Samsonite Man: Breaking The Cycle With Cambodia, Crips & Education
DX writer Alex Dwyer concludes his travels abroad with a stop in Phnom Penh, where break-dancing is guiding the youth through Hip Hop.
Lameness aside, August has been a religious month for me in each of the last seven years.
I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of Southern California’s Rap devout have made the pilgrimage into the Inland Empire annually since 2004 for inspirational and nostalgic reasons.
Rock The Bells serves as our reaffirmation about where Hip Hop has been, and, occasionally, about where it’s headed. It might not be perfect. Some years might be better than others. But it’s safe to say that there isn’t a better event to exclusively celebrate the four elements in full. Guerilla Union deserves props.
This August felt no different at first. I sped through a hot day en route to purposefully pay homage to Hip-Hop. Instead of a car though, I was on a motorcycle and instead of dodging only the sweltering, dry heat, I was dipping out of the way of a hyper-humid morning just before a monsoon.
Instead of being trapped in the cauldron of San Bernardino, watching Nas run through Illmatic alongside QB’s Finest, I was in the blistering heat of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, under a makeshift, steel-slab roof watching underage B-Boys warm-up.
I missed Rock The Bells for the first time since the festival’s sophomore year in 2005. But as September beckons, I feel more reaffirmed than I ever have in the depth of what has become global Hip-Hop culture.
It’s all because of a term I cringe as I type — edutainment.
KRS-One, regardless of his iconic status in Hip Hop history, has been most recently remembered for his ham-handed insistence on paying homage to Hip Hop’s essence. The throngs of today’s young Hip Hop creators find difficulty not rolling their eyes at the lesson plans of KRS “The Teacha” and those in his class.
Hip Hop is a genre that survives on its ability to stay fresh and few are holding their breath for when Odd Future start an impromptu pop-locking session on stage or J. Cole starts scratching during a show. Their manifestations of Hip Hop are theirs. Different from those who came before them and the same but definitely not “4 Element” focused. That’s Captain Planet shit. Hearing anyone talk about “returning to the essence” is played out. The American Hip Hop masses are simply and justifiably over hearing about it.
Instead it is innovation — what’s next —that remains the primary target for the Hip Hop creative class. Innovation has always been the tantamount trait of the culture. Arriving to the table with the same dish as someone else means you’re not going to get a seat but you might get served.
Few places are in greater need of this kind of innovation than the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. The horror of the late 1970s Khmer Rouge Regime reduced the country back to “year zero” essentially eliminating the country’s intellectual and professional structure, one by one. After the fallout, Cambodia remains a country that’s in dire need of solutions.
A couple hours by airplane from the tourist laden city of Bangkok, recently portrayed in the slam-com The Hangover II, is Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. A city that has only recently enjoyed the luxury of paved roads is enjoying a blossoming of Hip Hop culture in its streets.
A hefty portion of the thanks for the influx of the art form can be attributed to a 33-year-old B-Boy named KK. He laughs at my questions about comparisons between the U.S. and Cambodian social fabrics.
“In the U.S. it’s kind of hard, but here it’s way worse,” he insists. “Anything could happen. Here, the majority of people can get away with crimes. Cops won’t go to the poor areas. It’s way more ghetto than the U.S.”
That says a lot coming from a former Crip from Long Beach California. KK’s story is sort you couldn’t make up.
Born to Cambodian parents in a refugee camp in Thailand during the years when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodian’s died under the Khmer Rouge regime, KK’s family fled to Long Beach. There, he hopped on the late '80s break-dance train (member of the Ground Force Crew) and rode it into tagging and, finally, gang banging. By 18 he was in prison, where he spent five years before being deported back to Cambodia, although he had never actually been there.
Hip Hop is ingrained in KK. Evidenced by his inked-up frame and unchanged West Coast braggadocio. It didn’t take long for his B-Boy status to manifest itself in Cambodia’s capital city. The story goes that a group of local kids dug KK’s steps and wanted to produce their own. He agreed to start showing a few how to break and things took off from there. Soon he founded Tiny Toones, a Non-Government Organization dedicated to educating youth through Hip Hop culture.
“I grew up and had a lot of choices in life. I’m not a rich kid or nothing. It’s just the way of freedom. I had that dream put to me since I was young. Here, there’s just no hope,” KK says. “Everybody educated or rich here put the poor people down. If you can’t go to school, you will be a nobody.”
What KK didn’t initially foresee was the educational potential of his rapidly burgeoning organization. What began as a dance class quickly became a new variety of “edutainment,” slightly different than what KRS-One had envisioned.
“To me, Hip Hop is really education too if people really look at it. It’s not easy to write your own song or your own lyrics. If you don’t know how to read, someone else is always going to write it for you. We tell them to give it their best, it doesn’t always have to be perfect on paper. We always have someone that can help you make it right,” says KK. “Everything is education in Hip Hop. It’s how people look at Hip Hop.”
But KRS and KK share a lot more than an admiration and lifelong dedication to the four elements of Hip Hop culture — break-dancing, emceeing, deejaying and graffiti art — they share a vision of the often forgotten fifth element: education.
Where KRS sought to educate in his lyrics, KK and his organization’s approach Hip Hop as both the lesson and the incentive. Kids who have never been to school are drawn in to free dance classes, free access to recording equipment and an opportunity to practice graffiti art.
The program is designed such that when a new student finishes a level of any of the elements, she or he is required to complete the first level of English or Khmer lessons to advance to the next level. Tiny Toones uses Hip Hop as the hook and the platform.
Call it edutainment. KK calls it what works.
“There would be some kids who would not go to school if it wasn’t for Tiny Toones. It is something very unique and special. To be in any type of Hip Hop program they have to be in school,” KK says. “It’s kind of hard when you have a kid who has never been to school and now he’s 16. It’s very hard for a kid who doesn’t know how to read and write to [suddenly] go to school.”
