At the Bar with Bao Phi

Meet the bard with the bedroom voice. Author, activist, and poet Bao Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist. Some of you may recognize him from Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO and the web series "They're All So Beautiful".

Thank you sooooo much for doing this; I always love having folks At the Bar. Tell me what you like to sip on.

Thanks for asking, but I don't drink! I am known to drink soy iced mochas, even in the dead of winter when it's negative 20 degrees.

You’re a spoken word artist. To people who reside outside the scene, how would you explain this particular art form and why it’s so important to you?

The simplest way to explain it is, poetry that has an element of performance imbued in it. Otherwise spoken word, as a term, encompasses so many different styles, voices, and traditions. It's important to me because I've been doing it for over 20 years and it's why I write.

What got you into spoken word? How would you describe your particular style?

I was a refugee from the Vietnam war, raised in an urban poor/working class family. I loved Dungeons and Dragons, kung fu movies, Star Wars and Hip Hop. I loved art and stories from a very young age, but I didn't take poetry very seriously until I was maybe 16 or 17. This was 1989-1993, so there was a lot of poverty, police brutality, crack, gang violence, racism, cross racial hostility, etc. But also, hip hop was really blowing up all over, and at my high school there were teachers and guest speakers teaching about the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Gandhi, American Indian Movement... and artists like The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, Ntozake Shange. I got a chance to see Quincy Troupe read and talk about poetry, and he changed the way I looked at poetry forever. I saw a video of Alvin Eng doing this poem called "Rock Me Gung Hay." My own style has changed, flowed and ebbed. These days I lean more towards persona poems.

Which influences do you draw from?

So many... Li-Young Lee, Nellie Wong, Langston Hughes, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, David Mura, Lawson Inada, Gwendolyn Brooks, Martin Espada, Pablo Neruda, Shange, Nikki Giovanni, there a million others - and that's just poetry. I'm a mad fan of poetry in general. But also there's fiction writers, musicians, activists...

I had a hard time trying to decide which poems I wanted to feature, but one of your poems which I can’t stop thinking about is “Eight Nine”. For those who are unfamiliar, please share some background.

I and many other activists worked with the family of Fong Lee in the hopes that we could find some justice and peace in his memory. I had been struggling to write a poem about it all. The poem 8 (9), is what I finally came up with. Regarding the case, here is more info I pulled from the Facebook page:
On July 22, 2006, Hmong teenager Fong Lee was with a group of friends riding bikes near the North Minneapolis Cityview Elementary School when Minneapolis police officers chased them across the playground. Officer Jason Andersen shot Fong Lee eight times, in the back, side, and then five more shots into Lee’s chest as he lay on the ground. Andersen stated he was justified in the killing, claiming that Lee pointed a gun at him. He was cleared by the MPD’s internal investigation even though neighborhood eyewitnesses were not interviewed, many of whom contradicted the police officers' version of events in community press reports.

In 2009 the family of Fong Lee brought a wrongful death lawsuit again the City of Minneapolis and Jason Andersen, citing surveillance cameras that showed Fong Lee did not have a gun and evidence that demonstrated that the gun found at the scene had been in police custody, suggesting that the gun had been planted. When an all-white jury found that Anderson had not used “excessive force” in killing 19-year old Fong Lee, community members held numerous rallies to continue to demand justice in what they saw as a police cover-up.

Jason Andersen was first in the media’s eye with his shooting death of Fong Lee but he has remained a contentious member of the Minneapolis police force. In September 2009Police Chief Tim Dolan fired Andersen for violating the department’s ethics policy because of a dropped domestic assault charge. A state arbitrator returned Andersen to the force after the police union grieved the firing. Andersen is currently being indicted on federal charges for allegedly abusing a black teenager while part of the notorious and now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force. On September 22, 2010 he was fired for a second time for violating the department’s code on “truthfulness” about this incident in which he allegedly kicked the teen in the head.

This stuck out to me for many reasons; I remember when the case broke and I’d been thinking a lot – as many of us are – about how our brothers of color are profiled and targeted by "law enforcement" here in the West. Typically when this happens, people automatically think “Black and Latino”, but a lot of young Asian men have also reported being racially profiled and harassed for a very long time.

This mostly has to do with white supremacy and the model minority myth: it obfuscates racism when it comes to Asian Americans. To be able to see that racism oppresses Asians negates the model minority myth, so a lot of people don't see racism against Asians as racism - they dismiss it as xenophobia, I guess. I've met Asian Americans who dismiss police brutality cases against other Asian Americans because they see it as something that only effects Blacks and Latinos. Rather than make this about Oppression Olympics, I'd say we need to look at how police brutality effects nonwhites in this country, including Asians, Arabs, and Native Americans. We can talk about how it's enacted differently due to geography, specific races, genders, etc, but I see a lot of people disappointingly just assume Asian Americans don't suffer from police brutality. Fong Lee, unfortunately, is not the only Asian life lost to police brutality in this country.

And women of color and Queer people of color face discrimination and violence from police too - just a few days ago, a Vietnamese woman in LA was sexually assaulted by police officers. I am not at all saying Asians have it worse, nor am I trying to lessen the brutality that Black people and Latino/as face from police officers. What I am in favor of, is asking questions that need to be asked, in the interest of solidarity and justice for all people. For example: do Asian Americans face a lot of discrimination, but are scared to report on it due to being undocumented, fear of deportation, language barriers, or mistrust of authority figures? I think we need to take all of that into account.

