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Vital Hmong voices: Ka Lia Universe and Amanda Yang

Ka Lia Universe
Ka Lia UniverseHoua Vang

by Youa Vang

May 13, 2022

Ka Lia Universe and Amanda Yang are two of many Hmong musicians based in Minnesota. Their artistic backgrounds both include jumping into singing at a young age and finding a virtual audience through posting cover songs on YouTube. In their own ways, both of them also feel reverberations from their ancestors.

During May, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Hmong American Day falls on May 14 because that date in 1975 was the last airlift evacuation of Hmong soldiers and families from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand. These Hmong soldiers played an essential role in the Secret War, helping the U.S. during the Vietnam War. They and their families had sought refuge from persecution or death from the communist Pathet Lao. A changing political climate had resulted in the withdrawal of its soldiers that year, leaving many of the Hmong who helped the resistance vulnerable. Some Hmong families successfully immigrated to the United States, but many drowned in the Mekong River trying to cross from their homelands in Laos to Thailand.

Almost 50 years since that last evacuation took place, the trauma and tragedy that altered so many lives has often been passed down through generations in Hmong families. In some cases, it has turned into heavy pressure to make a name for yourself.

Ka Lia Universe is the youngest in a family of seven siblings. As she grew into her artistry, she needed to be resilient. “I had a lot of pressure growing up, because two of my brothers were affiliated in gangs and became involved with drugs,” she says. “I had a lot of pressure to not follow the path that they went down on. Many young Hmong men are susceptible to gangs to find a sense of belonging when they come from unstable homes, and it’s so easy to judge when you’re looking from the outside in.

“So yeah, we struggled for a bit. We moved around a lot. We've never really had like a stable home. That's kind of part of the reason why I feel like I'm so strong and resilient when it comes to music because I've gone through my childhood. Obviously, my dad wanted me to be a doctor like every other Asian parent. He said, ‘Well, if you don't want to be a doctor, you can always go to pharmacy. But I when I got into high school, I got into music and rebelled and decided to do music.”

Ka Lia tried out many musical styles along the way. She went through a “girly music” phase and also learned to play acoustic guitar. She says her current pop style was inspired by Britney Spears, who became her idol when she was four years old. Through her partner Chin Chilla, she found the higher production quality she needed. Ka Lia writes and performs in both Hmong and English, depending on what suits the piece. It is indeed dance music freed from the iron-clad restrictions of any specific culture. The music’s common thread is humanity infused with feeling, with ragged edges on display.

A woman folds her arms in front of herself
Amanda Yang

Amanda Yang says her mom supported her musical pursuits, and it opened up a new part of her personality. “I was an introvert in my shell, but when I sang I got to connect with the crowd,” she says. “There's a different side of me that comes out, and I really like to give that all to my mom because I think she saw how nervous I was to be a part of this world. She’s like, ‘Oh, man, we need to really like nurture that to see what we can do to make her more comfortable.’”

Amanda’s engagement with her audience has come through a lot of virtual platforms, which was essential during the pandemic. She found she was able to find her artistry through a camera’s lens, something that came to her many years prior any lockdowns. “I once posted this original song called ‘Pretend’ on YouTube,” she says. “I played it on the ukulele and was so heartbroken and so desperate to get my emotions out of my body just to let the world know I wanted to get over this feeling. I published it and my subscribers were so supportive, and they connected so much to the song. It helped to me to understand I wasn't alone, and I could connect with other people who also are feeling very similar emotions.”

Lifting up voices like Ka Lia Universe and Amanda Yang, both figuratively and literally, plays a key role in what happens to the next generation of Hmong Americans. More than two years after the global pandemic began, many Asian Americans still struggle with racism and xenophobia stemming from misinformation about the origins of COVID-19. Violent crimes targeting the Asian American community increased 339% nationwide in 2021, according to a NBC News report. Through artistry, both musicians are creating new narratives.

Both Ka Lia and Amanda also struggle with the loss of their Hmong culture through diaspora, but they have come to terms with how they’re defining their roles in the Hmong community.

“It’s actually a lot easier to honor the Hmong heritage in America than people think,” Ka Lia explains. “There is no one American culture, so it’s easy to just shine and be who you are. For example, Hmong clothes. It's very beautiful and very colorful, they have we have our own pattern. It’s nice because I'm able to incorporate that into my style and make that modern and really just be my unique self, because I was born here.”

“Am I still Hmong if I’m not fluent in my native language?” Amanda writes in an open letter. “Am I still Hmong if I challenge the female/male roles in our households? Am I still Hmong if I write and perform my songs in English? … the answer to all those questions is yes, I am still Hmong.”

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.