Ka Lia Universe and a new vanguard of Hmong musicians look to go mainstream

Ka Lia Universe

Ka Lia Universe Jania Xiong

For the first minute of “Dej Txias,” it’s nearly impossible to tell which language Ka Lia Universe is singing.

The shimmering production and the coy chorus suggest an unearthed Ariana Grande cut. But every time you think you’ve made out a snippet in English (is that “I need your touch” she’s singing on the bridge?), the lyrics slip fluidly into a Hmong phrase. If you’re used to the tonal pipes and harps of the traditional folk music you hear at Hmong events in Frogtown, the song is equally disorienting.

Universe is one of the leaders of Hmong music’s new school of crossover artists in Minnesota. “We call it Hmonglish; it’s kind of like K-Pop or Thai music,” she says. “Hmong entertainment... it’s not that they’re behind, but Asian people, they’re very strict. They’re very traditional, and you gotta break that barrier.”

St. Paul became a haven for Hmong refugees following the Vietnam War, and the city now hosts the largest Hmong population in the United States. This is where Universe grew up, the daughter of immigrants from Laos, her identity split across cultures.

While a sophomore at Harding High School, Universe started posting ukulele covers of American pop songs like Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” to Facebook and YouTube. Her friends encouraged her, and she even tried out for The Voice in 2006, where she got cut in the fourth round of untelevised auditions.

“For the first six years, I did strictly American music,” Universe says. “Not because I despise Hmong music or the Hmong language, I just grew up a little different. I was afraid of judgment, I was afraid people wouldn’t like me.”

An estimated 66,000 ethnic Hmong live in the Twin Cities. Though that number accounts for only a small fraction of the metro’s population, the Hmong community has made an outsized impact on local culture. July’s Hmong International Freedom Festival and November’s Hmong New Year are tentpole events for the city of St. Paul. Minnesota is the home of the first Hmong theater company in the world.

Hmong musicians still generally gain their followings by recontextualizing traditional music, and hardly any have broken into the pop mainstream in the United States. Two Wisconsin performers have made a go of it—Minnesota-born, Madison-based singer David Yang and Maa Vue of Wausau. Fresno singer Xy Lee established a huge following for his slowed-down country Hmong music, but the 23-year-old died in a mass shooting in November. And in the Twin Cities, rapper/poet Tou Saiko Lee made headlines by performing spoken word with his grandmother.

But Universe’s ambition is to achieve true crossover pop success—even if that means inventing a hybrid language to do it.

“At first people were like, ‘This is weird, you should have just kept it Hmong,”’ she says. “I wanted to get my confidence up, be who I am. I just decided I wanted to be out there, put myself out there. I got tired of denying that this was who I am, so I just accepted it.”

Universe is not alone in her ambition. In her quest to make Hmonglish vogue, she’s joined by locals like Kid $wami, Supryze, and frequent collaborator (and boyfriend) Chin Chilla.

Chilla started off as a battle rapper on the St. Paul circuit, but since meeting Universe in early 2019, he’s taken on a sound that’s more akin to Travis Scott or A$AP Rocky. “Tag Lis No,” his November single with Universe, epitomizes the spirit of Hmonglish. Chilla flips between English and Hmong punchlines, Auto-Tune making the switches indecipherable. On the choruses, Universe coos earworms just above a pulsing 808. The song was an immediate hit. “Tag Lis No” has nearly 250,000 views on YouTube and just broke into the local rotation on Go 95.3.

“I felt like there’s a time for everything, and it’s the perfect time for Hmonglish to be put into music,” Chilla says. “The type of beats that are out and trending, it’s a perfect fit.”

Chilla, who will perform with Universe on Saturday at the Hmong Nouveau Fashion Show and Party at Union Depot, first felt called to music watching MC Jin battle rappers on BET’s “Freestyle Friday.” Hearing the Cantonese-speaking rapper dismantle his competition week after week, he knew it would be possible for a Hmong rapper to do the same. A decade later, the success of Korean pop artist Psy and his ubiquitous hit “Gangnam Style” galvanized Chilla’s determination.

“That sparked a light bulb,” he says. “Dude became mainstream in his native language in the United States, and I knew it was possible for music in any language to go mainstream.”

Chilla also runs Wange Entertainment, a promotion company that books Hmong artists for clubs and events. One artist he’s consistently booked is Vayoung, a 24-year-old Forest Lake native with a punk-infused R&B sound. Though Vayoung performs strictly in English, he’s felt the support of the Hmong community carry him through his first year as a serious musician.

“In Hmong culture, we have this thing, ‘Hmoob hlub Hmoob,’ or ‘Hmong loves Hmong,’” Vayoung says. “People will show mad support. That won’t break us through, but that will put us at a level, and then talent will push through by itself.”

Vayoung’s words echo a point made by both Universe and Chilla: While the support of their Hmong compatriots is a start, achieving their dream will require attention from the other 98.2 percent of their neighbors. There is a reason the mainstream route has not been trekked before: The majority of the Twin Cities only takes an interest in Hmong-made music around the Freedom Festival or the New Year celebration.

The challenge is to make Hmonglish as everyday as Doja Cat or Drake—or at least Atmosphere or Dessa. And with the language-agnostic hypnotism of songs like “Dej Txias,” this new generation of Hmong artists show signs of rising to that challenge.

“It’s not even about language,” Universe says. “It’s more about, ‘What can this song give you?’”

Hmong Nouveau Fashion Show and Party
With: Ka Lia Universe, Chin Chilla, Zong Pha Xiong, and others
Where: Union Depot
When: 6 p.m. Sat. Feb. 15
Tickets: $45-$80; more info here