December 5, 2022
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai performing one of her new poems, “Kindness Over Genius”, after receiving the 2010 Outstanding Asian American Alumni Award from her alma mater – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on May 3, 2010. (Contributed photo)
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai performing one of her new poems, “Kindness Over Genius”, after receiving the 2010 Outstanding Asian American Alumni Award from her alma mater – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on May 3, 2010. (Contributed photo)

Urbana, IL (May 4, 2010) – Nationally renowned spoken word artist and advocate Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai was presented with the 2010 Outstanding Asian American Alumni Award from her alma mater – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on May 3, 2010. Tsai, a 2000 honors graduate in Urban Planning and Comparative Literature, received the award and also performed the spoken word poetry that has made her famous, including “Weapons Of Mass Creation” and “Kindness Over Genius.”

“It’s such an incredible honor to receive this award and to be recognized by my alma mater in this way,” said Tsai. “Given its incredible legacy of previous honorees, it inspires me to strive even more passionately to uphold the vision of what’s possible for myself and our communities.”

The award is in recognition of outstanding contributions to the Asian American community, exceptional success in a professional career, and meritorious service in supporting the mission of UIUC. It recognizes graduates that have distinguished themselves in the spirit and mission of the University.

“While the University of Illinois has produced many outstanding APA alums, I can think of none quite as unique and gifted as Ms. Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai,” said David Chih, director, UIUC Asian American Cultural Center – in his award presentation speech.

According to Sharon S. Lee, Ph.D., program coordinator, UIUC Asian American Culture Center, the award has been presented since 2005 to outstanding alumnus that have included champion gymnastics coach Yoshi Hayasaki, Chinese American scholar Betty Lee Sung, journalist K.W. Lee; Academy Award-winning film director Ang Lee and medical researcher Jane Lin, and bestselling author and journalist Iris Chang.

Tsai, who describes herself as “short, loud, to the point and compassionate towards the issues and communities that matter most,” has been involved with spoken word in one way or another since high school. She organized a spoken word group for women of color in the late 1990s at University of Illinois’s Champagne-Urbana. She is recognized in part for that secondary tract career that she developed in and after college.

In the decade since her graduation she has become one of the country’s leading innovators of spoken word poetry. She has also worked as a community organizer, a domestic violence counselor, an oral historian, a youth worker, and still contributes to these causes through her work.

“For me, I just found out that this is really what I love to do, and I can’t really explain it,” said Tsai in a previous interview. “Poetry is really powerful in the way it can touch peoples hearts in a way that other work cannot do.

Kelly Tsai performs following the award ceremony. (Contributed photos)
Kelly Tsai performs following the award ceremony. (Contributed photos)

“In a world that tells us a lot to forget our emotions, or to not be present to what is going on in the world around us, that is critically important,” she added. “If I can continue to touch people in that way, then that’s the most important thing to me.”

Now based in New York City, Tsai tours extensively worldwide as Moving Earth Productions LLC. She is a sought-after performer on the college circuit, for what Chih said is an inciting, intimate, and entertaining poetry performance. She has won over audiences for three consecutive seasons on the “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.”

At home on college stages, Tsai has also push spoken word forward on the national scene at historic venues as Nuyorican Poets Cafe, House of Blues and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She has also graced the stages of the and the Lincoln Center in New York City and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“Since her days in Champaign-Urbana she has clearly excelled in her professional career as a spoken word artist,” Chih added. “She literally shouts out her culture pride – not only as a Taiwanese American, but also as a woman of color.

“But more than that, Ms. Tsai is a performer that encompasses more than just rhymes and passion, as she actively and intelligently speaks out on profound issues of race, ethnicity, social justice, politics, and power dynamics,” he added.

Tsai has also recorded CD’s and videos of her original work and authored books and poetry (www.yellowgurl.com). She is a recognized contemporary in the APIA national discourse – taking part in workshops and invited to take part in panel discussions and conference presentations. She was named among “The 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30” in 2009 by AngryAsianMan.com.

“She inspires women, Asian Americans, students, domestic violence survivors, and many more through her words and workshops in high schools, colleges, domestic violence and rape crisis centers, and juvenile detention centers across the world,” Chih added – calling her more than an entertainer – but rather an artist with something profound and intelligent to say.

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