Vietnam’s first successful female rapper

The DJ lays down another track as Suboi sits, hands clasped and elbows on her knees, brow knitted in concentration – and then she takes a breath, sits back, shakes her head and says, “Sorry guys, I don’t like any of these beats.”

There’s a literal record scratch. Every head in the studio office turns and stares. Evidently, this isn’t how an artist is supposed to talk in Japan. What she is supposed to do is turn up at the studio in the morning, stand in front of a mic all day, and leave the record execs with a brand new piece of music to go off and market. Every day. What they don’t need is a rapper with an attitude – as if there were any other kind.

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That’s when it hits her: this Japan thing? Not gonna work out.

Suboi may have given it a shot as the sweet petite Vietnamese girl for her Japanese fans – she went as far as making a thunderously cute pop video that she describes as all “hey putty putty putty” (she’s never posted it and will throttle anyone who manages to dig it up) and she gave a number of energetic performances to unresponsive, bewildered local audiences. But at the end of it all, one thing was clear – our angelic, rough-hewn, super-feminine tomboy rap artist remained an enigma to the Japanese, and it was time to come home.

You can probably put a pin on the timeline right there and say that’s when things bottomed out for Suboi. Months earlier, everyone had been talking about her – international media exposure had made her not only the country’s first successful female rapper, but likely to be the first popular Vietnamese artist ever to make a dent on the global music scene. Fame had taken the awkwardly goofy schoolgirl with a penchant for wrestling and Eminem-style foul language and had landed her stage appearances, album contracts, and a lucrative sponsorship deal for Yomost – for which she’s extremely grateful as the check was good, although it must be said that this was for a yogurt drink, and she is a rapper. If you’re interested, the flavor of rapper-endorsed yogurt is peach.

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Fame, in her words, also ruined her in many respects. Her first inkling that she was heading on an uncomfortable trajectory was when strangers with champagne glasses in hand would approach her for chit-chat in the kinds of parties she was desperate to escape from, while her old crew from the underground were suddenly blanking this breakout celebrity who’d obviously started to believe in the voices telling her they could ‘make her a superstah.’ Those voices happily took the rights to the new album she’d spent all her cash on putting together (that’s where the yogurt money went); they were also delighted to keep all the proceeds from sales, if there were any – Suboi says that she still has to figure that out, given that she hasn’t seen a single dong from it herself.

All this is why Suboi has, for the past two years, largely been appearing in pajamas in her kitchen, practicing up on her pasta dishes rather than rapping on stage in front of adoring crowds, and how she found the time to appear in a local movie (Ham Tran’s Hollow) as opposed to recording any actual music.

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So who, then, is this confident young woman who’s recently been making frequent public appearances in designer outfits? Fresh back in Saigon from appearing at South by Southwest and sell out shows in Brooklyn and San Francisco, with a new single released last month, a challenging new film role, and being photographed with far more bottles of Budweiser in hand than can possibly be coincidental?

“I’m building everything again, right?” says the new Suboi in the rich, urban accent she picked up from the gangsta lyrics she studied as a teenager. “I’m taking care of my look, and I’m putting out my music… trying to make videos with a crew who believes in me.”

There’s an emotional flashback scene here where Suboi is found sitting on her sofa, tears burning ridges down her cheeks and splashing onto her popcorn, being admonished by a close friend who pulls her out of the hole, saying “no no no, not this attitude. You go out, put your music out, get your image on and everything. People will notice.” That’s pretty much what got her back on her feet – but let’s not focus on that, and instead on the deliciously dark sounds that Suboi is promising to deliver in her new music.

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“I always liked dark beat, but I never released it,” says Suboi. “It’s too dark, and everybody got a hard time anyway. Anybody got a hard life, they gotta work, they gotta da da da… but in the end they don’t wanna hear your shit. That’s what I thought before. But now I will share all these topics, all these different stories.”

Perhaps as a result of the two-year hiatus and the various career setbacks that have now been overcome, Suboi is finally ready to bring her skeletons out from the shadows – something that is giving her new music an edge she’s never felt confident enough to express before.

“I appreciate being a woman,” she says, “but when I got into showbiz, I found out all about sexual harassment… and before that, I got beaten by my [former] boyfriend. So I’m not going around saying hey… I’m a female rapper… I should be better than the guys… but I’m just saying that I’m not that hard gangster stuff. Yeah, that’s what my brothers is, but I’m not. But it’s cool. That’s why I like hip hop. I get so angry all the time.”

