Hmong rappers get their chance to shine in YouTube competition

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Hmong rapper Justin Thao finishes a remix at his St. Paul home
An online competition is drawing fans to the small but growing Hmong hip-hop community. St. Paul rapper Justin Thao, who goes by J Fly, posted his song “Levitate.” He sees the contest as a way to showcase his music to a national audience.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

St. Paul rapper J Fly was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago when he stumbled on an opportunity he could not pass up — a chance to showcase his music to a national audience, and maybe make a little money.

Hmong YouTuber David “DC” Chao had posted a call for entries to an online competition he was hosting for Hmong rap artists, with $500 up for grabs.

J Fly saw a door open. He put up “Levitate,” his song about life as a young Hmong man in Minnesota learning to spread his wings and soar. Along with the audio, he added an image of mist-shrouded canoes floating in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, a place that’s long inspired him.

“In this life, it’s just about being a hustler and doing what you have to do every day to make money and stay happy and just be a real one every day,” said J Fly, whose real name is Justin Thao. “That’s the message that I want people to see. To be happy and enjoy life.”

While the contest winner gets the cash in March, J Fly, DC and other Hmong rappers say the competition has paid off already for all the artists hustling to get their music heard.

Many of the videos running on the DC Reacts playlist have at least 4,000 views on YouTube, with the best Hmong artists amassing over 10,000 views, more than double the number of DC’s subscribers.

“I think that it is a big step for our Hmong community, in the rap world of it,” said DC, who’s based in California. “Just seeing all these faces come out and do their thing. Good or bad, good audio or not, they put time into it … it’s definitely a step forward of what we have in store.”

Storytelling culture meets hip-hop

Rap and hip-hop were ideal vehicles of expression for young Hmong artists in the United States. Hmong is a storytelling culture, and the music offered a path to telling new stories.

The first generation of transplants rapped about the challenges of moving to the U.S. and adapting to a foreign land, while others spoke about freedom or gang violence in the Hmong community.

“We Hmong have this thing that we do called Kwv txhiaj [Gu-Tee-Ah] or Paj Ntaub [Pah-Dao], which is kind of like poetry,” DC said. “That’s what we are accustomed to and so it’s kinda in us already in a way. But to infuse that with hip-hop, what’s out there and whatever we’re listening to.”

In recent years, popular Twin Cities Hmong artists Ka Lia Universe, Kid $wami, Supryze and Chin Chilla, have opened doors for a new generation of Hmong rappers. Still, DC said too many Hmong rappers were struggling for traction, which made the YouTube competition that much more important.

David "DC" Chao organized an online contest for Hmong rap artists
Hmong YouTuber David “DC” Chao is organizing an online competition for Hmong rap artists, with $500 up for grabs.
Courtesy of DC Reacts

“I’ve heard a lot about no support,” said DC, who’s 35. “If you really listen to the Hmong entries, they always bring up Hmong don’t love Hmong, Hmong don’t support Hmong. At first, I was like, ‘What are y’all talking about?’ But then I really got to this thing in the music world of the Hmong community, and yeah, I kinda see it.”

“There’s just always more of a bashing on each other, instead of constructive criticism, just not really supportive. People also talking about [how] Hmong don’t like other Hmong to succeed, and they’ll do whatever it takes to stop them from doing that.”

Giving rappers like J Fly a space to share their art and engage with other Hmong listeners and artists is precisely what DC wanted. Contestants could enter for free and could rap in Hmong, English, or both, about any subject they wanted. The only rules were that every rapper had to rap on the same beat, an instrumental made by DC’s producer friend, Emblem Beats.

Although his following had grown over the years, DC wasn’t sure about what to expect from his competition.

“I was just hoping for like 10, 15 contestants to come out and do something and hook them up a little bit,” he said. It turned out to be like 100 people turned out for an entry.”

‘Bring out as much talent as I can’

The contest is no longer accepting new songs. The rappers now are reaching out to fans, friends and family to generate views and likes on the competition page. At the end of February, five judges handpicked by DC will critique the entries, pick a winner and award the $500 on March 1.

J Fly’s song has received some 3,500 views and 149 thumbs-up on YouTube, so far. In the comment section, listeners have written words of encouragement such as, “I’m digging the flows,” “Teach me sensei” and “Another quality track.”

“In this life, it’s just about being a hustler and doing what you have to do every day to make money and stay happy and just be a real one every day,” said J Fly. “That’s the message that I want people to see. To be happy and enjoy life.”

He said he learned to play the piano at age 5 and also played violin and drums. When he was younger, his older cousins showed him gospel rap music at family outings, but it wasn’t until his senior year in high school that he started rapping.

He saw the rap competition as the sign he needed to start his music career.

“I was like this is a new year, 2020. It could be a great time,” J Fly said. “I was doing some other personal stuff in my life and this was a way that I could express myself. I had the right emotions and I have song, I have an idea.”

Beyond this contest, DC said he hopes to organize a rap competition at the end of the year featuring the best rappers of all races. Details are pending. For now, he’s enjoying the music he’s heard and waiting to see who comes out on top.

“I’m just really trying to prep the Hmong community for this bigger event here and I want to bring out as much talent as I can to get them heard,” he said. “So definitely more to come.”

Jeffrey Bissoy was an associate producer for MPR News with Kerri Miller and wrote about sports before leaving for Mexico. He is a contributor to The Current and Sahan Journal.