The mantra isn’t the overt and ineffective: “learning can be fun.” Instead it seeks to answer the question: “What about fun can lead to learning?”
Since the organization helps students ranging from age 4 to 27 with no limits on admission, it preaches originality instead of focusing on only using Hip Hop’s politically correct points. Tiny Toones avoids the inherent awkwardness in forcing socially conscious lyrics and bang-you-over-the-head positivity on students. Curse words are the least of their concern, evidenced by Chris Brown’s not-so-PC “Look At Me Now” bringing the dance floor (an elevated cement slab) to life. Instead, KK focuses on teaching the innovative aspects of Hip Hop’s DNA that are most valuable.
“I try to make sure that my kids learn to make their own beats and create their own music or Rap styles — dancing too. Everything. Even art and graffiti,” KK explains. “You can like a certain piece, but how can you make it a better piece than theirs? That’s how I try to push the Hip-Hop scene out here, learning the basics.”
The challenge isn’t just getting kids in the building but also keeping them there. Many of them have never even learned before, Tiny Toones’ General Manager Romi Grossberg confesses. In other words, they have to learn how to learn.
When you remove all of the negativity associated with Hip Hop’s “downside,” all that is left is education. The lessons aren’t exclusively languages and the arts, Tiny Toones also boasts a health awareness aspect of the organization in their outreach.
“We have a team that goes out of rappers and language teachers that go out to the slums and teach kids break dancing or English or Khmer,” KK continues. “Then we have the outreach team that goes out to teach people about sex, sex workers, drugs, HIV, AIDS, how to brush your teeth and wash your hands before you eat.”
These are Western commonsense basics that youth in the developing world miss out on because of never going to school. Yet, Tiny Toones is setting out to change that. The students are living proof.
Beaver, 19, is in the Tiny Toones studio, with equipment donated by various sources inside and outside of the Hip Hop community (including Akil of the now-defunct Jurassic 5) writing a song about people from the outside world working together. He’s been at Tiny Toones for four years, learning to write and his rhymes rest on a wilted sheet of notebook paper in front of him. His favorite rapper is Eminem and his favorite song is “I’m Not Afraid” , a song that’s all about having the gumption to stick to something.
Meanwhile, Diamond, a 25 year-old dubbed as Cambodia’s first B-Girl has been in the program for seven years. She confesses, “My mom doesn’t like the dancing,” but admitted to finding passion for dance and for learning at Tiny Toones. Fresh, a bulky 18-year-old, has been in the breaking with KK’s organization as long as Diamond and also doubles as a choreographer.
Beaver, Diamond and Fresh, along with the dozens of much younger kids that occupy the classrooms and playground space of Tiny Toones on a daily basis, are fortunate. They joined the program early enough, before it hit capacity.
“This program has just gotten bigger and bigger. Sometimes, in my heart, I don’t believe myself. It’s gotten out of control to where we can’t even accept any more kids,” KK cringes. “It’s sad to say that. Our budget is so low, we can’t accept everybody.”
Tiny Toones, like Hip Hop, isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. Age old stigmas and somewhat justifiable hesitations about trusting the genre and the faces behind the genre, may damage the organization’s ability to find funding.
“It’s hard for me. I’m an ex-gang member. I’ve been to prison. Not too many people are going to trust me to help. They say,
‘How do we know that this guy isn’t going to run off with our money?’ I understand,” KK empathizes. “I try to build it to where people can trust us to help us and help these kids.”
KK’s occasional uncertainty about the future of Tiny Toones itself is reflective of the bubbling questioning about Hip Hop’s position at the top of the music industry. If the electronic music “takeover” is sending shivers up the spines’ of Hip Hop heads, they should rest assured in their culture’s depth. Hip Hop culture is, pardon the cliché, all about peace, love, unity and having fun. The mantra of the world’s most successful Hip Hop festival, Rock The Bells is “Represent-Respect-Recognize.”
So, how has the overt educational value of Hip-Hop culture been ignored?
Someone has, perhaps in the most unlikely of locations, taken note. By many standards, Cambodia is a country worse off than most. When problems hit a threshold, you have to focus on what works. For about 5,000 kids annually in Phnom Penh, Hip Hop has been a solution for seven years.
“I want everybody to keep three dreams. You might not get one, but you have the next one to go for. If you can’t get the second one, you still have a third,” KK describes. “As long as you have an education, you can try to become anything you want.”
Despite the tendency of the American Hip Hop industry to constantly look inward, Hip Hop has penetrated the globe in full. The developing and underprivileged countries of the world have a tendency to relate not only to the four elements of Hip Hop, but also to the element that the West so-often neglects.
“To me your word is bond because I am a street person myself. I try to be bond with everything I say and only make promises that I can keep. You have a 16-year old that just got out of jail with rap talent, how can you help him succeed or help him find a way to make money for his family?” KK finishes. “In our organization, we don’t even have money, really, but we try our best to just give these kids a chance to follow their dreams.”
Although it is often intangible, the educational aspect of Hip Hop is omnipresent. This forgotten value has, and will continue to be, one of the culture’s greatest exports.
As the debate rages on in the U.S. about the ways to begin fixing an increasingly poor education system, Hip Hop education might be worth considering.
After all, Hip Hop is about improvement and innovation. That’s something that every education system needs, whatever your cultural deity of choice.
Alex Dweezy Dwyer has written about Hip Hop for eight years, coincidentally the same year he got his first passport stamp in Paris. He's since lived in Rio De Janiero, Madrid, visited many other countries and spoken to many emcees. He currently lives in Chongqing, China but calls Los Angeles home. Follow him on Twitter @adweezy.