Jasmine Tierra is a singer whose voice is crossing boundaries of language and culture. She's African-American and grew up singing gospel music — but that's not where she's making her mark now. She has become a YouTube sensation by singing in Hmong, the language of an Asian ethnic group rooted in certain regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Tierra has been singing and writing songs in Hmong for years, winning fans and sometimes besting native speakers at Hmong festivals around the country. She even performed at the First Annual Hmong Music Awards.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Tierra says the Hmong language is musical, all by itself. "It sounds like a melody," she says.
Tierra first learned about Hmong culture when her family moved to Minnesota. In 2006, she entered Arlington High School in St. Paul, which had a large Hmong population. Her hunger to sing in the language began after she befriended fellow student Panyia Kong. "She's a really excellent singer, as well. She's Hmong. And she gave me some of her albums — her Christian Hmong albums," says Tierra. "It started off with me just listening to the CDs ... and then she would start singing one of the songs, and I would join in with my broken Hmong."
Tierra's Hmong friends praised her performances, so she decided to test herself at Hmong singing competitions. "I got on stage in front of thousands of Hmong families. Everyone was really shocked at the first Hmong New Year event that I performed for. I even saw people cry tears of joy."
She went on to make a whole album of Hmong/English songs. Tierra says the title track, "One Step at a Time," was inspired by her grandmother. "All of my life growing up ... if she sees me trying to rush to a certain goal, she would just say, 'Hey, take it one step at a time,' " Tierra says. "In every aspect of your life, you really do need to take it one step at a time, whether you're trying to reach your goal, you're falling in love. You know you have to crawl before you walk."
When asked if she thinks there's something particularly intriguing about an African-American singing in Hmong, Tierra says yes; Hmong in Minnesota are accustomed to hearing white people, particularly Mormon ex-missionaries, speak their language.
But despite getting lots of support from the Hmong community, Tierra has also endured criticism from Hmong-Americans who believe her language skills are lacking. Tierra just sees that as an opportunity to break down racial walls. Plus, she loves singing — no matter what language it's in.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to introduce you to an up-and-coming singer who is using her voice to cross boundaries of language and culture. Jasmine Tierra is African-American. She grew up singing gospel music, but that's not where she's making her mark now. She has become a YouTube sensation by singing in Hmong. That's the language of an Asian ethnic group that traces its roots to regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Here's "Raise Your Head High" from Jasmine Tierra's debut album which is titled "One Step at a Time"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAISE YOUR HEAD HIGH")
JASMINE TIERRA: (Singing in foreign language) You never back down not once. You never gave up not once. You always kept your head held high. You kept it and walked towards the sky.
MARTIN: Jasmine Tierra, in fact, has been singing and writing songs in the Hmong language for years, winning fans and even competitions in Hmong music. She even performed at the First Annual Hmong Music Awards. And she is with us now to tell us more.
Jasmine Tierra, thank you so much for joining us.
TIERRA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: When you first heard the Hmong language can you describe it for me?
TIERRA: It sounds like a melody. When they speak they use different donations for each word.
MARTIN: And how did you first get interested in the culture? I understand that you had moved around a lot when you were growing up, but that you settled - your family settled in the St. Paul area?
TIERRA: I attended Arlington High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the population was 57 percent Hmong. I befriended a girl named Panyia Kong. And she's a really excellent singer, as well. She's Hmong. And she gave me some of her albums - her Christian Hmong albums. At first it started off with me just listening to the CDs, and then I would come back and then she would start singing one of the songs, and then I would join in with my broken Hmong.
TIERRA: And yeah, it just started off as just something fun to do.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea of actually try to master enough to sing at a Hmong music festival?
TIERRA: I've always had a lot of guts growing up. So my friends, my Hmong friends, they told me that, you know, they would let me know their opinions on how they thought I sounded when I sung Hmong songs. That's what took me to the competitions, was just hearing them say hey, yeah, you know, you're pretty good. And I just wanted to test my own self and I got on stage in front of thousands of Hmong families. Everyone was pretty shocked at the first Hmong New Year event that I performed for. I even saw people cry tears of joy.
MARTIN: Really? Wow. Well, let's hear a little bit more about what they were reacting to. On your - and I'm going to get to the album in a minute, because so you're performing and now you have a whole album of songs in Hmong or in Hmong and English. Are any of the songs on the album songs that you've sung in competition or these are all songs that you wrote?
TIERRA: All songs that I wrote. None were sung at the competition.
MARTIN: Oh, OK. So let's just pick the title track then, "One Step at a Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP AT A TIME)
TIERRA: (Singing) One step at a time. One step at a time. One step at a time. (Singing in foreign language) But if you keep the patience it'll pay off. (Singing in foreign language) But just wait and take it in. One step at a time. One step at a time.
