The 10,000 Cambodians standing in an enormous parking lot on a rainy Thursday night are ostensibly excited to see the evening’s headliner, Korean pop star Rain. But before Rain come 12 young Khmer artists each performing one original song, one after another. It’s a landmark lineup: likely the first slate of all-original artists to grace such a stage in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh since the early 1970s.

That was the golden age of Cambodian music, when the country was the envy of Southeast Asia and its singers were cultural icons. Then the Khmer Rouge marched into the city with a vision of an agrarian utopia, one that didn’t allow art or culture or personal identities. More than a quarter of Cambodia’s population was slaughtered. Musicians were among the regime’s top targets.

You can still hear the classics of the ‘60s everywhere, on the radio or as the soundtrack at many shops, restaurants and bars. The music represents echoes of a shattered prosperity Cambodia still hasn’t rebuilt.

But now, the country is in the throes of a cultural renaissance led in part by a wild-eyed Khmer-American: Laura Mam.

Mam takes the stage at the concert with a lone violinist for a quiet, dramatic opening. Cue smoke, a dozen contemporary dancers and the deafening roar of thousands of thundersticks. Her upbeat, electro-pop ditty winds down with her kneeling on the floor, poised like an all-powerful queen, as dancers fly in all directions.

Even at only four minutes long, it’s an impressive show. More impressive is that the audience starts filtering out as soon as the Korean headliner takes the stage moments later. They didn’t want Rain. They wanted Cambodian artists. They wanted Mam. And that’s a huge deal.

I meet Mam a couple of months later in her office, a sun-filled, all-white space in a fancy apartment building just three blocks from Cambodia’s most famous genocide museum. There, the Khmer Rouge turned an old school into a torture factory where all but seven of some 23,000 prisoners were executed.

So Mam was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, a daughter of Cambodian refugees who, like most Cambodian refugees, did not like to discuss the horrors they escaped. Suffice to say, they lost a lot of family members. While many refugees and their children shunned the country that caused so much pain, Mam grew up in love with its classical dance and sounds.

“I knew there was something calling me over here,” she says. “I didn’t want to play music for Americans. It doesn’t matter for them. There’s no symbolic significance.”

Mam talks quickly, as if she needs to express all of her big ideas immediately or risk losing them. Surrounded by collaborators quietly plugging away on their laptops, Mam, casually dressed in long pants and a long blouse despite the outside heat, outlines her past and new Cambodian dream.

Her first band was an all-girl garage outfit started straight out of UC Berkeley. With The Like Me’s, Mam primarily modernized Khmer rock hits from the ‘60s. Her polished YouTube videos spread through the Cambodian diaspora, nabbing her enough buzz to actually tour Cambodia for months at a time. While her bandmates wanted to maintain their lives in the United States, Mam was ready to take the plunge on a singing career in Cambodia. She moved permanently in 2014 and stumbled into a music industry that made little sense.

For decades, the only songs coming out of Cambodia were copied. Not just covers, but full-blown rip-offs of songs from China, Vietnam and Thailand, among other places, with the lyrics merely translated to Khmer. Mam refers to the practice as the karaoke music industry. Up until a couple of years ago, it was the only way for singers to make a living in Cambodia.

“We went through cultural devastation,” Mam says. “This is a very specific problem we’re dealing with here that’s heavily connected to national pride and identity and all these different ways the Cambodian people are learning to express themselves.”

Cambodia is not completely alone in the copying phenomenon—some Bollywood hits, for example, are plagiarized—but its ubiquity seems unique. And it was intentional.

“When I first came here, the first thing I learned that shocked me is [production companies] didn’t allow original music to take place,” Mam says.

Mam started asking singers why they didn’t make original music and quickly learned it was not up to them. Original songs didn’t make money fast enough.

Technically, there is copyright law in Cambodia. But enforcement is nonexistent. And even if there was enforcement, the country’s judiciary isn’t equipped to handle such cases.

“The whole entire system actually doesn’t encourage you to be original. It doesn’t encourage you to be creative,” Mam explains. “It would take all the different pieces flipping over to get that to change.”

I ask her what she thinks of bands like Dengue Fever and Cambodian Space Project, two predominantly Caucasian, male rock bands with Khmer female singers, who have managed to control the international narrative on Cambodian music. She fumbles a bit—she loves them, but she desperately wants Cambodian music to move beyond them.

“Right now, it seems like the only way to go international is to join a mostly Caucasian band. I think we need to disprove that imagery,” Mam says. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m angry or anything like that. They brought Cambodian music to the world, which makes me happy, but my question is: When are Cambodians going to bring Cambodian music to the world?”

To the Cambodian media, Mam is resolutely apolitical—it’s too dangerous not to be. Listen closely to her music, though, and it’s clear she’s got a whole lot to say.

The album that really launched her career, 2014’s In Search of Heroes, was written after the last election cycle, which saw massive accusations of voter fraud, suspicious hit-and-runs and bloody protests. In the midst of social unrest, Mam felt inspired.

“It was the first time I had seen all of Cambodia stand up, get on Facebook and express themselves. It was a revolution. To me, a cultural milestone,” she recalls. “People were demanding justice.”

