Just because hip hop has traveled outside of the United States does not mean that it has escaped U.S. idiosyncrasies. Take hip hop in Vietnam, for example. While before researching the topic, I honestly expected the whole scene to be underground, there is actually a mainstream hip hop presence in the Southeast Asian country as well as a disgust for that presence in Vietnam’s underground hip hop arena. Sound similar to the tension between “street”—or underground—and mainstream hip hop in the United States?
Mainstream hip hop in Vietnam is characterized as “clean,” according to a 2008 Phillip Merrill College of Journalism article called “Hip Hop Hanoi Style: Dancing in the Shadow of Lenin and Uncle Ho.” Hip hop in Vietnam’s mainstream is considered more trendy, a style for rich kids, if you will. Lyrics are considered friendly and unthreatening overall, with messages lacking political or “street” references. Instead, these artists rap about love, life, school, and dancing—basically, issues that will sell to the masses.
Part of the reason for the “watered down” mainstream hip hop lyrics is attributed to Vietnam’s status as a Socialist government. Although the country’s market economy is considered to be an open one, speech is still censored with strict penalties for those who dare speak politically and religiously.
In other words, there is considered to be less freedom to speak one’s mind. With this being the case, I can see how the mainstream hip hop scene might not be an ideal place for more “resistant,” or edgy lyrics. Such words are usually buried in such an environment.
We find these words underground. Here, Vietnamese artists share their insights on “real” issues like growing up in the streets, participating in drug use, the current state of music, and social issues, according to a December 2013 Asia Life article, “Underground Vietnamese Hip Hop.” artists from an underground group called G Family share their frustrations with mainstream hip hop, saying that it is fake. The article names Vietnamese female hip hop artist Suboi as one of these mainstream artists.
Well, being the journalist that I am, I had to listen and watch for myself. Sure, after watching some of Suboi’s music videos, I can see that she uses beats that I would consider to be mainstream, having a pop-like feel to them. I can also hear that when she raps in English, her lyrics are basic, often repetitive actually, and yes she does rap and sing about love and friendship.
However, the claim that mainstream artists like Suboi are “fake” is an interesting one because some of her more popular songs I listened to, like “Chat Rieng Cua Toi” (My Own Quality, roughly translated), actually mention her attempts to be real, to be herself.
Another interesting aspect of underground Vietnamese artists calling mainstream artists fake, is the way these underground artists actually reflect the very artists they claim to resent. When listening to G Family’s tracks, I noticed they also use beats that I would consider mainstream, pop-like. Yes, there are some “harder” beats that reflect Eminem’s style and when they rap in English I can hear that their lyrics are better than mainstream artists, but some of their clothing styles and photo poses are not much different from what Suboi’s.
What unites these two segments of Vietnamese hip hop is the passion driving the music, evident and at its best when the artists rap in Vietnamese. They are making hip hop their own, whether in the main spotlight or in the dark, underground.