A monk intones a parable about life and death over a bubbling keyboard, his words a somber portent of what is to follow. The simple walking bass line builds momentum, programmed beats punch out a lolloping reggae skank, and Cam — one of the three-man Ho Chi Minh City hip-hop crew Hazard Clique — kicks into gear.
As his colleagues, Blacka and Pain, join him, the verse flows into a catchy, counted-out chorus — perfect for fans to sing back at Hazard Clique’s increasingly packed-out shows in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s hip-hop scene attracted global attention in 2016 when one of its more commercial-minded and marketable figures, Ho Chi Minh City rapper Suboi, gave an impromptu performance to then-U.S. president Barack Obama during his visit to the country. But Suboi — her real name is Hàng Lâm Trang Anh — isn’t alone. She’s part of a musical movement that has rapidly grown in the communist nation since the turn of the millennium.
Rap … can describe clearly the good side and the bad side of life in a communist country like Vietnam.
Acy, Vietnamese hip-hop artist
In the post-reunification years after the Vietnam War, the triumphal, militaristic strains of nhac do (red music) was the only style permitted by authorities and the country’s rich musical legacy was largely left to wither. But in recent years, as Vietnam has slowly opened up, international influences have taken hold in major cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and have been reshaped by musicians and producers with a local twist.
While everything from psychedelic rock to breakbeat and EDM can be found in clubs and live music venues, Vietnamese youth have taken particularly strongly to hip-hop — drawn, suggests hip-hop artist Acy, to the genre’s richness of “flavor” and “color.”
“Rap is the only kind of music that can describe clearly the good side and the bad side of life in a communist country like Vietnam,” says Acy, one of the founding members of leading Ho Chi Minh City collective G Family, who are regarded as seminal players in the underground hip-hop community of southern Vietnam. “It has a full sound, and it feels new and fresh to the younger generation. Other types of music are gray and weak.”
There’s no one theme that Vietnamese hip-hop artists focus on. Hazard Clique are equally comfortable singing about partying or drinking as they are about more serious subjects, says Pain, aka Adrian Rodgers. Originally from Oban, Scotland, Rodgers is the only non-Vietnamese member of the group.
One of their hit numbers, “Bon, Ba, Hai, Mot” (“4,3,2,1”), recounts the bleak story of a worker in the northern province of Yen Bai who murders his exploitative boss before turning the gun on himself. Typical Vietnamese chart fodder, a litany of air-brushed pop-poppets cooing sweet nothings or lamenting lost love, this is not. “Love songs aren’t our thing,” says Pain, laughing. “Neither do we care about getting played on the radio.” What the group does care about, he says, is authenticity. “We don’t sugarcoat things.”
In fact, the subtle nuances of the language offer Vietnamese writers a rare opportunity for subversion. Although the country has opened in many ways, government control — and censorship — remains strict. By utilizing metaphors, in-jokes and double meanings, rappers can get away with talking about still-taboo subjects like sex, drugs and politics.
“Vietnamese people don’t always have the chance to express themselves freely,” explains Pain. “So, what better way of doing it than hip-hop? Whichever element of it.”
Appreciation for this lyrical dexterity — not to mention the sheer power of the beats and delivery — has seen acts like Hazard Clique and G Family and solo artists like Wowy Nguyen, Dat Maniac and Son Nguyen become household names to hip-hop fans in Vietnam. Their videos receive millions of likes and shares on YouTube, while live shows and rap battles attract a devoted and boisterous audience.
Before, the audience at a hip-hop performance would have been almost 99 percent foreigners, says Nguyen Hong Giang, a young producer who has written more than 1,000 songs. “These days it is more like 50-50 between Vietnamese and expatriates,” says the bespectacled prodigy, whose collaborations have seen him mastermind local YouTube sensations in a dazzling array of styles ranging from avant-garde underground tracks to out-and-out party bangers.
That growing audience means hip-hop is now emerging as a lucrative career in Vietnam. “It used to be that we did shows for a few beers and a bit of weed,” says Pain. “Now, we are making good money, which allows us to invest more back into our music.” The inflow of cash allows artists to improve their production quality and bring out better promotional photos. “People take you more seriously,” says Pain.
Nguyen Hong Giang agrees. Local artists are making more money, he says. And if you’re good at multiple styles, like he is, “the pay is better,” he says with a wink.
At Piu Piu, a club in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, the genre’s ability to bridge cultural divides is visible — as is the response of a new generation of Vietnamese to this cross-pollination of influences. As Hazard Clique perform, the rappers trade verses in English and Vietnamese. The fans, meanwhile, respond with equal enthusiasm to freestyle as to crafted pieces of musical theater like “Bon, Ba, Hai, Mot.”
“It’s truthful and it’s exciting,” says Nguyen Phuc Viet, a local B-boy, as he mops sweat from his brow. “That’s why we love it.”
Photograph by Christian Berg/Laif/Redux
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