Interview With Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai (March 2006)

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is “pretty much always on the move.” The Chinese/Taiwanese American spoken word artist frequently travels between her two hometowns, New York and Chicago, remaining deeply connected to both communities, both of which fuel her art and activism. And she’s increasingly in demand nearly every place else these days, having featured at 135 performances across the country and on two seasons of “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Her first full-length play, “Murder the Machine,” will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip Hop Theater Festival in May 2006. Catch her online at

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is “pretty much always on the move.” The Chinese/Taiwanese American spoken word artist frequently travels between her two hometowns, New York and Chicago, remaining deeply connected to both communities, both of which fuel her art and activism. And she’s increasingly in demand nearly every place else these days, having featured at 135 performances across the country and on two seasons of “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Her first full-length play, “Murder the Machine,” will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip Hop Theater Festival in May 2006. Catch her online at

Have the last few months been particularly busy for you traveling/performing-wise? Or are you pretty much always on the move, at least between your two homes, Chicago and New York?

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: I’m pretty much always on the move. It’s been increasingly this way for the last few years. Sometimes, I joke with people that where I really live is “out of town,” but I feel truly blessed to be able to share my spoken word, music, movement, and energy with so many communities across the country and increasingly the world.

Speaking of your two hometowns, what does each place feed for you? What keeps you connected to both places? How do those connections feed your art?

KZYT: That’s a really good question. I kinda do these crude comparisons all of the time, and both places contribute so much to who I am as a person, as a woman, what I believe, what I love, and how I move in the world. It’s been really hard for me to detach from my community in Chicago, and I still feel very connected to that. After two years of living here in Brooklyn, I feel like I’m just starting to put some roots down. So to cross-fertilize myself across these two places is really important to me.

One of my friends says that he feels like Chicago is about hard work and talent, and I think that’s absolutely true. The people I know there write, make music, do spoken word for the simple and sheer love of it with a fierce fidelity to telling the truth and getting deeper on craft even if the world will never see that work. In New York, I feel like I am a part of this incredibly dynamic community that sees no boundaries for who, what, how, when or where a story is told. There are amazing artists here who work across a huge number of disciplines, and that kind of polymorphousness I truly appreciate. Based off my superficial theorizing, I feel like the organizing, dance, and underground music communities are really different between the two places too.

It’s kinda tough sometimes being stretched across these places, but as an immigrant kid, my heart stretches to as far as Taipei and beyond to every spot in the world where people that I love live. So it’s fairly natural to me to, I grew up always being very far away from people that I love.

From your own experience and from what you’ve seen in your community work, how is creating art a powerful liberating force, both on an individual level, and in society at large?

KZYT: To say, “I am” is a very important and critical statement to make to yourself and the world. Now, I know people can say bullshit and say that’s just the same goddamn crap people keep putting out, all of this identity politics, or liberal whatever. I can’t even begin to say how brainwashed we are into thinking that everything is the same, everything is cool, to assume as one of my friends says that silence means peace. Now, that’s the biggest load of bullshit ever. To silence who we are as people, to silence what are the effects and consequences of our actions whether it’s rape or street violence or war or white collar crime, makes it easy for each of us to be dehumanized just a little bit more. For people not to give a fuck. For us to get really disconnected from the fact of how much life we each possess and have the right to possess. And then comes tyranny, exploitation, dictatorship — whether it’s an abusive member of the household, cops who are terrorizing kids on the block, or the IMF starving out indigenous farmers. That’s what art is about. A BOLD and LOUD I AM. So we start to understand each other with and without judgment and don’t do all of this jacked up shit to each
other, and that for me, is what’s up.

Reading your poem, “By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime,” made me think how “bystanding” is almost an American pastime, considered almost a virtue in this country, the most sacred thing you can be is an “innocent bystander,” and most pitied if caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s also the notion of how we’re all supposed to stay out of the way of the accepted narrative of history. Is that mentality something you try to overcome/confront in/with your work?

KZYT: Ha! You got it. Sometimes, I wonder if these titles work on these poems at all, but yes, you’ve given me hope! Yeah, the evolution of that poem is a fairly simple one. Back in 2003, I had the opportunity to perform at the Chicago Not in Our Name Rally, where 4,000 convened to protest the War in Iraq. In my head, I was thinking, lemme write an anti-war poem for people who don’t give a fuck about politics. How would I be able to communicate just the simple statement – that there’s no reason for, there’s no purpose for war? For me, that meant that I go back into my life and just start to understand war. That for our generation, up ’til now, we’re supposed to have lived in times of “peace.”

So I started to pick through my experiences and really understand where war and therefore violence seeps into our lives in times of “peace,” the echoes of it, the shadows of it, its ghosts, its descendants. I think I maybe titled the poem, By-Standing…because that poem really demonstrates for me a critical break…the entire poem is about experiencing and not acting and for me by the end of it the accumulation of all of those experiences propels me to move forward — that we can’t wait around for another September 11th to happen to start
understanding how the U.S. is consistently involved in the lives and deaths of people around the world and has been for decades and decades. It’s not enough to let crisis dictate our desires and our urgency. To say that we’re not responsible because we don’t agree with this country, we don’t believe in this country or even if we do … is not enough.

