Last month, Pacific Ties had the opportunity to attend the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference in Washington D.C. In addition to listening to awesome speakers like Bill Clinton, Van Jones and Nancy Pelosi, we also got to experience an amazing performance given by Chinese-Taiwanese spoken-word artist, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai.

Who is Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai? She’s only one of the best Asian-American spoken word artists on the East Coast! Here’s a short bio for those of you who don’t know:

Photo by Berman Fenelus
Photo by Berman Fenelus

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based, Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist who has performed her poetry at over 350 venues worldwide including three seasons on “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Winner of a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Urban Artist Initiative Award, she was listed as one of Idealist in NYC’s Top 40 New Yorkers Who Make Positive Social Change in 2008 and’s “30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30” in 2009. She has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka, and many more.

Pacific Ties recently had the honor of interviewing Kelly, who gave her thoughts and insights on her beginnings as a spoken word artist, what inspires her to speak out in the Asian-American community today, her take on Asian-Americans in the media, advice for up-and-coming artists such as herself, and much more.

Here’s a short preview of the interview, which will be featured in Pacific Ties’ Fall 2009 Issue. Make sure to check it out both online and in print!

Photo by Katie Piper
Photo by Katie Piper

Pacific Ties (PT): How did you first get into spoken word poetry?

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: I’ve always been into writing and performing ever since I was a little kid. I even found these stories I’d written in third or fourth grade at my parents’ house that were all about these little girls who wanted to become writers.

When I was in high school, I had a cool English teacher who was and still is really involved with the national grand poetry slam. The original poetry slam was a competition where you’d get six poets who would compete during the course of the evening; there would be five judges and then all the poets get scored from 0 – 10 (0 being like the worst thing you’ve ever heard and 10 being the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard). These competitions actually started in Chicago with Marc Kelly Smith who started running competitions in all these bars. My teacher would bring my friends and me there to see these poetry slams and I got into poetry slam very early on.

PT: What do you want audiences to get out of your poetry, particularly Asian-American audiences?

Kelly: I think in terms of Asian-Americans, it’s just way past due for us to speak out. Our community is so diverse – linguistically, culturally,  and in terms of our history and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our community is so diverse, and we need as many of our voices out there as possible. I hope that by articulating these things, by unpacking what’s going on in my every day life, it helps other people articulate what’s going on in their own lives. That’s definitely a big thing that I hope audiences get from my work. Another thing that I hope audiences get is just a pure emotional experience – whether it’s thinking about a place, person, or event in history.

How do you feel the performing arts and creating social change are connected, particularly in the Asian American community? Do you feel that there is a direct connection between spoken word and politics?

Kelly: I think there is naturally, inherently a connection. In any kind of art-making, you’re making a statement and you’re making the choice to speak out. Now whether or not artists decide to be conscious about the statement they’re making, I think is a different question… I think all art is inherently political, but I think what determines a political artist from a non-political artist, so to speak, is whether or not they’re conscious of that.

In the Asian-American community, it’s really interesting that at this point in time (and I think this will be rapidly changing over a couple of decades), if we don’t create artistic expression – if we don’t have the outlets and the venues that we build ourselves – we won’t have them in mainstream media. We definitely have a lot more than we did when I was a kid, but we’re still at the point where if we don’t make it, we don’t necessarily have it. In that way,  artistic representation and politics are connected in a lot of ways.

PT: Do you have any advice for young people looking to break into the same field as you?

Kelly: I think something unfortunate that I see right now is that I think a lot of people get really focused on the business side of arts and entertainment much too early… Sometimes I talk to different emerging artists and they’ll be worried about not fitting in, about not doing the current style, and trying to get an agent and this and that. And I’m like hold on a second; you haven’t even talked to me about your actual artwork yet. You’re talking about all this other stuff but what about the writing? Do you care about it? And it’s not even so much “Screw you if you don’t care about it” but “Do you care about it and is it doing something for you?” Is it giving you all that you can get from it? Because I believe that writing is one of the most liberatory things you can do in your life; as is expressing yourself. So let’s not forget that.

PT: What are your future plans? Any upcoming shows?

Kelly: I’m working on a bunch of stuff right now. I’m working on stuff for my tours in 2009-2010. I’m also working on a short film version of my poem “Real Women I Know,” which is going to have a huge, huge viral component. And I’m also working on my show, which is called “The Grieving Room” and deals with the different issues of grief and the difficulties of letting go, as well as the difficulties of not letting go and about how it’s important to honor your experiences and move on. I’m always working on a bunch of different projects, but those are the big ones.

Interested in spoken word poetry? Make sure to check out one of Kelly’s upcoming shows. If it’s anything like what we heard in D.C., it’s bound to be a blast:

Upcoming shows

August 30 – NYC-TV Ch. 25

September 140 Bellingham, WA

For more information, check out Kelly’s website:

-posted by Shirley Mak


Comments are closed.