Yellow Rage spreads activism through poetry

Michelle Myers (left) and Catzie Vilayphonh (right) have been performing as Yellow Rage for more than 11 years. Photo courtesy of yellowrage.com.

By Marlena Chertock

Published first in The Public Asian.

Poetry has always been a form of activism for Yellow Rage, a two-person Asian Pacific American spoken word poetry group.“It’s been about education and raising awareness,” said Yellow Rage member Michelle Myers. “It’s about trying to initiate some sort of positive change in the world.”

Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh, who are currently on a college tour, have been writing and performing poems since 2000 when the two met at a workshop set up by Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), a community based arts organization. The topics they’ve covered range from APA women stereotypes, heritage and search for home to human trafficking, sexual slavery and other issues facing the APA community.

The duo, which started in Philadelphia, has one main goal in mind – to humanize these issues and motivate people to want to do something.

“Whatever [‘do something’] might mean for them, whether it’s to educate themselves more, or to volunteer, or to donate money,” she said. “As an artist, you can only go up on stage and present whatever your poem is and you give it to the audience but you never really know what they’re doing with the experience.”

For Myers, the responsibility to take action is just as much theirs as it is the audiences’, which is why she and Vilayphonh perform at schools and volunteer with youth in Philadelphia. “Instead of me going on stage and telling the audience, ‘you should be doing this,’ I’ve been looking more toward what am I doing off-stage, am I being a role model?” she said. “But it’s all connected; it all comes back to the poetry.”

Elaine Wang, the vice president of programming for the Asian American Student Union at this university, said the group had wanted to bring Yellow Rage for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts.

“Yellow Rage is made up of two Asian American women who are in a generation not too far from ours,” she said. “They’ve seen changes in the APA community and perform spoken word on their experiences. I thought the student body would be interested in hearing about it.”

Poetry is the most condensed form of written or spoken expression, she added.

“It packs a lot of punch in just a few words, making it both an efficient and very artistic form of communication,” she said. “Sharing this poetry can help shed light on an issue previously unseen or not understood by an audience. And a writer can think about topics in a new perspective during the writing process.”

When Yellow Rage first came into the spoken word poetry scene, the pair stood out in the first season of Def Poetry Jam, a television series showcasing established and new spoken word poets. A quick glance around the room revealed them as the only APAs both on stage and among the audience. It was largely African American audiences and poets, Vilayphonh remembered.

“Here we were going out into the world, presenting ourselves for the very first time as Yellow Rage,” she said. “I was scared because we had this really angry poem we had written in an Asian American workshop.”

Despite their nervousness, the duo performed “I’m a Woman, Not a Flava,” a poem about the experience of APA women, written by Myers, with contributions from Vilayphonh and AAI member, Sapna Shah.“It’s important to illustrate to Asian Americans that we have a voice,” Vilayphonh said. “Sometimes you really need to remind them this is a free country and we have free speech. What’s always been demonstrated is that good Asians don’t rock the boat, they’re not loud and they’re not sassy. And our parents haven’t disowned us. We’re actually thriving in what we do.”

Ten years later, Vilayphonh sometimes wonders why their poems are still relevant now, but she knows it is because these issues still exist. “It makes me a little sad knowing not much has changed,” she said.

Although the number of spoken word artists who are actively performing is dwindling, Yellow Rage said it is important for them to continue performing. “I feel this group is meant to be,” Vilayphonh said. “We love doing spoken word poetry, so why would we stop it.”

Aside from their performance tours, the duo has also taken up on side projects that use different forms of media to educate others.

In February 2011, Myers came out with her poetry book, “The She Book,” to teach readers about human trafficking and sexual slavery.

Currently, she is working to expand Write the World, a project Myers started with another poet to provide creative environments for artistic expression for underserved children in at-risk communities around the world. “We plan to expand Write the World to work with Hmong American youth in St. Paul, Minn.”

As for Vilayphonh, she plans to do oral tradition and film projects with Lao youth in South Philadelphia.

It’s important to do what you love, Myers said. “I just hope people find something in their lives that’s meaningful to them and that they’re passionate about, because it’s the only thing that makes life purposeful.”

Vilayphonh added that people should do what they enjoy regardless of how much money is involved or how tired it makes them.“There’s always writer’s block or I don’t feel like doing a show, I just want to stay home with my baby, but when I’m on stage it’s the happiest time,” she said. “I’m sharing what I’ve created and people appreciate it.”

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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