A protest singer finds her voice in Vietnam’s police state

The taxi was weaving through evening traffic, inches from the motorbikes that were swarming it like hornets.

>> Mike IvesThe New York Times
Published : 2 Oct 2018, 09:24 AM
Updated : 2 Oct 2018, 09:24 AM

Such manoeuvring, and proximity to danger, is common on Vietnamese roads. But Mai Khoi, the singer-songwriter in the back seat, said it felt familiar on more than one level.

“We keep going,” she said, speaking of artists who offer social commentary under the gaze of Vietnam’s sprawling police state. “But we have to be careful to avoid problems.”

Khoi, once a conventional pop star, is now a protest singer who challenges Vietnam’s political status quo. Her metamorphosis, and the government’s efforts to silence her, have drawn attention to the escalating repression of political activists since 2016 by the ruling Communist Party.

But in some ways Khoi, 34, is a unique amalgam of a performer: a young, female Vietnamese activist who has a public following, support from international human rights groups and a band whose traditional-yet-experimental sound defies easy categorisation.

“There aren’t really strong currents of protest music that she can fit into,” said Barley Norton, an ethnomusicologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has studied the history of music and censorship in modern Vietnam. “She works within the system, but in a way that’s less coded than a lot of the other musicians who might want to express things” about Vietnam’s political life, he said.

Khoi shared the 2018 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, an award whose previous recipients include Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Russian protest group Pussy Riot. In September, she toured the United States for the first time.

Most Vietnamese artists “cannot overcome their fears to really say what they think,” said Ngoc Dai, a well-known songwriter in Hanoi, the capital, whose own lyrics carry pointed social commentary. “Mai Khoi is a precious gem because she realised the mission of an artist is to speak about the common problems of a society.”

Singer Mai Khoi

Khoi was born and raised in the southern Vietnamese city of Cam Ranh, where her father teaches guitar and piano. She played in his wedding band as a teenager and won several singing competitions.

She later moved farther south to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial capital, and in 2010 became only the second female singer to win a prestigious song-writing award from Vietnam Television, a state-run broadcaster.

But in 2016, she broke ranks by making a quixotic run for Vietnam’s rubber-stamp National Assembly, partly as a way of advocating more freedom of expression in the one-party state. She was not the first independent candidate for office in Vietnam, but the move was highly unusual in a country where top officials are almost always Communist Party members.

“I just want to make politics more public,” she said at the time.

Khoi was not allowed onto the ballot, but President Barack Obama accepted her request to meet him during his trip to Vietnam a few weeks later. The meeting raised her international profile, but it also led to police raids of her concerts. (One was covered by a police newspaper, which reported that the concert was “unauthorised.”)

That dramatic spring was a “transformative catalyst” for Khoi’s career, said her husband, Benjamin Swanton, a social justice advocate and a doctoral student in social policy at the University of Sydney. “She ended up having this oppositional consciousness.”

Khoi said her shift away from conventional pop music has been partly inspired by fellow dissident artists she has met since 2016 at human rights conferences outside Vietnam. She said they have taught her crucial lessons about using art for social commentary in repressive societies.

She now lives in Hanoi, where she has formed a band with Quyen Thien Dac, a jazz saxophonist, and Nguyen Duc Minh, a multi-instrumentalist whose compositions are inspired by the music of some of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minority groups.

The trio’s first album, “Dissent,” was recorded during clandestine performances at their Hanoi rehearsal and performance studio. Khoi’s powerful voice feeds off jazzy sax arpeggios and a dissonant riot of wind and string instruments — some traditional, some invented — that might sound unfamiliar to Western ears. Norton, the ethnomusicologist, said the music was a clear departure from Khoi’s pop sound and perhaps a better fit for her new protest message.

The songs address political protests, detentions of prostitutes and a 2016 episode in which a forest ranger shot and killed two Communist Party officials, among other hot-button issues. Some lyrics read like clear challenges to authority, but they stop short of criticizing officials by name or calling for democracy — transgressions that typically land Vietnamese dissidents in prison.

“Raise our voice, speak, sing, scream,” Khoi sings in one lyric, according to a translation published in Mekong Review, a literary magazine that covers Southeast Asia, by the Hanoi-based author Nguyen Qui Duc. “Even as someone oppresses us, we still raise our voice.”

Khoi’s lyrics and activism, which often promote freedom of expression in an abstract way, are a far cry from the cerebral advocacy work practiced by some Vietnamese activists and human rights lawyers.

Still, her music carries a powerful message and appears to make the government uncomfortable, said one of her fans, Quoc Sy Nguyen, a Vietnamese medical researcher in Australia. “It’s a knife cutting into the soul of intellectuals and people who are concerned about our country’s destiny,” he said. The Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.

Khoi said that in addition to being effectively barred from performing in Vietnam, she has faced personal hardships because of her work. She and her husband were twice evicted from their apartment because of political pressure on their landlords, she said, and some friends have kept their distance for fear of associating with a dissident artist.

“People here have had to live under this system for 50 years and they’ve been scared of the police every day,” she said on a recent evening at the Hanoi performance space, where the floor was littered with microphone stands and wooden instruments. “I cannot judge them. I just feel sad.”

She said that to minimise the risk of arrest, she has scaled back what she writes on Facebook. Her band, Mai Khoi Chem Gio, has also removed the word “dissidents” from its name.

But she has not stayed silent. When President Donald Trump visited Vietnam last year, for example, she flashed an obscene sign at his motorcade. She is also writing an autobiographical graphic novel and, in collaboration with Hanoi artist Thinh Nguyen, preparing a virtual-reality art installation that will simulate her experience of being trolled on the internet.

Khoi performed in New York City for the first time in September, at National Sawdust, a small venue in Brooklyn. Sitting on stage in a glittering jacket, she told the audience that the songs in the performance were from “the album that I can’t release in my own country.”

“I’m trying to express myself freely, but that led me to troubles, and I don’t know what to do to change that,” she said, nearly whispering. “I just write a song.”

© 2018 New York Times News Service