The man who hip-hopped his way to change

Tuy Sobil a.k.a. KK (right) put up the first hip-hop community center in Cambodia called Tiny Toones, using creative education to empower the youth.
By: Manila Bulletin Publishing Coperation
The story of Tuy Sobil, a.k.a. KK, isn’t new. But what sets him apart is what he has done with his life after all was said and done.
At 13, KK became a drug user, and a notorious gang member. At 18, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment for armed robbery, and was deported from California in the United States, to Cambodia in 2004.
But after he was released from prison in the late 80’s, KK, a former champion breakdancer in US, decided to clean up his act and put his talent to good use. He put up a breakdancing group called Tiny Toones in 2004, offering free dance classes, as well as lessons in English and Khmer (Cambodia’s local language), computer literacy, art, and information on HIV/AIDS. From initially just nine children, Tiny Toones started to cater to 50 children, and now has around 5,000 kids at its six sites, mostly at the core of Phnom Penh’s slums.
“Everybody makes mistakes. But as you grow older, you get wiser. Children look up to some people as their role model, some kids pick the right guide, while others follow in the
steps of the wrong person. I want to inspire the kids with what I’m doing now, to show them that a guy that can make mistakes but can change his life for the better,” says KK, who recently visited the Philippines to share a few of his breakdancing tricks to some children in Davao City as part of Smart Kids program.
Tiny Toones is the first hip-hop community center in Cambodia to use creative education to empower at-risk youth to lead healthier lives and realize their full potential as leaders. It is funded by Global  Fund for Children, Bridges Across Borders, among others.
At Tiny Toones, students learn to live active lifestyles and build self-confidence via the performing arts. Their knowledge is further supplemented by the numerous free classes.
Peer mentors provide support and teach the elements of hip hop, including breakdancing, rapping, beatboxing, and deejaying. Through music, art, and performance, students are able to express themselves but with a distinctively Khmer approach, integrating positive messages about staying in school and living free of sexually-transmitted diseases and drug use.
KK was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1977 and was taken to the US. But he says he never became a US citizen.
In Long Beach, California, his jobless, unschooled parents made ends meet by scavenging. Out of place in affluent Southern California, KK became a regular in playground brawls and soon became a crack addict.
“Back then, I was craving for acceptance,” he says.
His daredevil breakdance stunts afforded KK the attention he was desperately looking for.
Now 32, KK rekindles that old passion for dancing to help save Cambodian street kids. Most of his students lack strong role models because their older siblings are active drug users, school dropouts, or sex workers. KK also teaches these children about HIV/AIDS, the risks of drugs and joining gangs, and other issues that underprivileged youth commonly face. Fortunately, many of these neglected and orphaned children idolize KK.
His transition was difficult but life-transforming. “I dealt with discrimination from among the older people in Cambodia with how I look, because I have piercings and tattoos. They judge me by the cover, but they didn’t open to read it,” he shares.
With KK’s perseverance, Tiny Toones has become very popular in Cambodia. He attributes this to the perceived street credibility of the hip hop culture and its humble roots in the ghetto. Tiny Toones began getting offers of donations that afforded them to move to the two-storey apartment, their present headquarters.
Meanwhile, the kids are frequently invited to perform at various events. The dancers get paid to perform at shows.
KK believes that he did not only save streetchildren but he also saved himself. “I made a mistake as a kid, and I’m not gonna let these kids destroy their lives, too. On the surface, it’s only break dance, but what these kids really need is just someone to motivate them,” KK says of his proteges.
Tiny Toones plans to improve the main center’s capacity to serve as a safe haven for a broader range of at-risk urban youth complete with dance studios, recording studio, additional library, classrooms and dormitories, and to create more outreach sites for far-flung communities.
But hip hop arts will always be the heart of the program, KK says. He wants these children to believe in their own dreams and give back to their community.
“I don’t want them to learn just to get by, but to learn to be something or someone in the future.
Everybody is killing their dreams. If they want to be a doctor but they don’t have the money, it’s not true that you can’t be a doctor. In my heart, the more you learn and get into education, you can be anything you want to be,’’ he ends.

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