His voice is soft —weak at best, from years of yelling over the sound of bombs being dropped and old age. Often, he utters nothing, but the entire world hears him. When actions speak louder than words: A story about the silent phenomenon of General Vang Pao.
He is a walking hero, a legend who is still living and breathing among us. What makes one a legend in his community? Although he was raised in a tight-knit community, over the years he has risen to become a worldly leader and an example of the tragic aftermath of wars. He is known throughout the universe. People love him, people hate him. People are loyal to him, and some may equally despise him. Wherever he goes, his presence is honored, familiar and stirring. This is what we call, The GVP Phenomenon.
When General Vang Pao was arrested by the United States government on charges of trying to overthrow the government of Laos, we witnessed an event that caused an uproar in the Hmong community. One of the most significant things about this event was how much involvement there was among the younger generation, otherwise known as “Gen Y” and Millennials. New media tools, such as Facebook and blogs, opened the door for global communication. As a result, people were brought together because of their shared concern about war, persecution, betrayal and issues surrounding Hmong genocide. Supporters of General Vang Pao utilized grassroots efforts, enhanced by modern technology, to educate and inform the greater population about the importance of the General to the Hmong people. Much of the awareness surrounding his high profile arrest, was established and organized by local community groups.
For the first time in over 30 years, people from around the world, and most importantly, in the United States, learned about the historical ties of a small ethnic group known as the Hmong. Led by General Vang Pao, they had a significant involvement with the United States C.I.A. in the Vietnam War. The aftermath of their contribution and ties to the United States ultimately resulted in mass massacres of innocent Hmong people.
With no questions asked, on September 21, 2009, all charges against General Vang Pao were dropped. Contrary to the coverage and attention of his arrest and prosecution, the United States government and the media downplayed the decision. Finally, he was quietly released.
An interview with Vong Lee, aka “Knowstalgic” from the duo group Delicious Venom, a young, emerging Hip-Hop rapper with strong ties to his history and culture. Delicious Venom is known for their unique lyrics about social and cultural issues in songs such as “30 Year Secret” and “Genocide in Laos”.
What is Delicious Venom?
Delicious Venom –the cure for venom is venom, it kinda cancels out poison. Growing up in a venomous neighborhood, it’s like, now that we know what was going on; we know the right route, we’re coming back as the positive venom to cancel out the bad venom. That’s why we called ourselves — my older brother Tou Saiko and me, Delicious Venom
Where were you born?
I was born in providence Rhode Island, my brother was born in a refugee camp; we came here around 1979. I have another brother who was born a year before me, and my sister, who was born after me, in Syracuse. They are the total opposites of me and Tou. As far as personalities go, the things we are into, are different, but we get along pretty well.
Where did you grow up?
We lived in New York for about 10 years, and then we moved here to St, Paul, MN. In New York, we lived in Syracuse, the forgotten city, all of these abandoned homes, no one cared about, it was just a crumbling city, lots of corruption, we didn’t realize how bad it was when we were little, until now.
Why Hmong history & Hip Hop?
For me, first of all, Hip Hop has such a huge influence on pretty much the whole globe, but a lot of people are misinformed as to what it is: Hip Hop is like a culture that started out in pretty much, the poorest neighborhoods, in New York City, where everyone was oppressed. The type of neighborhood we grew up in, that was pretty much the only type of music that hit home with me, you can listen to music about being mad or being sad, but Hip Hop, you know they talk about things that are happening currently, in the neighborhoods.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Pretty busy, tonight we have a show at Concordia University, afterwards it’s straight to the Turf Club and then Saturday we’ll be performing at the Lucy’s Moonlight Sports Bar. In between all that I got all these other things goin’ on like school, and trying to get this job [he's fumbling to find an important document].
What’s your plan for the future?
I really want to teach Hmong History and Hip Hop history one day, at first I wanted to do it inside of a school, but I don’t know, I guess we’ll see if there’s any where else I can teach it.
Who were some of your friends growing up?
In New York, the only Hmong people we knew were our cousins, mostly my dad’s side. My mom’s side lived in MN. Everyone else was just white, or black, Latino kids. Back then I didn’t really know how to differentiate races, some of them were just my friends, I didn’t really see them as black, white or significantly different from me, they were just my friends, it didn’t matter. Now I’m more aware of the differences.
How did your family, particularly your parent’s feel about you and your brother rapping?
They weren’t really supportive at first. They used to tease us a lot, like my dad would always imitate us, there is a song from the 80s called, Whip it. He would always say that line “It’s not to late to whip it, whip it good” to us over and over every time he heard us rapping. It was pretty funny.
Who wrote 30 Year Secret?
My brother Tou, Doua, a guest rapper, and me. We each wrote our own verses. The inspiration was from a group from Minnesota called H3 (Hmong Hlub Hmong). At that time, they were going around doing rallies and informing the community about the situation in Laos, ongoing war with the communist Laos and the Hmong people living in the jungle, the genocides of some of the Hmong victims. They opened a lot of eyes, including ours. They were doing a candle light vigil where they showed video footages of what was going on in Laos. It inspired us to do something about it. If this is really happening, people need to know. This can’t be just be pushed aside. We were trying to think of a way as to how we could make other people see the problems going on, without hurting anyone or doing
anything violent. What could we do with our abilities? We looked at each other and said, “Alright we’re all musicians, artists, and there is a big Hmong artist community in the country. We’re all disconnected from each other, but how about we do a collaboration of all Hmong artists out there, and let’s get together and write songs about the situation, raise awareness; get people to start talking about it.”
