Photo of Chong Ali by Akira Le.
A lovely thing has happened to me. I am meeting creative Asians in Queensland. You know, the ones who didn’t pursue STEM careers. There are a lot of them! I started meeting some on film sets. Then I joined the Asian Creative Network on Facebook, and was invited to write for FORMANT magazine, a brand new platform for Southeast Asian music culture.
From there I met Brisbane-based emcee Chong Ali (real name Minh Nguyen). Minh really believes in “growing the fam” and through him I am now building a friendship with his photographer, Akira Le.
Born amidst war in a refugee camp in Thailand, Akira is here in Queensland creating beauty through photography and other projects, as well as being a busy working mum. I love how she can capture Minh’s empathetic side as well as the emcee swagger of Chong Ali. Yep Akira, you got that jawline real good 😉. Until I can write more about her, here is Akira.
Below is the FORMANT piece, first published August 5, 2019. Photography by Akira Le.
Chong Ali: A voice for Asian Australia
With the biggest smile and his down-to-earth charm, Vietnamese-Australian emcee Chong Ali (Minh Nguyen) has matured into a master of the spoken word. Life has chiselled an edge to his jawline, and a well-acknowledged catalogue of work has honed his craft. His music is driven, and the words come fast, his well-chosen lyrics laden with imagery and meaning. “Laughing Buddha” is his latest work, reviewed here.
This Queensland Music Award-nominated artist (hip-hop/rap category) recently hosted the 2019 BrisAsia Festival and performed in front of a packed QPAC Theatre in Brisbane. Ali writes music and stories about the multicultural south Brisbane community that he knows and loves, but he wants all Asian Australians to come to the table. To him, the name of this game is authentic representation.
“There are so many voices and stories that need to be told. We don’t encourage storytelling, as an Asian Australian community. I encourage everybody to speak up and get involved in this conversation, because the more voices and the more representation that we have, the more honestly we will be perceived.”
Ali felt the power of rap and its spoken raw truths while still in primary school. “Language is powerful, and a lot of terminology that people use in everyday language today originates from rap. I was a Vietnamese kid in Australia and I found it incredible that I could feel connected to an African American halfway across the world. People who are from your class speak a common language, regardless of the slang. There is an attitude in the language that you just understand. When I first heard Tupac, he wasn’t Asian, but his words still resonated with me.
In my community I always felt like I belonged. But in the media, and outside of my community, there was no representation for us, at all. If you turned on the tv or you listened to the radio, you never saw anybody of our ethnicity, or any people of colour. I felt like we were living in Australia but we were not part of Australia. It didn’t feel like we mattered, and that was a big thing for me.Chong Ali
Ali wrote poetry, even in primary school. “I wrote a lot of poetry. It was personal. I always had an inkling of what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how I wanted to say it. I had an unsettling feeling floating around in my head and my body. Later I discovered rap and made the connection, and the work morphed into a rapping framework. But for a long time I still considered it poetry, not rap, because I didn’t perform it.”
Driven to find his authentic voice, Ali turned to music production. “Production in a hip-hop context is sampling from records into a drum machine. It’s like you’re making a collage: taking a piece of music, breaking it down and rearranging it in a way that you think is cool. “I didn’t have vinyls, like my favourite producers. What I did have was my mum and dad’s karaoke collection, all the famous Vietnamese music shows! The good thing with karaoke is that you can mute the vocals, then you have this bed of instrumentation. So I took that, chopped it up, and put some beats behind it. In the beginning, other people were rapping over it, and pretty soon I was rapping over it. “By the time I was rapping as an emcee, I already had a good handle on writing. All I had to do was learn to perform, vocally.”
Learning to perform involved practice. Ali knew a bit about that, having been involved in martial arts since the age of six. (Incidentally he has co-hosted and produced two podcasts that promote under-represented artists and athletes. One of them is called, “DojoLife with Chong & The Boss”, a podcast about music and martial arts.) “A lot of the things I do now I relate back to martial arts, because it taught me that technique is everything. If you want to be a good martial artist you have to employ good technique. Perfect technique. You have to practise to get good technique. Repetition. If you can’t execute perfectly, the technique will not work. If your body learns good technique well enough that you don’t have to think about it, your brain is freed up to be creative with those techniques. “With your good technique and your creativity, that’s where art happens.
Art is a form of expression. You need to be able to use your techniques in the right circumstances, to express yourself in a way that will resonate with people.Chong Ali
Chong Ali wants all of Australia to see the diverse range of artists that exists in the Asian Australian community, and he encourages upcoming Asian artists to not be afraid, and to embrace the arts wholeheartedly. He has been featured on many radio stations, played several major Australian music festivals, moderated academic panels and presented live combat sports events. His good work will ease the way for all of us, as we paint the landscape with the colours of our humanity.