+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com

Please answer the question below:

How have historical and political contexts influenced the work of Cambodian and/or Cambodian diasporic musicians? Discuss 2 specific examples.

one page, MLA

NYU Press
Chapter Title: From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back: The Transnational
Terrains of Cambodian American Rap
Chapter Author(s): CATHY J. SCHLUND-VIALS
Book Title: Global Asian American Popular Cultures
Book Editor(s): Shilpa Davé, Leilani Nishime and Tasha Oren
Published by: NYU Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/j.ctt18040jc.11
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Part II
Making Community
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
The Transnational Terrains of Cambodian American Rap
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
While doing chores in the kitchen, [my mom] would randomly speak of how
we had to leave our Cambodian home and run to Thailand because the Khmer
Rouge were invading our province. Bong Thoeun would also tell me . . . how
beautiful and vast our farmland was. . . . Hearing these stories makes me wonder how I would be living “if the war had never happened.” I figure my Khmer
speaking ability would be near perfect and I would probably spend most of
my time chilling on my farm drinking palm wine and smoking home grown
tobacco. Maybe by 18 or 20 I would have moved to the city of Phnom Penh
to pursue my art and music career and become the Cambodian Jay Z or Nas.
Hahaaa! Who really knows?
—Sambath “Sam” Hy, Cambodian American rapper, February 4, 20111
Rap’s global industry-orchestrated (but not industry-oriented) presence illustrates the power of the language of rap and the salience of stories of oppression
and creative resistance its music and lyrics tell.
—Tricia Rose, Black Noise.2
If central to contemporary hip-hop is an identifiable space (i.e., an urban setting) as expressed via overt declarations of place (e.g., NWA’s “Straight Outta
Compton”), then Lowell, Massachusetts, makes “demographic sense” as a setting
for Cambodian American rap. Roughly twenty-five miles northwest of Boston,
where U.S. Highway 3 intersects with Interstate 495, Lowell sits at the tri-water
juncture of the Merrimack River, the Concord River, and Pawtucket Falls. The
Northeastern city is home to the second-largest Cambodian American population in the United States. Long Beach, California, houses the nation’s largest
Khmer population at nearly fifty thousand, while nearby Lynn, Massachusetts,
ranks a close third.3 Drawn like their West Coast counterparts to the United
States by the 1980s Refugee Act and promises of post-conflict asylum, Cambodian Lowellians, who number an estimated twenty-five thousand to thirty
thousand, have left an indelible mark on the mill city’s landscape. Commercially
and culturally, these impacts are evident in the preponderance of traditional
Khmer restaurants, Khmer American–owned businesses, and Cambodian
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
American enclaves in Lowell’s Acre and Lower Highlands neighborhoods.4
Such locales serve as chief settings for traditional ceremonies, Theravada Buddhist observances, Angkor Dance Troupe performances, and Cambodian New
Year celebrations. Last, but certainly not least, these Khmerican collisions are
arguably most visible in the annual Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, a
late-summer celebration that brings tens of thousands to the city’s Heritage State
Park and Esplanade and Sampas Pavilion.
To be sure, Lowell’s present-day status as a Southeast Asian hub would certainly surprise its nineteenth-century founders, who originally envisioned a
utopic “Manchester in America.”5 While at one point a leading manufacturing
city, Lowell, like other U.S. commercial municipalities, endured the long-lasting
economic impacts of the Great Depression, post–World War II suburbanization, and mid-century deindustrialization. For instance, by the mid-1940s, 40
percent of Lowell’s denizens were on relief, though World War II temporarily
revitalized the city’s textile economy as factory workers furiously labored to
meet wartime parachute demand.6 Even with this change in the city’s economic
fortunes, white ethnic Lowellians—à la their compatriots in Buffalo, New York;
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; Youngstown, Ohio; and Gary,
Indiana—abandoned their city dwellings during the 1950s postwar boom, moving to nearby Chelmsford, Tewksbury, and Dracut. By 1960, the so-known City
of Spindles suffered a 10 percent population loss through “white flight,” a demographic trend that would continue in the next three decades.7
As long-term residents moved to surrounding suburbs in-state, companies
moved to locations out-of-state: to rural communities, small towns, and cities
in the American south. Active mills seemingly transformed into abandoned
buildings overnight, and by the mid-1970s, without a solid manufacturing base,
the unemployment rate crept to 13 percent.8 The mill city’s economic landscape
shifted yet again in 1976, when Wang Laboratories set up headquarters in the
former textile capital.9 Wang Laboratories was a fiscal harbinger of the so-called
1980s Massachusetts Miracle, wherein state unemployment fell from 12 percent
to 3 percent despite nationwide stagflation, inflation, and recession. At one point
in the late 1980s, Wang Laboratories boasted $3 billion revenues and had 33,000
employees.10 Nevertheless, Lowell’s domestic fortunes further declined during
the Clinton administration as global outsourcing became not so much the exception but rather the rule for U.S. businesses. Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy in 1992, closed its proverbial factory doors in 1997, and was bought by
Getronics (a Dutch company) in 1999.11
Set adjacent the mass movement of bodies, manufacturing, and capital out
of state and out of country, Lowell’s diverse present-day population testifies to
demographic growth in the face of omnipresent deindustrialization. While the
city’s white population decreased by 18.5 percent between 1980 and 2010, sotermed minority populations (inclusive of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 109
Americans) grew from 4.1 percent to 31.4 percent, indicative of a 400 percent
total increase.12 Whereas African American and Latino populations increased
by 367 percent and 321 percent, respectively, the greatest upsurge involved Asian
Americans, whose numbers grew by 2,876 percent.13 Of that number, the majority of Asian Lowellians are Cambodian Americans, who constitute 10.3 percent
of the city’s present-day population. This diverse story of population growth
undeniably reflects shifts in immigration policy, such as the 1965 Immigration
and Nationality Act. It is equally connected to the “ends” of the Vietnam War
(post–April 30, 1975) and, as will later be discussed, the contemporaneous rise
of the authoritarian Khmer Rouge (1975–1979), which was responsible for the
deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.14
These demographic shifts—particularly those involving Cambodian refugees
and Cambodian Americans—are germane to this chapter’s overall focus, which
considers the transnational, domestic, and political registers of Khmer American rap.15 Set against histories of war-driven dislocation and forced relocation,
Cambodian American rap determinedly recollects, through lyrics and samples,
the aforementioned Cambodian genocide and its refugee aftermath. As important, the current state of Lowell’s Cambodian American affairs—marked by lowskilled employment and delimited by recent state-authorized deportation—are
explored in critical rhymes about everyday life, racism, xenophobia, and the
ongoing War on Terror. This intersection of art and politics, guided by the realities of deindustrialization and the logics of migration, is provocatively emblematized by Cambodian Lowellian rapper Sambath “Sam” Hy, whose personal
journey from “the Mekong to the Merrimack” provides this chapter’s title and
foregrounds its examinations of Khmerican hip-hop’s transnational terrains.
Toward a Cambodian American “VOA”
In the opening epigraph, Hy nostalgically meditates on how “he would be living” if “‘the war had never happened’” while articulating a desire to be a “Cambodian Jay Z or Nas.” When asked to expand, the Cambodian American hip
hopper responds:
Coming from Cambodia I feel a natural need to represent my country and to tell
my personal story about where I come from. But “my whole music” is not only
that. I also write about many other subjects that I faced in my life, such as Cambodian American life in the USA, growing up bilingual, racial discrimination, racial
profiling, identity crisis, gangsta peers, deportation, immigration, being a teenage
parent and the struggles, poverty, welfare, revelations of your homeland, dropping
out of school, cold cash jobs, theft, politics, haters, lovers, resident aliens, green
card holders, arts . . . the list goes on and on. . . . I am a poet. I rap about everything
in my life as I know it.16
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Figure 7.1. Hy at Western Avenue Studies in Lowell, Massachusetts; the studio
served as his workshop in 2014. Photograph by Felix Khut.
Like many 1.5-generation Cambodian Americans, Hy originally hails not from
Cambodia but instead from a refugee camp. Born on June 3, 1977, on the border
of Thailand and Cambodia in Khao-I-Dong Holding Center, Hy and his family
were initially relocated to a small rural town: Spring Valley, Illinois. While in
Illinois, his family worked on their sponsor’s farm. Almost five years later, in
1984, Hy and his family moved to Seattle, Washington. After a three-year stint
in Seattle, Hy—then ten years old—and his family permanently relocated to
Lowell, Massachusetts, on October 31, 1987. Remembering his first impression
of Lowell, the Khmerican rapper notes, “I saw all the mills, old bridges, and old
brick walls. . . . It made me just want to move back to Spring Valley. Little did I
know this amazing city would make me realize and appreciate the Cambodian
within me.”17
A true hip-hop poet, Hy’s insistence that he “rap[s] about everything in his
life” overlaps with what Public Enemy’s Chuck D famous characterization of
rap as the “Black CNN.” Central to Chuck D’s conceptualization is a reading of
hip hop as hard-hitting street reportage, in which stories detail acts of systemic
racism (for instance, police brutality, economic discrimination, and dispropor-
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 111
tionate imprisonment) and practices of African American life (such as playing
“the dozens”). Similarly, Hy’s artistic desire to represent his country of origin
and “Cambodian life in the USA,” inclusive of “revelations of [the] homeland,”
“resident aliens,” and “green card holders,” resembles a “Cambodian American
VOA” (Voice of America). As the leading diasporic news outlet for Cambodians
outside Cambodia, VOA’s mass media reach is replicated in the international
purview and transnational emphases at the forefront of Khmer American rap.18
This hip-hop-oriented “Cambodian American VOA” testifies to a traumatic
Cambodian history (expressly war and genocide) while providing multifaceted
accounts of Cambodian American experiences. Contemporary Khmerican
hip-hop is, as Hy’s allusion to a “Cambodian Jay Z or Nas” suggests, necessarily
informed by both the mass circulation of hip-hop production and the minority position of Cambodian Americans in the United States. Recalling that he
was most influenced by Wu-Tang Clan and P.M. Dawn, Hy admits, “As a child,
I always wondered why Cambodians were not on TV or seen on cassette tape
covers. I always wondered why I was different and frequently asked myself,
while trying to sleep, why am I who I am.”19 This struggle over self-identification
reveals dominant senses of race in the United States, indicative of both overt
xenophobia and anti-Asian racialization.
