Friday, September 2, 2011
Yami Lee, seen at the Empire Theater on Aug. 16, hopes to be a music star in the Southeast Asian and mainstream markets.
STOCKTON - When she performs at open-mic nights in and around Stockton, even at venues where her sound - she calls it "folk R&B" - isn't the popular sound, Yami Lee plays to cheers and encouragement.
When she sings along the region's circuit of Hmong New Year celebrations and Hmong talent shows, the response can sometimes seem more subdued - except that Lee knows how to read praise in a Hmong context.
"When they want to compliment you, they don't tell you," she said. "They go tell your grandma."
The 18-year-old singer-songwriter, like many American-born children of Hmong refugees, straddles two cultures, two languages - experiences that she is attempting to harmonize through her music.
"I want to reach out to everybody," said Lee, a recent Edison High School graduate. "I want to reach out to the whole community."
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong, an ethnic minority group living in Laos, to fight communist forces as secret allies of the United States.
After the war ended, thousands of Hmong escaped to Thailand, fleeing persecution in their home country. More than 130,000 eventually were resettled in the United States. Lee's parents were among them.
Both her mother and father are deaf. Lee said her musical tastes were shaped, instead, by older siblings.
"I grew up being very Americanized," she said. "I grew up listening to mainstream music."
While a student at Hamilton Middle School, Lee worked up the nerve to perform at the campus' annual talent show. She sang "Fallin'" by Alicia Keys and won first place. The experience inspired her to pursue singing as a career.
"It was so exciting. People kept saying, 'You sang so good, you should continue.' All that good stuff that artists want to hear," Lee said. "I entertained people, and I made people happy. That makes me feel good inside."
She taught herself to play the guitar and to compose music. She posted videos of her performances on YouTube. At first, only a handful of visitors were interested enough to play them. Now her songs draw thousands of views.
"The Internet has been immensely important for young Hmong-American musicians and artists," said Nicholas Poss, an adjunct professor at Ohio's Ashland University who is studying Hmong music. "Hmong people are widely dispersed around the country and the world, so digital communications have been important in building a sense of community."
For first-generation Hmong immigrants, scattered across the globe, popular music was a way to preserve community connections separated by geography, Poss has argued.
For contemporary artists, it can be a way to connect generations now separated by language and life experience.
"They are more likely to express their Hmong identity by selecting topics relevant to the Hmong community, performing in the Hmong language, or referencing symbols of Hmong culture," Poss said. "Many artists feature personal narratives of living in the Hmong diaspora, which I believe ties them back to the older generation who would express their own stories and feelings through traditional verbal arts like ... sung poems."
Lee is especially drawn to ballads and love songs.
"I write a lot of sad, slow songs," she said. "Everybody can relate to them."
So far, most contemporary Hmong artists seem to have a primarily Hmong fan base, Poss said.
Lee said that, while she doesn't want to lose her Hmong audience, she is striving for broader appeal.
But although mainstream Americans have been introduced to Hmong people and the Hmong culture in recent years through actress Brenda Song, of Disney Channel's "The Suite Life on Deck," and the 2008 Clint Eastwood film "Gran Torino," which featured a Hmong cast, it's not easy for Asians to find commercial success in pop culture, Lee said.
"When there's an Asian artist in the media, they don't always know where to put them," she said. "They keep them on the shelf."
Dwaine Downton is Lee's newly hired manager.
"Everything is visual at first," he said. "When people see Yami, they don't know that she's R&B. They don't see pop. They think, 'She's Asian. I don't know what to do with her.' "
Instead, Downton said he wants to introduce audiences - as many as possible - to Lee's voice first.
"She sounds amazing," he said. "What I see is that she can become the first major Asian-American artist in America. That's what I see. That's what I hear."
In the meantime, Lee happily carries her guitar to coffeehouses for open-mic nights. She accepts invitations to perform at high schools and churches and Hmong cultural events.
"Just to make people happy, that's my ambition," she said. "And to sing songs that people can relate to - about love, life, family."