The record saw Mam veer from jazzy, acoustic folk songs into electro-pop worthy of a mainstream diva. Singing half in Khmer and half in English, Mam muses about the death and dearth of Cambodian heroes, and how now is the time to create new ones. It resonated.

“It was the first time it was a deep connection between me and the nation,” she says.

Almost overnight, Mam became the biggest pop star in the country. She signed multiple sponsorship deals with international brands—all firsts for Cambodia, given the legal issues with all the karaoke singers—and saw her face appear in ads all over the country.

In 2016, politics rattled Mam again. A prominent activist named Kem Ley bought his morning coffee at a gas station and was gunned down in broad daylight. The assassination told Cambodia’s hopeful youth that perhaps society hadn’t progressed as much as they were led to believe. At the same time, Mam says she was dealing with her own difficult breakup, which she likens to the assassination.

“The whole country was in mourning,” she says. “It was almost like a hero’s journey, when you face your first death. I was going through a heartbreak and I felt like the nation was going through a heartbreak.”

That feeling sparked her latest record, Awaken. It’s her most ambitious and experimental work to date, coupled with a visual album influenced by Beyonce’s Lemonade. Aesthetically and sonically, Awaken shows off Khmer culture in all its glory, brilliantly overlapping new and old: modern dance with classical; traditional rhythms and funeral music with hip-hop break-downs. One dance number symbolizes the assassination itself, while the whole collection thematically expounds on the process of healing.

“I think everybody was like, ‘What does this mean for Cambodia? Should I not try to do good things? Should I keep my mouth shut?’”

Her message is clear from the last song, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” full of spunk and cheer and hope: This is a setback, but change is coming.

“Nobody is gonna come save us. We have to do it ourselves,” Mam says. “It needs to be our own movement.”

When Mam first started making spunky music videos with The Like Me’s, her stated goal was to connect members of the Cambodian diaspora.

“I felt like we were tiny little diasporas sprinkled across cities,” she says, explaining her shift in thinking with a dusting of her fingertips. “But we were sprinkles. Not niche markets. Ultimately when it comes to how Cambodia can succeed, the base of Cambodia has to succeed first.”

Mam has put that weight on herself.

It seems logical: she was the first artist in 21st century Cambodia to build a successful career off of original music. But she also acknowledges her immense privilege in that endeavor: she speaks fluent English, and most big deals in Cambodia are still done in English. Unlike most Cambodians, she didn’t start out entrenched in poverty.

In turn, she’s met some pushback. Critics say she only found success because she’s American, because she looks rich; that her Khmer is terrible.

“For a long time, it was me trying to be as Khmer as possible, trying to validate my Khmer-ness to myself,” she says. “I realized Cambodians all over the world are going to have to embrace that we’re a melting pot now, because we’ve had exodus. We have diaspora everywhere. There are going to be different types of Cambodian-ness.”

Mam’s focus switched to making sure other Cambodian artists could find success, regardless of their backgrounds. She wanted to prove she wasn’t an anomaly, that she was only the beginning.

She launched Baramey Productions, which she hopes to grow into Cambodia’s first legit record label—and one with a shared resources model, inspired by Wu-Tang Clan. She signed 12 artists, including Kmeng Khmer, a male duo that’s already exploded.

During Cambodia’s golden age of the ‘60s, influences from abroad seeped into local music—Afro-Cuban, French, American psychedelic rock—and made it distinctive. Mam hopes to continue the tradition while also not inadvertently steering her artists toward the sort of pop she loves and makes.

“What I’m trying to avoid is becoming just a Western-sounding Cambodian company,” she says. “What I want is the new Cambodian sound.”

In the fall of 2016, Mam set off on Cambodia’s first concert tour of all-original artists since the Khmer Rouge. Tens of thousands of kids showed up to gleaming stages set up in countryside towns. The crowds were so unexpectedly ravenous for live music that security became an issue.

“It was like you went to Woodstock or something,” Mam says. ”They were screaming their heads off. They were following buses. It was like Justin Bieber had made it. It was a cultural revolution in many ways. And it was an all-original concert where everyone said, ‘Nobody is gonna show up.’”

That’s a common refrain Mam hears. When she first moved to Cambodia, everyone told her to stay in the United States, that nobody in Cambodia cared about music, that she should switch to acting. When she started planning that first concert tour, marketing specialists all said it would be a failure, that no one would come out to see a few “YouTube kids.”

Of course, we now know they were wrong. And Mam is only growing more ambitious. She’s currently focused on building a multimedia studio so young artists can finally stop using pirated software, and bringing producers from around the world on as mentors.

She says her next album will be super upbeat and positive, with a “can’t stop the movement” message. But if history is any indication, politics might intervene. National elections are next summer, and the prime minister, sitting on three decades in office in a supposed democracy, has already threatened violence, sued journalists and explicitly stated there will be no transfer of power.

Regardless of the outcome, Cambodia’s renewed musical energy will continue.

“I have constant conversations with friends: ‘Is art a necessity or a luxury?’ When it comes down to it, I think it is a necessity. It’s what you attach your identity to,” Mam says.

“Cambodia is pure proof that you have to attach yourself to an art. It stays with you forever. Even if somebody tries to eradicate it completely, it’ll come back.”