As Hy confesses, “The biggest issue I have with living as Cambodian American in the U.S.A. is identity [emphasis in original]. I was brought to this country
when I was one and a half years old.” He continues:
I always thought of myself as American, but my exterior shows that I am Cambodian or for people that don’t know . . . I am some kind of Asian or brown foreigner.
This bothered me greatly when I was growing up. . . . Kids told me to go back to
where I came from. Teenage Caucasian guys would hurl 7-Eleven ice slushies at
me while they sped off in their Iroc-Z, shouting, “You gook!” . . . I was a very quiet
and bothered child. Why do I have to be this four syllable word: Cam-Bo-Di-An?
I used to cry myself to sleep wishing I would wake up as a different nationality—
something more common, please!!!20
As “some kind of Asian or brown foreigner,” Hy’s “biggest issue” speaks to a sense
that terms such as “Cambodian American” and “Asian American” are, as Mimi
Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu summarize, “intrinsically relational” and
indicative of dominant U.S. readings of race (as black/white, domestic and foreign) and characterizations of Asian America (as primarily comprised of East
Asian Americans).21 Indeed, even though Hy “always thought of [himself] as
American,” his racial identity (“exterior”) is read as foreign, a point made painfully clear by the remembrance of racial slurs and memories of his peers telling
him “to go back to where [he] came from.” Moreover, as a “Cam-Bo-Di-An,” his
ethnicity is not as “common,” prompting a childhood desire to “wake up as a
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
different nationality.” In sum, Hy’s exterior/interior conflicts bring together competing notions of affective citizenship (as American vs. Cambodian) alongside
political belonging (e.g., a more “common” nationality).
Alternatively, Hy’s observation of Cambodian invisibility via systemic racism,
reflected in the overt use of racial slurs and declarations to “go back to where
he came from,” becomes even more significant when set within the context of
a larger popular cultural imaginary. As Nguyen and Tu further contend, while
mainstream representations of Asian Americans “are always framed and conditioned by historical, cultural, and political forces, even (and especially) when
they appear to be at odds with them,” the question remains as to how “Asian
Americans ‘get to’ participate in it and how might their participation shape its
contours.”22 In this instance, Hy’s “Cambodian-ness” is hypervisible and illegible. Even so, it is through hip-hop that Hy “gets to” participate in American
popular culture. Hy’s introduction to hip-hop—which involved a “live urban
performance”—accentuates a transformative interracial cultural encounter.
Noting that his “first observation of hip-hop” was through break dancing, Hy
explains, “I thought it was the coolest thing. I remember seeing these African American males dancing on flat cardboard boxes on the corner down the
street from my apartment in Seattle. . . . It was so powerful and magical. I can
still remember the bass pounding through my chest. That moment will always
make sense.”23
On the one hand, as a displaced Cambodian American subject, Hy’s transnational, interracial characterization of his work through popular culture recalls
what Tricia Rose asserts in the opening epigraph as hip-hop’s global reach. Such
international connections and inclusive relations, as Rose evocatively argues, are
attributable to hip-hop’s ability to accommodate oppressive histories through
tactical acts of “creative resistance.” On the other hand, Sam Hy’s mention of
“immigration,” “racial profiling,” and “deportation” as key creative themes in
his work operates as a compelling shorthand for the Cambodian American
experience. These key words—along with mentions of culture and politics—
acknowledge politicized movements from Southeast Asia to the United States.
Such foci also highlight a vexed trajectory from the United States back to Cambodia. Most recently, as Cambodian Americans are exiled “back home” (as will
be subsequently analyzed), these mobilizations lay bare the racialized and racist
politics of a post-9/11 War on Terror present.
Such back-and-forth “refugee movements” are apparent in “The Full View,”
a solo track Hy released on YouTube in 2006. Focused on the rapper’s “coming
of age” in the United States, “The Full View” interrogates Cambodian American
masculinity via violence, precariousness, and uncertainty. At its artistic forefront, “The Full View” represents a multi-sited journey from Cambodia’s “killing
fields” to Lowell’s deindustrialized neighborhoods. As Hy lyricizes:
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 113
Seeing tragedies and gunshots surrounding my vicinities / it’s hard to find peace
in a world that’s befriending me, ending me like a diseased piece of poetry, bending my knees as I bleed folding me / I need angels close to me God to be holding
me, those that oppose me be out like ghost be . . . / ghosts and demons try to hold
me down / but Cambodian child inside still cries that sound / . . . still cries the
sounds / There’s something missing in America, / The way we live / something
missing in America / how much I have to give?24
Maintaining that “there’s something missing in America,” Hy emphasizes a sense
of precarity and non-belonging, grounded in “tragedies and gunshots” in the
neighborhood (“my vicinities”) and involving inner hauntings (“ghosts and
demons”). While “The Full View” commences with refugee-oriented despair, it
nevertheless insists that art is key to individual and communal liberation, made
clear by Hy’s concluding lyrics, which stress that in “telling truth,” he is “teaching
roots to the youth to promote my group.”25
As Hy’s artistic trajectory and “The Full View” underscores, Cambodian
American rap remains rooted in transnational histories of state-authorized conflict that, as the next section makes clear, reflect the legacies of the Khmer Rouge
period. It is likewise fixed to stories of displacement from Southeast Asia and
connected to narratives of relocation to the United States. Lowell’s Cambodian
American rap scene—via Hy’s work—reveals what Lisa Lowe evocatively argues
is central to Asian American cultural production: a tireless reckoning with the
past that carries a simultaneous critique of the present.26 Shifting from politicized senses of space to the racialized politics of place, Hy’s work as a member
of Lowell-based rap trio Seasia (Soul Elements of Asia) further clarifies this relationship between genocidal history, intergenerational memory, and Cambodian
American belonging. These historical frames and cultural analyses undergird
this chapter’s concluding argument, which returns to the relationship between
critique and Cambodian American cultural production. As I have previously
argued, what distinguishes Cambodian American cultural production is its
intimate connection to war, genocide, and juridical activism; such connections,
which build on Lowe’s observation of critical cultural remembrances, make identifiable a distinct Cambodian Americanist critique.27
Droppin’ Khmerican Science: The Killing Fields and Beyond
The main reason why I am interested in the Killing Fields is due to the fact that
when I was young I always wondered why I was living in America and not surrounded by more people like me. . . . I can’t say I know everything there is to know
about the Killing Fields. My main focus in my war-related music is to describe
how Cambodians were affected by the war and how I am personally affected. My
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
music is about the lives of people, not just the war itself. The songs that I have were
inspired by talking to survivors and hearing their stories.28
—Sambath “Sam” Hy
During the Vietnam War, between 1969 and 1973, the Nixon administration
launched an illegal bombing campaign of the Cambodian countryside per a
disastrous policy to “contain” the threat of North Vietnamese troops along the
Cambodian/Vietnam border. The United States simultaneously supported the
vehemently right-wing General Lon Nol’s regime, which waged a bloody civil
war with the communist Khmer Rouge. Lon Nol’s rule came to an end on April
17, 1975, when Khmer Rouge troops overtook the nation’s capital (Phnom Penh)
and renamed the country “Democratic Kampuchea.” For Cambodians exhausted
from in-state violence, the Khmer Rouge promised an end to war and a peaceful,
collective redistribution of resources. Despite such promises, the Khmer Rouge
enacted a series of catastrophic policies intended to turn the country back to
“year zero.” Focused on eliminating Western influence from all facets of Khmer
life, the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia’s cities and forced Cambodians into
agricultural camps. The regime also engaged in the strategic killing of “enemies
of the people.”
