BCB Profilin & New Album: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

This edition of BCB Profilin’ spotlights Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: Spoken word heavyweight, 24/7 worldwide grinder, and one of the most genuine, gracious, and relatable people I have ever met.

photo: Kevin Kane

Kelly just dropped her 2nd spoken word album Further She Wrote, produced by Black Cracker. I’ve seen Kelly perform many times, and still I was blown away at first listen by the album’s 11 powerful tracks — starting at track one, “Real Women I Know”.

Kelly’s poetry interwoven with Black Cracker’s electro-hop music & beats lends added depth and atmosphere, and Kelly’s voice is — as always —  resonant, uninhibited, and deft in its range of expression. Listen and download a “name your price” copy on her site (details below – the best deal in town!) and treat yourself to this holiday gift.

Greetings, I am …

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, spoken word artist based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York by way of Chicago.

I’ve been known to bitch about…

Artists, inconsistency, and things that are put on top shelves beyond my physical reach.

My influences are…

Really varied. On a given day, I may be addicted to Prince, Me’Shell N’Degeocello, Kanye West, Sonia Sanchez, Fleetwood Mac, The Bangles, Aimee Mann, Baz Luhrmann movies, reading up on obscure moments in Asian Pacific Islander American history (i.e. the Chop Suey circuit, transcontinental railroad workers who actually built a house from ice in the Sierra Nevadas), John Leguizamo, Kat Williams, Octavia Butler, Thylias Moss, Spike Lee, Margaret Atwood, “Community,” “Top Chef All-Stars.” My mother is the middle daughter of a Shanghai politician who fled to Taipei. My father is the youngest son of a Tainan farmer. They came here to the U.S. in 1968 and 1969. I grew up as a teenager going to poetry slams in Chicago. I studied Urban Planning & Comparative Literature in college. I moved to Brooklyn about 6.5 years ago. I’ve done a lot of stuff with dancers/choreographers, multidisciplinary theater people, filmmakers, musicians.

photo: Katie Piper

On a Saturday night you can find me…

1) At a party in Brooklyn. 2) On the road/touring for a gig. 3) At home playing my guitar and trying to finish Anna Karenina.

On a Tuesday night you can find me…

1) At a party in Brooklyn. 2) On the road/touring for a gig. 3) At home playing my guitar and trying to finish Anna Karenina. (One of the perks of being a poet is that every night can be a weekend OR a weeknight.)

My usual drink/poison is…

Water, juice, or I tell people to surprise me. Red Stripe. Just had a Wells Banana Bread Beer in NYC, which is as delicious as it sounds, and a raspberry pepper martini (raspberri Absolut, grapefruit juice, club soda, a jalapeno, and fresh raspberry), when I was in Philly – which I am going to try to replicate at home. I decided to stop drinking alcohol for a year in 2009, which made people wonder if I was an alcoholic. But no, nothing quite so exciting/reckless, just took a year off from drinking, which made watching drunk people while sober very very illuminating.

If I was a superhero my name would be…
Worry Poet, The Diva. I tend to be very anxious for a poet, which I can’t figure out how I make the least stressful job in the world so damn stressful, but I’m about to transform that for 2011.

I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with…

Pastries. I’m one of these food porn people, not necessarily eating the food and definitely not cooking it. I just like to look at it. I like to stop and read menus on the street even if I’ll never go to the restaurant. I like to look at baked goods in their glass cases. Okay, it’s not that obsessive, but it is one of these things that I always do and seem to enjoy.

Favorite thing to do in New York…

I love chilling out in Union Square watching all the people walk by: the b-boys, the random musicians, the protesters, the kooky “free hugs” or “the world is going to end” people, the people waiting for each other for first dates, the skateboarders. The swirl of humanity that feels funky and free. It’s relaxing for me. Then I head over to Vanessa’s Dumplings on 14th Street for a veggie bun and a red bean bun.

Free Association time! First word I think of after “Asian America”:

Fractured. I feel really blessed to be able to travel the country and the world in general performing my poetry for folks, so I get to meet a lot of different people who I maybe wouldn’t have met otherwise. In some APIA communities, the biggest issue is gang violence. In other APIA communities, the biggest issue is being able to assert yourself from your parents and not being “white-washed.” In some APIA communities, the biggest issue is different APIA communities beefing with each other (not even to mention Black, White, Latino/a or Native communities). In yet other APIA communities, the biggest issue is access to education and health-care due to citizenship status and language barriers. In some APIA communities, the biggest issues are fighting for environmental justice and against gentrification in our ethnic neighborhoods. We got A LOT going on in our communities, and I think that geography, class, immigration history, language, and old political drama from back in the motherland keep a lot of us divided and in the dark about what is going on across the broader stretches of API America for everybody that’s not in our own community or clique.

photo: Katie Piper

My weapon of choice is…

The word. Seriously, my bf just asked me this week about when was the last time that I punched someone, and I don’t think I’ve ever punched someone, but I have cussed out people in the street more times than I can remember. I think it’s also extra-jarring for people, since I’m physically small plus of course, the low expectation that an Asian female won’t say anything back (booo!). People don’t expect it, so it’s usually enough for me to handle whatever I need handle at the moment. Of course, I use this weapon for good more often than for evil, and thank goodness for that, lol.

My secret life is…

As a mermaid surfer. I’ve been obsessed with surfing since I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s Hawai’i One Summer and went surfing in Hawai’i when I did my last gig there. Surfing is so peaceful, majestic, and dangerous all at the same time. It requires your entire body, mind, and spirit to focus, enjoy the wave, and be humble to it. You become this small but wonderful thing in nature as you ride. I’ve only been surfing 2 times, so I’m no expert or even aficionado by far, but I would love to do it more. Not too many chances to be out in mostly unpolluted waters in Brooklyn or the Midwest! I read somewhere that back in the day, sailors used to confuse manatees for mermaids, which I find hilarious and endears me to mermaids and manatees both. In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, she wrote a section where the lead protagonist just needs some time to cool out so she becomes a dolphin for 400 years. Sometimes, I feel like that, lol, like I might need to chill out as a dolphin for 400 years. But having said all of this, I can barely swim.

Be sure to check out my…

NEW SPOKEN WORD ALBUM “Further She Wrote”! You can listen/cop it at my Bandcamp website (http://kellytsai.bandcamp.com/album/further-she-wrote) and it’s “Name Your Own Price” for all of December 2010 and January 2011 (so essentially free!). Also, I will be on my never-ending tour this Spring, already got some dates hooked up in Manhattan, Memphis, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark and more are being booked right now. So if your spoken word venue, org, college/university would like to book a show on my 2011 tour, just hit up booking@yellowgurl.com. You can check out my URL, my Youtube vids, follow me on Twitter, or add me on Facebook.

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One thought on “BCB Profilin & New Album: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

  1. Pingback: Say You Heard My Echo: Kelly Tsai + YaliniDream + Adeeba Rana « BicoastalBitchin's Weblog

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