Book Explores Youth Identity and Connection to Arts and Culture

Din Darathtey has penned a book that explores the impact of Cambodia’s arts and culture scene on young Cambodians and how the role of music shapes cultural identities
Din Darathtey
Din Darathtey

Cultural enthusiast Din Darathtey has turned her inner questions about Cambodian culture and arts into a book that dives deep into the Kingdom’s creative industry and its socio-economic impacts.

Darathtey is a communication specialist and researcher who is mostly interested in Cambodian identity and cultural legacy. She also publishes the fortnightly newsletter Campuccino, covering diverse aspects of Cambodian politics, economics, arts, and culture.

Now, she has released a book, ‘Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia Questioning Tradition’ to expand her research into Cambodia’s field of arts and culture after finding her inner calling to explore how the creative arts revolutionizes throughout generations and its impact on youth, society, and the economy.

A book, ‘Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia Questioning Tradition’
A book, ‘Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia Questioning Tradition’

In 2015, Darathtey worked for Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) as a communications officer, which was her first entrance into arts. While she was working at the local arts organization, she was able to learn more about Khmer traditional art through attending art events, interacting with Cambodian artists, and reading about art-related topics.

“Technically, I never think of myself as a masterpiece of art explicitly. It's just something I learn and get exposed to, and I appreciate it. I have also experienced living abroad and traveling, so I get to see arts outside as well,” she said.

As a media and communications graduate, Darathtey pursued her Master’s degree in Global Media and Communication in the UK after winning a Chevening scholarship from the British Embassy in Cambodia.

At the end of her studies, the university required her to submit a final thesis. Darathtey's original proposal was related to social media and political participation. However, when her supervisor asked her what is the inner question she has always sought to find the answer to, she changed direction.

Darathtey started to self-question and reflect on her choice of topics and realized her frustration whenever she hears about the Khmer Rouge. Questioning why she felt this way, she proposed writing her thesis on how the Khmer Rouge affects the identities of young people.

“We grew up and we didn’t experience [the Khmer Rouge] but we hear about it all the time and it affects us. Personally, I find it frustrating,” she added.

“Because culture is such a big field, to talk about identity is relevant to that. So, I decided to write about art, but I find art falls under culture and I have been researching both since there has to be a lot to do with culture.”

In 2021, the editor at her workplace recommended that Darathtey submit a proposal to write a book. Her proposal was geared towards the creative industry and cultural products, focusing on elements that skirt between the modern and traditional as she believes there is a lack of people writing about the topic.

Caffeine, Culture and Cambodianess

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As this was her first time writing a book related to art, she was unable to pinpoint the exact issues to tackle until she had conducted interviews with the focus group she wanted to conduct her research with. These were urban educated youth, aged between 18 and 24.

“Essentially, I wanted to understand their behaviors about consuming local arts and cultural products. After the interview with them, I found out that they don’t really consume a lot of cultural products,” she said.

Darathtey added that she discovered that Cambodian youth have less interest in traditional painting, performances, music and other cultural artforms as they find they are not able to relate to it in the modern world.

“A lot of the time, the traditional art form is not really relevant to them, and I agree with that. We hear a lot about preserving art and culture. But how many times can you go and watch shadow puppets without getting bored?” she said.

So, Darathtey decided to write a section about Cambodia's creative economy and how it is affected by local consumption, especially by youths. Despite the youth claiming during the interviews that they do not really buy or use cultural products, they do listen to music most of the time.


Darathtey explored the evolution of the music industry, focusing on original Khmer songs through to the emergence of traditional Khmer instruments blended with modern instruments together and original lyrics written by Cambodian music artists.

She noted that this has transformed Cambodia’s music industry to a new level, which captivates the attention of local listeners, especially youths.

“In the past couple of years, there has been a rise in original music. Before we didn’t listen to Preap Sovath… Other youths have shared similar things, that they don’t listen to those songs. The main thing is that we copy from others.”

She found Cambodian music is divided into two categories: copied songs and original songs. “In history, we have copied a lot of music and then we just changed the lyrics, especially in the late-1990s,” she added.

Darathtey also discovered that young people dislike listening to copied songs, lose interest and are less admired when there is no special creative art in music.

Din Darathtey
Din Darathtey

“You are not going to listen to that song because there is nothing new about it. Why would we listen to a Cambodian copy of a Thai song or a Cambodian version of a Vietnamese song or Chinese song?” she said.

A few respondents said that while they do not listen to Khmer songs, they listen to Khmer hip hop sensation, VannDa. She then found it fascinating to shift her research to dive deep into music and hip hop.