MARTIN: What was the inspiration for this song? And why did you decide to make it the title track?
TIERRA: The inspiration was my grandmother. All of my life growing up, she would just say things to me, if she sees me trying to rush to a certain goal, she would just say, hey, you know, take it one step at a time. That's what I wrote this song off of because it's true, you know? In every aspect of your life, you really do need to take it one step at a time, whether you're trying to reach your goal, you're falling in love. You know you have to first crawl before you walk.
MARTIN: Speaking of crawl before you walk, you then decided to make a whole album out of songs in Hmong and English. How did that idea come about?
TIERRA: You know, at first I told myself I was only going to do one.
TIERRA: And I don't know how it turned out to be 12. But it started off with me just challenging myself. I, you know, this is something I never thought I would do, and why not just go ahead and take it all the way and see what happens.
MARTIN: Do you think there's something that people find particularly intriguing about the fact that you are African-American and singing in Hmong, as opposed to somebody else?
TIERRA: I believe so. I've even heard, because there are a lot of Caucasian Mormon Americans who speak Hmong in Minnesota. So and I've heard the elder Hmong speak and say that it's, you know, it's different to see an African-American speaking their language because they're used to seeing, you know, the Mormon American Caucasians speaking their language. But I mean I'm not the only African-American that speaks in Hmong there, but they find it more interesting.
MARTIN: Well, I was noticing that on the YouTube, on some of your YouTube videos - which are posted, both of your live performances and also videos attached to the, in support of the album - for the most part the comments are very positive which is what, she speaks Hmong better than I do, you know? And, or she speaks Hmong than a lot of our kids do. She is to be congratulated. And people literally saying I'm crying, I'm crying tears of joy now. Why do you think it evokes that, like tears? I'm just, I'm interested in that.
TIERRA: There is a little bit of controversy going on at the moment with them wanting their youth to speak in their language more. Because, you know, you come to America and you do tend to want to, you know, to blend and you do kind of lose roots just a little bit naturally. And I feel as if they're happy to see someone want to embrace it and help them keep it enforced. And I believe that's where most of the appreciation comes from.
MARTIN: Well, let's hear another song too, that there's another one about that whole question of mom and appreciating roots, for example, and it's called "My Mother."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MOTHER")
TIERRA: (Singing in foreign language) May God bless you. (Singing in foreign language) May God keep his hands upon our life. (Singing in foreign language).
MARTIN: I can see a lot of people crying at that song.
MARTIN: I mean I think that speaks to a lot of people's feelings about their mom, whether they're Hmong or not.
MARTIN: I do wonder though, does anybody ever give you the business and say, you know, who do you think you are singing this music, this is not yours?
TIERRA: I mean I expected that. You know, I'm doing something different, of course. Everyone is not going to be with me 100 percent. And I look at this as an opportunity to maybe break down some racial walls. And I just love singing no matter what language it's in.
MARTIN: Oh, you know what? There's one other thing. You know, speaking of roots, you do have - what would be an album today without rap on it? And your sister, you got another song which is called "I'm Not Naive," which actually features your sister Amber, rapping. I'll just throw that in there, just so people can hear that you're covering many bases here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT NAIVE")
TIERRA: (Singing in foreign language) My guards are always up, I'm not naive.
AMBER TIERRA: (Rapping) Come correct or get X'd. Dismissed. Who you thought I is? You been peeping me while I been peeping game. My intuition's telling me that you're a lame. That hey baby. What up Shorty. It don't faze me, I walk right by you. All my curves going to them get you in trouble.
MARTIN: Jasmine, who you think I is? Come on.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, if you could speak Hmong, could we not rap in Standard English? I'm just saying.
TIERRA: We had to make it relatable, you know...
TIERRA: ...when you say it in that way they know you mean business.
MARTIN: Oh. OK. Just thought I'd check. Do I have to check on your Hmong grammar too?
TIERRA: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll see if we can find a Hmong teacher to check your grammar. So, well, thank you for this and good luck to you.
TIERRA: Thank you.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
TIERRA: More music.
MARTIN: Well, that's great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. We'll play - what should we play to go out on?
TIERRA: The first song I recorded for this album, which is "Our Love Is Forever."
MARTIN: OK. Jasmine Tierra is a singer. She is a young African-American woman, premed student at the University of Houston and she sings in Hmong. Her debut album, which is in both Hmong and English, is titled "One Step at a Time." We're going to leave her on "Our Love Is Forever." She joined us from NPR member station KUHF in Houston, Texas.
Jasmine, thank you.
TIERRA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR LOVE IS FOREVER")
TIERRA: (Singing) I know that I and that I have your love. (Singing in foreign language) Love is forever.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Remember to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TELLMEMORENPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.