Yan Soe Was a Famous DJ in Myanmar. As a Political Refugee in Denver, He Drives DoorDash | Westword

Yan Soe Was a Famous DJ in Myanmar. As a Political Refugee in Denver, He Drives DoorDash

“I want my life back."
Yan Soe while escaping to Thailand. The three finger salute he's holding up represents a "goodbye to someone you love."
Yan Soe while escaping to Thailand. The three finger salute he's holding up represents a "goodbye to someone you love." Courtesy Yan Soe
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Yan Soe’s frustration and ambition butt heads in his small apartment 7,963 miles from home. The 35-year-old Myanmar native is an internationally recognized composer and DJ, but sitting in his Denver home studio, he’s a political refugee hiding from his home country's armed forces.

Soe wears a plain black shirt, and his black hair is slicked back with gel, necessary to hold it in place while he’s in constant motion. Even at rest, Soe drums his legs and moves his arms up and down as he talks, as if he’s constantly weighing his options. He scans two large monitors and plays footage from a Myanmar festival performance he headlined in 2019.

In the video, intricate fireworks displays coordinate with the sounds from the full orchestra playing Soe’s remixed compositions. Thousands of fans record him with their phones while screaming “Double U,” his DJ name that appears on the giant screen behind the stage.

He clicks on photos of his eighth-story penthouse suite, where his west-facing studio overlooked the airport in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. “I could see the sunset and the planes taking off,” Soe reflects. “It was so beautiful.” He plays soundtracks of movie scores he composed and original compositions for Coke, Nestlé and Samsung commercials.

“As you can see,” he says, “my life was better in my country.”
click to enlarge
Yan DJing an outdoor festival in Myanmar.
Dream Capture Media House
But on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military ousted the elected government during early-morning raids. The streets flooded with anti-coup protesters, standing face-to-face with armored vehicles and machine guns. Martial law was ordered, and the military imposed curfews, cut food and water supplies, and controlled commerce and information. Soe was used to such control from previous military dictatorships during his childhood: “We didn’t know about hamburgers until the year 2000."

He was active in the civil disobedience movement and supported the democratically elected and currently imprisoned president, Aung San Suu Kyi. He campaigned against the coup, speaking out in interviews and talk shows, and organized mass protests through his social media. He became a target.

On April 8, 2021, Soe saw unusual messages on Facebook from his friends. “So many notifications,” he remembers. “Run, hide! Your photo is on TV,” they said. There was a warrant for his arrest. If he were caught, prison would be a best case. Other artists, journalists and political dissenters unable to leave the country often disappear and are presumed killed, he explains. 

Soe called his dad. “Hey, Dad, I’m on the TV right now,” he said. “I have to run away.” He hugged his eleven pet bunnies a final time and kissed his American Eskimo dog, Sugar.

“I grabbed my backpack and ran down the emergency stairs,” he recalls. Neighbors hid him for the night.
Yan with his family in 2019. His dad and brother-in-law have both since passed away from COVID.
Courtesy Yan Soe
He escaped across a river to Thailand, assisted by members of a shadow group who spoke using only code names. Then Soe called Suu, his friend from Myanmar who'd moved to Denver years earlier. “We’re like brothers,” Soe explains. Suu told him to come to Denver. 

The United States Embassy in Thailand and the UN Refugee Agency helped Soe get to Denver in December 2021. He arrived with a duffel bag of clothes and a backpack containing just headphones, a Kindle, some USB drives and $300.

Soe remembers how, twenty years earlier, dance music popular in Thailand began flooding into Myanmar. Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees and Bon Jovi tempted his ear. Every Saturday, he’d take any pocket money he had on the hour-long bus ride downtown. “I didn’t spend money on shoes or clothes,” he says. “Just CDs and tapes.” 