Such a categorization was distressingly “inclusive,” encompassing doctors,
lawyers, teachers, judges, Vietnamese Cambodians (Khmer Khrom), Muslim
Cambodians (the Cham), fellow leftists, and anyone else who fell outside the
regime’s increasingly authoritarian parameters. Over the course of the next three
years, eight months, and twenty days (1975–1979), almost two million Cambodians perished as a result of starvation, execution, disease, and forced labor.29 On
January 7, 1979, an invading Vietnamese army “liberated” Cambodia’s capital,
signaling the end to the Khmer Rouge era (though members of the regime still
remain in Cambodia and hold varying positions of power).30 Survivors of the
regime, who faced famine, no infrastructure, and political uncertainty, struggled
in the months that followed: An estimated 510,000 Cambodians fled to neighboring Thailand, while another 100,000 sought refuge in Vietnam.31 Between
1980 and 1985, almost 150,000 Cambodians came to the United States.32 To date,
more than 280,000 individuals of Khmer descent live in the United States.33
This story of war, genocide, and relocation coheres with Sambath Hy’s confessional artistic engagement with the “Killing Fields” era, fixed to the childhood question as to “why I was living in America and not surrounded by more
people like me.” As the above passage indicates, Hy’s cultural initiation into that
history—Roland Joffé’s Academy Award–winning film, The Killing Fields—
highlights the extent to which Cambodian American selfhood (within the dominant imagination) begins and ends with the Khmer Rouge period. Such bodies
are highly visible Cambodian human rights subjects yet simultaneously invisible
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 115
within a domestic imaginary as Cambodian American subjects. As Hy admits,
“The era of the Killing Fields are part of my history that I have to explain. It’s
how I live knowing the fact we come from such a tragic history. There’s no escaping it.” This “fact,” a starting point for Hy’s own identity exploration and hip-hop
examination, is paradoxically remembered and forgotten. While the genocide as
“remembered event” remains at the forefront of the current UN/Khmer Rouge
Tribunal (aka the “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia”),
only three Khmer Rouge officials—Kaing Guek Eav, Nuon Chea, and Khieu
Samphan—have been successfully tried and convicted for war crimes.34
Whereas this wartime history and genocidal past are responsible for bringing Cambodians to the United States, the present-day Khmerican experience is
increasingly shaped by a series of post-9/11 deportations. According to a recent
Boston Globe Magazine article, almost six hundred Cambodian Americans, “virtually all of them male and a majority convicted criminals, have been shipped to
Asia’s most traumatized nation since 2002, when Cambodia signed a repatriation
agreement with the United States.”35 An estimated 1,600 Cambodians have been
slated for deportation. Between 2001 and 2010, deportations averaged forty-one
per year; this number almost doubled in 2011 and 2012. As Olesia Plokhii and
Tom Mashburg elaborate,
Brought here as victims of the Vietnam War and the Killing Fields of the Khmer
Rouge, most were dropped into ghettos in Lowell, Lynn, and Long Beach, California, and left to overcome cultural and language barriers with little support from
the government that took them in. While illiterate adults fell into low-pay work,
their children stumbled through crowded public schools or took to the streets in
violent gangs. Many of those eventually deported had become hardened felons, but
others were exiled for first-time misdemeanors like shoplifting or check fraud. A
major reason for their expulsion is that they never obtained citizenship, an option
open to them was war refugees.36
These domestic realities are referenced in Hy’s assertion that both the Killing
Fields era and his present-day experiences as a Khmerican male inform his
hip-hop oeuvre. For 1.5-generation Cambodian Lowellians like Hy who faced
“crowded public schools” and “violent gangs,” hip-hop offers an alternative possibility for belonging and personhood. As Hy remembers, “I was drawn to hip
hop because . . . these MC’s are truly masters of the ceremony. I had always
been a quiet kid in school, never really raised my hand much in class. I also
had dreams of being the articulate and talkative one. Today I feel rap gave me
that opportunity.”37 Such opportunities are fixed to hip-hop as a diverse form,
wherein Hy was admittedly “moved by how powerful controversial rap can be
with tracks like ‘911’s a Joke’ [Public Enemy] or how stylish and funky it can be
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116 |
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
with tracks like ‘Cool Like That’[Digable Planets] or even funny like the tracks
‘Ya Mama’ [WUF Ticket] and ‘The Pee Wee Rap’ [D. Harris & J. Phillips].”38
As a flexible mode of politicized cultural expression, hip-hop has, as Oliver
Wang observes, not surprisingly “been a dominant cultural and musical force
for Asian American youth” since the 1990s.39 Even so, Asian American rappers
(most famously, MC Jin) continue to face what Wang argues is an “authenticity
crisis” vis-à-vis dominant U.S. racial logics, wherein “black masculinity is associated with stereotypes of hypermasculinity and sexuality, physical aggression,
and the underclasses.” Such stereotypes “stand in almost diametric opposition
to so-called model minority stereotypes of Asian masculinity: effete or asexual,
passive, and middle class.”40 Nevertheless, as the contemporary experiences of
Cambodian Americans make clear, this model minoritization blatantly disremembers the extent to which Khmerican rap is informed by transnational histories of oppression, domestic racialization, and economic disenfranchisement.
Situated adjacent a tumultuous political and economic imaginary, Cambodian
American rap becomes a significant site upon which to lay bare a still-to-bereconciled genocidal past, multiple refugee movements (from Cambodia to
the United States), and the current Khmerican deportation crisis. To be sure,
the experiences of 1.5-generation Cambodian Americans, born “over there” but
raised “over here,” instantiates a concomitant evaluation regarding the role of cultural space in the making of local, national, and transnational notions of place.
This Janus-faced reading of Cambodian American hip-hop—which situates a violent past alongside a still-contested present—is reflected by Hy, whose
conflict-oriented work as a solo artist and with Seasia is consistently concerned
with how he and other Cambodians were—and remain—“affected by the war”
and the Killing Fields era. In this regard, Hy’s hip-hop project coheres with the
work of other Cambodian American rappers like the Khmer K.I.D. (from Los
Angeles) and AZI Fellas (a Philadelphia-based crew), who strategically use hiphop as a way to negotiate what compatriot emcee praCh reminds us are “stories
told from our parents to us / about the killing fields not long ago.”41 Khmerican
hip-hop militates against dominant U.S. ethnoracial logics through lyrics focused
on social justice, deportation, and violence specific to Cambodian American
communities. In turn, these productions becomes spaces for Cambodian American “creative resistance.” Such cultural production accesses the resistive roots
of hip-hop, which, from the outset, was guided by a late-1960s cultural politics
of self-determination, communal expression, and social justice. Moreover, the
use of traditional Khmer music as a guiding principle and musical backdrop
memorializes those lost during the Killing Fields era and monumentalizes the
resilience of survivors and contemporary Khmericans. As a “Cambodian American VOA,” then, Khmer American rap engages genocide remembrance while
concomitantly commenting on racialized practices that continue to circumscribe
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 117
1.5-generation Cambodian Americans in the United States. These acts of “creative resistance” are evident in Hy’s work with the aforementioned, now-defunct
R&B/hip-hop crew, Seasia.
From the Merrimack to the Mekong: Seasia’s Transnational
Hip-Hop Project
In an August 23, 2002, New York Times piece titled, “The Sound of Home: An
8,690-Mile Echo,” travel writer Sara Rimer opens with a description of Lowell’s
previously mentioned Southeast Asian Water Festival, which is “modeled on the
water festivals that have been held in Cambodia for hundreds of years.” A transnational endeavor, the festival features Southeast Asian monks, “colorful dragon
boats,” and “performances of traditional music and dance alternating with young
Cambodian women doing their best to emulate Whitney Houston . . . and Celine
Dion.”42 Such “east/west” collisions are evident in commodities sold by local vendors, which include American products (such as inflatable Spider-Man dolls),
Laotian cuisine, Vietnamese textiles, and Khmer crafts. Boat teams bear names
such as “Angkorian Warriors” and “Lao-Bodian”; traditional Khmer poetry
occurs alongside master pin peat performances; and there is even a competition
for the best “papaya salad.”43 Such diasporic registers reflect the original vision
behind the celebration. Indeed, while serving as the head of the Cambodian
Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA), festival founder Samkhann Khoeun
was “fascinated by the Merrimack” because it reminded the Khmer refugee of
“the Mekong River. The Merrimack was a source of life—to power the mills. The
Mekong is likewise: for growing rice, fishing, farming, transport of goods.”44
Indubitably, Lowell’s Southeast Asian Water Festival celebrates contemporary
Khmer American culture and commemorates traditional Khmer modes via performance, vision, and venue. Given that an estimated 90 percent of traditional
Khmer court musicians and dancers were executed during the Democratic Kampuchean era, the hyper-visible presence of such cultural modes on the main stage
underscores a revitalization concomitant to the festival’s Southeast Asian roots.
Moreover, for 1.5-generation Cambodian Americans (like Hy) who “came of
age” not in Cambodia but in the United States, the focus on mainstream American popular culture (e.g., Whitney Houston) underscores a cultural affiliation
with the country of settlement. In its vision to collapse the geographic spaces
between the Mekong and the Merrimack, the Southeast Asian Water Festival
engenders an analogous transnational movement of bodies and ideas across borders that intersects with the rise of Cambodian American hip-hop as a distinct
cultural mode.
It was at the 2002 Southeast Asian Water Festival that the Lowell-based hiphop crew Seasia performed in front of an excited crowd of primarily Cambodian
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
American youth. Dressed in “baggy jeans, football jerseys and sneakers,” Seasia’s
members—Tony Auyeth Roun (24), Hy (25), and Felix Sros Khut (24)—took the
festival main stage. According to Rimer,
The band, a highlight of the festival, had been delayed, partly because two members had been stuck in traffic and then had to walk a half mile because they didn’t
want to shell out $5 for a parking fee. (Popular they may be. Rich they are not. The
group received $500 for its appearance at the festival. They are not about to give
up their day jobs.)
Over the course of a fifteen-minute performance, Seasia’s largely teenaged audience enthusiastically cheered, applauding band shout-outs about “Khmer pride”
and “Asian pride.” In her reportage about the festival and Seasia, Rimer focuses
her journalistic attention on “long journeys,” which encompasses the circuitous
migration of Cambodian refugees to the United States. Apropos Lowell’s status
as a Southeast Asian/American mecca and the hometown of the famed wandering writer Jack Kerouac, these artistic travels—as Rimer highlights—are transnational and intergenerational, involving artistic dialogues between first and
1.5-generation Cambodian Americans. To that end, the travel reporter writes,
Seasia’s “journey . . . has been more than just the physical distance of the 8,690
Figure 7.2. Seasia is interviewed on Channel 3 News (in Phnom Phen) after performance with
master Khmer artists. Hy is the third figure from stage right. (2001).
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 119
miles from Cambodia to Lowell. They spent their early years in Lowell in a poor
neighborhood—“We called it the Khmer ghetto,” Mr. Khut said—and sharing
the streets with local gang members. The three friends resisted joining gangs,
not, however, without something of a struggle to find their own identity.”45
This “identity struggle” hearkens back to Hy’s previous motivation to know
“who he is,” yet it also reflects Seasia’s community roots. Since their first encounter as sophomores at Lowell High School, Roun, Khut, and Hy maintained a
close friendship as members of the “GAP [Good Asian People] Posse,” which was
“not a gang but more of a unity of good friendship between mainly Khmer guys.”
Notwithstanding a close high school friendship, the three Khmericans “went on
to do different things” after graduation. As Hy recalls, in the mid-1990s, “Tony
[Roun] started working with CMAA, Felix [Khut] went on to study marine biology at UMass. I was working third shift at a New Balance shoe factory trying to
support my newborn son and my girlfriend at the time.”46 Interested in reuniting
the “GAP Posse” in order to form a band, Roun convinced Khut to “try out singing”; he also invited Hy to visit CMAA, where he showed him a “compilation CD
album that they had put together with other local Khmer artist.” As Hy recalls,
I was amazed by the CD and the cool cover pictures. I totally wanted to be involved
in some way. . . . I told them I would like to be part of Seasia but I can’t sing! I tried
a few times at recording sessions but I couldn’t hold a key even it if had a ‘key
chain.’ . . . It was very frustrating. I then thought . . . I can do narrations and intros!
