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."
A preview video of Jasmine Tierra's "Niam," a song about her mother.
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.
Jasmine Tierra sings "Our Love Is Forever" at the 2013 Hmong International New Year celebration in Fresno, Calif.