Vietnam's 24-year-old queen of hip-hop, Hàng Lâm Trang Anh, is looking forward to her first visit to the United States. She definitely wants to see the Golden Gate Bridge, which is familiar to her from TV, movies, and even karaoke. But what she's most excited about is being able to say whatever she wants onstage, with no fear of censorship.
"It's very hard in Vietnam," says the rapper known as Suboi in a Skype interview. "If you say something too real, it gets a little bit weird. If you say things about money, drugs, and sex, they're not going to approve — they're going to censor it. I don't want to censor myself — this is America, and I can say whatever the fuck I want."
Marky Enriquez, who produces the musical event Directions in Sound* for the Center for Asian American Media's Film Festival (CAAMFest) booked Suboi for a performance in S.F. this week after seeing her video, "Cht Riêng Ca Tôi" (which Google helpfully translates as "I'm not chic, but I have my own quality"). Some aspects of the clip clearly belong to hip-hop culture — breakdancing, graffiti, and kids in baggy clothes and baseball hats hanging out in a deserted container yard. But the clipped, staccato language, and the imagery of some young professionals in suits having lunch outside with juice boxes, make us aware that this isn't America. Suboi, tiny with long, black hair, strides through the video with attitude. That swagger and her delivery impressed Enriquez.
"Hip-hop has penetrated all parts of the world, and it's only a matter of time for a Vietnamese rapper who happens to be female to come up," he says. "I can hear influences from Mos Def and Rakim, and it feels like she's been doing her hip-hop homework and listening to rap from the Golden Era."
Hip-hop has gained popularity in the last few years in Vietnam, especially in urban areas like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In a country where almost two-thirds of the 92 million people are under 30 (and more than half are under 25), some of those young people want an alternative to love ballads, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys. Suboi, who started rapping in a nü-metal band at 17, provides that alternative.
Growing up, Suboi hardly ever heard rap, which is considered rebel music. But when she finally did, it made a big impression. At 10 years old, she saw Will Smith performing "Nod Ya Head" on TV, and his energy hooked her. At 15, she started listening to Eminem, whom she calls her first English teacher. "Will Smith was the kick for me to do it," Suboi says. "But the most important person for me was Eminem. That's why my English is so bad. He was always saying things like, 'Fuck you, bitch, I'm going to kill you!'"
Suboi's popularity shows how hip-hop, born on New York City streets in the '70s, has taken hold internationally. With two albums, Walk and Run, Suboi has more than 700,000 fans on her Facebook page, gets tens of thousands of views on YouTube, and appears in advertisements for Adidas and Samsung, among others. Before coming to the U.S., she will perform in Japan and Manchester, England.
In spite of how far she's come, Suboi says a young woman in hip-hop still surprises people. "My lyrics are a little harsh, but my look is so nice," she said. "People see me, and they say, 'What the fuck?'"
Suboi is used to being one of few women in a mostly male world. But at CAAMFest's Directions in Sound event, called Here Comes Treble, she will headline an all-female lineup assembled by Enriquez. Along with Suboi, he booked Rocky Rivera, a local performer who has opened for Macklemore and Snoop Dogg. As with Suboi, Rivera says her audience members might be surprised at first when they see her, a Filipina, on stage. But Rivera — who took her name from the main character in Jessica Hagedorn's novel, The Gangster of Love, and who coordinates after-school programs at underserved Oakland high schools — thinks it's inspiring as well. "You can tell they've been lacking music like mine," Rivera said. "There's something I have to offer that no one else can, and I try and think about that when I write music. I never want to be limited to just my gender."
Here Comes Treble has more than hip-hop. Ukulele-playing Cynthia Lin, who counts Joni Mitchell and Ella Fitzgerald as her strongest influences, will perform with her indie-folk band the Blue Moon All-Stars. Pursuing a career in the arts takes boldness, Lin thinks, particularly for Asian women. None of the women on the lineup lack that, certainly not Suboi. "It's my chance to show what I can do," the Vietnamese rapper says about her U.S. debut. "Now I see more possibilities. People have made me see life is wider. This life is more interesting than just staying in one place."