I’m not saying it’s easy because it absolutely isn’t. And I have a lot of times that I would rather listen to Sean Paul or watch Project Runway than watch CNN, and I do. Sometimes that shit makes more sense to me. But on better days, I try to consistently remind myself of what is invisible and what is visible. What do we see the government doing and what do we not? What do we see ourselves doing and what do we not? And at least look for the opportunity to act. So that when it presents itself — we are hopefully ready.

Please tell us about Mango Tribe Productions, We Got Issues! and your work with those two projects. What have been the reactions to or results from the shows and workshops you’ve brought to different places around the country? What kinds of conversations have they started?

KZYT: Mango Tribe has been around since 2001, and I have been involved with We Got Issues! since 2003. Damn, feelin’ old, ha! Mango Tribe is an Asian Pacific Islander American spoken word and multidisciplinary theater company based in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. We Got Issues! is a New York-based arts and civic transformation leadership project that is the brain-child of hip hop activists Rha Goddess and J. Love. Both groups are incredibly powerful sista circles, and I am incredibly blessed to be a part of both of them. Although different in style, content, and the mix of the groups, both groups I think have received really great support and reception from communities around the country.

A lot the work we do through Mango Tribe focuses on APIA culture, immigration, globalization, war, migration, and sexual violence. Mangoes are really committed to not only upping our game in terms of art, but also really trying to initiate dialogue about ideas about gender and how violence and sexual predation plays itself out in our communities. We try to step what we speak, so the art is activism, but there is also straight-up activism involved. We Got Issues! focuses on young women’s engagement in civics and politics, so it opens up conversations about why are women either connected to or not connected at all to our political system. Through this project, we call into question, what is up with our government and electoral politics and how can we as young women heal, motivate, inspire, structure, and act upon creating a presence in this country where our voices, lives, and experiences are represented.

You also have a theater production company called Moving
Earth Productions
. Please tell us about how that came together and about your debut production, “Murder the Machine,” which will be excerpted at Chicago’s first Hip-Hop Theater Festival this spring.

KZYT: “Have” is not so much the operative word, as is “beginning,” ha! The excerpt at the Hip Hop Theater Festival will be a 20 minute staged reading of a piece that I’ve been actively drafting for the last year and dreaming on for the last three years. Moving Earth will house the projects beyond spoken word that I’m developing as a multidisciplinary performer and playwright. What sets this project apart is that its focus is to create performance for new audiences of color about issues that are relevant to young people between the ages of 18-30. So it’s still really in its birthing stages, which is very exciting and scary, but like every project it will gain definition with each time out. What I can say is that Moving Earth will incorporate my love of music, poetry, performance, movement, and ensemble work with my love of using theater and performance as a tool for social justice (i.e. Theater of the Oppressed/Forum Theater) and a redux of how performance is produced, where, and for whom. And the rest, well, only the future can tell, ha!

What have you learned about yourself/the world while on tour and performing in new places?

KZYT: “We all live in the same house” is one of my favorite things to say these days. So I guess that means, we gotta love each other and work it out whether we are activists, corporate heads, mothers, teenagers, murderers, skinheads. We all gotta work it out. We don’t all have to get along, but we gotta work it out. The other thing is that, damn, sometimes, I go places and I talk with folks, and I realize, “Well, hell, I just didn’t know shit about that at all.” All of our experiences are so limited, and to have a glimpse into someone else’s life and experience is one of the best things we can give to ourselves and to the world, and that learning needs to happen — endlessly!

What is your favorite/least favorite thing about touring?

KZYT: One of my favorite things about touring is all the dope people that I get to meet. It means so much that people are creating spaces for creativity and community all over the country, and to be welcomed into other people’s houses with the enthusiasm, joy, faith, and belief in my work is one of the dopest feelings in the world.

Least favorite things — If I’m not careful, sometimes I get a little over-fatigued and scrambled, and I don’t know where I am anymore. For real. Sleep is very important.

What is the best/worst/weirdest place you’ve ever performed?

KZYT: I still remember a couple years back when this dude introduced Mango Tribe with our normal bio and that “they’re really hot.” After which, we stormed on the stage on performed this fierce set about sexual violence. The irony of that moment still cracks my shit up.

What are you working on now?

KZYT: In addition to everything with Mango Tribe, We Got Issues!, and Moving Earth, I’m working on a chapbook of love poems right now, and later on this year, I will be working on a solo-ish show that will integrate a lot of music and movement called the “The Grieving Room.” In between, I’ve got umpteen projects I’m working on, but always getting deeper on spoken word — and now I’m finding myself with more dance and choreographic projects, fiction, and non-fiction projects as well. So I’m working on telling myself that everything doesn’t have to happen right now, ha!

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from the road?

KZYT: Throw my bag down in my room and lay down on my bed!

What are three things you can’t go on tour without?

KZYT: Cell phone, Bubble bath, Journal


Author: schenelle

Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Jersey City, NJ. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series. Doctoral student in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University.

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