In early 2021, VannDa released the smash hit song, ‘Time to Rise’, featuring Master Kong Nay. The song shot to fame, piquing the interest of both local and international audiences due to its mix of traditional Khmer musical instruments, including the Khmer xylophone, two-stringed guitar and flute, and modern musical instruments, such as the electric guitar.

Darathtey finds out that nowadays hip hop music styles are trending in Cambodia, and other songwriters and singers are starting to include rap in their songs.

“Since ‘Time to Rise’, there are a lot of hip hop songs that have become really big in Cambodia. Now, we can see there are a lot of artists who try to include a bit of rap in their songs, including Meas Soksophea,” Darathtey said.

Hip hop is a genre of music most often characterized by a strong, rhythmic beat and a rapping vocal track. It originated in New York City in the early-1970s by African-Americans. Cambodia also started to be influenced by hip hop and international music in the late-1990s and early-2000s.

“A lot of research about Cambodia, more often than not, is by non-Cambodians and foreign researchers because they really have the resources, knowledge and privilege to write. With the certain quality of education, we are not able to do such things; to research or have the time and resources to do this kind of research,” she said.

The music section inside Darathtey’s book highlights the hip hop revolution in Cambodian society and how youths view it in terms of culture and arts.

“I would love to sit down and have a chat with him [VannDa], but unfortunately that didn’t happen. So all of the things that are related to him, I had to rely on his interviews with other media outlets and watch it and get the message from them. I didn’t really get a chance to chat with him. I tried, but it didn’t happen,” the author said.

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Insights during interviewing

Darathtey spent about 2.5 years researching and writing ‘Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia Questioning Tradition’. During the research phase, she conducted two focus groups discussions, each consisting of five to six people, and face-to-face interviews with two female artists.

While conducting interviews with architecture and design students, Darathtey also discovered that often youths are restriected by old traditional teaching styles that suppress their creativity.

“They can not create what they want to, they are always constrained by what is Cambodia? For example, Khmer people will not do this. Architecture students cannot draw anything. So, their creativity has been limited by that kind of teaching and they’re very frustrated about it,” she said when describing other students' perspective regarding their creativity in learning.

She added, “When asking them to reflect on art and cultural products, they [youths] said they don’t listen to it because it is not creative enough.”

Another insight Darathtey discovered after interviewing Khmer female artists is that gender stereotypes are a barrier for self-creative expression for them and protection of their artworks is still a concerning thing.

“If you are a female artist, sometimes you try to do or convey something and you get criticized or accused of being sexy. There is a gender angle that I didn’t look at, but as an artist, you struggle with the challenge of how creative you can be,” she said.

Darathtey also raised the issue of plagiarism with regard to copying other artists’ materials. “They copy and plagiarize your work without recognizing you. Take your work, post it and then claim it as their own work. If you wrote something and then they just copy and pasted your work and then say, they did it. What are you going to do about it?” she added.

She believes that arts education should be actively included in Cambodia's school curriculum as it impacts how people understand art. “We don’t have a strong enough mechanism to protect this kind of thing if people don’t understand intellectual property because I think our education doesn't involve a lot of arts. The audience has a very limited understanding of art as well.”

Topics covered in the book

‘Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia Questioning Tradition’ covers five main aspects. These are an introduction to Cambodia’s arts and culture; the ecosystem of Cambodia’s arts and culture; young Cambodians, cultural identities, and generational differences; music and its reinterpretation in current discourse; connecting the dots; and a juncture of identity, youth, culture, tradition, and modernity.

This book explores young Cambodians’ perceptions of their place in today’s society and how they interact with the country’s arts and culture scene. The popularity of Cambodian hip hop among youth also presented Darathtey with an opportunity to delve deeper into the roles of popular music in society and how these roles, in turn, shape Cambodian cultural identities, according to the book description.

Darathtey found the ‘music’ part the most fascinating chapter to research for her first book. “I never planned to write about music. It was really intimidating,” she said.

In fact, she changed many angles of her book. But after conducting research in both text and listening to the songs to observe and analyze the meaning, Darathtey found her passion writing about the music industry.

“I usually spend a lot of time listening to songs again and again and again to analyze the lyrics and try to see what they mean,” she said. “It [music] is very new to me. I came from not knowing anything to writing about it. I was a bit scared at the same time, but I was curious when it [book] came out. I’m very curious to see what the industry has to say.”

Darathtey added that she would like to see young people and artists, especially in the music industry, read her book. “I’m curious for them to read it and tell me what they think about it,” she mentioned.

She would also like to request art consumers to be open-minded and view her book from different angles as both consumers and artists struggle at the same time.

“Being restrained from being creative but then criticizing others for not being creative enough is not good. Try to look at the different angles sometimes because most of the consumers and artists struggle about the same things,” Darathtey said.

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