Under his local name, DJ Wine, he was responsible for popularizing EDM in Myanmar, beginning with underground dance music in the early 2000s. He co-founded the Myanmar DJ Association, and in 2005, he opened a DJ school. Soe has mastered trance and progressive house styles, and over the past two decades, he's released one album and more than 100 singles.

He touches his chest as he describes deejaying as an emotional connection with his audience. “I always wanted to be a studio musician,” Soe says, “but then I started seeing people dance and cry to my music.” It became an obsession. 

The walls of his 120-year-old apartment in Denver are bare, minus acoustic foam panels and an 8-by-10-inch print of the Buddha. Small carved figures of his favorite composers — Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — sit above a monitor. “They’re my idols,” Soe says. Wires and cables tangle from a 6-foot hat rack. A pair of fluffy dice hanging from the ceiling are meant to bring good luck, but they have yet to bear fruit from the Colorado Lottery, which Soe plays daily. Italian chamber orchestra music vibrates in the background.  

Since his arrival in Denver, Soe has cleaned floors in a Thai restaurant and delivered packages for Amazon. Recently, he’s been driving six days a week for DoorDash. “Time is money,” he says, wishing he had more of both to focus on music. 

So far, he's deejayed at Your Mom’s House and the Black Box, but overall, there’s little to show for his efforts to get Denver gigs. He’s joined online groups to network and has tried to get the attention of promoters. “I’m not famous here; I’m just famous in my country,” he notes. “That’s a big struggle.” During a recent DoorDash pickup at a McDonald's, Soe met a talkative security guard who also works for the Church nightclub. Yan told him he’s a DJ, and they exchanged contacts.

He still composes music for a Myanmar production house, and the side job earns him between $300 and $500 for each 45-second TV commercial. He’s also releasing new singles regularly on his Spotify.
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Yan Soe's home studio in Denver.
David Gordon
Amid the gruesome circumstances Soe faces, he feels lucky to be in Denver. He loves the mountains and snow, a landscape he’s unaccustomed to. He carves out time to read psychology and music composition books on his Kindle, and he loves cooking for his neighbors. “We don’t make small portions,” he explains. Myanmar-style chicken coconut curry is his favorite, or hot pot with octopus and squid. His mom sends homegrown chickpea powder through the mail because he can’t find the good stuff here. 

It’s been two years since Soe fled Myanmar, and the civil war continues to engulf daily life in his country. Brutal government suppression includes systematic burning of villages, and an estimated 23,000 civilians have been killed. The economic pie is crumbling, and the crumbs left cause a chaotic mass exodus of citizens and foreign investment.

This summer, Soe expects to get his green card and passport through the African Community Center in Denver. He agonizes over the number of forms he has to fill out. “I want my life back,” he says. 

His rage is palpable — the fist-pounding-into-the-hand sort. His penetrating eyes water as he discusses the military dictatorship, but he focuses on what he can control. While he can’t be on the front lines in Myanmar, he raises money for the National Unity Government, soliciting donations on Facebook from his 597,000 followers.

He awaits the military’s fall while his mother preaches patience and tells him to focus on work. Once his paperwork is processed, he’ll fly to Thailand. His mom will take a 45-minute flight from Myanmar and meet him there. For now, even with a thirteen-and-a-half-hour time difference, Soe raises his phone off the table, laughs and says, “My mom is always calling me.” 

After a long shift delivering food, Soe arrives home and sits in his chair facing his monitors, keyboard and Pioneer turntables. Buddha and Bach look on as he cracks a cold one, probably a Guinness or an IPA. He toys with the piano keys, looking for the right melody to match his mood, hoping he doesn’t get a text from Bruce, his next-door neighbor, asking him to kindly turn down the volume. Then he grabs his phone and picks five random numbers for the day’s lottery. Right now, the Powerball jackpot is at $284 million, which would be nice, he admits.

But Soe knows that not even that amount of money will give him his life back.

Follow Yan Soe on Instagram @double_u_official and Twitter @doubleumusic.
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