So we worked with H3, and got them to donate DVD’s so we could do a callout, to artists who wanted to help with the project, and anyone who was interested, we mailed them each a DVD of the presentation, a documentary of what was going on in Laos, to educate them, and hopefully inspire them. We did that, then in MN, we did a lot of promoting, telling people about it, pretty much, it came together a lot better than we ever imagined. This became known as the H Project.
What did you want people to take back from listening to your music?
When I was writing, it was just mainly to spark up a conversation, move somebody, to make them angry, sad or just to feel somethin’ about it, you know… hopefully, it will lead them to something good.
What were some reactions?
People really responded well to the song, some even came up to us and told us that they cried listening to it.
What kind of feeling does that give you?
It makes me feel good because it lets me know that, we still do, there is still Hmong people out there who care about Hmong people. It makes me realize how close we really are even though we are all far apart. It gives me a great feeling that there’s still hope
When was the first performance?
In 1999, when I was 17 and Tou was 21. Our first performance was infront of a Hmong audience at a party in MN. It was kinda crazy. We were doing all these crazy things on stage and I think we kinda scared ‘em. A lot of our songs, when we first started out we didn’t have a studio, a mic or speakers, or anything, we started performing before we ever had any equipment. Our first song was just a performance song; we never recorded it. We always rapped on the mic live. We had a friend who did shows, and he liked our style, so he wanted us to go out there, and so the majority of our songs became performance songs. A lot of it is about social issues, reflecting our feelings, and the way we feel about life, and how we grew up.
Who usually comes to the shows?
The majority is the younger generation, but we have a pretty good number of older generation that show up as well. We had a performance in WI and it was pretty much just senior citizens, and they really felt for our music, and praised us in the end. We don’t have a limit to our audience because even if they don’t like it, maybe they can respect or like it for what it is.
Do you write poetry?
We started writing poetry before we started rapping, when I was in 4th or 5th grade, and my brother was in Junior High.
What influenced you?
It was my brother, when he started getting into it, I was getting into it.
Why did you pick Hip-Hop and Rapping over Country, Rock or Hmong music?
Well, my brother and I are definitely working towards writing Hmong music. What happened during the Vietnam War, devastated our parents. Basically, they thought their lives were done, everything that had worked for was gone. So, when we came here to America and they had heard that this was the land of opportunity and you won’t make it if you don’t know English, they taught us the basics of Hmong, just enough to understand people and communicate, and then rest was just English. Even in preschool, they had these books where they sat down with us, played tapes while we read along with the tapes. So they got us on a good start with English. Even in our English classes, we were kinda ahead of the American kids, and so that’s why our English is such a big part of our music. It’s been a big part of us growing up.
How do you spend your weekends besides performing?
I try to hang out with my friends but I barely ever see them, almost every time we have a date set to hang out, I always say I wanna go but usually something always comes up. It’s more like catching up days, everything I pushed back during the week, I just catch up on it, like homework, but the majority of it has to do with music; organizing shows, there’s always so much stuff going on with our music. If we ever say we have nothing to do, we’re lying. Because we have all these shows that are pending, a lot of things we still have to do as far as getting things done.
Where are these shows at usually?
Everywhere. Clubs, community centers, bars, school, elementary, middle, high school, universities, everywhere you can think of. We don’t have a specific audience that we target, we make our music, and if you want us to be there, we’ll perform infront of any type of audience, any race, age. Basically,anyone who wants to listen.
Who else is a musician in your family?
My older brother Sy and my Dad used to be in a band called Demix. They used to play at Hmong parties, weddings, New Years. They were a really popular band; a lot of people requested them. This was way before we started rapping. It was fun, but not something that really influenced us to be in the music scene. It wasn’t our thing, but we liked it.
What do you think the future hold for you?
You know, [sigh] every couple of days, I sit here and ask me that same question. I really don’t have a def answer. I really want music to be a big part of my life. But there are so many other things I want to do in life, I do know that music will always be a part of it, just figuring out how big of a part it will be in my life, is the hard thing. If we get signed with a huge deal then we’ll def pursue music all the way, but until then, I want to keep workin’ on my other goals like learning as much as I can about the Hmong history, push as much as I can in every direction, until it takes off.
Do you want to travel somewhere?
Traveling is def on our agenda, especially Laos and Thailand. We’ve discussed performing there. We’d love to do that. There really is no limit as to where we will perform.
Do you think you’ll ever get married?
Laughs. Well. [Pause] Well, I’m def not in a rush to get married, but if I find someone, like me, and our lives are compatible, and our personalities click, and, you know [pause] everything works out then, yeah. I’m not saying this isn’t ever gonna happen.
This article was published in the July 2007 issue of 18XEEM