A friend of mine, who is now living in the United States, once said that if he were to pick some rappers to represent Vietnam’s rap scene, he would choose only two people: Datmaniac and Suboi. Personally, I think those are good choices. These two artists both have very distinguishable delivery. Suboi’s lyrics always show a unique combination between English and Vietnamese languages; She doesn’t try to change her Southern accent when she spits the verses. Datmaniac, on the other hand, is famous for his fast-paced style, with the speed of 8.8 words per second. His vocabulary is rich, and his Vietnamese word plays are intriguing (i.e., Đỉnh núi tuyết của nuối tiếc, Côn đồ trên con đò, or Thiên hà trước hiên nhà).
One thing I like about the two rappers is that whereas many Vietnamese rappers seem to be interested in dissing each other and stuffing their lyrics with references to the gangster world, drug use, violence, sex, money, cars, and suchlike, Damaniac and Suboi advocate nurture instead of competition, egalitarianism instead of hierarchy. They are more of the emcees, who rap to uplift people rather than to degrade them.
Vietnamese rap is profoundly influenced by American hip-hop culture, but our life in Vietnam is much different from that in the US. Datmaniac and Suboi, albeit influenced by certain American rappers, still manage to create their own signature in lyrical ability, versatility, consistency, and political awareness. And above all, they’re able to talk about social issues from their own perspective and through their own personal stories.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly tells the story of a young man from Compton caught up in dreams of success, peer pressure, drugs, and gang violence. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) revolves around the themes of Hill’s pregnancy, the turmoil within her former group the Fugees, her love, and her faith in God. All the above examples are meant to say that great music is supposed to tell a personal story, which is relatable to a larger group of people. And this is where we find Datmaniac and Suboi stark contrast to their contemporaries.
When we juxtapose Suboi with Sơn Tùng M-TP, for example, we could see that Sơn Tùng tries to imitate the styles of global artists. Hardly does he add in local references to the visuals of his music videos. His latest single, Muộn rồi mà sao còn, adopts the setting of an urban stadium, which is much of cross-national imagery. Though such a way of making music attracts a lot of youths in Vietnam who are appealed to global values, Sơn Tùng gets very humble recognition from world critics perhaps because what he does has already been done by the artists in other countries. Suboi, on the other hand, tries to tell a local story through her single N-SAO? in which she curated the representative images of Saigon, the busiest city of Vietnam: women motorcyclists with face masks like street ninjas, a fruit vendor in an open-air market, lottery ticket selling, binge drinking (or “nhậu”), or karaoke singing in the neighborhood. The imagery presented in this music video is very typical of Vietnam, and her lyrics in that song tell a lot about how Vietnamese people live.
In Cho Không, Suboi makes use of the joss paper, which is part of Vietnamese culture, to create the visuals. And Bet on me, another music video of hers, is filled with the images of the Vietnamese rural landscape, with the padding fields and the country dwellers. These videos show that Suboi is trying to tell a local story, and surprisingly, she attracts the global attention more than Sơn Tùng M-TP.
However, it’s noteworthy that although Suboi portrays Vietnamese culture, she’s having a sort of Western gaze. This is the case maybe because she got exposed to American culture at a very young age, and she got married to a French man of Vietnamese origin, Nodey, who used to collaborate with Hương Thanh. Nodey’s views on Vietnamese culture that tend to focus on the exotic vibe in the Western eyes might be different from that of people growing up in Vietnam, which explains why the depictions of Vietnamese culture by Hoàng Thùy Linh or Bích Phương are not the same as Suboi’s and why Western media are interested in Suboi. Suboi also has a sort of swaggy looks with slim fit body type and tan skin. American liberals love Suboi because her public image also promotes the idea of cultural multiplicity and diversity.
Suboi’s Southern Vietnamese accent is unique and has become her hallmark in the Vietnamese rap scene. She even uses Southern dialects in writing lyrics, and the way she delivers her lines is pretty much like everyday screams and shouts on Saigon’s streets:
Sáng thứ hai đẹp trời đạp xe về ngã tư Quận 3
Bánh mì thịt kính mời mà sao dòm hoài hổng ra
Toà nhà mới ở đâu mà ra hmm
Tám bốn bảy bốn đi khắp chốn cũng là về tới nhà
Bánh xe này chắp vá đó là ngày hôm qua
Đứng lại ê cô gái em có nghe tiếng la
Ahhhhh tui là Vina cờ xanh năm lá
Anh chị em quây quần ba ba ba
Saigonese nhiều khi dô sung quá
Xin bật loa trình bày đơn ca
Nà đời vui thì n-sao nà (đời vui thì n-sao nà)
One beautiful Monday morning, cycling to the familiar intersection of District 3
“Bánh mì thịt – welcome”
But I couldn’t recognize this place, where is this new building from?
I’ve been everywhere but I always find my way home
This patchwork wheel is yesterday
Hey girls, do you hear someone yelling?
I’m a Vinja green 5-leafed flag
Brothers and sisters gather around with 333
Saigonese sometimes “dzô” (cheers) too much
I’m turning up the speakers to start my solo.
Life is happy so what?
Now I’m happy so what?
(to be continued)