Short Bio:

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is an award-winning spoken word poet, playwright, and filmmaker whose work has been featured at over 600 venues worldwide including the White House, Apollo Theater in Harlem, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, BAM, Tyra Banks’ Flawsome Ball, & three seasons of “HBO Def Poetry.” Award recipient of the Illinois Arts Council, Asian American Arts Alliance, New York Foundation for the Arts, Asian Women Giving Circle, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Kelly has been profiled on Idealist in NYC’s Top 40 NYC’ers Who Make Positive Social Change,’s “30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30,” and HBO’s “East of Main Street: Asians Aloud.”,

Long Bio:

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word poet who fights for cultural pride and survival through how she creates and how she lives. As a teenager, Kelly developed a passion for spoken word poetry 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.

As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kelly completed a double B.A. with High Honors in Urban Planning and Comparative Literature. During this time, she ran her own poetry slam venue and co-founded Sirenz, an all female spoken word group that wove together experiences of the Asian, Black, and Latina American diasporas in the midst of a rash of white supremacist hate crimes in the Midwest. 

Touring extensively worldwide, Kelly has featured at over 600 shows across the continental United States, Hawai’i, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, the Netherlands, and Trinidad. Kelly’s poetry performances have rocked stages at venues like the White House, 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, Tyra Banks’ Flawsome Ball, and three consecutive seasons of “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.”

Kelly has performed at events featuring thought leaders like Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Van Jones, Amy Goodman, Michael Eric Dyson and artists like Drake, Mos Def, Harry Belafonte, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Talib Queli, Kalpen Modi, John Oliver, DMX, Wyclef Jean, Tracy Morgan, Amiri Baraka, Abiodun Oyewele of the Last Poets, Kurtis Blow, Goapele, and many more. Throughout her evolution as a writer, performer, filmmaker, and multidisciplinary theater artist, Kelly 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.


In 2004, the Illinois Arts’ Council awarded her the Governors’ International Exchange Award to support her attendance at the 6th Women Playwrights International Conference in Manila, Philippines.  In 2007, she was awarded the Urban Artists Initiative NYC Award by the Asian American Arts Alliance and New York Foundation for the Arts.  In 2008, Idealist in NYC named Kelly as one of their “New York 40″ of the top New Yorkers who make a positive impact in the five boroughs. listed her as one of “The 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30″ in 2009. In 2010, she was profiled in the HBO documentary, “East of Main Street: Asians Aloud.” In 2011, she was named an Asian Women Giving Circle Grantee for her spoken word theater project, “Say You Heard My Echo.” In 2012, she was awarded the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Fund for Creative Communities Award and her second Asian Women Giving Circle Grant for her solo show, “Formosa.” In 2013, she was a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab for her first feature screenplay, “Cherry Street.”

Her residencies include New York Live Arts’ Studio Series, Asian Arts Initiative, Hedgebrook, the Norcroft Retreat for Women Writers, Michigan State University Residential College for Arts & Humanities, Unit One/Allen Hall, in addition to New World Theater’s Summer Playlab and the Abrons Arts Center via her work with Mango Tribe.  She is a proud alum of writing workshops sponsored by Kundiman, Voices of Our Nation Foundation, Cave Canem, and Callaloo. She has also been a juror on selection panels for the Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, Leeway Foundation, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation/Maryland State Arts Council, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Loft Literary Center.


Kelly was a part of the original collective for Mango Tribe, an Asian Pacific Islander American women’s multidisciplinary spoken word theater troupe.  She wrote, performed, and choreographed for Mango Tribe’s three mainstage productions (“Sisters in the Smoke” (2002), “The Creation Myth Project” (2004), and “Un/knowing Desire and Empire” (2006), as well as Mango Tribe’s national tour from 2002-2006. Mango Tribe received the MAP Fund Award from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2002.

In 2004, Kelly joined the original cast for We Got Issues!, an arts-based civic transformation project based on feminine centered leadership for the hip hop generation.  Conceived by Rha Goddess and J. Love Calderon and executive produced by Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda, Kelly choreographed and performed for the national tour of We Got Issues! from 2005-2007.  In 2007, Kelly also performed in acclaimed theater artist Ping Chong & Co.’s “Undesirable Elements: Asian America” for the 1st National Asian American Theater Festival.

