She is known as Vietnam’s queen of hip-hop, an outspoken artist who raps via coded lyrics about family, love, social pressures and illegal substances in a country where artists regularly worry about being visited by the authorities.
However, Suboi, 23, is defiant. As the first female rapper to make it big in the communist country of 92 million, she said that censorship — and how to get around it — is always on her mind.
“It’s a big thing here if you say anything bad about [the government], because maybe you’ll just ‘disappear,’” the tiny artist said over noodles in a downtown Ho Chi Minh City cafe. “Obviously you can’t say it straight — we’re still too worried to talk openly about the government and politics — so you pretend to write a love song but you have to read between the lines. Otherwise they’ll ban you.”
Born Hang Lam Trang Anh to a middle-class family in Ho Chi Minh City, Suboi began singing in an underground nu-metal band at 17, when she discovered the various rapping styles of Linkin Park, Will Smith, Mos Def and Rakim.
“No one knew what rap was when I started,” she says. “So I didn’t know how Vietnamese people would react to it. If you come from America, there’s lots of rap there, but the culture, the language is not the same here. I didn’t have any examples to be inspired by.”
So Suboi — whose onstage name is derived from her nickname Su and “boi” for her tomboy attitude — was forced to pave her own way. She swapped her “metal” clothes for baggy trousers and baseball caps — at times discovering her oversized trousers falling dangerously low while on stage — and taught herself English by rapping along to Eminem.
“All he does is curse — that’s why my English is so bad and rude,” she laughs. “I remember one song he wrote for his ex-wife, Kim: ‘Bitch, I’m-a kill you, you don’t wanna fuck with me.’ That was what I learned first.”
Suboi’s popularity has coincided with — and arguably helped to stoke — an increasing desire to reach out culturally in previously unthinkable ways.
More than half of Vietnam’s population is under 25 and beatboxing, breakdancing and at-home music producing are growing trends among youth who admire the rebellious aspect of doing something different in a country that has long preferred to keep a tight rein on its citizens.
“Suboi’s cool because she speaks her mind,” said Thanh Hoa Tranh, 26, a female fan in Hanoi. “Too much music today involves love songs and being a quiet, good girl. She’s not like that. That’s why we like her.”
So far, Suboi says, she has been lucky to avoid any government inspection, being too underground an artist to alert the authorities. However, that is changing.
Suboi’s YouTube videos have tens of thousands of views; she has more than 200,000 fans on Facebook; brands such as Adidas and Samsung have cashed in on her youthful popularity for their marketing campaigns; a yoghurt company created a Suboi flavor and she plays to huge festivals at home and adoring crowds in neighboring countries such as Thailand.
She has also performed live with Midlands-born MC Lady Leshurr and is planning a tour in Japan for the end of the year.
Part of her popularity can be attributed to the fact that she is helping to bring the outside world in, combining genres such as dubstep, trance and electro with hip-hop to create a style of music never before heard in Vietnam, producer Do Nhau said.