I wrote this in 2011, a little less than a year before opening The Bboy Factory. This experience is largely what inspired me to start the Bboy Factory...
In 1973, a DJ named Kool Herc, threw a series of parties in a park between project buildings in the Bronx, New York City. He had immigrated from Jamaica bringing with him the "dub" sound and production process. Dub music was primarily made by remixing instrumental versions of reggae songs to emphasize the drum and the bass, or essentially the rhythm. At his parties, he played funk and soul, avoiding the pop disco sound popular in the large dance clubs in downtown Manhattan. However, the disco DJs gave him the idea to connect two turn tables. This enabled him to play two identical records, so that he could rewind one record back to an earlier part of a song and drop it in rhythm with the opposite record, thereby extending any part of that track he wished. The part of the track he extended was called the "break." The break was part of a funk song where only the drums would play. This erratic new music inspired theoriginal hip hop dancers, "bboys" or "break" boys, and other musicians.
At that very same time, a brutal series of American bombings was coming to an end in Cambodia. Between 1969 and 1973 more than one billion pounds of explosives dropped on Cambodian soil during a secret operation called "Operation Breakfast." The bombings targeted Viet Cong and North Vietnamese logistical bases that had been established across the Cambodian border. But many bombs landed in civilian areas. 600,000 people are estimated to have died. More than 15,000 pounds were dropped for every square mile of this country. These bombings happened after a US, CIA backed coup usurped control of the country's government. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge began to wage guerrilla warfare against this new government. It is not difficult to imagine why an already terrorized population might support the red party, and in 1975 the US "puppet" government was overthrown. The Khmer Rouge was in power. This would be disastrous for the Khmer people.
By 1978, Phnom Phen was a ghost town, the population having been forced to the countryside to work in agriculture. Anything of Western origin was destroyed, and self was sustenance mandated. Education and health care were forbidden and all doctors and teachers were killed. Two million Cambodians, mostly wealthy and/or well educated were systematically exterminated. The Khmer Rouge even abolished currency and the postal system, and burned all records of birth and citizenship. As Khmer were killed by the millions, people went to unthinkable extents to survive. Famine and disease claimed lives as ruthlessly as death camps. People learned to eat bugs and animals of every kind. Others fled to the Thai border as refugees. Not until 1979, did a Soviet supported Vietnamese force invade Cambodia and take control of the capitol. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungles of the North West and continued to operate as a rebel group, receiving military aid from the US, Great Britain, and China.
Meanwhile in the Bronx, Hip Hop spread like wild fire. Graffiti artists were tagging their names on trains and buses. Their goal was to go "all city," to have their tag up on every train line and bus line in every borough. The bboys were developing new dance moves, down on the ground and more athletic. The dance spread from the Bronx, to Queens and Brooklyn, and from black to Puerto Rican, latin, and even white, Harlem, and Manhattan. In 1975, Grandmaster Flash began DJing in Kool Herc's style, and by 1976 he was playing packed downtown ballrooms with his MCs, The Furious Five. Through these elements: bboying, graffiti writing, DJing, and MCing, a culture was born.
Hip Hop attracted gang members and the city's most marginalized groups, living in the notorious slums of the city. A former "Black Spade" gang member created the Universal Zulu Nation to promote a cultural message through the art forms of Hip Hop. That message was peace as a principle of love over hate, unity regardless of race, religion, or creed, and respect for everyone up front a priori. Hip was the knowledge and Hop was the movement dedicated to empowering youth through positive expression and creativity. It even inspired some street gangs signed peace treaties and replace with this new culture. By 1980, Hip Hop spread across the country and even globally, taking hold mostly in the impoverished parts of large cities. The Universal Zulu Nation opened chapters in France, Japan, UK, South Korea, and Australia. Hip Hop was becoming a global culture.
I was born in 1981, in a community far from any slums or gangs. But while I grew up in a bubble of privilege, other children were being born and raised in refugee camps in Thailand, near the Cambodian border. Born in the wake of nearly four million dead Khmer these children knew pain, anger, and distrust from birth. Violence and struggle was reality. Many would come with their families to the US through church and philanthropy sponsorships. The US government itself settled 150,000 refugees in various towns and cities around the country. These families quickly moved together and formed communities, most notably in Long Beach, Lowell, Seattle, Chicago, and Houston. The majority settled in government housing projects for low income families, in areas already rife with drugs and violent street gangs.
