Meet Vietnam's Biggest Renegade Female Rapper
Suboi is pure fire. Her rhymes, her look, her attitude—she’s killer. As Vietnam’s first huge female rapper, she’s taken the country by storm, using her music as a force for both turning up—as I do when I blast her music and dance on the subway—and for social change. Su, as she’s affectionately known, uses her substantial platform to stand up against censorship laws in her country, writing sneakily clever lyrics that subvert governmental restrictions.
Her latest single, “Đời,” manages to turn a tragic family tale into a thrilling anthem. The video, directed by Alexa Karolinski, shows off Su’s toughness and commanding stage presence. There’s also a lot of pink neon. And pink neon is always a win.
Born Hàng Lâm Trang Anh in Ho Chi Minh City, Suboi started listening to rap after getting into nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. She became a rapper herself after discovering Eminem at 17, who inspired her with his frank cursing. She’s since become a major star in Vietnam, opening for Skrillex, inking deals with Adidas, and even landing her own yogurt flavor.
Suboi is in the U.S. now for her second trip to South by Southwest. She played last night, and will be hitting the stage again on both March 18th and March 19th. The rapper went straight from Vietnam to LAX to our shoot at Milk LA (shot by John Tsiavis and styled by David Bonney) and, from there, went on to play three days in a row at the festival. She doesn’t stop. We managed to catch her during a rare moment of downtime to talk censorship, domestic drama, and why she’s not a “gangster.”
You use a lot of metaphors to comment on the government. How do you go about doing that?
It’s not just about the government, but anything that [the censors] might think is sensitive. Like saying a bad word or something about death. It’s just weird. I don’t want to limit myself. So I try to get closer to the mass media, where a lot of people can listen. I make songs that may sound like a children’s melody, like a traditional Vietnamese children’s song that everybody knows, and then I write the lyrics in English. To them, I have to translate everything. They want to know exactly what I say. So, okay! Some of the things I write are a little dirty, but I translated it a nice way.
Now I kind of like it because it has challenged me to actually think about my poetry and how to put it into flow. So I try to make my structure more poetic.
“Whenever I hear something cool from [the guys], I have to do it better.”
And is it difficult to deal with a very male-dominated industry?
I don’t even think there is an industry—it’s more like an ego. Those guys are like, “Ugh, this girl. What are you saying? She’s the queen or some shit? We’ve a lot more skill.” So I have to fucking compare myself to them. Whenever I hear something cool from them, I have to do it better. Since I was 17, I was in the underground crew, but I feel like I was always the one who was following them around. But I can rap. So at this point, I don’t want to compare myself to them anymore. They’re just in one place, they’re being narrow-minded. I’m looking outside.
Are you trying for world domination? Are you trying to break out of Vietnam?
I don’t know. I want to go outside of Vietnam, as far as I can go. It’s not like I want to be a Rihanna or something—that’s going to take a long time. And also, I’ve started to understand more about race, the race thing in America. For me, I’m in Vietnam, and everyone is either local or a foreigner. Now I travel outside, and it’s like, “Oh, shit man. There’s a problem.” I really don’t understand it. But to me, music is the same language. So I’m traveling with my music. I’m going out.
The first time I traveled to the States, I got into a taxi cab. And then a man asked me, “Oh yeah, where are you from?” And I said, “I’m from Vietnam.” And then the man said, “Where is that?” I was like, “Oh shit. You know Thailand?” And he said, “Oh, I know.” And I told him we’re neighbors. And then another man told me, “I only know about Vietnam through the war.” And I was like, “Oh shit man, that was like 30 years ago. We’re moving on.” That’s the first thing I want to do, to make people see the Vietnam right now.
Yeah, totally. The war was so long ago. That makes me so sad to hear that.
It almost [has] the same anniversary as Saturday Night Live.
This is your second SXSW in a row. How is it? What’s it like to perform there?
Oh, it’s more than just performing. It’s a challenge for me. It’s funny—I played in New York last year. And I heard New York people are, like, cool and they’re not gonna cheer for you, they’re not gonna react. They see music every day, they’re spoiled. But actually that was the most fun tour I did in the States.
At SXSW, I think there’s more industry people [in the audience]. And I perform at the bars, like a cowboy bar. It’s giving me a little anxiety. I was on the same stage with a Brazilian guy, and an American, and people who do hip-hop too. But I can’t believe people would cheer for me [and] Asian hip-hop. They really liked my music, actually.
Yeah they should, cause it’s awesome! And I’m sure it’ll be good this year, too. This is kind of a silly question, but I’m curious. I read on the Guardian that there is a yogurt company that made a flavor named after you. What is the flavor, where can I buy it, what does it taste like? Are you into it?
Oh my God. I mean it was just for the summer, in 2012. It was funny, like, a Suboi flavor. Everybody kinda had a joke on me, like, “Oh yeah, how’s your flavor? Can I taste your yogurt?” or some shit like that. I’m like, “Yeah whatever, man, I just wanna make money.” But it was a fun project. The flavor was—do you wanna guess?
Oh God, I don’t know if I can guess. I don’t know what your taste in yogurt is!
It was peach flavor.
Sounds dope. In that same Guardian article, there’s a video where you say, “I’m no gangster, but I do get mad a lot.” Does people ask you about being a “gangster” a lot?
I think it’s a kind of stereotype. Sometimes, the guy [rappers], they think that, “Oh, you’re only a real rapper if you’re gangster and you do gangster shit.” Like you’re acting hard, and then you rap something really really tough, like you’re gonna kill everybody—I think that’s just stupid. Cause we’re from Vietnam, you know? After the war, everything had to, like, blow up again, so you don’t know shit about fighting, honestly. And now—why you do wanna fight your own people, when the government is right there?
I’m not against the government, but there’s something you have to do when they don’t care about you. You have to look after each other. That’s what I think. And I’m from a middle-class family, but I saw some shit. I saw [people with] needles, doing [drugs] in front of my house, and [people] stealing, killing shit… But, I think it’s more because of the [lack of] education. That’s what I always say about Vietnam—I don’t think the government wants the people to know too [much]. The biggest weapon is to educate yourself. There’s more [to being a real rapper] than being a gangster.
I think you just schooled them right there. To finish up, can you tell me about your new single, “Đời”?
It’s about my dad, [and] when he was going through the stress of losing his house—and he worked his whole life for his house. And then one day, the cops just come in and are like, “Oh, you gotta prove this is your house,” or something like that. They came at 1AM, and I don’t think they just come like that. I think somebody had to say something.
Being a man in an Asian culture, in Vietnam, it’s like you have to take care of everybody, take care of the whole family. So my dad was humiliated about what people thought of him. Like, shit happened to him, he was in motorcycle accidents, and then he also had this humiliation. So I wrote this song just about this event, to show that things are sometimes kinda unexpected.
I’m really sorry to hear that that happened to your dad, but you also turned it into something really beautiful.
I actually want to say something more positive, because before I was kinda mad about life. Like, “Ugh, people work so hard and they earn nothing.” But you know, you just take it. Whatever comes, comes. Ready for anything.
Styling Assistant: Charlie Brianna, @charliebrianna
Shot at Milk Studios LA, Studio 1.