Local Current Blog

Claiming space: Dua Saleh and Tou SaiKo Lee on making musical homes in Minnesota

Dua Saleh in The Current studio, 2019. (Nate Rya/MPR)

I have a friendly neighbor/ she wanna be my savior/ her daddy always warns her about my family’s behavior/ she wonders ‘bout my flavor/ those chocolate coated layers,” Dua Saleh sings on their 2019 single “Sugar Mama.” Their voice sluices through the verses, and you too will find yourself with that the uneasy feeling in your stomach is actually butterflies of joy when the artist performs.

Saleh’s family fled from a country full of genocide in the ‘90s when Saleh was five years old; the family escaped from Darfur, Sudan, to seek a better life in a new land. The multifaceted artist speaks in grand, encompassing phrases, drawing lines that arc across their whole story.

As a child, racism was not something that Saleh understood, but rather felt. “To interact with racism [in a new country] when the concept of race is different was something that we had to encounter right away,” they remember. “It was unexpected, and we didn’t really understand it as much but you can feel the hate right upon reflection and you understand what was happening at the time. Coming to a new country, you already have a level of trauma you have to deal with, so I adjusted in a different way. You can either withdraw within yourself or you can build a thicker skin.”

Saleh used the innate rhythms so integral to traditional Sudanese music and married them with hip-hop, a genre that permeated their young life in St. Paul. They worked with producer Mike Frey and recently thestand4rd’s Psymun on their breakout EP, Nūr.

Their internal dialogue doesn’t end at music. Regarding life as a nonbinary artist, Saleh says, “I think there’s a lot of negotiation that happens. For me personally, it’s internal processing, because I can’t remove myself from either of those identities. If I’m able to carry my community with other people who shared my identities, those that identify as trans and/or queer, then that’s great. Yes, I want people to feel comfort in the music, but it’s not like I’m writing songs intentionally to create a ‘kumbaya’ atmosphere. That’s not my goal; I don’t think I really have a goal with music. I just kind of like to create whatever music I want to create, and whatever someone else’s response to it is based on them.”

In June 1979, Tou SaiKo Lee’s family found themselves making a new life in Syracuse, New York, just two months after he was born. Born in a refugee camp, the rapper’s family was also escaping civil war in Laos and crossed over to Thailand to come to the United States. Syracuse did not have a large Hmong population, and Lee found himself bullied and belittled for  heritage. Young Hmong men were being met with a lot of pressure to join gangs to find their sense of value, and even young men who weren’t involved in gang activity were categorized as gangsters by the larger community — so Lee thought he might as well. Untethered to a purpose in life, his anger bubbled to the surface.

“It was my opportunity to stand up for my culture, for myself, and for my people,” says Lee, who joined a Hmong gang in Frogtown at the age of 15, three years after his family moved to St. Paul. “So initially, I felt like joining a gang was standing up for my people. I eventually realized that at one point we were just fighting our own people, and I was like, ‘Wait, this isn’t what I signed up for.’ I got a little turned off towards the end, because we were fighting amongst Hmong that just came from Thailand, and I always had a problem with that, because they just are people but they came at a different time.”

At 16 while living at Boys Totem Town, a juvenile institution, his self-realization came in the form of music when he began writing lyrics and telling his story by exploring his own culture and identity. His low self-esteem and low sense of self-worth were reflected in his writing, and he soon realized he was fighting that image of himself. His younger brother Vong found inspiration in Lee’s work, and although shy, Lee drew off Vong’s theatrical nature and found his voice onstage when they collaborated in their rap group Delicious Venom.

Their parents, still associating their rap with gangs, didn’t like or understand the music, and it wasn’t until they got a check in the mail for $200 that their father recognized the value that other people placed in their music. Lee says, “For him, it gave him the sense of understanding — one that says since somebody paid you, it’s legitimate. He eventually came to one of our shows and watched us perform, and I think that’s when one of the local newspapers covered us. All of this came through my perseverance; because all of that history of our people being persecuted, I want to honor that history. It helps to understand where you come from, because it gives you a better sense of your cultural identity. That can get lost in the American society, because even if we try to erase our culture, someone’s gonna make us feel like we’re different. You have to be strong enough to know you don’t need that validation.”

In opening up through music, both artists have found resounding success in Minnesota and beyond — outside of music, Lee is using his music and poetry to reach younger audiences through teaching at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. The resilience of both artists has infiltrated their work in music and outside work; Lee is working on a memoir that centers around his grandmother.

Bridging the gap between the old country and first-generation immigrants, they’ve allowed the world a glimpse into their culture that may be overlooked otherwise. As Lee shares on “Nco Qab Txob (Remember),” “Culture, history, where are you/Our Hmong language, where are you?/Our traditional abilities and arts, where have you gone?” he finds the answer has always resided within him, “To protect our language and history for the future/In their hearts, they will hold culture the strongest.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the April edition of The Growler.