Yellow Rage speaks out with blend of prose and politics

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Michelle Myers (left) and Catzie Vilayphonh, performing at the Asian Arts Initiative, once got hate mail for their rap, calling them a disgrace to their parents. They are enjoying a warmer reception these days. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

It’s a warm Friday evening in April, and the doors to Vine Street’s Asian Arts Initiative are wide open, literally and figuratively. As on any third Friday at the community center dedicated to discussing the issues and art of Philly’s Asian American community, Family Style Open Mic is on a roll.

Poets, storytellers, dancers, singers, spoken-word performance artists, and their friends — a mix of ethnic groups that establish the initiative as a promoter of cross-cultural dialogue — hang out at a preshow reception noshing on appetizers from Sampan and watching the Penn Lions drum troupe.

And then the real action starts: Family Style hosts Michelle Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh, the spoken-word duo called Yellow Rage, begin their rapid-fire delivery. Standing comfortably close but not too close, the pair rail and riff on the nature of resistance (What you do is protesting/what I do is complaining) and labeling (What you see is what you get/what you don’t see you will never get).

Along with performances by other poets, a dancer, and several students from a University of Pennsylvania course talking up the Dream Act, it’s this blend of prose and politics, art and activism, that drives the initiative, the open-mike event, and in particular, Yellow Rage.

Of course, these days, Vilayphonh, a former editor at two.one.five magazine, and Myers, chair of the Learning Lab Department and Student Academic Computer Center at Community College of Philadelphia, recite in front of a welcoming audience engaged in community issues.

But when they started performing together 12 years ago, the reception — at least outside the initiative’s protective walls — was less receptive.

The pair got hate mail.

“It came from people who told us we were a disgrace to our parents, that we were ruining the image of Asian American women, even called us reverse racists,” said Vilayphonh, 31, who was raised in South Philly by Laotian refugees.

They were, after all, among the few Asian American spoken-word artists in Philadelphia. Yellow Rage stood out — and still does.

“We are two Asian American women spitting and rhyming and challenging assumptions in a genre that is largely male-dominated and, perhaps to a greater extent, perceived as being performed mainly by African Americans,” said Myers, 40, born in Seoul to a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, and raised in South Jersey. When the two started, people would joke before they performed “that we were probably going to have pretty poems about flowers and daisies. Suffice it to say, people had never seen or heard anything like us before.”

Now the women — both mothers — hear that a member of the audience drove two hours just to see them, or a college student shares that she’s been following the duo since she was 11.

“Whether you like it or not,” says Vilayphonh, “if I made you think about something, then I’ve done my job.”

In fact, they now have company. These days the duo counts as peers many other Asian spoken-word artists including poets Lovella Calica, Bao Phi, and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai. Boston-based Asian American spoken-word performer Giles Li, an artist featured in the documentary Art Beyond Borders, has known Yellow Rage for more than 10 years, performing on stages with the duo in the early years of the millennium. “Their work represents the full range of human emotion — some pieces are funny, some sad, some are outraged, appreciative, reflective,” said Li.

Since they began, their work and that of other Asian American spoken-word artists has brought individual perspectives and experiences to the scene, and they continue to play a vital role, Li said.

“I think it’s important for our communities to see other Asian Americans who are outspoken because there is a general mainstream assumption that we don’t have or don’t express our opinions. Yellow Rage does this.”

Myers and Vilayphonh first met at a storytelling and performance workshop at Asian Arts Initiative — founded at the Painted Bride in 1993 — and “Black Hair, Brown Eyes, Yellow Rage” was born. (They had a third member, Sapna Shah, who eventually left to concentrate on medical school.)

First they competed for a Philadelphia slot on a Def Poetry Slam tour, and from that point forward, they collaborated on the piece “I’m a Woman, Not a Flava” (which Vilayphonh also performed pregnant at the Vine Street grand opening in 2009), and were invited to perform at the 2001 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. Eventually, they shortened their name to Yellow Rage (“which is a misnomer because not all of our poems are based on anger, but whatevs,” says Vilayphonh).

When the initiative moved to its current home in Chinatown, the Rage were the first asked to serve as hosts for a new open-mike series in 2010. Myers, whose poetry book The she book was published last year, and Vilayphonh, who last weekwas awarded a $25,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s Art Challenge program for a workshop designed to record Laotian stories from the community, say that if the initiative hadn’t presented such a welcoming audience, Yellow Rage would never have taken off. “We would’ve never got our start as poets,” said Vilayphonh, “so our role in Family Style is sort of us passing the love along.”

Gayle Isa, the executive director of the initiative, is a fan of the pair. “Something that I appreciate about both Michelle and Catzie is the way that they engage with community through the issues that they address in their performances.

“People need to recognize the importance of learning our own history from our own perspective, to be proud of our own culture, and to resist internalizing racist and sexist images of ourselves.”