Like soft R&B rap! . . . So I wrote a short rap verse for a track called “Make up Your
Mind” (1999). I rapped that verse with another high school friend who only did
that one track then quit the group. . . . I discovered my role. . . . I went on to not
only write my rap verses but also wrote a lot of the song lyrics for Seasia.47
Officially formed in 1995, Seasia quickly collaborated with Cambodian Living
Arts co-founder Arn Chorn Pond, a founding member of the Cambodian Masters Performers Project (CMPP). Pond encouraged the trio to compose a song
for an upcoming play starring Yolanda King (Martin Luther King’s daughter)
titled “Children of War.” Seated at Pond’s kitchen table, Roun and Hy wrote
“Children of Tomorrow,” which eventually received a positive reception when
the play eventually premiered. Crediting Pond as his personal mentor, Hy notes,
“He was the one man that was so instrumental to the success of Seasia. He singlehandedly catapulted us to heights we never thought possible. I mean, being able
to perform at dozens of prestigious schools, teaching people about where we are
from, and about our musical crusade.”48
Known locally as the “Flute Player,” Pond was both the subject of a 2003
documentary (produced by Boston-based Over the Moon Productions) and a
key figure in the revitalization of traditional Khmer Arts on the East Coast. As
Rimer notes, Pond, who during the Killing Fields era “was forced to play for his
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
captors at a death camp,” was “determined to bring back the traditional music
that was outlawed when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime took over the country . . .
and began to wipe out the educated classes, including musicians.” Guided by the
desire to rediscover and reclaim surviving Cambodian master musicians, Pond
was committed to linking master practitioners with 1.5-generation Cambodian
American artists such as Hy, Roun, and Khut, who were for the most part illiterate in Khmer but fluent in English. As Khut noted, “Arn showed us you can’t turn
your back on your own culture,” a sense confirmed by fellow Seasia member Hy,
who likewise credits Pond with teaching him about “his country.”49
It was through this collaboration with Cambodian Living Arts that Seasia
released From the Killing Fields to Strawberry Fields (2002), which featured R&B,
rap, and traditional Khmer backbeats. The production of this CD coincided with
Hy’s first trip to Cambodia in 2001, where he returned as a self-described “Cambodian American pop star.” As Seasia toured in Cambodian cities such as Phnom
Penh and visited Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat, Hy stresses that
[I] learned so much. I saw all the struggles facing master artists and povertystricken Cambodians. I got to record with Cambodian master instrumentalists
in the studio . . . so absolutely inspiring. I got to walk barefoot on sandstone and
see the story of Angkor Wat and see the smiling faces of the Bayon, awe!!! I got to
see firsthand the difference between Cambodian and Cambodian American life,
what a revelation. I got to smell the dirty smoke from the trashland village and also
breathe the fresh warm area from the ocean in Kampong Som village. I also got to
see how native Cambodians look at us and assume we are from Thailand because
of our look. . . . I am grateful for all my experiences, I learn as I go. Being in Cambodia was like filling a missing piece of my jigsaw puzzle of life, and of course that
missing piece was in the shape of Cambodia.50
Set against a dizzying backdrop of grand Cambodian religious sites (such as
Angkor Wat) and impoverished Khmer villages, Hy’s description evocatively
vacillates between a celebration of Khmer personhood and a contemplation of
the realities of contemporary Cambodian life that refracts the paradoxical registers of transnational Khmer American selfhood. Correspondingly at stake in
Hy’s “return” is a “jigsaw puzzle” metaphor that potently encapsulates particular
differences “between Cambodian and Cambodian American life” that nevertheless converge in Hy’s hip-hop sensibility.
Embedded in pluralistic traditions and reflective of histories of relocation,
then, contemporary Cambodian American hip-hop is, as Hy’s work with Pond
and other master musicians suggests, incontrovertibly multidisciplinary and
transnational. Such engagements and movements engender an understanding
of relocation through the valorization of the homeland and the reclamation of
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 121
lost histories.51 As apparent in Hy’s contemporary consideration of Cambodia and Cambodian America, these multivalent hip-hop stories are fluidly and
simultaneously situated in U.S. and Khmer contexts. Armed with Khmer beats
and English-language raps, informed by experiences in the United States and
Cambodia, Hy creates intergenerational stories of survival alongside the fabric
of contemporary Cambodian America. These transnational terrains, born out
of Khmer Rouge authoritarianism, circumscribed by contemporary U.S. racial
logics, and critically concerned with the global flow of bodies and capital across
borders, render visible the degree to which Khmerican rappers like Hy defiantly
refuse to occupy the proverbial and political margins.
1 I conducted an email interview with Sambath “Sam” Hy, receiving a response from Hy on
February 4, 2011. The term “Bong” means “older brother.”
2 Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 19.
3 From the U.S. 2010 Census. See “City of Lowell, MA Census 2010,” Zip-Codes.com, n.d.,
http://www.zip-codes.com/city/MA-LOWELL-2010-census.asp, accessed 30 October 2015.
4 City of Lowell, Division of Planning and Development, “City of Lowell: Race and Ethnicity Trends,” in “City of Lowell Master Plan” (Lowell, MA: Division of Planning and
5 National Park Service, “Lowell National Historical Park, Massachusetts,” n.d., http://www
.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm, accessed 2 January 2013.
6 Interestingly, Lowell’s economic downturn actually predated the Great Depression. With
decreased demands for textiles, the city began its downturn in 1926. See Paul Marion, “Timeline of Lowell History,” Yankee Magazine, November 2009, http://www.yankeemagazine
.com/article/features/lowell-timeline, accessed 30 October 2015.
7 “1960 Census of Population and Housing—Census Tracts: Lowell, Massachusetts,” Census of
Population and Housing: Final Report PHC, vol. 60, no. 84 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960).
8 This figure—13 percent—represents the highest of any Massachusetts city and corresponds
to the lowest population count at 92,000. See Rebecca Gross, “Building on the Past: The
Creative Rebirth of Lowell, Massachusetts,” NEA Arts Magazine, no. 1 (2012), http://www.nea
.gov/about/nearts/storyNew.php?id=02_building&issue=2012_v1, accessed 12 January 2013.
9 Ibid.
10 City of Lowell, Division of Planning and Development, “City of Lowell: Race and Ethnicity
11 See Bart Ziegler, “Once-Booming Wang Laboratories Failed to Heed the Changing Market,”
Seattle Times, August 23, 1992, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=
19920823&slug=1508984, accessed 12 January 2013.
12 City of Lowell, Division of Planning and Development, “City of Lowell: Race and Ethnicity
13 Ibid.
14 The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act) removed
nation-state quotas from immigration policy. The act divided immigrants into hemispheric
groups: 120,000 immigrants from the “Western Hemisphere” were granted access; 170,000
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| Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
immigrants from the “Eastern Hemisphere” were allowed entry. For Southeast Asians, the
1975 Indochinese Act and the 1980 Refugee Act enabled migration en masse from nations
affected by the Vietnam War (including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand).
The four elements of hip-hop include deejaying, emceeing (rap), break dancing, and graffiti.
Hy, interview.
Ibid. Hy attended seven schools before he reached sixth grade.
This reading of a Cambodian American “VOA” is one that encapsulates the work of other
Khmer American rappers, namely Prach Ly, who hails from Long Beach, California. See
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
Hy, interview. Hy’s influences and tastes in music are quite eclectic. According to Hy, he was
drawn to “Run DMC, Fat Boys, Zapp, LL Coll J, Beastie Boys, Lords of the Underground,
Pharcyde, Biz Markie, Das Effex, Black Sheep, Fresh Prince, Kriss Kross, Naughty by Nature,
Marky Mark, C&C Music Factory, Snow, Rob Base, Salt n Peppa, Young Black Teenagers,
TLC, Tribe Called Quest, Jedi Mind Trikcs, Common, Mos Def, Jay Electronica” and the “list
goes on.”
See Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, “Introduction,” in Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America, ed. Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Ibid., 11, 7.
Hy, interview.
Lyrics provided by Sambath Hy via an email correspondence on December 13, 2013.
See Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1996).
See Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, and Justice.
Hy, interview.
The “Killing Fields” is a term coined by the Cambodian survivor, journalist, and activist Dith
Pran in a January 20, 1980, New York Times magazine article written by Sydney Schanberg
titled, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” In Cambodia, this era is known as “Pol Pot time.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia’s head of state since the 1980s, was a low-ranking
Khmer Rouge soldier.
Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic, “Removing Refugees: U.S. Deportation
Policy and the Cambodian-American Community” (New York: Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, 2010), available through the Southeast Asian Resource Center,
www.searac.org/sites/default/files/2010%20Cambodia%20Report_FINAL.pdf, accessed June
12, 2010.
Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Comrade Duch,” was the head warden for the notorious Tuol Sleng
Prison (S-21). An estimated twelve thousand to fourteen thousand Cambodians were
detained at S-21; less than two hundred survived. Nuon Chea was known as “Brother
Number Two,” and Khieu Samphan was a former Khmer Rouge prime minister. Chea and
Samphan are presently facing charges of genocide. For more about the state of memory and
justice vis-à-vis the tribunal, see Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, and Justice.
See Olesia Plokhii and Tom Mashberg, “One-Way Trip to an Unknown Land,” Boston Globe
Magazine (January 27, 2013), 27.
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From the Mekong to the Merrimack and Back
| 123
37 Hy, interview.
38 Ibid.
39 See Oliver Wang, “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian American
MC,” in Nguyen and Tu, Alien Encounters, 61.
40 Ibid., 41.
41 praCh [Prach Ly], “Stories,” in Dalama: The Lost Chapter (audio recording; Long Beach, CA:
Mujestic Records, 2002).
42 Sara Rimer, “Journeys; the Sound of Home: An 8,690-Mile Echo,” New York Times, August
23, 2002.
43 See “Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival: Preserving Culture through Community Building and Performance,” n.d., http://www.lowellwaterfestival.com, accessed January 20, 2013.
