Why you should care
Because ladies first.
My ears are basically bleeding as Quách Cẩm Lê cranks up the volume on her new single, “Yolo Smokin’ Weed.” Rage and rebellion explode into my skull. The tatted-up rapper, who takes her cues from hip-hop goddesses like Lil’ Kim, taps her army-grade Doc Martens as she busts out rhymes at a million miles an hour. Make no mistake, there’s nothing cutesy about this 26-year-old hip-hop phenom. “Bitch, I’m back — by popular demand,” she says, sucking on a cigarette outside a mall in Hanoi, Vietnam.
She’s not the only one reaching for the mic either. In a country where state-approved pop stars and syrupy-sweet ballads of the Bieber variety tend to top the charts, a female-fueled rap scene is fearlessly fighting back with profanity-laced lyrics and feminist overtures. With Saigonese swagger, 27-year-old Hàng Lâm Trang Anh is the crowned queen of hip-hop in Ho Chi Minh City and harps on gender stereotypes and “old-school” conservatism through her music.
Hip-hop is revolution. I see hip-hop as the voice of the people.
Suboi, the Queen of Hip-Hop in Ho Chi Minh City
So too does the rap trio G.Plus, whose spitfire beats boldly proclaim the end of misogyny in Vietnam’s rural countryside. Meanwhile, Lê is like a whirlwind of the world’s most rabble-rousing rappers combined with the down-low spitters of the Vietnamese underground. With gender inequality soaring in Vietnam — including a growing pay gap and rising discrimination against women in recent years, according to U.N. Women — more women are turning to rhyme as a way to make themselves heard. “Hip-hop is revolution,” says Anh, who goes by her stage name Suboi. In Vietnam, “I see hip-hop as the voice of the people.”
For most of the world, hip-hop may still feel like a brawlin’ boys club. But in Vietnam, a strong dose of sisterhood is now unabashedly entering the fray. Together, these leading ladies of rap already have plenty to brag about — a spot on Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Asia” in 2017, a packed performance at South by Southwest, appearances on reality-TV shows such as Vietnam Idol, international concerts from Australia to Ukraine and millions of records sold so far.
At home, they owe their success partly to a fanatical social media following, which includes more than one million Facebook fans. Their music videos are also viral sensations, racking up hundreds of millions of views in a matter of weeks after hitting YouTube. That’s quite a feat for a nation with barely 50 million active internet users, according to Statista. But such “strong” personalities are hard to ignore, says Hoàng Touliver, a music producer in Vietnam. They don’t sugarcoat the struggles of today’s Vietnamese women. The trend holds true elsewhere in Asia, where emerging female rappers like Chaelin Lee in South Korea, Coma-Chi in Japan and Dai Bao Jing in China are striving to dismantle deeply ingrained gender stereotypes in the region.
Of course, these women don’t carry the same street cred as someone like superstar Nicki Minaj, who currently touts a net worth of some $70 million and has dozens of major music awards lining her shelves. Not to mention, Vietnam is thousands of miles away from the bustling New York City boroughs where hip-hop was born and bred in the early 1970s. But from the lily-white Starbucks cups to the Heineken billboards that fill Vietnam’s waterfronts, Western influences seem inescapable in Southeast Asia. At times, female hip-hop artists in Vietnam have tweaked U.S. rap culture to fit their own. And when done haphazardly, that fusion can often sound like complete discord — vapid references to the Bronx, ill-conceived drops of the N-word and awkward nods to ballin’ in a country better known for, well, badminton. “The flow comes out very differently,” admits Lê, who started rapping at age 14 and is called Kimmese by her doting fans.
Rap may feel out of place in Vietnam, but this kind of music actually is a natural successor to the country’s long history of creative female expression. In the early 19th century, an era steeped in Confucian traditions, saucy women like Hồ Xuân Hương wrote about their, um, “jackfruit” and used crafty poetry to talk about eroticism, political oppression and religious hypocrisy. Hương was indeed the champion of the double entendre, interweaving taboos with not-so-subtle, sensual undertones and lending a rare, raunchy voice that defiantly challenged the status quo.
Ditto for authors like Nguyen Gia Thieu, Dang Tran Con and Nguyen Du, who followed in her footsteps and all used fictional literature to discuss hot-button topics in Vietnam. In her paper “Gender Equality and Women’s Issues in Vietnam,” University of Denver law professor Wendy Duong sheds light on the sly strategy: This “glass bottle” approach allows us to “see and understand the controversial idea, but the author is more or less insulated from government interference because the idea is only fiction.” Decades later, Vietnam’s budding female rappers are still expressing “between the lines,” says Anh, who listened to bootleg rap CDs like The Slim Shady during her teens.
Perhaps that explains how Anh and the growing cadre of outspoken “femcee” rappers have managed to dodge Vietnam’s censors as of late. In a one-party state, entertainers must get approval for their lyrics, onstage performances and any major media appearances from the country’s Ministry of Culture, notes Anh, although the ministry did not respond to requests for comment. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has jailed the lion share of activists and bloggers in recent years, second only to neighboring China.
Nevertheless, other artists are going the rogue route — breaking lucrative ties with record labels and becoming independent artists who can say what they want, when they want. “Making music based on freedom,” says Lê, who’s now going solo after years with her agent. That kind of underdog mentality underpins Vietnam, a country that survived centuries of colonization and decades of war with Goliath-size foes. “We’ve been in the battlefield,” adds Anh.
The bass-heavy beat ends, but my ears are still ringing. Before Lê turns to leave, she sticks out her tongue and flashes me a “rock on” sign. The perfect symbol of f*ck-you self-expression.