Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist who fights for cultural pride and survival through how she spits and how she lives.  As a teenager, Kelly developed a passion for spoken word at the birthplace of the international poetry slam movement, the Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago.  She also appeared as a series regular on PBS’ “Sneak Previews” and wrote weekly for the Chicago Tribune as a teen movie critic.

Her love of poetry, politics, arts, and entertainment deepened as she flexed her skills as a founding member of Sirenz, an all female spoken word group that wove together experiences of the Asian, Black, and Latina American diasporas.  Over the last ten years, she has become one of the country’s leading innovators of spoken word poetry.  Touring extensively worldwide, she has featured at over 450 shows across the continental United States, Hawai’i, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, and the Netherlands.

A highly sought-after performer on the college circuit, Kelly’s inciting, intimate, and entertaining poetry performances have rocked stages at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the House of Blues, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and three consecutive seasons of the Peabody award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.”

Kelly has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, DMX, Michael Eric Dyson, Wyclef Jean, Tracy Morgan, Amiri Baraka, Abiodun Oyewele of the Last Poets, Kurtis Blow, Harry Belafonte, and many more.  Throughout her evolution as a writer, performer, filmmaker, and multidisciplinary hip hop theater artist, Kelly constantly strives to broaden the impact and reach of spoken word poetry in its efforts to transform political realities, revolutionize arts and entertainment, and empower audiences across the globe.


Kelly’s formative experiences as a community organizer, domestic violence counselor, oral historian, and youth worker deeply inform her commitment to the arts and entertainment as a means to forge the foundations for social justice, non-violence and the uplift of underrepresented people, ideas, and movements.  She holds a double B.A. with high honors in Urban Planning and Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). She was awarded the 2010 Outstanding Asian American Alumni Award from the Asian American Cultural Center at UIUC, following in the footsteps of author/journalist Iris Chang and filmmaker Ang Lee. She is also a proud alum of Michelle Obama’s Public Allies and worked previously with the Posse Foundation Inc., founded by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Debbie Bial.

Kelly has facilitated workshops in high schools, colleges, domestic violence and rape crisis centers, and juvenile detention centers across the U.S. and Europe.  She has also brought her unique approach to spoken word to her workshops at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya and the Centro de Las Lenguas in Chiapas, Mexico.  She gave keynote performances at the 2008 College Democrats National Convention and the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference, which featured Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Van Jones, and John Oliver from “The Daily Show.” She has hosted youth events like Youth Speaks’ Brave New Voices (Inter)national Poetry Festival, Young Chicago Author’s Louder Than A Bomb, and Urban Word NYC’s Citywide Slam.  Kelly also hosted the National Poetry Slam’s Asian American Showcase and organized with Women Outloud, the Asian American Artists Collective Chicago, Young Asians with Power!, and the National Asian Pacific Islander American Spoken Word Summit.


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