How Hip-Hop continues to save lives

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Tuy ‘Kay Kay’ Sobil. Jean-Francois Perigois

With Tiny Toones, Tuy ‘Kay Kay’ Sobil and his team provide education, albeit not in the most traditional sense, that is meant to help keep underprivileged and marginalised kids off the streets. But life for Kay Kay is not a bed of roses. He tells Anith Adilah Othman how he fights off stigma and discrimination almost on a daily basis.

In a glance, forty-one-year old Tuy “Kay Kay” Sobil may not quite fit into the conventional image of a big brother. He is first and foremost unapologetically himself – from the way words roll out of his mouth, the baggy outfits he dons on daily, to the many tattoos that sprawl across almost every inch of his body.

Kay Kay has had some troubled past which he tries hard to move forward from. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, his family emigrated to Long Beach, California in the US when he was just a baby.

In 2004, however, he was deported back to Cambodia after running into trouble with the law.

When he first arrived in Phnom Penh, Kay Kay was all alone. With no friends or family in sight, he sought solace in his lifelong passion – breakdancing. To his surprise, his little ‘hobby’ steadily drew the attention of the neighbourhood children.

One of Tiny Toones’ talented female students breakdances in front of her fellow students. Photo: Scott Rotzoll

And then it hit him. He should use hip-hop as a medium to engage with thousands of the local kids, most of which have never even stepped foot into a school.

With Tiny Toones, Kay Kay and his team provide education, albeit not in the most traditional sense, that is meant to help keep underprivileged and marginalised kids off of the streets.

The community school provides basic English, Khmer and computer lessons while upholding the fore cores of hip hop: breakdancing, rapping, DJ-ing and arts classes.

“I don’t believe in ‘I can’t do it’. Sometimes the kids would admire some of the older dancers, for instance, and they would say ‘I can never be as good as him or her’. No, I won’t accept that.

“My kids can be better than anyone if they try. Success takes years, it doesn’t just happen in one day,” he told Good Times2 in an interview at his office.

Tiny Toones gives kids a chance in life to have an education. Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

Today, Tiny Toones has reached over 15,000 kids, and educates more than 100 a day at its centre. Over 90 percent have gone on to meaningful employment, while thousands have successfully stayed away from drugs and crime.

Many of its alumni also became celebrated rappers, dancers and artists shaping Cambodia’s creative culture.

On November 16, Good Times2 managed to catch a number of the graduates in action at a dance and rap battle event called ‘Warm Up’. Held at a tiny dance studio on the second floor of the Cool Lounge, the event featured some of the best local talents.

Tens of local and foreign hip hop enthusiasts flocked the venue near Russian Market from as early as 6:30 pm to celebrate their mutual love for music and performing arts. The showdown began with a one-to-one rap battle, done in both Khmer and English, and quickly progressed to a dance battle that got the crowd roaring.

Despite his rugged exterior and effortlessly cool demeanor, Kay Kay proved to be a humble man. One conversation with the man, known to all generations of Tiny Tooners as just ‘bong’, is enough to make us question ourselves if we are doing enough for the larger community.

An English class in progress in Tiny Toones. Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

“I’m not that smart and educated but I know I can do something to help these kids. Other people with money can probably do better, but maybe they would only do it for the pictures.

“That is why I don’t like to talk so much. I just do what I do,” he said.

While he is a respected figure among the Tiny Tooners and local hip hop enthusiasts, Kay Kay admitted there were still times that he would get the cold shoulders and side-eyes from the locals, although it has been nearly 15 years since he is back in the Kingdom.

“It’s really hard. Sometimes people would just say nasty things about me, while sitting right next to me…just because I have these tattoos and I look like this, you know,” he said, subconsciously running his right hand down his left arm where faded inks sit.

“But I just tell myself to block it out, no need to dwell. I got my eyes fixed on my goals, what I am here to do and just give it my bestest shot.”

The Tiny Toones family of teachers, former students and supporters. Photo: Scott Rotzoll

Kay Kay, however, understands why it happens. “I don’t mind it anymore, I just laugh it off now,” he said, with a tiny smile in the corner of his mouth.

He paused for a good three seconds, slowly averted his gaze away and the faint smile wore off when he continued with: “But when this happens, my daughter would ask why are people always staring at me. I used to tell her it’s because I’m a superstar.

“Now that she is nine, and all grown up, she knows I’m not actually a superstar,” he said, chuckling.

“Maybe she’s embarrassed. She told me to grow my hair out like the other fathers, but I told her I like being bald, and I like tattoos. I may even get more when I’m older.

“I hope when she grows up she would understand that what I do in life is much more important than how I look like. I don’t want any of my kids to go around judging people the same way people judged me,” he added.

Kay Kay treats every one of the Tiny Toones children as his own. Which is why it is not surprising that he already has an interesting plan for this year’s Christmas.

“This Christmas, I plan to take a group of my best kids to the provinces and bring gifts to those less fortunate than they are,” he said referring to the ‘top performers’ in all classes.

“I want them to realise that although they think they have it bad, others may have it ten times worse. We should all count our blessings and lend a helping hand whenever we can.

“We are still trying to find the money to make it happen but it would be really great if it does. I am not worried so much about it. Somehow, one way or another we will pull through. We have always been blessed that way,” he said.

Before the interview ended, Kay Kay told Good Times2 what his nickname used to mean in the past and what it currently stands for.

“I used to be Krazy Kid, but I thought hey I’m not crazy and I’m definitely not a kid anymore. So now Kay-Kay stands for KitKat…have a break, chill, and share all the good things,” he said, laughingly.

 

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