Before I realized I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to become an astronaut. When I was younger, I went stargazing a lot. I would spend the night on my cousin’s trampoline staring up at the sky. I knew that one day I wanted to be where the stars were.
My music started out with a keyboard and guitar, writing songs about things a 14-year-old knows — love and hate relationships with family, silly boys, friendships I couldn’t keep up with, childhood trauma, and my self-image.
In 2003, I fell in love with pop and R&B music, listening to hits like Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again” and Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” on my CD player. Their personas and confidence excited me. Seeing how they were able to showcase their talents and touch millions of lives inspired me.
I started my own YouTube channel in 2010 after posting a cover of Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” on Facebook. I played songs that I wrote on my brother’s piano and used my laptop webcam to record.
In high school, I became depressed about things in my personal life. I skipped school so often that I missed an entire month. I began carrying a journal to write my thoughts down. I realized that magical things happen when I allow myself to be vulnerable. When I look back now, I see how important it was to be honest with myself at that time, because it shaped me into the artist I am today.
Committing to Music
I have always been an entrepreneur, but it took awhile for me to find my calling. I tried working in real estate, trading stocks, sales, and more. I could never put my heart into it. When I finally realized that music was what I truly wanted to do, I dropped everything, including my full-time job, to pursue it fully.
Eventually, I started booking shows, creating and selling merchandise, and making videos for extra income. I knew that if I focused, music could be a full-time career for me.
Being a Hmong American female artist, I knew that it would be harder, take longer, and require ten times the effort and confidence.
My writing process varies depending on my mood and resources. When I was in my teen years, I would write down lyrics and record the melodies that were in my head on whatever was available. I relied on my guitar, ukulele, or piano. Most of the time they were basic chords because I am a self-taught musician. Nowadays, I find beats through independent producers or online platforms. After I have found one I vibe with, I record the vocals from home and mix and master the track myself.
My Hmong Identity
Growing up, I was rebellious. My parents told me that I needed to do things the Hmong way. I understand that our Hmong people have been through hell in the past, and I get where my parents are coming from. But we are not in the past anymore.
There is a phrase a lot of Hmong people say, “Hmong don’t love Hmong and that is why Hmong people do not have their own country.” I hate that phrase. To me, it is naive. We cannot blame our own people. We were part of China until we were forced into the mountains of Southeast Asia. And even though we do not have our own country, who can claim the earth?
Our population is growing, yet some people think our community is too small to be anything more than what it is. I believe otherwise. I believe that Hmong people are as important as other cultures and ethnicities.
Hmong music in the early 2000s was up-to-date. Nowadays, I feel like our people are stuck in that time because of how we were raised. It is like we are scared to step up and be inspiring. My hope is that my music changes negative perspectives.
In 2019, I decided to change my sound and make the music that I really wanted to make — a decision that resulted in my first Hmonglish album, “So Good.” “Hmonglish” means combining the Hmong and English languages. I believe music should not be restricted to one language or sound. To me, Hmonglish is part of a revolution that keeps music evolving.
Our community only has a certain amount of artists, and growing up there was not a Hmong musician that I looked up to. That is why I decided to be that person for others. Most Hmong people appreciate my art, but there are some who think I sound too mainstream, commercialized, “tuned,” or Americanized.
Breaking into the mainstream is important to me. Hmongs need to be heard, just like everyone else. Anyone can be famous for a few days, but to inspire people’s lives with your passion is another level.
In the coming years, I see myself collaborating with artists I enjoy listening to. I see myself talking about my journey on talk shows and winning Grammys with my family by my side. I see myself writing music for other artists, having my own record label and clothing line, and buying my mom her dream house. I want to build a foundation to help families in need.
It is not a bad thing to always want more as long as you are grateful and looking outside the box.
Ka Lia Universe (she/her) is a recording artist from St. Paul. You can find her debut album, “So Good,” at kaliauniverse.bigcartel.com, iTunes, or on streaming services.