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Some of that anger, understandably, is derived from the unraveling of her original career momentum. Her first album Walk(2010) was, for Suboi, an exercise in baiting the hook – intriguing her potential audiences with a mish-mash of rap and pop, spread out on top of a famous Vietnamese children’s song that everybody who grew up in this country knew by heart. With some verses in English sprinkled throughout, Suboi got everyone’s attention – even if it was largely “what the hell is this girl singing?” That was the first step; the second was to throw in a little old school for Run (2014), to get them closer, pulling them in.

“I think I failed at that step, because I didn’t plan very well,” admits Suboi. “But it’s OK. I learned, and I’ve been trying to get the copyrights and everything back. I signed some contracts, so I lost money and trust, I lost all my songs. I don’t own anything. But of course I actually own it. In the end it’s still me, right? OK, if you want to sell this stuff, who are you gonna sell it for, who’s gonna sing it? If you don’t promote it, how are you going to sell it?”

“Anyway, now, I’m very excited, coming back with new music,” she grins; “new stories, I actually share all the stories that I’ve been through. I never really said that before. I was afraid that my parents were going to read it.”

This is the point where Suboi’s swagger gives way and there’s a noticeable change in her accent as she transforms into her alter ego, the sincere and traditional young Trang Anh, still living a stone’s throw from the family home she grew up in in District 3.

“I like cooking, I like just being as a woman,” says Trang Anh, as if to prove that this whole rap artist thing doesn’t go right to the core. “My family is like, very old Saigon, traditional and everything. There’s a beauty about that. My dad is always like, you gotta do stuff proper, and now that I grew up I think that’s true. If you want people to treat you nice, then you got to be nice to them. That’s one thing he said. But the one thing I don’t like about what my dad says is to care about what other people say about you. They live in a neighborhood where everybody gossips, like I dated a boyfriend when I was 15, and people said, ‘oh yeah, this girl da da da…’ I understand, yeah? But they don’t pay our bills and stuff. And you guys are my parents, I only care about what you guys feel. That’s what’s different about me and my family.”

What’s different about Suboi now is that that she’s simply grown up. Her parents are now well aware of the troubles she’s been through in both her personal and professional life, and part of her renaissance is that she’s now free. She may still have to keep her politics in check – she has always voiced her distrust of censorship through coded lyrics, and as long as she wants to keep recording in Vietnam she’ll have to keep that up – but her recent performances in Vladivostok and the USA during her two years of relative inactivity have brought on a new confidence and put her firmly back in control of her own destiny.

“In Brooklyn, it was really small, like people at the end of the room, I could see them,” she shares. “I could see they was like, oh yeah, the Vietnamese rapper, they didn’t know what to expect – until the beat comes up, my flow comes out, and it’s like, oh, okay… she sayin’ something.”

“In America, people make art, and they still can make money,” she observes, “because people know that’s art, people know that is expression, people know that’s the freedom in art. You know, they appreciate it. But in Asia, you’ve got to change how they see it.”

Suboi’s excitement about her overseas performances is starting to sound dangerously similar to what she said prior to leaving for Japan two years ago – but it seems that she has finally settled on a peace with the city she was itching to leave behind back in 2014.

“It’s good to look back at what I said,” she says of the frequent interviews she gave at that time. “It’s kind of still true, but not 100 percent. Before I really wanted to leave. After the showbiz people, the censors – as a rapper, I need to express. But I traveled to a lot of countries now, and I came back. You see Saigon, just in a month, they have a new building. I feel like a tourist sometimes. We’re developing very well, so it means that you have more chances here. So the new things that people haven’t done here, in other places like New York it’s already there. It’s a melting pot, it will never change. But Saigon is changing. So I changed my mind. I just want to have new experiences, and that’s it. I don’t mean to leave. I love this country. I have this kind of love and hate relationship with Saigon. I’m like f**k you, but I miss you… It’s like a marriage already. Don’t even ask me about marriage, I’m already married to this f**king Saigon. We have to argue, we have to leave…”

She points to the tattoo on her arm, which reads, in highly stylized letters, ‘Saigon.’

“Yes! this guy right here,” she says, “Yes, it’s my husband.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN