Sometimes, beauty arises in the midst of devastation. In the 1970s, many from the Hmong people group, originally living in Laos, began to immigrate to the United States, escaping a war-ravaged southeast Asia. Many of these folks suffered horrors very few of us can relate to. All of them were separated from virtually everything familiar, many times including their families. The story of how Hmong folks first came to the U.S. is beyond sad. And yet, in the middle of such tragedy, there was a new story beginning to develop.
The coming together of cultures can be stressful and it inevitably stirs conflict, conflict between representatives of two diverse cultures, as well as an inner conflict within the heart and mind of the immigrant coming to a brand new place, with a new language, and dramatically different cultural norms. Conflict is difficult, no way around it. However, as is the case with any conflict, the result can be truly beautiful. This dynamic is on full display in the music of Hmong American artist Pagnia Xiong, who was raised right here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Pagnia has quite a following, with over 20,000 followers on Facebook and a very engaged fan base here in the States and in Europe. However, there’s a pretty good chance that, unless you are a Hmong American living in the upper Midwest, you have no idea who she is. Neither did the person who is writing this post (in fact, the only reason I became aware of her was through a friend who happens to be her cousin).
How is it that I could be unaware of a locally rooted musician with such a following? I tend to stay aware of such things. I mean, yes, she writes and performs music in Hmong, but I’m into various cultural expressions, especially when it comes to music. I’ve listened to plenty of non-English speaking artists over the years. How did I miss this? How did I miss her? Pagnia sees a couple of reasons:
Professionally, I didn’t record music until I was studying at the University of WI-Madison. My debut album was released in St. Paul, MN, the city with the largest Hmong population. That also meant most of my performances were in the bigger cities, as my listeners were there. Personally though, I’m still a bit shy about performing for non-Hmong listeners. I graduated from North High School, but most of my former classmates, if they recognized me today, would not have ever guessed that I would become a professional singer. So, it’s not your fault!
Okay, so that makes sense, right? And the reason I wasn’t aware of Pagnia Xiong wasn’t nearly as nefarious as I was making it out to be (I had thoughts of racism, ethnocentricity, and the like). Truly, I didn’t know about her music for very practical reasons: she wasn’t here when she started recording and she is hesitant to perform in front of non-Hmong listeners. Totally makes sense.
So then I also wondered about why I don’t know of any other Hmong artists with local roots, with the notable exception of SloSlyLove, who has garnered quite a following himself and played at the second Eaux Claires festival in 2016. I asked Pagnia about this as well, and her answer was profoundly enlightening:
Truthfully, I don’t know any other Hmong musician who is actively creating and performing music in the Chippewa Valley (aside from SloSlyLove). The Hmong community in the Chippewa Valley is still small enough to the point that everyone knows everyone. Meaning that if a cousin knew of a Hmong music artist who was creating and performing locally, I would know exactly who s/he is as well. Word would get around quickly.
And then she provided some sorely needed historical context:
…the Hmong community is still a young and growing community. As war refugees, the first wave of Hmong families to arrive in Eau Claire occurred only 43 years ago. That means that the first generation of Hmong Americans are currently in their 20s and 30s and are likely the breadwinners of their family. That being said, I believe my parents’ generation raised their first-generation Hmong American children for one main goal: to survive. Imagine having at least 1-2 immediate family members no longer alive due to the war. Survival would be of the utmost importance.
Being a music artist doesn’t translate to survival for my parents and their generation who fled their war-torn country. Music isn’t surviving; it’s thriving, and you can’t get there unless you believe you’ve survived. I believe that’s part of the reason why in a Hmong community as young and small as Eau Claire, hearing one or two local Hmong music artists actively creating and performing sounds about right to me.
It’s important to take a moment, pause, and think about these words. This story. The trauma experienced by the Hmong American community is immense. Their collective loss and grief is larger than I can personally understand. Who has time to create when you’re only objective, by necessity, is survival?
