland had become.

Largely farmers in their native land, and mostly poor even before their arrival in the United States, the émigrés made new homes where they could. Cambodian enclaves sprouted in inner-city Philadelphia, Oakland, Boston and Minneapolis. Thousands landed in Long Beach, which today still holds the largest contingent of Cambodians in America.

In the 1980s, the “Eastside LBC,” later put on the pop culture map by breezy G-funk hits, was more like a war zone for black and Latino gangs. They sparred over intersections such as 15th Street and Walnut Avenue — which is where CS’ mom moved with her six children in 1986, after being sponsored by a church in Washington.

“We went from green grass to concrete, and all of a sudden, my front yard was the street,” CS says. His mom spoke no English and couldn’t read or write in her own language, Khmer, much less the one in her adopted homeland. “I quickly realized that it didn’t matter if I was in a gang or not. I was going to get harassed just for being Asian. I needed to defend myself.”

He ended up doing nearly a decade in federal prison after a botched robbery left him in a standoff with a SWAT team.

In parts of Long Beach, Walnut Avenue is called “the street of death.” CS and his friends, he says deadpan, had another name for it: “the Killing Fields.”

 

Rapper CS
Rapper CS
Photo by Danny Liao

Fifteen months ago, CS was back in prison in Massachusetts after a nonviolent parole violation, dreaming about coming home to Long Beach. Tonight, he’s opening for T-Pain at the Observatory in Santa Ana, grinning like a kid in a candy store. He has a chiseled baby face à la Bruno Mars and sports a red “Jus Liv It” T-shirt and an oversized white wristwatch, both of which make his muscled arms look disarmingly large.

“I dreamed of this moment in my darkest times,” he says. “When I was in my cell, I would cover the window with colored paper and pretend the lights got dim and that I was rapping on a stage just like this. I can’t believe it’s actually happening.”

Yung Tee joins CS onstage for “I’m a Cambo.” With a shirt that says “Cambodia” under a version of the Adidas logo made to resemble Cambodia’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat, he looks something like an Asian version of Nelly. He arrived in the parking lot earlier in the evening drinking Olde English out of a plastic cup and (just as in the song) swigging Hennessy straight from a bottle, trailed by his girlfriend, a petite Vietnamese woman with hot pink lipstick, who is very pregnant with the couple’s second child.

Despite working together on “I’m a Cambo,” CS and Yung Tee differ in their approach to music. They are the yin and yang of Long Beach’s booming Cambodian hip-hop scene, a community of around 10 rap crews who post their songs, cyphers and battles online.

By his own admission, Yung Tee is the “negative” rapper of the two, with party music about popping pills, sippin’ on Henny and getting turnt up.

At 39, CS has more than a decade on Yung Tee. After his release from prison, he wants to inspire people — especially Cambodians. Songs on his unreleased album, On My Way, tell listeners to work hard, stay positive and follow their dreams.

“He’s got a different kind of hunger — he sees the bigger picture,” Brian Smith says. Smith is not Asian, but with his Cambodian wife, Seak, he co-founded the Cambodian Music Festival. “I think he realizes he can’t just be a run-of-the-mill hip-hop artist — that will only take you so far. And he also understands the hurdles of being a Cambodian hip-hop artist.”

But it was Yung Tee who procured an earworm beat from New York–based producer DJ Dreamstate last year and wrote “I’m a Cambo” as a song of empowerment for his people, and a chance to pick up Twitter followers. Yung Tee decided to give CS a spotlight in the song after meeting the recent parolee through mutual friends and being inspired by his journey into the rap grind.

CS saw “I’m a Cambo” as something bigger — a statement to mainstream hip-hop about its lack of Asian representation, a chance to take the tale of Cambodians’ struggle worldwide, and a theme song for a people who’ve been marginalized for decades.

“Cambodian people have been starving for someone to tell their story,” Yung Tee says. “Like how Big Pun did for the Puerto Ricans and Eminem did for white people. I want to do it for the Cambodians. We got a fucking story to tell.”

 

The heavily white crowd in Santa Ana that night doesn’t quite know what to do with a pair of Cambodian rappers. Taking the stage after a string of other opening acts (most of them black, with a few white and Latino guys peppered in), Yung Tee and CS come onstage — along with CS’ 19-year-old son, who acts as their hype man — and launch into “I’m a Cambo” with no explanation or call to action.

After the first chorus, some people close to the stage bob along. And by the third chorus, most of the crowd is vibing with the beat. A dozen or so even sing along, despite not being “a motherfuckin’ Cambo” at all.

Still, in the back of the room, some audience members snicker and whisper, seemingly disconcerted by the fact that the rappers onstage are Asian.

“If an Asian hip-hop rapper is going to blow up, it’s going to be a Cambodian,” Yung Tee declares after the show. “Cambodians are fucking gangsters, more than any other Asian race. We’re probably the closest to black people. Everything black people have experienced, we have, too. They sell drugs, we sell drugs. They shoot, we shoot. We came from the bottom just like them.”

Outside of Long Beach, Cambodian and black rappers are collaborating. In Philadelphia, Cambodian artist JL Jupiter’s whole crew is black, while Toronto’s Honey Cocaine — a lone female Cambodian rapper — has been signed to Tyga’s record label since 2011 (Tyga is himself half-black, half-Asian).

In Long Beach, thanks to rival gangs and the size of the Cambodian community, the communities are more segregated.

“When you talk about diversity in hip-hop, to be honest, that Long Beach urban market is behind the times,” Brian Smith says. “With Cambodian hip-hop everywhere else, race is a non-issue.”

A few weeks after opening for T-Pain in Santa Ana, CS and Yung Tee are back on home turf, readying for a show at Long Beach’s Gaslamp. It’s being advertised as the “Cambo Movement Launch Party” and, despite being planned with less than a week’s notice, the space is packed. First- and second-generation Cambodians are being interviewed for SobiTV, an Asian-American music network. Local clothing label Ambitious is hocking official movement merch, including “Cambo”-emblazoned shirts, tanks, hats and more.

In the audience are some of Long Beach’s young Cambodian leaders — members of the Cambodian Coordinating Council, which founded the Cambodian Film Festival and organizes the Cambodian New Year Celebration and parade. So is Prach Ly, who has been rapping in Khmer and English about issues affecting Cambodians since 2000.

Ly grew up in Long Beach, but his albums focus on the war-crime trials of Khmer Rouge leaders; they convey messages of revolt when played on underground radio stations in Cambodia. Ly rarely performs these days (though he will at the Cambodian Music Festival), instead focusing on film projects. He’s often asked to speak about his work at institutions like Harvard and UC Berkeley, making him the de facto public face for young Cambodian-Americans.

But while Ly thinks globally, CS thinks locally — about the displacement of his people, about helping those stuck in destructive mode to realize that life is worth living.

“I feel like I need to be the voice for all the ones that got deported, the ones still in jail and the ones that fell victim to the street life,” CS says. “I’m just telling my story, about a boy from Cambodia that grew up here.”
Onstage, a DJ spins tracks from other Long Beach Cambodian hip-hop artists — Chedda 3000, G-Funk Supreme, $tupid Young, Mario C — while a crowd of tough-looking Asians begins to form onstage. By the time CS and Yung Tee come out to give a live performance of the movement’s theme song, they are surrounded by at least 50 fellow Cambodians.

And when the first note of “I’m a Cambo” hits, the buzz is electric. From the stage to the back bar, bodies move, hands shoot up into the air and everyone in the crowd shouts the chorus at the top of their lungs.

I’m a motherfuckin’ Cambo!

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