It’s well-deserved. The Vietnam transplant (he lives in North Carolina, USA) not only has a fascinating story that includes abject poverty and jail time — he drops impeccable flows about rifts in the Asian community…and he just released his debut album, Music for the People.
Fans voted hard this week for Mondega, and we were thrilled to chat with him about his life in Vietnam, the Montagnard community in the States, and his romantic side!
Check out our Q&A with Mondega, and don’t miss his upcoming mixtape, Food, Clothing & Love!
You seem to have some pretty rabid fans. Where are they from, for the most part?
Everywhere, really. From Los Angeles, California to New York, Rhode Island, Texas to North Carolina, Canada and overseas, everyone who is “free-wired” in the Asian-American blogosphere and local music scene. They saw Mondega and MTV Iggy in the same sentence and just wanted to be a part of history.
The passion and enthusiasm really came from people who have faith that my music is a step towards greater achievements for, not only Montagnards, but Asian-Americans in general. My fans come from all walks of life. No matter where we’re from or what color our skin is, more than likely, anyone can feel and relate to the content of my music. It’s not just bubble gum rap, it’s the soundtrack to people’s daily lives and realities. I represent for them, so they represent me back. My Montagnard brothers and sisters showing love will always hold a special place in my heart.
Tell me a little about growing up in Vietnam. Why did your family eventually seek refuge in North Carolina?
I’ll tell you a story. I met a friend in school one day and decided to eat dinner with his family. We walked to his house with holes all over the ceiling and shared a bowl of rice together. His father was murdered by the police and his mother was sick. He was only nine-years-old and begging on the streets. He wore the same shorts everyday and never had a pair of shoes. Those were my friends and that’s what I saw daily. I hope that gives you all a little insight to how I grew up. I will save the rest for a novel one day.
Of course we came here to live a better life in a free country, but if we didn’t, my father would have been imprisoned, again. I don’t say these things to gain anyone’s sympathy, it’s the truth. Life in Vietnam is crazy. People die and disappear before you can even remember their names. In North Carolina, my family is basically a low-income household who knew how to make our expenses stretch. I didn’t come from a family who owned a nail shop or a restaurant, I came from the bottom and I’m still here trying to make it to the top.
From Vietnam to Raleigh..,.must have been some serious culture shock, right? What was the hardest to adjust to? The food?
The food was easy! I was addicted to McDonald’s chicken nuggets for quite some time. My new addiction is Burger King’s Jr. Whoppers. It’s only a buck, you can’t beat that!
The hardest part for me was trying to find a common ground for my family and I to meet at. My relationship with them is kind of off at times. My mom and dad will always be my parents of course, but in America, my older sister was more like a second mother to me. She was always more tolerant and understanding. During my days of going in and out of jail, she was the only one to help me out. Her husband was also a huge mentor to me. My sister, H’Yit Siu, once a singer, performed everywhere, including the Apollo theater in Harlem. She understood the psychological damage that came with always having to figure things out on our own. Without her support over the years, I wouldn’t be here talking to MTV.
Is there a large Montagnard population in North Carolina?
In 2000, we had over 3,000 Montagnard brothers and sisters living in North Carolina. In the summer of 2002, close to 900 people resettled as refugees in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and New Bern, but we still have less than a million people worldwide. We don’t have a big Asian-American demographic here compared to California, but it’s my home. This is where I grew up for the most part of my life.
How do you come up with your rhymes? Is it all in a special notebook somewhere? Are you always editing yourself, or do you just let it flow?
After a long day, a new experience, whether good and bad, I sit back, maybe toast a few Heinekens with Sonit, Aviator, Tommy G, SamNang, a few homies and just write. I usually come up with a concept, then stick to the script. But as an avid writer, I tend to side track and end up writing a whole book full of rhymes, only to pick out the ones most relevant. Thank goodness for laptops, because I would’ve destroyed the whole forest by now.