44 Ibid.
45 Quoted in Rimer, “Journeys.”
46 Hy, interview.
47 Ibid.
48 Ibid.
49 See Rimer, “Journeys.”
50 Hy, interview.
51 I appreciate Shilpa Davé’s critical suggestion re the valorization and reclamation of the country of origin.
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“Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee: Refugee Narratives,
Neoliberal Violence, and Musical Autobiography in Honey
Cocaine’s Cambodian Canadian Hip-Hop
Kenneth Chan
Biography, Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2018, pp. 484-508 (Article)
Published by University of Hawai’i Press
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/bio.2018.0055
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 13 Sep 2020 08:36 GMT from UCLA Library ]
Honey Cocaine (government name Sochitta Sal) burst onto the hip-hop scene
in 2012 with her remix of Chicago drill rapper Chief Keef’s hit single “Love
Sosa.” Aptly titled “Love Coca,” the music video of Honey Cocaine’s remix
garnered millions of views on YouTube and the attention of then-popular rapper Tyga (best known for his hit “Rack City”), who invited her to accompany
him on his major tour in 2012 and offered a potential record deal with his
label, Last Kings. Since then, Honey Cocaine has released numerous mixtapes and EPs, the latest offering being The Gift Rap in 2015. Hailing from
the low-income, majority-minority, immigrant Jane-Finch community in Toronto, the Cambodian Canadian emcee’s style has been described as “a voice
that’s both cute and menacing” and “an artist who has all the skill, creativity,
and appeal needed for commercial success yet occupies a non-commercialized space.” Her “sonic versatility” in her rhymes and beats, coupled with a
growing social-media profile and persona, critics have speculated that Honey
Cocaine might capture a mainstream audience as a gangsta/trap-style rapper (Stovall). Her 2013 tape, Thug Love, contains braggadocio, assured confidence, and swagger, as one reviewer describes: “We’re not sure who she’s mad
at or why she’s mad but she’s talking tough. On her tape, her favorite words to
call her naysayers are ‘bitch’ and ‘ho.’ She has no problem shouting out how
much more incredible she is compared to them on every verse” (Stovall). Perhaps more controversially, however, is Honey Cocaine’s frequent use of the nword in her music, which has brought up criticism and questions around her
ability to reach mainstream success. For now, Honey Cocaine remains on the
periphery, with a significant fan base and following, but off the mainstream
radio charts.
Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018 © Biographical Research Center
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 485
Honey Cocaine opens her music video “Bad Gal” rapping, “Yo, play the
game with no problems / The whole fam slanged, bitch I came from the bottom.”1 Dropped on April 2, 2013, “Bad Gal” marked the second of six music
videos produced from Honey Cocaine’s mixtape project Thug Love. The most
popular video of the six (as well as the second most popular video on Honey
Cocaine’s YouTube channel), “Bad Gal” boasts 6.9 million views, demonstrating Honey Cocaine’s considerable popularity.2 With a brief running time
of three minutes, the video features disruptive, sharply edited visuals and aggressively styled lyrics that produce the Cambodian Canadian rapper as the
deviant and cool “bad gal.” The “bad gal” (or “bad gyal”) comes from Jamaican patois, reflecting Honey Cocaine’s hometown of Caribbean-influenced
Toronto. Referring to “a woman who embodies confidence and sexual freedom, and challenges how society thinks a woman should act” (Decaille) or “a
female of the street; an unscrupulous or rude female” (Reynolds 7), the “bad
gal” has long been associated with Caribbean dancehall and reggae artists like
Lady Saw and Sister Nancy, and in the contemporary pop scene, Rihanna
is perhaps the most well-known “bad gal.” In music, the “bad gal” figure is
confident, sexually powerful and assured, disrespectful, and not to be messed
For a Cambodian Canadian artist like Honey Cocaine to take on the “bad
gal” persona through hip-hop music video, find significant success through
it, and rap with the n-word naturally brings up questions around cultural
appropriation and Asian American participation in hip-hop. However, I do
not intend to restrict this article’s analysis within themes of authenticity and
appropriation. I find that work that attempts to “position” Asian American
narratives within the Black space of hip-hop often characterizes this relationship as antagonistic and oppositional. For example, in Oliver Wang’s seminal
piece “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian American MC,” Asian American rappers are understood as falling outside the Black
racial authenticity of hip-hop, and must negotiate issues around rejection and
unmarketability through strategic deployment of racial and ethnic signifiers.
While this discussion around authenticity critically explores the experiences
and negotiations of Asian American rappers in the 90s and early 2000s, as
well as intervening by challenging essentialist and nationalist conceptualizations of hip-hop, Wang notably frames these tensions between Asian Americans and hip-hop’s perceived cultural authenticity as “contested terrain that is
inextricably linked to long-standing tensions between Asian Americans and
African Americans” (61).
486 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
I argue that this oppositional framework of Asian American participation
in hip-hop proposes what Helen Heran Jun calls “cross-racial dysfunction,” a
positioning of Black and Asian Americans in an oppositional narrative of ethnic conflict. As Jun explains, “Such a damning diagnosis implicitly positions
racialized groups or individuals as somehow inadequately politicized or underdeveloped and consequently fails to analyze the institutional contexts and
historical determinations that constrain more radical possibilities” (4). For the
field of Asian American hip-hop studies, discussions around authenticity and
appropriation run the risk of resulting in static, simplified readings of antiBlack or anti-Asian racism, and a deficit reading of race relations. That is not
to say that Black and Asian tensions should be ignored, and similarly Jun is not
calling for a romanticization of Black and Asian coalition. Instead, Jun encourages us to further explore and analyze the “institutional contexts” and “historical determinations” in developing a relational reading. Such a reading would
help us to consider the complex, contradictory positionality of the Cambodian diaspora in relation to Blackness, reveal the specific points of precarity and
vulnerability that target both groups, and consider how Blackness racializes
Cambodian-ness, and vice versa. In my analysis of Honey Cocaine and “Bad
Gal,” I provide these contexts through engaging with Critical Refugee Studies,
reading for moments of neoliberal contradiction and violence, and interrogating the ways the “bad gal” and “bad refugee” is racialized by Blackness.
This understanding does not mean that I intend to minimize conversations around anti-Blackness, authenticity, and cultural appropriation or theft.
This reading is also not intended to relieve Asian diasporic artists like Honey
Cocaine from accountability. In fact, I would argue that a nuanced and critical exploration of the Cambodian diasporic subject in relationship to Blackness could open the possibilities of productive and meaningful critique. But
for the context of this article, and more broadly, reading Asian American hiphop, a complex relational framing avoids the unproductive exercise of assessing critical worth or value, but rather looks to provide a reading that could,
to borrow from Lisa Lowe, “displace the fictions of reconciliation, disrupt the
myth of national identity by revealing its gaps and fissures, and intervene in
the narrative of national development” (4). This article, through a close textual analysis of Honey Cocaine’s music video “Bad Gal,” seeks to reveal the
complex and relational position of the Cambodian diasporic subject, both
within the context of the figure of the refugee—as understood by the state as
a stateless anomaly “whose status needs to be brought back into place by naturalization or repatriation” (Espiritu 2)—and with its relationship to Blackness
and the “bad gal.” In other words, what does Honey Cocaine’s appropriation
and performance of Blackness and the “bad gal” seek to accomplish, and what
does it reveal about her position as a Cambodian diasporic subject?
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 487
mUsicAL AUToBioGRApHy AND cAmBoDiAN DiAspoRic LiFE wRiTiNG
In approaching these questions, I read Honey Cocaine’s work and her music
video “Bad Gal” as musical autobiography, analyzing in particular her performance and constructed narrative. As Daniel Stein and Martin Butler propose,
musical autobiography does not imply literal access to an artist’s thoughts but
rather an interest in “the production of popular personae through autobiographical narrative, in the kinds of interventions musical autobiographies
launch into ongoing discourses about the musician and his/her music” (117).
In turn, I avoid assessing and viewing “Bad Gal” as an “authentic” narrative
of the Cambodian refugee and look to connect “Bad Gal” to thematic discourses around refugee narratives and the use of Blackness. Within this section, I first explore the ways in which “Bad Gal” works in conversation with
other Cambodian diasporic life writing and cultural production that are critical to complicating refugee narratives.
Cathy Schlund-Vials demonstrates that Cambodian American cultural
production and memory work has played an important role in critiquing
historical amnesia and selective remembering of the Cambodian genocide.3
Identified as “alternative sites for justice, healing, and reclamation,” Cambodian American cultural productions perform the work of remembering the
Khmer Rouge genocide, reveal the failures of US foreign policy, and construct
a heterotopic, transnational Cambodian American subjectivity (17). In particular, Schlund-Vials notes that life writing narratives like Loung Ung’s First
They Killed My Father and Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats “bring
to light the forgotten disastrous impact of U.S. foreign policy, the calamitous
legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and the unresolved history of the Killing Fields
era in the judicial arena” (122). These trauma memoirs, vital to the judicial
activism that seeks to prosecute former Khmer Rouge officials, highlight the
political stakes around Cambodian refugee life writing and the irreconcilable
violence of the Killing Fields.
These productions, along with the emerging field of Critical Refugee
Studies, have been vital in complicating and refuting narratives that would
position refugees as “a problem in need of therapeutic intervention” (Espiritu
11) and “widely publicized objects of US rescue fantasies” (173). The selective retelling of the imperialist wars in Southeast Asia disavows the role of the
US (as well as Canada) in destabilizing the region and participating as an active agent that impacted the conditions for the Khmer Rouge takeover and
genocide. This configuration of refugee subjectivity as passive, traumatized,
dispossessed, and in need of protection affirms American imperialism and
results in policies that seek to criminalize and remove individuals through
mechanisms of repatriation agreements and deportation.
488 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
I argue, then, that as musical autobiography, “Bad Gal” performs a critique similar to other Cambodian American life writing in providing an alternative framework that subverts the figure of the dysfunctional and passive
refugee in need of protection. I contend that the form of the music video,
with its audiovisual aesthetics and performativity, acts as a type of Cambodian diasporic life writing—albeit diverging in several ways. As Schlund-Vials describes, Cambodian refugee autobiography “largely reimagines agency
through a postgenocide citizenship and engagement with judicial activism”
(120). Due to necessity and political urgency, Cambodian life writing has
often centered on remembrance of the Khmer Rouge genocide, resulting in
a Cambodian diasporic citizenship and selfhood that is tied to trauma narratives. Instead, due to difference of genre and form, I later argue that “Bad
Gal” constructs Honey Cocaine’s agency through forms of deviance—such as
disrespect, violent aggressiveness, and criminality—that in some ways reject
claims over citizenship.
