Lhasa Ballers: A Conversation with Tenzin Wangchuk, Founder of New Clothing Line, Union of Prophets
Tenzin Wangchuk, A.K.A. Exiled Prophet, is a New York based Tibetan rapper and creative force behind the newly released clothing line, Union of Prophets. I sat down with Wangchuk recently to discuss his transition from rapper to designer. We met for dinner in Jackson Heights, at one of my favorite restaurants, Little Tibet, and discussed everything from the origins of American Hip Hop and it’s universal themes, his aspirations as a designer and activist, to addressing his concerns about the appropriation of Hip Hop and Black culture.
Kunsang Kelden (KK): So what made you decide to start designing a clothing line after rapping and producing music videos with other Tibetan artists?
Exiled Prophet (EP): My work as an activist, my music and the current political situation in Tibet all played into this new role as a designer. There is no separation for me. Each part goes hand in hand with designs that are intended to make Tibetans feel powerful, special, creative, and playful. Like they are a part of one group or one Union, a Union of Prophets. In Tibet, the Chinese government does everything in their power to erase the Tibetan identity and impose harsh consequences for Tibetans who actively resist. We at UOP want to be a creative resistance.
KK: Where did you get the inspiration for the first round of t-shirts?
EP: My first designs are the imagined sports teams we would have in a Free Tibet. I wanted to create a brand we could all be proud of, something that inspired a sense of pride and honor. I’ve worked as a graphic designer, web designer and analyst, testing and perfecting my pieces for a few years now with the advice and counsel of good friends.
KK: Did you have a particular audience in mind for this brand?
EP: I wanted to appeal to anyone from a young Tibetan kid in high school to an older Tibetan professional. Also, to kusho las (monks), Tibet supporters and to anyone who just appreciates beautiful design with a deeper meaning behind it.
KK: What kind of feedback have you received so far?
EP: I’m really happy to say that my shirts sold out completely at the first two venues I tabled at. I’ve been going to Tibetan events in the Tri-State area and while people seem to be largely drawn to the Lhasa Ballers shirts, there are definitely some Yarlung Yetis’ fans in there too! They like being able to imagine that we have a team, which I think is so important.
KK: What drew you to hip hop as a medium for your message and for inspiration as a designer?
EP: Hip Hop is highly political in nature. I was first drawn to American hip hop which was influenced by the Nation of Islam, The Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, and so many others but these guys were revolutionizing political philosophy and identity and agency. American hip hop was influenced by funk, rock, soul, jazz, gospel, roasts, nursery rhymes and even disco. It was like an underground culture in New York City that rose up to influence the world and allow people to share a message about their reality or teach a different reality to someone who had no prior knowledge.
God is smiling on you, but he’s frowning too. Because only God knows what you’ll go through. You’ll grow in the ghetto living second-rate. And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate. The places you play and where you stay looks like one great big alleyway. You’ll admire all the number-book takers. Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers.
This song describes a reality that those artists lived and observed and I was influenced by this method of observation, of expression and teaching. I was born and raised in Nepal, but moved to NYC when I was eleven so I also grew up in Queens, NY, in a low income urban area with deep gang territories. Rap and hip hop were very much apart of my upbringing and education. They provided a history of oppression and resistance I identified with; one that I was not going to learn about in school. It gave me an explanation for why crews and gangs exist in the first place, as a sense of community, a form of protection against the type of people who will do everything in their power to tear you down. This resonated in my life deeply because, for Tibetans, the Chushi Gangdruk were a gang. They physically protected our spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama and provided safe passage during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Without the Chushi Gangdruk, His Holiness would have been captured and possibly even killed by the Chinese. Imagine that. That would have not only changed the lives of Tibetans everywhere, but all the lives of thousands if not millions of people around the world who have been influenced by His Holiness.
KK: Can you tell us about the foundations of American Hip Hop?
EP: DJ Kool Herc threw the first Hip Hop party on August 11, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York. The founders of Hip Hop sought to overcome the limitations set by oppressive institutions and created a feeling of peace, love, unity, knowledge and empowerment. Their lyrics told stories of deep pride and identity; of overcoming barriers by joining together with a common purpose and respect. I think this is something Tibetans really relate to.
KK: Who do you most admire in the Hip Hop movement?
EP: Crazy Legs is an inspiration to me. He is one of the founding members of the Rock Steady Crew, he toured with Afrika Bambaataa, was in Flashdance and Beat Street. You know who he is. He’s the one who invented the windmill move. He’s a legend and has been there since the beginning. He was able to create a legacy as a dancer and as a community organizer involved in outreach programs, food drives and workshops that teach young people about dance and the foundations of Hip Hop. I saw him at a dance competition recently and he joked that he hasn’t made a lot of big purchases, that he rocks a Prius because he wanted to focus on paying for his daughter’s education. I really respect that about him and how he is so focused on empowering his community. And then Doze Green, front and center, is an inspiration and his art continues to blow my mind each day. His tribe is still ever present in all his pieces, consistent and challenging systems, living on a self-made farm and dropping art like Siddhartha, I mean, these guys are the real deal.
KK: It seems like there are many intersections in your work with music, design and social activism. Why is it so important for you to draw these connections together for your brand and in your daily life?
EP: When I was in high school I started volunteering with Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) which uses nonviolent strategy and grassroots organizing to campaign for Tibetans’ right to self determination and fundamental rights. It changed my life, providing me with the tools I needed to talk and teach about Tibet. I was involved in campaigns and lobbying efforts, political performances, media trainings, protests, and fundraising. This really helped me develop as a leader and had a great impact on me as a young Tibetan in exile.
KK: Who are some of the Tibetan rappers that you admire?
EP: Shapaley, first and foremost, really set the bar high by putting Tibetan rappers on the map. He changed the Tibetan music game with songs like Shapaley, Tsampa and Made in Tibet. His use of Tibetan food and language to send a message and reaffirm his identity is deep. Although he is half-Tibetan, his Tibetan is impeccable and he raps in Tibetan unlike any other artist I have seen. He has a great personality that really shows through his music. I had an opportunity to work with him on a few projects as a videographer such as the Tsampa music video.
I also really admire Yudrug (Green Dragon) for their incredible use of words and imagery and the risks they have taken as artists living under communist Chinese rule in Tibet. They are a group based in Machu in Amdo province in Eastern Tibet. They came out with a song in 2010 called New Generation which is all about a new generation of Tibetans who are resourceful, playful and have a temptation called freedom.
In the song they say:
Get used to me!
I am the decadent breath of your uncontrollability
Get used to me!
I am under your limitless uncontrollable watch
Get used to me!
I am the manifestation of today and the substance of tomorrow
I am very light, in your imagination
I am very small, in your vegetable patch
Does your advanced theory wish to blow up my head?
Does your forced bullet wish to shoot through my heart?
I am just an old and damaged vehicle
The horse of time departed early morning
The small flame under your saddle
The blood and bodies frozen in the ice are bound to fade
We are the sharp wisdom that your speeches and lectures haven’t reached
We are the smooth darkness that your flame and power hasn’t absorbed
We are the response with playfulness that makes your heart ache
We are the infection and fright to your livelihood!
Source: High Peaks Pure Earth
KK: Lately, there has been a growing discussion about the appropriation of black culture and commercialization of Hip Hop culture in general, what would you say to people who might have reservations about your involvement in Rap and Hip Hop culture as a Tibetan, or as an Asian American man?
EP: I would say in American media, Asian men are not given the opportunity to be seen as complex people. Asian men are cast as emasculated, non-sexual, nerdy guys and this affects the way we are perceived in everyday life. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Tibetan men in particular are mainly portrayed as monks or religious figures. Having visibility of Tibetan male rappers allows for that narrative to have more depth, with complexities to be explored. We deserve to tell our stories just like any other group of people. In our common narrative as Tibetans, we have so much to share as storytellers, as refugees, as immigrants, and as freedom fighters whose culture is rooted in Buddhism.
As a non-black person of color who uses Hip Hop as a form of self-expression, I want to be self-aware whether as an artist or a designer because I am or my work is being observed and maybe even emulated. I do not want to disrespect the creators of an art form by repackaging it. I want to pay homage to them and be responsible as I speak to my own experiences and try to add voice to our commonalities. I don’t want to tell anyone else’s story but my own. I’ve been influenced by Queens, Nepal and Tibet and the experiences that I’ve had are a variation of some of the experiences other oppressed people have had. That is something I am very conscious of and one of the reasons I admire Crazy Legs so much is because I think he was able to accomplish that as a non-black artist of color. He was able to be respectful and contribute to the Hip Hop community since its inception and help his own people at the same time.
KK: What kind of projects are you working on now? Do you have any new music coming out?
EP: I’ve been working on a song about Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. As you know he was a reincarnated lama who suffered for more than 13 years in prison on false charges only to die at the hands of the Chinese government. He was an innocent man who did nothing more than care about Tibet and built orphanages, Tibetan language schools, nunneries and nursing homes for the elderly. He was a mediator in the community in times of conflict between families. As his influence and respect grew, he became a target of the Chinese government for decades. The circumstances around his death were extremely suspicious and his family was denied the right to his body or ashes which was cremated immediately. Hip Hop has helped me to tell his story in a way that a younger and more diverse audience understands.
KK: What do you see for the future of Union of Prophets?
EP: In the future you can expect pieces that speak to young Tibetans that also reflect the influence of the Hip Hop movement. My vision is to inspire leadership and creativity. I want to help young Tibetans connect with their identity and for them to be proud to call themselves Tibetan. I want to make them feel cool and confident. I have so many ideas that I’m working on right now, so please keep an eye on my website unionofprophets.com to catch all future releases.