“We don’t want to keep silence”
Mai Khoi’s apartment in downtown Ho Chi Minh City has all the requisite bearings of a musician: a piano, several guitars, a nude painting and a beanbag chair.
On a particularly sweltering June day, the 33-year-old is strumming a folksy blues ballad. The unrecorded composition, which she played live on Facebook the night before, is called “We Don’t Want to Keep Silence”. It is slow, methodical and mesmerising, a far cry from the electro-pop club bangers that made ‘Vietnam’s Lady Gaga’ famous.
Khoi, a controversial figure in Vietnamese pop who has increasingly taken an interest in social justice issues, came to embody the country’s political divisions when she was one of 162 people who, earlier this year, campaigned to be on the ballot for an independent seat in the country’s National Assembly. Due to a rigorous – and somewhat opaque – shortlisting process by an Orwellian party body known as the Fatherland Front, only 11 independent candidates were included on the ballot, the lowest number in nearly 20 years.
Khoi, who on a number of occasions has spoken out about violence against women and LGBT rights, was not among them. Now, she has returned to music, using her craft in an effort “to raise awareness about democracy and human rights for the Vietnamese”.
At the age of 18, she moved from her hometown of Cam Ranh, in Vietnam’s south-central coastal region, to Ho Chi Minh City to pursue a career as a professional musician. Her first album was released in 2004, and she has since released eight more LPs. Khoi’s rise to fame began in earnest when Vietnam Television, the country’s national broadcaster, awarded her both album and song of the year in 2010 for her Made in Mai Khoi album and “Vietnam”, a folk anthem praising the diversity and hospitality of her home country.
The song was a hit, and the Vietnamese government, in a move that in hindsight would appear ironic, even used it to promote tourism in the country. Khoi jokes that, since 2010, she has played the song ad nauseam.
“People don’t get bored of it, so I keep playing it all the time. Because the Vietnamese, they’re very proud of their country. I don’t know why,” she says with a laugh that seems to echo her frustration with Vietnamese politics.
Khoi inherited her love of music from her father, a music teacher who taught her to play guitar and keyboard. At age 12, the precocious talent was already playing piano in a wedding band. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a musician,” she says. “I loved music. I was always singing.”
Mai Khoi rocks the boat
Khoi has come a long way since her days serenading newlyweds, and has on more than one occasion sparked controversy with her candid views. 2014’s “Selfie Orgasm” is an electro-pop tune reminiscent of Madonna’s “Vogue” that takes jabs at the narcissism of a digitally obsessed generation. The song’s video shows Khoi, sporting a bright pink hairdo, dancing in a Ho Chi Minh City warehouse. Her performance drew criticism from some media outlets as “unwomanly”.
Khoi says that she was the first woman to combine traditional Vietnamese dress with leggings, pairing the outfit with her vivid mane and eschewing a bra. “Everyone was talking about that a lot,” she explains. She says she has been criticised for the way she dresses, but has changed the way some people perceive fashion, representing what she calls a “new Vietnamese woman”.
“If I appear in public, I will wear something to show freedom, especially freedom of expression,” says Khoi. “Because the way you dress, it says something and leaves an impression in people’s minds… Criticism makes you stronger. I think if someone just receives good comments, it’s very boring.”
Her rebellious nature likely has roots in her childhood. “I caused a lot of trouble,” she says. “But I was always the leader of the class.” She adds that she won a beauty competition at her school when she was 12, and that she was frequently the centre of attention. “School was very fun.”
Since being rejected from the National Assembly, Khoi says she has run into trouble with the Vietnamese government, whose relationship with political dissidents is less than stellar: according to Amnesty International, “at least 45 prisoners of conscience remain imprisoned in harsh conditions after unfair trials” as of December 2015. In April, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed an updated version of its media law, which prohibits acts such as “provoking violence or propagating depraved lifestyles; describing obscene or criminal acts; publishing information that violates the country’s traditions and values”.
Government officials, Khoi says, shut down one of her performances at Ho Chi Minh City’s Yoko Café. The Saigon Ranger Bar, to avoid any unwanted trouble, cancelled her next show on 28 May.
Far from deterring Khoi, these obstacles almost seem to have spurred her on. She has recently taken to Facebook Live, the social media platform’s video streaming service, as a way of broadcasting performances to her nearly 40,000 Facebook followers. “Social media is now a very powerful tool for citizens, for artists,” she says. New clips are uploaded to her page each week, where she can circumvent the government’s requirement that political gatherings must obtain prior approval. “During the show on Facebook Live, I talk about human rights and many social issues. And I keep writing new songs about human rights.”
“[The government] can feel the citizens getting stronger and stronger day by day,” Khoi adds with a slightly mischievous grin. She would like to see her fellow Vietnamese, if not directly engaging in politics, then at least showing an interest in the country’s affairs. “[The Vietnamese youth] don’t trust the government,” she explains. “But they don’t care about politics because they think they can’t do anything to help.”
One Hour with the President
Freedom of expression was on her mind when US President Barack Obama made a tour through Vietnam in May, garnering media attention by lifting a decades-old arms embargo and eating bun cha at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. In Hanoi, Obama met with six Vietnamese activists, including Khoi, for an hour-long roundtable, from which media were barred. There, Khoi and her counterparts aired their grievances with Vietnamese society.
Khoi believed the meeting would be an opportunity for Obama, who received an uproarious welcome upon arriving in Vietnam, to push the government into relaxing restrictions on civil liberties. She left the meeting disappointed.
“US politicians make a lot of speeches, but they couldn’t help this time,” says Khoi. “Even though the US government can see people suffering, police brutality, everything, they can’t help.” In Khoi’s eyes, the trip was but a drop in the bucket, a publicity ‘hearts and minds’ tour that could not deliver the change she desired.
“I think the US has their strategy, and they say they have to [repeatedly make public statements] to push the Vietnamese government. Just not this time,” she says. “Because now Vietnamese [people] really can’t do anything. The government is too powerful.”
Khoi says she plans to write a book, in Vietnamese and English, which will cover her meeting with Obama. Its tentative title: One Hour with the President. The book, she says, will also span her time in the political spotlight, from self-nomination until her meeting in Hanoi.
Her recent forays into the political world appear to have wrought her music into something more mature than in her “Selfie Orgasm” and “Saigon Boom Boom” days. She explains how, in the past, her songs were more light-hearted, covering topics such as love and sex and containing a “hopeful” view of Vietnam. She has cited pop powerhouses Michael Jackson and Abba as some of her influences. But now, she plays more blues, which she says helps express her “pain” over her country’s strife.
“I can see many things happening now – protests by the people, the police arresting citizens,” Khoi says. “I’ve had a lot of experiences recently, and they have made my soul richer.”