Analyzing “Bad Gal” through the framework of neoliberal violence and contradiction grapples with the discourse of the “good” and “bad” refugee, as
well as provides space for the discussion around deviance, Blackness, and
comparative racialization. I borrow Grace Kyungwon Hong’s definition of
neoliberalism as “a structure of disavowal, an epistemological framing, a way
of seeing and not seeing. It claims that protected life is available to all and that
premature death comes only to those whose criminal actions and poor choices make them deserve it” (17). Neoliberalism, then, affirms certain modes of
“good” refugee life (productive, respectful, and grateful) as protectable while
simultaneously relegating other modes of “bad” refugee life (criminal, deviant, and ungrateful) as vulnerable to social death. In doing so, neoliberalism also disavows and historicizes racial violence as a thing of the past: “In
our moment, the exacerbated dispersal of racialized, gendered, and sexualized
death is erased and legitimated by the pretense that such unequal relationships to precarity are entirely in and of the past” (Hong 30). For the refugee,
this disavowal ignores the role of US and Western intervention in Southeast
Asia, upholding American empire via selective amnesia, and denies the failures of refugee resettlement.
Within the logics of neoliberalism, the aforementioned dysfunctional image of the “bad refugee” is in sharp contrast to the “good refugee.” As Yen
Le Espiritu explains, state-sanctioned policies pointed to assimilation as the
solution to the “refugee problem,” encouraging model-minority formations
and cultural essentialism to overcome the lack of economic resources (94).
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 489
The “good refugee,” seen in the narratives of successful individuals like Viet
Dinh (Nguyen-Vo 165) or the national coverage of the recovering Vietnamese American communities after Hurricane Katrina (Jun 150), is marked by
a strong cultural work ethic, heteronormative respectability, and a gratitude
to the state. The “bad refugee,” then, is marked by passive unproductivity
and with material and mental dispossession. This figure provides only deficit
value, erupting with criminal violence, ingratitude to the state, and a lack of
reproductive respectability. As the “good refugee” is valued, the “bad refugee”
is simultaneously devalued and punished in an attempt to recuperate value.
As Mimi Thi Nguyen explains, with a lack of “rational, and thus moral bearings” (59), the refugee is criminalized, in need of discipline or even removal,
signaling deportation as a technology of neoliberal violence.
I strategically assess the ways in which Honey Cocaine appears to fit the
discourse of the “bad refugee”; that is, she presents and performs as a figure
in need of discipline and punishment. However, I do not intend to simply
categorize Honey Cocaine as representing the “bad refugee.” I look for the
moments in which Honey Cocaine is affirmed and performs aspects of the
productive, “good refugee”: in producing capital value, aligning with heteronormative respectability politics, and reproducing neoliberal narratives.
Through this method of analysis, I argue that the “Bad Gal” and Honey Cocaine are unable to conform to binary neoliberal logics and instead complicate them. In turn, I argue that Honey Cocaine and “Bad Gal” reveal unreconciled and violent neoliberal contradictions that demonstrate how the
Cambodian diasporic subject is rejected and affirmed simultaneously, but ultimately is seen in need of correction and disciplining.
In addition to these refugee discourses, Honey Cocaine’s explicit invocation and complex relationship with Blackness also require a framing of racial
relations. As a Cambodian Canadian hip-hop music video, and with an artist
who has adopted the “bad gal” moniker and uses the n-word, “Bad Gal” particularly highlights the stakes and contentious nature of appropriation within
Asian American hip-hop and musical autobiography. In framing these issues,
I return to Jun, who proposes a “relational framework” (4) in understanding
how Asian and Black Americans are racialized in relation to each other. Jun argues that this approach of comparative racialization reveals the “institutional
and historical determinations” (4) as well as the vulnerabilities and material
conditions of both groups. To do this analysis, I observe the ways Blackness is
invoked in the music video, through genre and lyrical content, while also supplementing this with a brief exploration of the historical and spatial context of
the Jane-Finch neighborhood. I also read into Honey Cocaine’s own responses to critiques of her use of the n-word. Through this framing, we can better
490 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
understand the impact and influence of Blackness on “Bad Gal” and explain its
necessity and function to Honey Cocaine’s “Bad Gal” and the “bad refugee.”
The reading practice I follow works to analyze both visual and sonic aspects of “Bad Gal,” paying close attention to visual imagery, musical production, and lyrics. I read for visual semiotics such as background sets, aesthetic
themes, jewelry, clothing, and Honey Cocaine’s body gestures, motions, and
raps. In analyzing dimensions of sound, I examine both the musical production and thematic tones of “Bad Gal” as well as interpret lyrical content and
lyrical delivery. I also look to the temporal narrative of the video, created by
editing cuts and overlays. Reading these rough jump cuts and shifts as a temporal disruption, I show how this filmic method provides possibilities to understand “Bad Gal” as revealing ruptures of progressive, linear time. In the
next section, I first briefly recap the narrative of the music video before delving into my analysis.
mUsic viDEo TimE: oRiENTALisT AND ANAcHRoNisTic TEmpoRALiTy
The music video as a form provides a layered object of study through its audiovisual and online visibility. Once utilized by record companies to assist with
sales, the music video has undergone major changes as television programing
and economics shifted away from music video production, as budgets were
slashed and directors moved on with the rise of postclassical film. However,
with the mainstream popularity of YouTube and its corporatization through
Google’s 2006 purchase of the company, music videos have found a place as
the top-viewed videos on the website (Vernallis 182). This distribution model
under Google allows for official music video releases from record companies
and permits those same companies to flag and remove user uploads that lack
appropriate copyright clearance, signifying YouTube as the destination and
market for music videos, with value predominantly being ascribed via view
counts rather than record sales.
Honey Cocaine’s music video itself features only two scenes, and the filming was most likely completed in two different shoots (perhaps a reflection
of the music video’s limited budget). While established stars like Beyoncé release music videos of seemingly high production value, featuring hundreds of
different scenes, shoots, costumes, and varieties of choreography, the typical
modern music video uploaded to YouTube reflects what Carol Vernallis coins
“YouTube aesthetics,” which consists of repetition, reification, and simultaneity (182). Through the use of editing software and special effects, as well as its
aggressive and fast-paced audio, “Bad Gal” represents a modern music video
maximizing its limited resources to create a dynamic sense through the aesthetics of repetition, reification, and simultaneity.
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 491
Figure 1. Opening shot of “Bad Gal.” Reprinted by permission of Honey Cocaine Music.
The video begins with the sounds of ominous chimes and bells. The opening shot shows heated coals lying on the foil of a hookah pipe with Honey
Cocaine out of focus in the background. The camera fades into a profile shot,
as Honey Cocaine slowly exhales the thick hookah smoke (see fig. 1), with a
wooden parasol held close to her head. This shot fades into a different scene,
this time outdoors, as Honey Cocaine stands through the sunroof of an SUV
wearing a stylish purple headscarf and black jacket. Suddenly the clap beat
kicks in, the bells stutter in a rapid, sped-up staccato, and the camera abruptly
switches angles and perspectives back and forth, in sync with the claps. “Bb-b-bad gal doh!” opens Honey Cocaine, as the claps now switch back to the
first scene in the room with the hookah. This time we see a medium shot,
showing Honey Cocaine wearing a formfitting, pale dress featuring a simple
floral pattern. More claps rapidly hit, and the camera once again abruptly
cuts between a larger frame and Honey Cocaine’s face. We catch a glimpse of
a young Buddhist monk, slices of watermelon hanging off the hookah, and
finally end on Honey Cocaine facing and blowing smoke onto the camera. A
singing, moaning vocal sample is heard as the beat and bells provide brief respite. Then, the beat starts again with a low bass hit, signaling the start of the
first verse and cutting back to the scene outside in the SUV.
The opening of the video establishes the two main scenes featured throughout the entire three minutes. The first scene in the video explicitly invokes
Asian and Cambodian imagery in what I will refer to as the “Orientalist”
492 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
Figure 2. The “Orientalist” scene in Honey Cocaine’s “Bad Gal.” Reprinted by permission of
Honey Cocaine Music.
scene (see fig. 2). The hookah pipe and a wooden parasol resonate with Orientalist notions of an exoticized feminine figure, portraying the scene as one
of leisure and luxurious consumption, as well as “Asian cool” (Maira 236). In
the same opening few seconds, there is a glimpse of a Buddhist monk sitting
in the background and signifying Cambodian-ness. While Buddhism commonly acts as a marker of Cambodian identity (McLellan 85), within the
video it also acts as another religious Orientalist object. On their own, the
visuals provide Orientalist imagery that exudes foreignness and fits within an
Orientalist space and time.
The camera cuts away to the next scene, in which Honey Cocaine is now
seen riding in an SUV, wearing denim jeans, a stylish black jacket, and a gold
chain around her neck. With symbols more familiar to the contemporary hiphop audience, in particular the gold chain and SUV as signifiers of modern
luxuries and expensive consumption, this scene might be read as a modern
reflection of the first Orientalized scene featuring the hookah. The hookah
pipe, while also a key image for leisure and consumption, is contrasted by the
SUV, which is similarly a symbol of leisure and excess but also requires much
more capital (and implied hard work) to purchase. The SUV also implies
movement and freedom, whereas in the “Orientalist” scene Honey Cocaine
is stuck within one space. In addition, it is notable that the song’s first verse
kicks off through this “modern” scene, establishing “Bad Gal” as a hip-hop/
rap song: “Yo, play the game with no problems / The whole fam slanged, I
came from the bottom.”
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 493
Figure 3. The “modern” scene. Reprinted by permission of Honey Cocaine Music.
With both of these scenes established in the opening seconds of the music
video, one reading might be that Honey Cocaine engages in a form of autoexoticism. Marta Savigliano explains that autoexoticism is a process through
which “colonized people reproduce their own exoticism by looking through
dominant Western paradigms” (qtd. in Kwon 3). Soo Ah Kwon asserts that
for Asian American youth, autoexoticism means to “borrow dominant ideologies of the ‘Orient’ by appropriating essentialist Asian symbols” to forge
“new cultural identities.”4 Honey Cocaine, then, performs a distinct narrative
of her Cambodian Canadian experience through the mobilization of selected
components of Orientalized aesthetics. I argue that through this process of
autoexoticization, “Bad Gal” also establishes an alternative temporality that
demonstrates an intervention “Bad Gal” is making against binary logics, neither fitting neatly within anachronistic time nor modern, progressive time.
