Music has been there for Satica Nhem since she was young; those days when her father played the bongos while singing a Khmer lullaby to his young daughter.
The 26-year-old singer-songwriter remembers strumming her first chords in an introductory guitar class in middle school and starting up music sessions with her friends. Today, she writes songs for K-pop singer Tiffany Young and has jumped on the mic for a song by LA-based producer Shawn Wasabi. Her Spotify page reaches more than 90,000 monthly listeners.
Pursuing a career in music was never in question for Satica, not for her. But once upon a time, it was out of the question for her family.
A child of Cambodian immigrants and Khmer Rouge survivors, Satica was conflicted between wanting to provide for her family and pursuing her passion with all its well-documented financial and personal inconsistencies.
When her parents escaped Pol Pot’s regime to come to the United States, they struggled with PTSD as well as learning a new language and culture. Her dad sewed clothes for five cents apiece, her mom worked in the doughnut business.
“I remember being a kid and I would worry about my parents stressing about money and of course that weighed on me,” she said.
To this day, the singer strives to achieve two goals: become a millionaire in the music industry and buy a house for her parents. But those dreams are often clouded with present financial concerns and a feeling of guilt for following a path of passion, knowing her parents had laid one out that followed a much more steady, stable life.
“When they came here, it was such an important thing for them to stress education,” she said. “They didn’t want me to actually pursue music.”
But music is what Satica, who began writing songs in high school, knows best. Her older brother Calijhon Mao remembers the early days of his sister’s career; the “raw and visceral feel” as she created unique cover songs with nothing but her voice and a guitar, recorded them and uploaded the results to YouTube.
“I think what people don’t see is that it wasn’t something that happened overnight,” Mao said. “There were times where she was doing cover songs at a coffee shop for five to 10 people.”
Satica’s singer profile is now filled with sensual R&B anthems to family-themed and identity-inspired music videos. Her latest music video, “Ode to Long Beach,” directed by Alex Oh, looks at the place that raised her.
Lifted from the singer’s EP “dear april, ily,” “Ode” showcases everything from the sunnyside beachfront along Ocean Boulevard to the small alley behind the apartment near MLK and 20th where she grew up, interspersing specks of nostalgic hotspots from her family-centered, Long Beach adolescence to her current, Los Angeles lifestyle.
“When I wrote that song, it was me kind of reminding myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. Sometimes you forget, you get lost [in] all the little stuff and all the daily stresses,” she said. “I’ve so much pride from where I come from and [for] the people that I surround myself with and the people that are rocks in my life.”
Bringing awareness to her community isn’t new for Satica. During her time at Cal State Long Beach, she co-founded Project Light, also known as Project Nur, with friend Michelle Nguyen. The club conducted outreach for people experiencing homelessness in Long Beach and showed a documentary about the Khmer Rouge to enlighten and familiarize students.
“I think that love and passion for her community really stuck with her,” Nguyen said. “‘Ode to Long Beach’ definitely represents that, and I’m so proud of her for that.”
Satica pays homage to her Cambodian community roots with clips of doughnut shops and Apsara dances dominating the near four-minute video. The singer even took her first steps of an Apsara walk, enlisting the help of Mea Lath and the Khmer Arts Academy.
“This is the only connection we really have to our home country, and we learn a lot of our history about Cambodia through the dancing,” Lath said. “When we put on our performance for the community, it does bring a sort of pride and nostalgia for the older community.”
Satica and Lath’s partnership came together naturally. Since her childhood, Satica always wanted to learn Apsara dance, but she couldn’t afford the lessons. Before the video shoot, Lath struggled with keeping students interested in the art form. She thought, “How can I make Cambodian culture more relevant and cool to this generation?”
Cue “Ode to Long Beach,” a happy accident that brought together one of the most revered, disciplined art forms, with contemporary R&B and the Khmer lullaby her father sang to her years ago.
“I didn’t plan to even write a song in Long Beach,” she said. “But it just kind of happened that way; it kind of painted itself.”
While Satica is proud of her culture and wishes to incorporate her roots wherever she sees fit, she says she wants her art to reach as many people as she can, maintaining a sense of identity beyond being Cambodian American.
“I think that’s something she retains in her music as well as not molding herself to what people want, but maintaining that sense of uniqueness, who she is as an artist,” Mao said. “She’s not an Asian American artist, she just wants to be an artist.”
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.