For the first minute of “Dej Txias,” it’s nearly impossible to tell which language Ka Lia Universe is singing.
The shimmering production and the coy chorus suggest an unearthed Ariana Grande cut. But every time you think you’ve made out a snippet in English (is that “I need your touch” she’s singing on the bridge?), the lyrics slip fluidly into a Hmong phrase. If you’re used to the tonal pipes and harps of the traditional folk music you hear at Hmong events in Frogtown, the song is equally disorienting.
Universe is one of the leaders of Hmong music’s new school of crossover artists in Minnesota. “We call it Hmonglish; it’s kind of like K-Pop or Thai music,” she says. “Hmong entertainment... it’s not that they’re behind, but Asian people, they’re very strict. They’re very traditional, and you gotta break that barrier.”
St. Paul became a haven for Hmong refugees following the Vietnam War, and the city now hosts the largest Hmong population in the United States. This is where Universe grew up, the daughter of immigrants from Laos, her identity split across cultures.
While a sophomore at Harding High School, Universe started posting ukulele covers of American pop songs like Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” to Facebook and YouTube. Her friends encouraged her, and she even tried out for The Voice in 2006, where she got cut in the fourth round of untelevised auditions.