In these same neighborhoods they moved into Hip Hop culture and "Rap" were moving in separate directions. Bboys went underground, graffiti writers began fighting and killing for fame and the music moved from party rocking to glorifying guns and selling crack cocaine. In the early 80's dealers realized that they could increase profits by cooking powder cocaine into solid rocks that could be distributed to more people, faster and in smaller quantities. Crack had a higher purity than powder and it could be bought for as little $2.50 a dose. Users got and instant high and addicted nearly as fast. The drug spread from Miami to Los Angeles in 1981 and by 1987 was available all over the country. On April 17, 1986 the Reagan Administration admitted CIA knowledge of "Contra Rebels" involvement in smuggled cocaine from Nicaragua. This would suggest that the CIA intentionally allowed the drugs in to the US, knowing it would devastate African American communities.
The Contras, were rebels fighting for liberation from the "socialist" Sandinista Regime. The Reagan administration supported them, because they were mostly "right-wing" groups. But when the US cut military aid, these groups turned to drug trafficking in order to fund their movements. Meanwhile, cocaine was being moved from South America through El Salvidor, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Carribbean. Tied to the incoming drugs, gang fought in American slums for turf to sell their crack. Nationwide conglomerate-style gangs such as the Bloods, the Crips, MS 13, the Sorenos and many more waged full out gun wars in cities across the nation. They were brutally violent towards rivals and anyone else who got in their way. It was this new gang culture that took over the slums and inspired the immediately popular "Gangsta Rap."
In 1985, the street gang Asian Boyz or ABZ, was formed by young Cambodian men living in these neighborhoods in California. Originally they formed to protect their people from dangerous Mexican gangs. They represented the color blue and formed ties to the already established Crips. By the time the young boys born in the refugee camps in Thailand came to the states this gang was well established in many major cities across the nation. As they grew up, many became members of the gang. But as more joined, others "got down with" and in some cases changed to other gangs. This often resulted in new and more enemies for the ABZ. The gang one joined was determined largely by the territory they grew up in. Authentic Hip Hop culture was spreading throughout Europe and Asia, but in the country of its origin, it had largely become victim to the gangster life glorified by popular Rap music. The music was about drugs, crime, and sex. But, that music was becoming extremely popular across America under the umbrella term "Hip Hop."
Through the late 80's and early 90's Hip Hop continued to hide in the shadows of Gangster Rap. The government condemned the violent messages being spread through this music. Meanwhile, graffiti artist were being locked up for vandalism. The term "bboy" was forgotten in favor of the term "breakdance," a word created by corporate advertisers. It wasn't until 1997, that I took a "breakdance" class at a local studio in Boulder and began to draw graffiti in my school notebooks. The elements of Hip Hop were still alive, but much less popular. The message of the culture was only spread through underground music and word of mouth from the older generations. I was fortunate to have an original Colorado bboy teach me and I learned history and culture along with the dance form. Far from the gangs and guns that ravaged much of my country, Hip Hop always touched my heart as something beautiful, that all people could share through diversity. Across the globe it was being shared.
By the time I went to college, many of the Asian Boyz and other Cambodian boys my age had been arrested for gang related crimes and were serving serious jail time. In March, 2001 the Cambodian government reluctantly signed an agreement with the United States, to accept convicted Cambodian American criminals, who had not yet received citizenship, as deportees. Regardless of green cards or marriages to US citizens, so called "permanent" residents of the US were removed to Cambodia. To this day, the US continues to deport young men, many of whom leave behind wives, children, parents, and friends. Many barely speak Khmer and most have never stepped foot in Cambodia prior to their deportation. They are given fake Cambodian birth certificates on arrival. They have gone from birth in refugee camps after a massive genocide, to gang wars in the slums of America, to prison cells as young men and finally forced to settle in a country they had never been to. Without any "socialization" or reintegration program the US drops off these young men.
