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St. Paul singer, songwriter brings fresh new sounds to Hmong Pop

Ka Lia Universe has been singing for a long time, but not the way she is doing now.

MINNEAPOLIS — According to most recent information from Minnesota's state demographer, there are nearly 65,000 people who speak Hmong in Minnesota. So when was the last time you heard a Hmong banger on the radio?

Ka Lia Universe decided she wanted to change that. Just when you thought the music industry had run out of tricks, Ka Lia Yang, who goes by Ka Lia Universe, came floating in like a breath of fresh air.

"I like to sing about anything," Universe said. "I think I sing most about love songs because I feel like everybody loves love songs. It comes naturally to me."

The vibes Universe gives off are sweet funny and happy-go-lucky. That's exactly the kind of mood her most famous song Dej Txias captures.

Universe broke ground with Dej Txias. It's exclusively written in Hmong. 

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"Dej Txias, which means cold water, it's like a pop EDM Hmong song," Universe said. "Hmong people haven't done that yet and it's almost at one million views. I'm hoping it will reach there by the end of this month."

Universe has been singing for a long time, but not the way she is now--at least not in the beginning.

"I felt like I connected more with Alicia Keys, she played the piano, was a song writer, she was a strong woman," Universe said. "I loved that piece. I felt like I kept connecting to more modern music so I never wanted to sing in Hmong because I felt like I didn't grow up listening to Hmong music. I didn't grow up surrounding myself with the Hmong scene even though I am Hmong. This is just the way I grew up."

I asked her why she thought it took so long for someone like her to show up in Minnesota.

"I think people were just afraid," she responded. "Again with the Asian culture in general being traditional and strict, and the Hmong community-- we're getting big, but we're not huge." 

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That's when Universe decided she was done being afraid of change. She said she was also slowly learning to blossom from the pain and negativity she faced when she was younger.

"My family was always fighting," Universe said, fighting back tears. "I have two brothers who are drug-addicted, it was hard for me. I was the youngest, so growing up, I was lost. I wasn't sure how to be me. I didn't know how to process my thoughts. I was so young." 

She said she decided to make music so she could focus on something else. 

"It was a way for me to forget about all that and look for something better," she added.

From the ashes of hurt, rose ambition and songs of love that don't need a translator.

"Music I feel like is universal," she said. "Just because this song says this, doesn't mean that means that to you. Maybe you have your own story for that song."

Universe said she mostly sings love songs, but that's her invitation for you to interpret those the way you want to. For her, that includes romantic love, but also love towards herself.

"It's almost liek you're letting it go and you're just accepting it," Universe said. "And finally like--this is me. If you don't like that, if you're going to say whatever--well, I'm here now. I am alive, so I am happy."

Ka Lia Universe's new song Qhob Noom drops today. Qhob Noom translates to candy, and the song is about a boy and a girl being sweet to each other.

Credit: KARE

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