Written By Seng So
I woke up this morning hearing the sound of your voice. ????Chnam oun dap pram muoy…???? My pops was playing your music in his room, reminiscing about happier times. It was 2008 when I first heard your music. I was in my early twenties, a student activist trying to create change on campus. Your music struck a chord. It moved me and made me feel like I could do more.
You were in your twenties when Rock ’n’ Roll reached Cambodia’s shores. By using the sounds of Rock ’n’ Roll, you became a part of a class of artists and musicians at the forefront of a cultural movement. You fought against a status quo and traditions that no longer served your generation. If art is a reflection of society and the times, your music reflected the need to celebrate one’s liberation and wholeness as a person.
My work is also about liberation and wholeness. The climate crisis is at a tipping point. 100-year floods happen every year, unrelenting wildfires burn down whole forests, rising sea levels are disappearing islands and a global pandemic is shuttering us in our homes. These are the consequences of a system rooted in the extraction of resources, land and people’s labor to profit the very few. At the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), we’re leading the transition away from that way of living towards healthy and life-sustaining economies that benefit everyone.
We’re building community-owned renewable energy resources to power our neighborhoods, protecting affordable housing so that we can stay in our homes, creating a local economy of cooperatives, and taking back control of our democracy. We’re fighting for working-class Asian, immigrant and refugee communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Your music, like my work, is a celebration of the resilience of a people who’ve survived the killing fields and are making anew. I can hear it in your melodies. Sometimes I wonder how we were able to survive. The MadMen, the profiteers, the imperialists, they sent us to the slaughter by the millions to expand their empire. By the millions.
They robbed us of our childhoods, of being able to celebrate the rice harvest during a new moon, and the monsoon seasons watching the Tonle Sap fill to the brim carrying our dreams upstream. Today there are no more fish in the Tonle Sap. The droughts are so devastating that tens of thousands of acres of crops are destroyed every year. These are the results of mass development and destruction of natural environments in Cambodia and across the globe. Things are dire and the work to fight against this seems damn near impossible.
But, I know that even when society’s gatekeepers tried to stifle your cultural movement, you still sang of plentiness and of what home could be. It’s the same song of the environmental justice movement. Although we’re fighting against what seems like an insurmountable force, we still celebrate our work with joy and love.
You were a part of a generation rising in song. Ros, you made music my parents danced to. Rhythm to find ourselves if we were to ever be lost. Cultural workers like you code our essence in ways that reach us in the grayest of days and fortify our spirits.
On those days when I question if our vision can be a reality, I listen to your songs and I ground myself and continue to fight like hell! Because I’ve come to realize why caged birds sing some of the most beautiful songs.
Even in the deep of the jungle, on the wooden floor of a labor camp, under the point of a rifle, you still sang. You sang to remind us that ancestors are still here, across all time to guide the way.
I’m still listening,
Seng So was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1985 and his family arrived as refugees in 1989, settling in the Bay Area. He currently works for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, working towards environmental justice for immigrant and refugee communities. He received his BA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is at work launching an arts collective called Cambo! Cambo! To learn more visit www.cambocambo.com or follow him on Twitter @seng_so. To learn more about APEN’s work visit www.apen4ej.org or follow APEN on Twitter @APEN4EJ!