At the turn of the century, Cambodia was a notoriously poor and dangerous country. To this day, a system of corruption controls the government and one man has served as Prime Minister since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, over 30 years ago. It is difficult to make more that 80 dollars a month for anyone without a college degree. The Cambodia that the first deportees came to did not accept them. They were covered in tattoos, they wore baggy clothes and their English was thick with American slang. But they were from the streets and well equipped to deal with some very serious problems. Many found work with an agency helping injection drug users and combed the streets to teach people about HIV and condoms. 80 percent of injection drug users in Cambodia are HIV positive. Most Cambodian people would not go into the shanty towns and slums to help these people, but the American deportees were unafraid. They had seen and known drug addiction and that knew that users are mostly victims and not criminals.
These same deportees rediscovered the message of Hip Hop, here in Cambodia. Some covered their gang tattoos. Crips and Bloods began to work and socialize together. A group of street kids found one of these Khmer Americans and begged for him to teach them to "Break." Tiny Toones was born in a small apartment. The door was always open in a dangerous city and as many as a dozen street kids had a place to sleep every night. Life was and continues to be a struggle for the deportees in Cambodia, but for some, deportation has given them a chance to do good things for people abandoned by their new government. The tenement building where many of the original Tiny Toones kids grew up has been burnt to the ground in order to evict residents who refused to leave, having no where to go. Today, Tiny Toones touches the lives of hundreds of Phnom Penh youth. They are taught the elements of Hip Hop in order to empower them through self expression. This same message inspired the Universal Zulu Nation and transformed parts of New York City for a short time in the 1970's.
For the past four months I have been a volunteer, here at Tiny Toones. I have been treated with nothing but love and respect. My students are former meth users, children of sex workers and kids from the streets. They have little or no family support. They are young, but to me they sometimes seem old. Every day I play with little kids who can't afford to go to school, but greet the world with huge smiles despite rotting teeth or dirt on their feet. I work alongside men who live by principles I never knew in my peers back home. These men have seen everything life has to offer, both good and bad. Men who have been both good and bad. The always say what they truly believe, fight for what they feel in their hearts and give respect to those who give it to them. I have been welcomed into homes and families where you can't tell which children belong to which adults, because everyone treats every child with love and care. At the age of 29, I first learned how to hold a baby in Phnom Penh.
This past weekend the founder of Tiny Toones, KayKay, had a barbecue party at his house for my farewell. We bought pounds of chicken, racks of ribs, ears of corn, cans of baked beans, butter (for the corn, which the Khmer thought was strange) and charcoal. We borrowed a small grill. The bboys from Tiny Toones and the food all piled into two tuktuks and we drove out to the small village across from the airport where he lives. About thirty people came out for an American style bbq on a hot Saturday afternoon. It felt like home, or perhaps like how I think home should feel. We played American football in the dry rice patty field across the dirt road. Bloods and Crips, red and blue like the Combodian flag, ex drug addicts, teenage fathers, a village police officer and me, a privileged white kid from Colorado, all slipping and sliding and laughing and smiling, together, alive.
The world back home seems like a fairy tale. And yet, in a week I will be back in the city I grew up in, back to a Hip Hop scene where people only seem concerned with popularity. As I write this, I feel a duty on my shoulders. In Hip Hop we say, "each one teach one." Therefore, it is my responsibility to share a lesson I learned a long time ago, but never truly felt back home. That lesson is peace, love, unity and having fun. It is also to respect, educate, dream and most importantly give the future generation a foundation to stand on. If I can inspire one person to use this culture to do something positive in the world, something rewarding and yet selfless, then I will feel what I already know in my heart; that it is my duty and that of any true Bboy, MC, DJ, and Graffiti writer to pass on what has been given to them through this culture.
Thank you Tiny Toones for doing that every day, and for giving me that opportunity.
Shhort, KK, Romi, Ula, Den, Monivorn, Chantoun, Thet, Cobra, Kim Ling, Fresh, Homie, Suicide, Diamond, Slick, Flex, Flip, Frog, Jacky, Houch, Dy, Vouch, Beaver, Manner, Kully, Ya (MC), Ya (housekeeper), Ya (my student), Lorn, Jenny, Thiera, Alice, Jerry, Bo, Kong, Srynit, Baby, Fhiza, Samnang, Yang, New Yang, Dina, Dary, Seng, Him, Bonthoun, Socheath, Bess, Elias, Mandi, Tyson, Brieuc, Ryan, Dara, Ada, Sok Somony, and every other person here whose name I forgot or never learned... THANK YOU!!!
-May 23, 2011