I wholeheartedly agree with you. We also need to ask why anti-Asian sentiment is so readily accepted (and encouraged) here in the West – along with Asian American kids being bullied to the point of suicide – if Asian Americans are, in fact, a “model minority” to be revered and emulated by all others.

Totally agree with you. The thing about racism is, it supports itself even if it doesn't make sense. When racism needs Asians to be the enemy, we're the enemy. When it needs us to be the model minority, we're the model minority. I think more and more we're entering a time when we're both at once. So the disadvantage becomes that we're bullied and we struggle against racism, but nobody knows how to see or break it down because everyone assumes we don't suffer from racism.

What do you think is the driving force of anti-Asian sentiment in the 21st century? And would you say the double-edged enemy/model minority sword is a deliberately crafted tool of oppression?

I think so. I mean, part of it is there's plenty of anxiety in the Western world towards countries like China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran. The specific countries that Westerners hate or are nervous about may change through time, but the Orientalism is pretty much the same. And as you know, most people in the Western world conflate Asians with Asian Americans, so even if we've been here for generations and don't have any connections to our land of origin, we're associated with it. Then people get away with horrendous racist stereotypes against Asians and Asian Americans because they see it as a nationalism or patriotism - you know, defending America against foreigners - and a lot of people don't see that as horribly racist. Folks don't break down how military imperialism and colonialism effect racist attitudes.

Now, I’ve known about you and your work for some time, but I really got intrigued when I saw you offering commentary in the “They’re All So Beautiful” web series. This clued me into your activist side. How did you get involved in that project?

Oh, that was a long time ago, to be honest. I haven't seen it so I don't even know what I'm saying on there. I think a friend of mine referred me to the filmmaker who was having a hard time finding Asian men who would be willing to talk on the subject on camera.

You should get reacquainted with that work. “They’re All So Beautiful” triggered quite a conversation on the Blasian Narrative; the dialogue quickly evolved out of discussing Yellow Fever, and turned to discussing White Fever instead.

Sorry, I'm not familiar with the discussion - do you mean that the conversation has evolved to where folks are talking about internalized ideas about beauty and whiteness? If so, that's a good thing! I think too often, these conversations turn into arguments about possession (you have no right to tell me who to date) or reciprocity (Asian men just need to date white women so it's even). I think the conversations should be more about how *all of us* internalize ideas about who is attractive, dateable, etc and those things are absolutely impacted by race, gender, class, ableism, etc. I'm more interested in who has the power to influence who we find attractive, and how we deal with that.

Back to your poetry, there’s another poem which really stuck out to me – especially since the end cuts off on YouTube – about a very young Prince impersonator. Could you give us some background on that particular work?

Prince is from Minnesota, so he has that combination of mythic artist and "famous person from here", you know? And I am a fan of his music. So I was thinking to myself, you know, there are all of these Elvis impersonators, but why are there no Prince impersonators? So I set out to make a character. But I struggled with it, because there wasn't too much to it at first. It was just a novelty - I felt like there was more there to explore but I didn't know what that was. It all unfolded slowly, like over 6 months or more. It was like the character was saying, this is not good enough, you have to dig deeper. And after many drafts and feedback from my friends, I came up with that final poem.

So to be clear, the Prince Impersonator character is fictional.

Yes, Quincy Nguyen is absolutely fictional! All the characters in the "Nguyen" series are fictional.

In addition to being a performer and activist, you’re also an author. In 2011, you released poetry volume entitled Sông I Sing, which is an example of what you call "refugeography". Could you give us some background and explain this concept to us?

As a refugee, you're displaced. You're at best, a guest in someone else's home, always. And the answer is not simply "going back to where you come from", as many of us who can and have tried that can attest to. It's complicated. 'Refugeography' is a concept where home is where we are - rather than a nation-state, it's about community and shared experience.

Thank you. People don’t realize how often a lot of displaced people not only want to return home, but often try and fail (ironically). I find it odd that a nation which proclaims it wants to “send us all back” can, at times, make it exceedingly difficult to simply move abroad.

Yes! And often, youth are deported back to their countries where they may not speak the language or understand how to function in the culture. Meanwhile white Canadians like Justin Bieber, who are guilty of much more heinous and illegal behaviors, never fear deportation. I'm not saying we should deport white Canadians - I'm saying there's obviously racism there.

Ohhhh, obviously.  What are you currently working on?

More poems, and a radical Vietnamese American zombie survival novel.

Our timing is fortuitous; we’re doing this interview at the beginning of a new year. What can fans expect from the great Bao Phi in 2014?

Lots of posts on Facebook about ice cream and cute pictures of our daughter.

Bao Phi, an interviewee like you comes around once in a blue moon. Thank you so much for indulging us At the Bar.

Thank you!!!


  1. Happy to read the full interview. I liked the Prince Impersonator poem. :)

    1. LOVED that poem. Loved the concept, loved the performance, LOVED that poem.

  2. Ah wish I could have heard the rest of the prince poem. Great interview and talented spoken word artist. The eight (nine) poem is powerful and I can see the glancing over for racism against people in the asian community. Which is why it is so great that Bao Phi and many others are letting their voices be heard.


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