Kelly’s spoken word and dance works include Urban Bush Women’s “Are We Democracy?” (2004), InSpirit’s “Becoming” (2004) and “roam – a solo in two voices” (2007) by Malinda Allen, and VTDance’s award-winning “The Grandmother Project,” (2006).  She also choreographed Julia Ahumada Grob’s solo show “He(R)evolution” (2006). In 2006, her ensemble drama “Murder the Machine” was excerpted at the Chicago Hip Hop Theater Festival. In 2009, she co-wrote and performed the critically lauded “American Ethnic” for Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theater Company. In 2010, she co-wrote and performed the ensemble work “Home: Far & Near” for Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative and performed in Howard Zinn’s “Voices Of A People’s History of the United States” with Harry Belafonte and Allison Moorer for New York University.

In 2011-2012, her spoken word poetry theater project, “Say You Heard My Echo,” was commissioned by Asian American Arts Alliance for their 2012 “Locating the Sacred Festival” and developed at Flushing Town Hall, Poetic License Theater Festival, Rising Circle Theater Collectives PlayRISE Festival on Theater Row, DC Hip Hop Theater Festival and premiered at HERE Arts Center in NYC. The project received coverage from NY1, New York Daily News, WBAI, Color Lines, Hyphen Magazine, and many more. In 2013, “Say You Heard My Echo” was presented at University of California Santa Cruz’s Rainbow Theater.

In 2012, her solo show “Formosa” was commissioned by New York Live Arts’ Studio Series and developed at New York Live Arts, Museum of Chinese in America, The Public Square/Experimental Station, Ars Nova ANT Fest, Asian Arts Initiative. In 2013, “Formosa” was presented in development at El Museo Del Barrio/Hip Hop Theater Festival, EMW Arts Space, Columbia College Chicago, Culture Project’s Women’s Center Stage, and University of Connecticut. Kelly has been a finalist for the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, New York Theater Workshop’s Emerging Fellows of Color, BAX, and the Creative Capital Award.


Kelly has self-published three chapbooks: Inside Outside Outside Inside (2004), Thought Crimes (2005), and No Sugar Please (2008).  Her poetry and essays have been widely published in literary journals and magazines like Drunken Boat, Pedestal, Hawai’i Women’s Journal, Montage, Monsoon, Tea Party, The F-Word, The Indypendent, Wicked Alice, AWOL Magazine, Shades Magazine, Versal Amsterdam, The Kartika Review, Words. Beats. Life. The Journal Of Global Hip Hop Culture, Asian American Literary Review, and New York Theater Review.

Anthologies that have featured Kelly’s poetry and essays include Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta (Girlchild Press, 2008), We Got Issues!: A Young Woman’s Guide to A Bold, Courageous, and Empowered Life (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2006), We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists (Seal Press/Avalon, 2006), His Rib (Penmanship Books, 2007), and The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2007).

She is currently at work on her first full-length poetry manuscript drawing from her body of work as a spoken word poet.


Kelly’s first spoken word video, “By-Standing: The Beginning of An American Lifetime” (Dir. Karen Lin, 2007), was a ground-breaking integration of spoken word and in-camera style of music videos.  It was an official selection of dozens of film festivals across North America and won both the 2007 Media that Matters War & Peace Award and the 11th Annual Urbanworld VIBE Honorable Mention for Narrative Short.  “By-Standing…” was also broadcast on PBS’ “Reel New York” and ImaginAsian TV’s “Short Cuts.  Youth Noise commissioned her second spoken word video “Weapons of Mass Creation” (Dir. Kamilah Forbes, 2007) for their nationwide Summit Tour for grassroots youth activists.

In 2008, Kelly’s PSA on APIA voting rights directed by Karen Lin was a San Diego Asian Film Festival Reel in the Vote PSA Contest finalist.  Her production company, Moving Earth Productions, also launched its first independently produced spoken word video “Black, White, Whatever…” (Dir. Jazzmen Lee-Johnson, 2008), which was featured on the homepage of Youtube for 24 hours on November 3rd, 2008, the day before Barack Obama’s historic election. The video garnered over 200,000 hits online shortly after its viral release, coverage by the nation’s top bloggers, and a feature on NPR’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.”

In 2012, her first narrative short, “Cherry Street,” was bought by Silverock Films. Her narrative feature screenplay of “Cherry Street” was a finalist for 2013 Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In 2013, she produced and directed “Self-Centered,” a spoken word poetry video integrating 360 degree interactive technology, furthering her interest in the meaningful use of new media to communicate cultural metaphors.


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 was awarded the 2010 Outstanding Asian American Alumni Award from the Asian American Cultural Center at UIUC, following in the footsteps of filmmaker Ang Lee. She is also a proud alum of Public Allies Chicago and worked previously with the Posse Foundation Inc.

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, 2011, & 2012 Campus Progress National Conference. She has hosted and performed at 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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