As Mimi Thi Nguyen states in The Gift of Freedom, refugees are perceived
as occupying an anachronistic, frozen temporal space (55). One example within “Bad Gal” is the appearance of the Buddhist monk, signaling a non-secular
temporality. In contrast to secularism, which, as Benedict Anderson observes,
emerged alongside modern, homogenous time (24), the image of the monk
hints at a premodern, anachronistic temporality. In addition, smoking hookah is representative of a leisurely form of consumption rather than a form
of productive labor. In this way, Orientalist narratives and religious symbols
494 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
enact an anachronistic, backward-looking temporality, situated in the past,
but also in a dysfunctional time that contradicts the liberal modernity of the
“modern” scene, with its SUV and hip-hop signifiers.
“Bad Gal” does not present a linear narrative with the two scenes; the
video employs no unidirectional flashback or flash-forward in time. Instead,
the scenes move back and forth, with the sharp editing cuts between the two
scenes functioning as a way to create a visually percussive effect, with scenes
switching on beat cues and different stanzas to add a sense of movement and
dynamism. This editing technique disrupts a linear narrative that would construct “Bad Gal” as moving toward development or toward dysfunction. Notably, Honey Cocaine also continues her aggressive, animated performance
in the “Orientalist” scene, which ruptures an anachronistic temporality that
would imagine the passive refugee figure. In other words, modern hip-hop
technology and performance provide contradiction and distraction. Rather
than a straightforward reproduction of Orientalist narratives, “Bad Gal” deploys these images in a way that disrupts and challenges singular, national
culture and enacts a space for what Lisa Lowe terms Asian American critique,
producing contradictions that “displace the fictions of reconciliation, disrupt
the myth of national identity by revealing its gaps and fissures, and intervene
in the narrative of national development” (6). “Bad Gal” suggests an alternative narrative to both Orientalist temporalities and refuses to settle into a linear narrative of liberal progression and development.
Such a narrative demonstrates a temporal and neoliberal contradiction,
suggesting that a productive, developmental time somehow exists alongside
a premodern, deficit time. This alternative temporality has multiple functions, including rejecting a passive, immobile temporality, and hinting toward a proactive, aggressive, and perhaps rebellious one. This temporality is
constructed around a Cambodian diasporic selfhood that disidentifies with
expectations of linearity and assimilation and instead tells a narrative that invokes both the cultural past and heterotopic modernity. As Y-Dang Troeung
proposes, such a temporal negotiation and contradiction acts as “an attempt
through art and aesthetics to escape from the enduring wartime temporality
inhabited by the refugee” (5), pushing audiences to grapple with a complex
and contradictory Cambodian diasporic subjectivity. Unable to fit within binary categories of the “good” (modern, progressive time) and “bad” (anachronistic, frozen time), “Bad Gal” intervenes against a developmental narrative
through a temporal simultaneity that continuously contradicts, disrupts, and
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 495
In this section I turn to a lyrical analysis to capture the ways Honey Cocaine
invokes aspects of the “bad refugee” in performing a Cambodian diasporic
selfhood rooted in deviance and disrespect. If the “good refugee” is easily assimilated, works hard, and upholds liberal multiculturalism and American
empire, the “bad refugee” challenges these narratives of the passive, victimized refugee, as well as Asian American model-minority formations. By aligning with deviance, criminality, and Blackness, Honey Cocaine negotiates her
relationship with the “good refugee,” in reimagining agency and a deviant
Cambodian diasporic selfhood.
In understanding the ways Honey Cocaine’s gendered racialization within
“Bad Gal” connects to the “bad refugee,” I look to the song’s bridge:
Don’t test me, I might bring the fire out
Go ahead and dare, me and my ninjas finna wild out
If I like it, I’mma buy it out
Do it like g, bitch go ahead and dry it out
Fuck all the small talk in there,
8, 9 Asians when I walk in there
In this bridge, Honey Cocaine is in a position of power, verbalizing threats
to anyone who would antagonize her (“don’t test me / I might bring the fire
out”) while she and her “ninjas” will respond violently to any offense. Invoking the slang “g” to signify her gangsta status of power and leadership, Honey
Cocaine proceeds to go on the attack, with “Fuck all the small talk in there”
and then in the chorus:
Lil’ nigga you ain’t shit, you ain’t with what I’m with
And your ass ain’t sitting with me
Lil’ nigga I’m the choice, all my chips gonna do it
Just watch bitch I do it like a g
Berating her enemies and competition, Honey Cocaine affirms her status as
the cool and powerful gangsta (“I’m the choice”). As opposed to Orientalist refugee discourses that would position the Cambodian refugee diaspora
as passive victims in need of saving, “Bad Gal” strategically reacts by displaying aggressiveness and threats of violence as a way of enacting agency.
During the bridge and chorus of the music video, Honey Cocaine’s body
continues to dance, rap, and gesture throughout the music video, the only
constant figure as the backgrounds shift and rapidly cut. Visually reinforcing her message with the occasional middle finger interjection and gun-firing
496 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
hand motions, Honey Cocaine intervenes as a refugee subject who refuses to
be saved. Instead, the “Bad Gal” persona performed by Honey Cocaine reinscribes her Cambodian womanhood with agency and power over her own
sexuality, through feminine markers of the dress, parasol, and bright pink lipstick. These aspects are reflective of earlier “bad gal” genealogy but also in the
vein of hip-hop artists like Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj who reflect the figure of
the “bad bitch”: tough, sexy, and not somebody to mess with.
“Bad refugee” discourses have also been positioned in opposition to the
model minority, with one marker of the deviant refugee being hip-hop. As
Loan Dao points out, Southeast Asian youth have often been misunderstood
as “delinquents, marked by hip-hop style and culture, and unassimilable into
‘an immigrant community or in the larger society’” (100). The affiliation of
hip-hop identifies Honey Cocaine and “Bad Gal” as belonging to this devalued, delinquent group; she is simultaneously affirmed. Reflecting on the displays of material wealth (jewelry, the SUV, and a well-produced music video)
and a determined emphasis on hustling in the studio for income, Honey Cocaine drops a second verse:
Okay, love ain’t better than money
In the studio, drinking lemon and honey
Appetite green, presidents in my tummy
The first line demonstrates a common theme of gangsta rap: the ruthless pursuit of profits, no matter the costs. Meanwhile “drinking lemon and honey”
acts both as a pun for Honey Cocaine’s rap moniker but also invokes the
“richness” of honey. Finally, the last line works as a metaphor to show Honey
Cocaine’s desire for money (“appetite green”), but also displays that she has
already accrued great wealth (“presidents in my tummy”). With this verse,
Honey Cocaine implies that those outside and without access to the modelminority paradigm can still achieve the significant gains through hip-hop
and criminal means (because they lack other options). This move to connect
the hip-hop hustle with potential access to wealth and success looks to enact
agency for criminalized Southeast Asian youth, seen within refugee discourses as apathetic, lazy, and incapable of development.
The emerging contradiction here is that value and capital can be produced even through criminal means or disrespectful violence heard in the
vulgar lyrics. Honey Cocaine accumulates capital and power through violently dominating the competition. Neoliberal (and “good refugee”) logics
affirm the hustle to gain possessions and encourage state-independence and
self-sufficiency, despite these criminalized means of production, which come
through invocations of drug dealing and gun violence. This stylized workingclass and hard-working background colloquially referred to in hip-hop as the
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 497
“grind” emerges in the first verse as Honey Cocaine mentions “the whole fam
slanged / bitch I came from the bottom.” In referring to what could be literal
and metaphorical drug dealing (“slang”) Honey Cocaine fights in a market,
marked by aggressive competition:
Ah, can’t stop the ambition ho
All my niggas boss, I don’t kiss these ho’s
All these cats pussy, you fishy ho
Fuck you dirty bitches, what you trippin’ for?
This tearing-down of her competition, along with her criminal, illegal, or
at the very least, disrespectful hustle is connected to the gain of wealth and
her ability to “climb up” the class ladder from the “bottom.” Visually, these
possessions are displayed materially, with Honey Cocaine’s stylish clothing,
numerous pieces of jewelry, the SUV, and a lyrical reference to the Jordan
sneaker (“J’s ain’t even out / but I got me a pair”).
Of course, even with the traits of the hustle and gaining capital wealth,
the figure of the “bad refugee” still can only participate and perform labor in
criminalized, deviant markets marked by violence. The invocation of illegal
drug dealing comes into play in the first verse with “the whole fam slanged”
and “play the game with no problems.” These lyrics related to drug dealing
also allow Honey Cocaine to demonstrate her penchant for gun violence, in
such lines as “I just aimed then I shot ‘em” in the first verse, and then prominently in the second verse with “Shooting toes off, give your ass a trim” as
well as “Put another one in your spine.” The themes of drug dealing also exist within gangsta and trap hip-hop to demonstrate how one is able to protect one’s turf, business, and posse against one’s economic competition. These
lyrical themes resist and reconfigure discourses depicting refugees as passive,
victimized, and unable to function rationally, but they also demonstrate that
these deviant forms of labor, despite their potential material gains, are devalued and subject to discipline, rehabilitation, and perhaps removal or death.
This neoliberal contradiction of the Cambodian diasporic subject that attempts to produce value but cannot do so in a “respectable” way can also be
seen in how Honey Cocaine is paradoxically both a child and an independent
economic actor. The pink nails and lips, the colorful lollipops that are held
and waved around, and notably Honey Cocaine’s shiny braces invoke a sort
of youthful feminized playfulness; juvenile markers that appear to contradict
the image of a rugged gangsta rapper (see fig. 4). Juvenile, immature, and
childish, these aspects intersect with the deviant gestures of gun slinging and
middle fingers to show that not only is Honey Cocaine criminal, but she also
498 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
refuses to “grow up,” mature, and submit to neoliberal forces. Yet if Honey
Cocaine’s style and aesthetic seem stuck within her stubborn youth, she is
also an independent economic actor, one who appears to contradict her age
through vulgar lyrical content and her narrative of supporting herself through
drug dealing, crime, and violence. This construction of a fractured, paradoxical childhood connects back to Cambodian life writing around the Khmer
Rouge genocide, as Schlund-Vials notes how childhood, understood as “time
free from worry, strife, and violence” (116) ends early for Luong Ung and
Chanrithy Him. While contextually different, this example points to another
neoliberal contradiction between the child who is too young and immature to
produce value (and committing crimes to do so), and the child who has been
forced to grow up and be their own economic agent.
