When local hip-hop artist Nam (born Andrew Le) first started rapping in the mid-’90s, his involvement in the genre was initially about fun and self-expression. To a large extent that’s still why he does it, but the 23-year-old rapper realizes the heightened sense of responsibility now that he’s a more visible figure in Seattle’s music scene. Since he released his debut disc, Exhale, in late 2008, he’s garnered acclaim both locally and beyond because of his ability to rap vividly about the Asian-American experience without being clichéd. He’s also got the distinction of being one of the very few Vietnamese-American rappers in Seattle, if not the only one (by his estimate), so there’s a joy and a burden that comes with pursuing his craft.
“It’s overwhelming, for sure,” Nam says when asked if there’s a certain pressure associated with being a Vietnamese-American MC, “but at the same time I’m very flattered by people looking up to me because of it as well. I hope it encourages other Vietnamese youth and API [Asian/Pacific Islander] youth to get involved in hip-hop and not just be spectators.”
Listening to Nam’s music, you get the impression he’s grown up listening to local “conscious” MCs like Gabriel Teodros and Geo of Blue Scholars. On one of his more popular tracks, “Beats, Rhymes, and Rice,” he and Geo delve into what it’s like to be Asian rappers lyrically representing for their communities. Nam isn’t writing songs about cars and clothes, but about issues related to race, identity, and anything that has a positive effect.
“A lot of Asian and Vietnamese rap can be gang-affiliated— not so much here, but some of the stuff in Cali,” Nam adds. “But I know there’s kids listening to it, so I don’t go that route.”
He’s been working on a follow-up to Exhale, and promises to drop a few new gems on the crowd this weekend when he makes his first appearance at the Northwest Folklife Festival. “Folklife isn’t usually known for hip-hop music,” he says. “It’s usually folk and acoustic music, obviously, so I think it’s really cool to be a part of a hip-hop showcase at Folklife. I’m looking forward to it.”