Suboi moves through a neon-lit shrine in new song ‘Đời’ and talks with us about censorship, family breakdown and going to America
Vietnam’s Suboi learnt to rap by listening to Eminem and Mos Def, and got her first break at 15 fronting a Linkin Park covers band. Now aged 26, Suboi has left behind her nu-metal past to become one of Vietnam’s most successful rappers, and one of the first internationally successful female rappers to emerge from the country. Born and raised in Saigon, Suboi pens lyrics covering themes of family, love and social pressures, while subtly bypassing the country’s censorship by embedding her criticisms within intricate wordplay.
Her new video for “Đời”, directed by Alexa Karolinski, sees Suboi move through a set based on a traditional Vietnamese household shrine. Watch it and read an interview with the rapper below.
What are the lyrical themes of your new song?
Suboi: ‘Đời’ is the story of my dad when he was going through the stress of losing our house. He worked his whole life for our family, got into many motorbike accidents, and then lost his job around the same time. From what I saw, dealing with humiliation as the man of the family was what broke him down. I wrote this song about this event to show that things in life are sometimes unexpected.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for your lyrics back in Vietnam?
Suboi: If I want to release songs nationwide I have to go through censorship – the songs must be approved by the ministry of culture. If lyrics are not in Vietnamese, they have to be translated. I’ve been warned about what would not be ‘appropriate’ when I first started so I wrote my lyrics within the limit. However, I got questioned about one song title where I didn’t want to use the same word like everyone else would. When you’re trying to reach a larger, mainstream audience in Vietnam, creativity is limited because of censorship. However, the internet has opened a viral door for everyone so I can choose the best way to reach different audiences.
What sort of things did you and director Alexa Karolinski discuss before shooting its video?
Suboi: We agreed on decorating the set based on this Vietnamese household shrine (bàn thờ ông Địa). Almost every Vietnamese house has one, which displays two divine figures who are supposed to keep the house safe. It looked amazing in the video. I appear as two opposite personas; one is angry about life and the other one is calm and mysterious.
What are you working on at the moment?
Suboi: In a few days, I’m coming back to the US to perform at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. It’s actually an honour being invited to SXSW because it’s not an easy process and last year I was the first Vietnamese artist to be invited. To be invited for the second year in a row is amazing. In terms of music, I’m working on some new songs with young, emerging Vietnamese producers that people haven’t heard of here in Vietnam. They are all fresh faces in the Vietnamese music scene. I’ve been working with producers overseas as well. I’ve been experimenting with my lyrics, trying to find new ways to tell stories. I want to check out and explore the different artists around the world. What I’ve seen in the past years was addictive and I’m dying for more knowledge, but more than that, it’s the experience of enjoying music.
What other Vietnamese artists should we be looking out for?
Suboi: Check out Wowy, Nah, Datmaniac, Black Murder – they are some good artists who are starting to make noise in the Vietnamese hip hop scene.