I met spoken word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai when she performed in Denver during the 2008 Democratic National Convention (you remember, the cool one where Obama was nominated) for an APIA Votes gala for Asian Americans. She rocked the room with a too-short set, and I bought her first album of slam poetry from 2007, “Infinity Breaks,” that night.
She released her second album, “Further She Wrote,” in early December and it’s available online via Bandcamp. Through January, you can name your price for the album (I suggest a minimum of $15 — we gotta support our peeps), to download the tracks to your computer. The CD version will be available in January.
Tsai’s a Chinese Taiwanese American born and raised in Chicago and now living in New York City. New York is a palpable presence in some of her poems, especially her sharply observed ode to her neighborhood, “he Ballad of a Maybe Gentrifier” in which she bemoans how the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is changing as new diverse residents move in and the established black population gets pushed father into the margins. She notes the irony that she’s part of the new guard that’s changing the tenor of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. I know the hood, since it’s where I went to college in the ’70s, at Pratt Institute. It was a mean-ass place then and it’s way different now. Sometimes changes — even “gentrification” is a good thing. She also draws a terrific picture of her hood in “Betp, Bed-Stuy Sketch #1.”
Tsai writes smart, flowing verse about not just her home turf, but also Asian American identity (“Self-Centered” is a funny commentary on how cool it would be if everyone were just like her and the world catered to “five-foot-two Asian females), community activism (“Weapons of Mass Creation” celebrates life, birth and progress), politics (“Black, White, Whatever…”), sexual politics (“The Confessions of Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai”) and art (“Letter to Lauryn Hill”).
Her voice is accompanied by drum and bass keyboard tracks from producer and musician Black Cracker, who also provided beats for Tsai’s first album. Back then, the music served as a backdrop and added color, like aural highlighters; this time out, the electro hip-hop takes an equal position to Tsai’s wordplay, and the music seems to push her to play with the rhythms, crashing lines together here, stretching out a word there in a sexy verbal dance.
Tsai’s sharp and literate, and her words are precise and evocative. If you’re not familiar with spoken. word or slam poetry, it’s a performance that’s somewhere in the zone between a poetry reading and rap.
Here’s a video of Tsai performing “Letter to Lauryn Hill,” a tribute to a woman hip hop role model, and you’ll get a feel for her art: