Refugee Rap

When we first stumbled onto rapper LerMuDex, we weren’t sure what we were looking at. His video had popped up as related to Thai rappers but it wasn’t clear what language he was spitting in. And the video looked like he might be in the US or England. Turns out he’s a Kway-Burmese rapper living in Denver, Colorado. But he was born in the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp in Thailand and didn’t move to the States until he was in fourth grade. He’s from the Karen ethno-linguistic group and his family fled to Thailand from Mynmar to escape war there. He raps in his native Kayan language mixed with English.

Dex has a bunch of tracks over 100k on YouTube, but his recent “Drill Girl” is the first to break a milli. It follows him in a skinny hooded sweat suit with a face mask in empty city streets and wide open fields. In one scene, he’s rocking a traditional woven tunic that matches his track suit. A mournful guitar loops over skittering hi hats paired with wistful, melodic lyrics. “That song is about a crush,” he admits with a shy smile. “It’s about love and heartbreak and stuff. I know she saw it but I didn’t tell her it was about her. Maybe I’ll tell her later.” He says he freestyled most of it and the “drill” in the tile was kind of just for style.

There are hundreds of thousands of Karen-Americans now, and his music started to catch on with them in the States. People in the Thai refugee camps are bumping it too. “There’s actually a bunch of people out there rapping,” Dex says. “They still live in the camps making music. It’s crazy.” He says that his camp along the Myanmar border was really large—the size of a neighborhood—but they weren’t allowed leave the camp. “We weren’t citizens of anywhere.” From the camps, his music filtered out into the rest of the country for those curious about new artists from Thailand.

When Dex first came to the States, he moved to South Dakota with his family and entered a public school. He studied English as a Second Language classes in a public school along with other Karen students. “There was a lot of us there, but we were definitely still a minority,” he says. From there, they moved to Denver, where he’s been ever since. He’s 19 now.

Considering the wide range of cultural pieces that make up his story, it can be hard to form a local fan base. But the internet is a gathering place to connect all those disparate dots in a meaningful way and reach the right people. He’s only performed live once, when he was invited to perform by a church group in Omaha, Nebraska alongside other Karen artists. “That was fun,” he says. “The crowd were happy to see us perform.”