In a land of simpering karaoke stars, Việt Nam’s first female rappers are foul-mouthed queens of the lyrical underground — battling government censorship and rampant piracy to spit flow and make dough.
Hip-hop is a new import to the communist country of some 90 million, where society is still dominated by conservative values.
Young women producing profanity-laced rap about partying and getting high raises eyebrows.
But having shot to fame at 14 as Việt Nam’s first mainstream rap act, Kimmese SpaceSpeakers — who discovered the genre through a single Bone Thugs-n-Harmony song on a karaoke VCD — is nonchalant about her notoriety.
“I do what I want.”
Said the singer, 23, who has given up on Vietnamese record labels and is releasing her second studio album independently.
“None of them can produce me now… they don’t understand my music.”
Kimmese took a four-year career break at 17, a hiatus she says was spent mostly drunk and partying, and then re-emerged as a powerful R&B vocalist straddling Vietnam’s musical underground and mainstream.
She cuts an unusual figure in her native Hà Nội, Việt Nam’s conservative communist capital: strikingly beautiful, she is covered in tatoos with waist-length green hair.
It is an image that chimes with her broader message, she said.
“In Việt Nam, if men have tattoos, it’s cool.
But if a woman has tattoos they call you a bad girl.
It’s fine to be a bad girl!
Man – good girls are boring.”
She told AFP.
She’s “not interested” in politics and so doesn’t rap about it, but her profanity-strewn lyrics are groundbreaking in the authoritarian country where standard mainstream pop fare is about patriotism, love and being a good girl.
Swag and sisterhood
Traditional social attitudes still dominate in Việt Nam and women fall under considerable pressure to marry, have children and then cook for their husbands.
Kimmese gives short shrift to those expectations.
“I wanna be equal!
And I want to tell them (Vietnamese women) that if I can do it, then you all can do it,” said the singer, who makes little money from her songs due to rampant piracy but has lucrative advertising deals with Pepsi and KFC.
You can do it, get out of the shadow of men and do whatever you want to do…
Nobody has the right to judge you.”
Kimmese said, in her near-flawless American-accented English, learned from rap songs.
She has recently come out, and thrown her support behind the campaign to legalise gay marriage in Việt Nam.
Seeing Kimmese perform was what inspired Hồ Chí Minh City-based Suboi to start rapping.
She joined a school friend’s rock band which performed Linkin Park covers, learning her profanity-laced English along the way.
Her style and lyrics have evolved: she started out wearing baggy clothes and scored her first hit re-writing a popular children’s song in English.
Now, she dresses more elegantly.
“I don’t want to be stereotyped like ‘you’re a rapper you’ve gotta look like this’ but if you wanna battle me I can freestyle.”
As one of the few female rappers in a male-dominated industry she is always trying to prove herself — but she also has little time for the ego-driven competitiveness of the underground scene.
“Other rappers, they’re more underground, they think they’re like superstars…
But I’m sorry, I can talk about the truth without swearing.
I can go another way.
“I want to show that women can be strong, like it’s not just guys can do rap.”
After a bad experience with a possessive, violent boyfriend, she also wants to send a message to young Vietnamese women — in a country where domestic violence is widespread and remains taboo — that they do not have to accept it.
Read between the lines
Suboi’s lyrics are often coded.
“We cannot say something super straight.
You have to read between the lines.”
“You can’t talk about drugs, you can’t talk about sex… people don’t want to hear it, actually, because government don’t want to hear it.”
She said, adding that she has no desire to take on the system for now.
“I have a lot of rage in me about the country (but) if I say something about government I might be in a bad way.”
Both Kimmese and Suboi have a massive social media presence with hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook.
They regularly perform overseas but say it is hard to get concerts in Vietnam.
Most major concerts in Việt Nam feature state-sanctioned stars singing bland, patriotic ballads — not rap divas talking swag and sisterhood.
“I can smile, but rap is rap.”
For Hồ Hoài Anh, a music producer and song writer who has worked with both Kimmese and Suboi — who are friends and have featured each other in their songs — the two female artists represent a new wave of Vietnamese musical talent.
“In Vietnamese culture, even in the arts, women try and appear very understated, very feminine and gentle.”
He said, adding the pair defied this norm.
“They have strong personalities. They express a desire common to many Vietnamese women:
To have a more fulfilling professional life, to be less passive in general, not to be junior to men.”
“Their music speaks to the aspirations and the realities of modern life for Vietnamese women.”