The kinship relations in the music video, which do not conform to the
heteronormative family structure, also propose a neoliberal contradiction that
cannot be reconciled. Throughout the song, Honey Cocaine makes references
to her posse, either through terms such as “fam,” “niggas,” and “ninjas.” Visibly in the music video, Honey Cocaine is seen with two other Asian women,
both of whom share similar makeup and style. Presenting a posse of “bad
gals,” the music video proposes a kinship between Asian women who are able
to fight for themselves, take down competitors and rivals, and attain wealth
together. Cambodian womanhood is configured as performing labor through
engaging in crime and violence. At the same time, this formation lacks heteronormative, “respectful” reproductivity and is unable to produce normative
constructions of the “respectable family,” which once again constructs the
subject as in need of discipline or rehabilitation by the state.
Of course, the themes of deviance, drug dealing, gun violence, the hustle,
and ruthless competition are rife through an extremely profitable hip-hop
industry. As Michelle Mihwa Chang aptly summarizes, the rise of gangsta
rap also coincided with the commercialization of hip-hop and the increased
targeting of multiracial, suburban markets (25). In this way, while neoliberal
state apparatuses look to punish and discipline deviant forms of Blackness,
companies and individuals also manipulate and utilize the same imagery for
profits and capital gains. For Honey Cocaine, performance of deviance and
Blackness still fits within the demands of the hip-hop market, as the popularity of her breakthrough hit, a cover/remix of the mega-popular and viral
Chief Keef, attests.5 While an identification with deviant Blackness indicates
a refusal of neoliberal subjectivity for Honey Cocaine, “Bad Gal” is still able
to engage with neoliberal market practices in the hip-hop music industry and
turn a profit.
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 499
Figure 4. Lipsticks, lollipops, and “bad gals.” Reprinted by permission of Honey Cocaine Music.
These neoliberal affirmations of the hustle, capitalist competition, gaining
and having possessions, and “growing up” early are still marked with contradictions of deviance, criminality, unproductivity, and an inability to develop
and support a normative family structure. These contradictions demonstrate
a slippage, rupture, and disconnect of neoliberalism that is unable to categorize Honey Cocaine as a good or bad refugee, but moreover is unable to reconcile the “bad gals” as ideal neoliberal subjects, signaling the requirement for
disciplining and punishment. The persona of the “Bad Gal” reflected through
these contradictions emerges in narratives around socioeconomic precarity,
the necessity for the hustle and crime for survival, alternative temporalities of
maturing and growing up, and alternative family structures such as the posse or sisterhood. However, as the YouTube market shows, artists like Honey
Cocaine still participate in and reproduce neoliberal narratives, albeit against
the grain of respectability. Through these contradictions, Honey Cocaine and
“Bad Gal” reveal a complex negotiation against these sites of refugee narratives, passive and dispossessed time, and neoliberal logics.
Blackness is a key marker of deviance, read through the figure of the “bad
gal,” the use of the n-word, and the genre of the hip-hop music video.6 Blackness is also directly and explicitly expressed through Honey Cocaine’s use of
500 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
the n-word. Heard in the hook, chorus, and various verses, the n-word is used
both to identify Honey Cocaine’s posse (who in the music video consists of
two other Asian women) as well as to identify enemies and competitors. Her
inflection and accent represents Toronto slang inspired by Jamaican patois,
demonstrating that Blackness is not just an influence on the themes and lyrics of the song but also on its delivery and intonations.
While Honey Cocaine now splits her time as a transnational artist between Los Angeles and Toronto, this representation of diasporic Blackness is
the main signifier of Toronto within the music video. Historically, Montreal
and Toronto were the two main urban centers of resettlement, with Cambodian Canadians still concentrated in the two cities today. Secondary relocations to Toronto in particular were due to a desire to be closer to family members, employment opportunities, and Cambodian cultural associations and
activities (McLellan 43). This residential pattern is reflected in Honey Cocaine’s own narrative, as she expresses how she spoke “a little French” in Montreal, before moving to Toronto and learning English through her babysitter’s
viewings of popular hip-hop BET show 106 & Park: “Shout outs to her, by
the way. She’d just make me hot dogs and rice while my parents were at work
and I’d just be like [smacking lips together] . . . cool! Y’know? And that’s how
I learned” (“Honey Cocaine Talks”).
This relationship with Blackness and hip-hop is reflected in migration, as
Cambodian refugees tended to settle in low-income housing projects, such as
the Jane-Finch community in which Cambodians shared spaces with African
refugees and “established Caribbean Canadians” (McLellan 43). At the same
time, it is important to note that the Jane-Finch neighborhood is made up
of a wide array of immigrants, refugees, and ethnicities. For Honey Cocaine,
Jane-Finch was a multicultural space couched in Black Caribbean culture and
Growing up, no matter if you were black, white, Asian, Indian . . . like, whatever
you were . . . the slang was just really Caribbean-based, so we would say things like
wah gwan, which means like “wassup,” you know it’s really Jamaican. Um, the boi
dem is the police [laughs]. I don’t know, it’s just really weird out there you just gotta
listen to my music and the words that you don’t know? That’s probably what we say
in Toronto (“Honey Cocaine Talks”).
This identification with a Torontonian diasporic Blackness extends to her use
of the n-word: “If people get mad at me for saying nigga, or say I can’t say
nigga, that’s just as ignorant as what they think I mean by it. Like, where I
grew up, everyone I know, Black, Asian, whatever, says nigga. I know it’s controversial, but this is the world I grew up in” (Young). Honey Cocaine posits
Chan, “Bad Gal” and the “Bad” Refugee 501
that her access to Blackness authorizes her to incorporate Blackness into her
performance. However, some may argue that Honey Cocaine’s performance
of Blackness is akin to minstrelsy.
Within the context of blackface minstrelsy, Eric Lott explains that Blackness was representative of “cross-racial desires,” contradictory feelings of both
fascination and anxiety. Blackface minstrelsy reflected and produced constructions of Blackness and continued to enforce racial boundaries (6). For
“Bad Gal” and the Cambodian diasporic refugee, Blackness is desirable as a
method of disrupting passive refugee narratives as well as access to a desired
form of deviance. Similarly, in her examination of John Okada’s 1957 No-No
Boy, Helen Jun explains how Black masculinity provides “alternative models
of racialized masculinity to those embodied in the Japanese American community” (73). Within the contexts of neoliberal multiculturalism, “Bad Gal”
constructs and produces forms of Blackness through Honey Cocaine’s performance. Yet in contrast to blackface minstrelsy during the Civil War and
Reconstruction, which reinforced racial boundaries, “Bad Gal” instead blurs
them, marking the figure of the refugee with signifiers of Blackness.
In attempting to draw out the stakes of this relationship, I look to Eric
Tang’s concept of refugee exceptionalism and Helen Heran Jun’s concept of
“Asian uplift.” Refugee exceptionalism is a mode and state in which refugee
populations and their descendants are seen as needing constant rescue; this
time not from war or despotic regimes, but from deviant Black and Brown
spaces in what Tang calls the “hyperghetto” (14). Seeing refugees as victims
and targets of Black and Brown crime, refugee exceptionalism emphasizes the
need for protection, privileging and pitting refugee populations against Black
and Brown residents. Helen Jun’s analysis of the 1995 documentary film AKA
Don Bonus provides similar discourse of what she terms “Asian uplift,” in
which the documentary’s refugee protagonists are only seen as able to succeed
and progress through their physical movement away from a space of the deviant Black neighborhood, where they are the target of robberies and harassment (146). Asian and refugee success, then, is predicated on the movement
away from deviant and criminal Blackness.
Both of these examples propose a framing that legitimizes violence, criminalization, and devaluation of Black and Brown bodies as a type of neoliberal
violence that would, in turn, affirm and protect Cambodian refugees. I would
argue that this violence highlights a key relationship between “Bad Gal” and
Blackness. As Blackness is foundational to the Cambodian refugee selfhood
produced by “Bad Gal,” there are inevitable implications for the ways Blackness is read, and a version of refugee exceptionalism and Asian uplift plays
out. As Honey Cocaine’s “Bad Gal” is unable to be reconciled by neoliberal
502 Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2018
logics that move to discipline and punish deviance and deficit value, the “Bad
Gal” can easily be read as a “failed” refugee. In particular though, this “failed”
or “bad” refugee’s “Bad Gal” performance is contingent on a performance of
Blackness—perhaps implying that Blackness, Black deviance, and hip-hop
culture are the reasons why the refugee has failed. In turn, this logic engages
with refugee exceptionalism and Asian uplift narratives that target Black and
Brown bodies (and in particular for “Bad Gal,” Black women) as deserving
discipline, rehabilitation, and punishment.
“EvERyBoDy HAs A sToRy”
Through this project’s reading of the music video “Bad Gal” as musical autobiography, the work’s contentious negotiations against refugee discourses and
neoliberalism are observed as contradictory and fractured. In relation to the
growing number of Cambodian diasporic cultural productions and life writing, “Bad Gal” similarly produces a Cambodian refugee selfhood that disrupts neoliberal logics, liberal multiculturalism, and the reconciliation of state
violence and wars in Southeast Asia, as well as highlights the refugee’s foundational and precarious relationship with Blackness. Still, while “Bad Gal”
may not necessarily be a trauma memoir, the reverberations and hauntings
from genocide and violence are present in Honey Cocaine’s work, appearing,
for example, in a brief moment of vulnerability during a short interlude on her
mixtape titled “Heartache (Skit)”:
Everybody has a story, everybody has struggles. You know personally for me, I don’t
really like to talk about it. My parents come from Cambodia, they were in the Killing Fields which was a big genocide that happened in Cambodia, and they escaped
to Thailand, and they made it to Canada. And that’s when me and my brothers
were . . . you know [born]. You know I see the struggle my parents have gone
through. My family, we were never really wealthy. You know people really don�…
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