The concept itself is usually inspired by my current mood. I try my best to write and speak articulately on subjects without compromising the depths of my flow, rhythm and overall vision for my audience’s reaction. I can easily get caught up on the business side of things and lose my inspiration, only to come back a few days later and wrap the whole song up less than an hour.
Are you performing live these days? What do you do to get yourself amped up? (stretches, energy drinks, etc.)
Yes, and we’ve been invited to perform everywhere from local bars, clubs and college organizations in North Carolina to U.C. Berkeley, California. In the coming months and new years, I’m expecting exponential growth and progress as we expand our vibrant show reputations. To prepare, I usually walk the stage a little bit, thank everyone personally for coming out, sip down a cup of Bacardi with coke, take a deep breath and it’s on!
What do you hope your art will bring for Montagnard people — and to Asians in general?
First of all, the Montagnard community of North Carolina already know that I’m the first Montagnard-American recording artist in hip hop. When I first picked up the microphone and tried selling my songs on a burnt CD, some people laughed and gossiped, while some gave me twenty bucks and encouraged me to pursue it. If it weren’t for those individuals, I would’ve stopped a long time ago.
A lot of Montagnard brothers and sisters here are still skeptical about supporting a “rapper”, but the problem is deeper than a hip hop stereotype. We, as a community here still live with an oppressed mind state. Some parents teach their kids to settle for less and discourage their dreams. In fact, some families don’t faith in anything. We say to our kids, “see that white man? He is smarter and better looking than you! You are ugly and dumb! You will never succeed because you are not white American.“ I am a true believer in that “anything is possible if we put our minds into it.”
You’re also a romantic, according to some of your songs. Are you looking for that special someone?
Of course! I’m 23 like Jordan, baby! I’m trying to get a championship ring, feel me? But honestly, in this day and time, who isn’t looking? Everyone is tired of games, we all want something real, am I wrong? I know I wrote a blog about it on my Facebook “Mondega Musiq” a few days ago, (it’s a good read by the way!) but honestly, I meet women everyday. I just do my best to keep things professional and remain humble. I just got out of a relationship, so I just need to keep doing shows, stay busy and work my way up to headlining sold out concerts one day. If I happen to find someone along the way who treats me right, who knows. I can’t predict it, I can’t look for it, it’ll happen naturally if it’s meant to be.
It took you three years to get this album out. What were you doing?
I was “trying to live.” Lac Su, the executive producer of the album coached and mentored me into finalizing the project during the summer and fall. He flew me out to Los Angeles in September where Byron Chan directed a documentary and ground-breaking “Stand My Ground” music video. The album dropped on October 1st, and two months later, here I am on MTV Iggy and MTVmusic.com.
For three years I kept leaking music out on my website MondegaMusic.com, AznRaps.com, KhmerLife.com, Myspace and Facebook to gain support. While balancing my long double-shift hours, I kept networking and collaborating with producers such as Aviator, Kinesus, X-Facta and more. Impak of Jug-A-Knot TV showed love and directed my breakthrough music video “My Mama Don’t Know”, “Sucka Ass G##k” and “Human Nature” in 2008 and 2009. I also opened up for Dumbfounded, Lyraflip and others at Asian Hip Hop Summit in Charlotte. I spent a lot of time trying to work the kinks out with my girlfriend at the time, who was always inspirational and supportive of the music. I had over a hundred potential songs, but selected only fifteen tracks to fit the concept, properly. I was very picky about how I wanted it to sound. I wanted to keep it serious without going too extreme. X-Facta, a well known Asian-American Hip Hop producer suggested I release one song we did called “Ponah Bing Yuon”, but I didn’t want to perpetuate further violence and uprisings in Vietnam. I’m all about progress.
What’s next for Mondega?
Food Clothing and Love, the mixtape album, a bunch of gas and departure receipts, collaborations, interviews, music videos, speeding tickets, long double-shift weekends and cheers from the crowd as Sonit, DJ Shadow, Boogie Styles and I steal the show and leave you feeling educated and inspired.
Check out Mondega’s latest video “Stand My Ground” off Music For the People!
Photo Credit:Alessandro Vecchi