Censorship Won't Stop Suboi From Leading Her Vietnamese Rap Generation Out Of The Shadows

"I always wanted to express myself through my music, no matter what."

A Plus recently caught up with Vietnamese rapper Suboi.

You might remember her from that time she casually dropped a freestyle for President Obama, but this outspoken individual from Saigon has so much more to offer than that viral video.

She's currently spearheading the Vietnamese rap scene, despite facing censorship from the government, and is making some big waves on the global scene, too.

Her music is powerful and full of angst from years of facing gender discrimination, economic injustice, and betrayal. She says she leaves all her emotions in her music and you can get a taste for her attitude in our interview below.

Can you tell us about your background, where you’re from and how you got involved in music?

Suboi: My name is Suboi and I am a rapper from Saigon, Vietnam. Growing up, listening to music, I found that it was the only way for me to confide in myself. That was also mostly how I learned English. 

I've liked hip-hop since I was a teenager, but in Vietnamese culture, speaking one's mind is not a
thing they encourage. So, it was kinda hard for me to express myself, and I was kind of shy and unsure about saying a lot of things.

As soon as I listened to Eminem, my mind was blown! I wanted to rap, and so that's how it all started.

Who were some of your influences that made you want to get into rap and music?

It wasn't like that one person or just one moment. It wasn't like, "Bang! Yeah let's rap like this person." 

However, there are artists that inspire me from time to time like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Method Man & Redman, A Tribe Called Quest, ASAP Rocky and Young Thug to name a few… 

I also listen to international artists like Stromae from Belgium, Skepta from England to Kool Savas of Germany.

Can you tell us about the Vietnamese rap scene, the culture and the music you like to make? How has it evolved in your time growing up?

Suboi: When I started, hip-hop wasn't that big. Thanks to the Internet, we now have a lot of young awesome Vietnamese rappers. There are also forums, chats on blogs and YouTube, which help a lot for artists to reach out to the world. Digital is everything. 

That means people can now promote themselves, to connect with people, fans and make a video so everyone can see without having to be on TV. They also don't have to go through censorship, which makes them hood and real. That's never bad. 

Hip-hop is starting to have its place and I'm just trying to be a part of that Vietnamese scene. I want hip-hop to be respected as a part of the culture like it is in the US.

You are very socially conscious and talk a lot about expressing yourself, economic injustices in your country and the sexism you face as a female rapper. Why is it important for you to address these issues on behalf of your generation and the Vietnamese art world?

Suboi: I always wanted to express myself through my music, no matter what. I talk about past traumas, being a young person in Saigon, expectations, friendships, betrayals and the struggle between artistry and commerce.

I joke about my mistakes or laugh at some of the fake things people do to impress others, but I try to say it all with a positive and optimistic perspective.

In Vietnam, if I want to release songs nationwide, I have to go through censorship and the songs must be approved from the Ministry of Culture. If lyrics are not in Vietnamese, they have to be translated.

So, you can see, creativity is limited and everyone has an opinion about it. I've been warned about what would not be "appropriate" when I first started, so I wrote my lyrics within limit.

However, it is very important to share and go way further than what we are told to do.

You are releasing a single soon and you also put out the album “Run.” Can you tell us about the process creating that album and anything about what your new single will be about?

Suboi: My Run album came out in 2014 and I'm currently working on a new EP that doesn't have a name yet. 

I'm really trying to focus on singles this year and my new one is called "Lắm Mồm." It's now a tribute for the producer of the track, who committed suicide at the age of 23. He had struggled with many demons and was too young to see that he had more than he thought. 

The song itself is about conflicts inside of me as an artist and an alter-ego named Quiet Bunny. It's also about listening to other people, such as your peers.

In America, female artists, such as Nicki Minaj, have had a tough time making it in the industry. Even when Nicki broke through, it took years to establish herself as a lyricist, and as an MC in general. Do you look up to her or any other women to give you strength to keep pursuing your dream?

Suboi: Nicki works hard and she earned where she is today. I've read stories about Salt n' Pepper, which was about the earlier struggle.

MC Lyte was a pioneer in my humble knowledge. Queen Latifah was the attitude — the love for women and ourselves. Lauryn Hill was that artist who touched my frustration, enlightenment and trust issue with the business. 

Foxy Brown was that sexiness and Missy obviously the creativity beast!

Tell us about the hustle it takes to get in a position like this.

Suboi: I can't do this alone. 

I'm with my new team who really have my back and believe in me so I can focus on what I want to do.

What is in store for you this summer and the rest of the year? Are you going on tour?

Suboi: We're planning for a tour, hopefully next year in the States and Europe when the whole package is ready.