And herein lies the potential beauty of conflict. No, there was nothing beautiful about the horrific experiences of Hmong families in southeast Asia 40+ years ago. But there is certainly beauty in what is growing out of that tragic soil. The infusion of Hmong culture in the life of the Chippewa Valley and the Twin Cities has added vitality and richness to these communities. Even though the struggle of these resilient people to learn the balance between maintaining their cultural identity and navigating life in the American Midwest is very real, that struggle is creating something beautiful. And a great expression of that beauty is the music and influence of Pagnia Xiong.
Why is that the case? Well, it’s not just because she is talented. She is that, but there’s more. First of all, her music is not quite the music her parents listened to, and it represents the development of something new.
My parents’ choice of music (was) mainly Thai/Lao-influenced music recorded by Hmong singers. However, I was very drawn to the Hmong American contemporary artists at the time who weren’t singing my parents’ type of music. Cua Yaj and Zuag Vaj, both from California, were the very first Hmong American singers that I connected with as a young listener and singer. Their ballads were the songs of my singing competition days. I think that’s why my strength lies in vocal ballads.
And then there were other influences as well…
I grew up listening to I-94 and Z100 on the radio, mostly late at night. Sunday nights were my favorite, because my older sister would leave the radio on all night for Sunday Night Love Songs. Some of the reigning voices of that time were Selena, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. They were my private vocal teachers, and really inspired me to be the singer that I am today.
Pagnia and her music represent a wonderful fusion of cultures, the product of an ongoing synthesis between east and west. She sings in her family’s heart language, but she sings in her own heart’s style. She honors her connection to family, to the past, to her roots, all the while forging her own voice, embracing the now, and building new roots. It’s the combination of two cultures, two styles, coming together to make something new, the picture of someone embracing who she is and living it out fully.
I would imagine that the “sweet spot” for any artist is when they are able to do just that and have it resonate deeply with their listeners. There is something special, even holy I think, which occurs when someone’s creation speaks to someone else on a deep level. When it stirs them. When it changes the way they think, feel, or believe. Pagnia has forged this kind of connection between her music and her audience. She inspires her listeners, and this is not by chance.
I believe that when you’ve been through something – good or bad – that can help others, find a way to share it and teach it. Being a first-generation Hmong American female comes with a lot of challenges and expectations from elders and the community. In my latest album, “Plhis Suab,” I highlight some of the challenges I face because of my identity and it showcases my desire to inspire anyone who hears my music toward self-love and self-empowerment. I think we all have challenges, battles that we fight every day that most people don’t know about. So I hope that by sharing the good and the bad in my life, I’m able to help others heal and have hope at the same time.
So often, I don’t realize that there are young Hmong women around the world who listen to my music, follow me on social media, and are quietly observing who I am and what I’m doing. Especially after my second album with the song, “Txoj Phuam Txoom Suab,” a heartbreaking song about a Hmong female getting married and leaving her biological family, I don’t take what I mean to my listeners lightly. I do my best to share my most authentic self… I’m at point in my life where I’d rather be authentic to help someone than to be artificial and gain a ‘Like.’ So through my work, I genuinely hope the message of self-love and self-empowerment comes through and resonates with my listeners — that in this lifetime, they intentionally choose to be their truest and best selves. They deserve that. We deserve that.
I’ve only recently gotten to know Pagnia, and I still don’t know her well. But I’ve listened to her music and I’ve read her emails. I’ve seen what she posts on Facebook. And, I’ve been inspired by what I have experienced from her. My limited exposure to this dynamic person pales in comparison to how she impacts others, others who understand and can feel her lyrics at a heart level, who likely have experienced a similar family history, and who probably struggle with the same cultural synthesis Pagnia faces every day.
So, it’s a shame more non-Hmong-speaking folks don’t know who she is just yet. My sense is that Pagnia has much to offer the rest of us as well. We can all be challenged by her story, encouraged by her resilience, and inspired by her bold determination to live out who she truly is. And we can all embrace her message… that in the middle of unspeakable heartache, there is healing and hope.