Meet Jeah, the Cambodian Rapper Who Came to Canada as a Refugee
"I think that not being born in Canada is why I always feel the need to express a taste of where I'm actually from. I have to showcase who I am culturally as much as I am also a Canadian."
It's a blustery cold evening in Saskatoon, and Cambodian-Canadian rapper Jeah is riding the high of one of his biggest sets yet. Warming up the stage for chart-topping T.I., percolating for a crowd of almost a thousand, he emerged from backstage with his crew known as Trifecta—an artist collective of other first generation Canadian musicians, filmmakers, and supporters, with ethnicities ranging from Filipino to Vietnamese, Metis, Chinese and Thai—and they could all see he was ecstatic. "Usually he wants to chill after shows," recants his bandmate Merv xx Gotti. "He really wanted to celebrate, not just go out to Burger King, but make sure we all went out."
Jeah's always had a lot of friends with immigrant backgrounds. It was never conscious, but a consequence of sharing common experiences.
"I feel like a lot of it is emotion," he says in an interview a few weeks after, dark eyes deep in thought, a cap turned backward and a string of Cambodian characters distinctly tattooed on the inside of his arm. "You have to experience certain things to relate to a certain person or situation. I don't think a person who isn't a minority will understand how a minority feels."
One of Jeah's earliest childhood memories is first coming to Canada, gazing awestruck at snowflakes in the crisp Saskatchewan winter, not being properly dressed. It was October when he and his family came to Regina under refugee status, and the prairies are known for freezing over incredibly fast. All four children and parents trudged outside in a mishmash of jackets and mitts from the Salvation Army and sponsor donations. They saw what their own frosty breath looked like for the very first time.
Jeah was born at a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the Thai province of Chonburi. He doesn't remember much but has heard plenty of stories from his siblings about the barren landscape of small shanty homes made from banana leafs. "Dad had a sugarcane farm in Thailand, but when times got really bad he sold ice cream and cigarettes," he explained.
"There was a community feeling," says Savonn Muth, one of Jeah's older brothers. "There were no doors so you could literally walk into anyone's house. You could sense the poverty, but I don't ever remember it as being a bad thing."
During the Cambodian genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979, over one million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. Jeah's parents met and married in the refugee camp. Coming from small villages raided by the Khmer Rouge, both were put into segregated prison camps. When the camps were eventually liberated, they ran for the border like countless others who were also displaced.
"One of my mother's sisters died from starvation in her arms," Jeah says. "But it is not something we really talk about."
Emigrating to Canada changed everything. It was understandably a massive transition. Jeah absorbed English easily in kindergarten, but his older siblings and parents attended ESL courses. In the beginning, the family lived in the same small house as their cousins, aunt, and uncle, where all six of them slept in one room. He called it a "welcoming experience," saying the community helped massively—from the Lutheran church that raised the money to bring them all over, to the community school where he ate breakfast every morning before school.
"A guy even dressed up as Santa Claus coming to our house and we had no idea what Christmas was," he laughs. "He came in and gave us presents and stuff, and we had no idea what to call him."
Such experiences shaped Jeah's passion to make the most of what was an unbelievable opportunity. He gets his work ethic from his parents striving to build a new life for their children by making ends meet. "(My upbringing) has everything to do with the person I am today," he says. "Savonn and I used to just lay in bed and he used to tell me there's more to life than just this and there's a reason why our family is here. There is a plan and I feel a part of me that desperately needs to seek that out."
Jeah grew up on hip-hop but didn't start learning to rap until a multimedia class in high school. The teacher agreed to let him make beats on GarageBand and lay freestyles overtop for grades. The first thing he ever wrote was a parody of the Twista and Kanye West tune "Overnight Celebrity" called "Overnight Asian," about a guy that "becomes Oriental and starts becoming accustomed to Asian food and culture in a silly way," he says. "That's when people started taking him seriously," says brother Savonn. "He was just in grade nine, but already showed a lot of talent."
That's when the seed was planted that becoming an artist could be a reality. He continues to rap about the meaning of ethnicity and growing up Asian as half of the influential Saskatchewan hip-hop group DGS Samurai Champs. Jeah and his singing counterpart Merv xx Gotti, who is Thai-Chinese, explored culture in their most recent video "Crayons". Lyrics vibe their adoration for the diversity of women, who are a vibrant "colour palette" of style, background, and race.
"I think that not being born in Canada is why I always feel the need to express a taste of where I'm actually from or feel the need to subliminally," he says. "I have to showcase who I am culturally and of a different ethnicity as much as I am also a Canadian." Jeah admits that his parents, coming from a different worldview and tough life experiences, don't really get his dreams of being recognized in the rap industry just yet—but like a lot of immigrant parents, it's only because they want the best for him.
"They see success more if you finish school or you have a degree," he says. "For them, it's harder to see success as a musician unless you're on TV showboating it."
"They do appreciate his hard work," says his brother Savonn. "Of course, they view it differently but they know making music is not easy to do and hope for the best for him."
He doesn't rap much yet about his family's hardships before and after coming to Canada or the experience of being a first-generation Canadian. Jeah confesses there are hard drives locked away full of deeply personal lyrics. He plans one day to tap into those memory banks. Some of the material is heavy and dark, and the musician isn't ready for it all to be out in public just yet.
"It's something caged inside that does want to come out," he says. "But it's about finding the right time to do it. Right now what's more important for me is prizing in on being a good songwriter and composing. I need to polish what I know best and take that with me to create new music."
Jeah and his brothers joke that if they never came to Canada, they would've ended up rice farmers. It's difficult to imagine, but likely the truth. For the Cambodian rapper, it's a reality that has made every taste of success sweeter, especially going forward as he sets his sights on one day becoming a mainstream artist.
"Not a lot of people get these chances in life," he says. "If I do get a chance to make it, then I feel like there's a story to tell."
Barbara Woolsey is a Filipino-Canadian writer living in Berlin. Follow her on Twitter.