Suboi (R) and Kimmese, two big hip-hop voices of among Vietnamese youths, perform at Vietnam Idol last January. Photo courtesy of Nguoi Lao Dong
Vietnam’s young people are transforming their country’s ballad-based music with the rebellious sounds of hip-hop.
The young performers call themselves underground music artists, but critics prefer to describe them as rebels without causes who are too popular on the Internet to be described as “underground.”
Either way, their sound is original and they enjoy a cult following and a unique position on the local arts scene similar to that of underground artists in other countries. And being underground in Vietnam allows them a healthy reach to a relative large young and fun loving audience.
Ho Chi Minh City’s rap sensation Suboi, which combines her nickname “Su” and “boi” for her tomboy style, was covered in a 700-word feature by the Guardian last August. The story described how the 23-year-old came into rap and set the trend in Vietnam.
The singer, who was born Hang Lam Trang Anh and has been dubbed the queen of Vietnam’s hip hop, began singing in a nu-metal band at 17 when she began listening to Linkin Park, Will Smith, Mos Def and Rakim. She taught herself to rap by rapping along with Eminem.
The Suboi Guardian story was aptly titled “Vietnam rapper Suboi stays under the radar – for now” as Suboi said she prefers staying low to avoid government attention, which means censorship, to have more space for creativity.
She rapped some Vietnamese rhymes during the encounter with the Guardian reporter on a bridge in HCMC, pointing to banks behind her with a scathing critique: There’s plenty of money in Vietnam but Vietnamese people on the street still have nothing, so what’s the point of making a big deal about a bank?
Many fans of Suboi give her credit for setting herself aside from the major trend of love songs and “good girl” music.
Her music videos draw hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. She has more than 200,000 fans on Facebook and famous brands such as Adidas and Samsung used her images in their marketing campaigns. She has played in huge festivals at home and in neighboring countries such as Thailand, including a live performance with Midlands-born rapper and MC Lady Leshurr. Suboi is also planning a tour of Japan later this year.
She told Nguoi Lao Dong in a report this month that she was amazed about appearing on the Guardian.
“I’m very surprised that they also pay attention to Vietnamese rap.
“And through this thing, I want to tell lovers of underground music to stop being worried, keep on working, let your talents show, be active in working with rappers all over the world, and you will find better chances.”
Vietnamese rappers said one problem for them is the language differences. They learned rapping mostly from American artists but then Vietnamese words have tones and it’s not simply putting in just any words.
Social acceptance is another problem as rap is still widely considered “street music,” said Kimmese from Hanoi, a prominent voice in Vietnam’s hip-hop world.
But like Suboi, she said she loves rap as it allows her to speak her mind about social problems, and also to show off her personality.
“Life has many things to say, and to sing about, not just romantic love.”
The 22-year-old was born Quach Cam Le. She became a fan of Grammy-winning hip-hop band Bone Thugs N Harmony when she was 12, and started to work on her own songs.
Nguyen Thanh Tuan, 22, from HCMC, raps under the name JustaTee. He represents and contradicts Vietnamese hip-hop trends with songs like Forever Alone, which highlights the joy of being alone, free and adventurous. It has the R&B sound, but the message is that romance is futile.
The song has garnered nearly 49 million plays on Zing, the leading online music website in a 90-million strong country, and more than three million plays on YouTube. Several other songs by Tuan were also listened to millions of times on Zing.
All the way live
Several live shows held by the artists in Hanoi like “Buoc ra anh sang” (Come out to light) last April and Underground Revolution, the first hip-hop festival in the country last December, drew crowds of over a thousand.
Hip-hop music is also coming out to light through mainstream artists inviting rappers to add some non-ballad twists to their songs.
“Xin hay thu tha” (Apology), a 2009 hit by famous pop singer Ho Ngoc Ha, had a rap part that most listeners thought was done by Ha herself, but it was Suboi, then almost unknown in the local music world.
Kimmese said the wall between hip-hop and mainstream music in Vietnam has been lowered.
“Many people working in mainstream music currently integrate underground in their music for strange sound effects.”
The combination can bring many breakthroughs, she said.
Music critic Minh Duc said what is called “underground music” was born in Vietnam due to the young people’s desire to express their personality and to explore a new market segment.
“Their works carry different colors and clear individual signatures.”
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Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 18 issue of our print edition, Vietweek)