“Vietnamese people are basically poets” – Suboi on her nation’s rising hip hop scene | Yo! MTV Raps exclusive interview

11 July 2019

Words and interview by Daniel Peters. Photo by All Is Amazing

Suboi isn't here to mess around. 

Take the rapper out of her home country of Vietnam, and she'll be able to win over strangers within mere days. She won over Obama, for starters. But the renowned "Vietnamese rap queen" doesn't throw words around needlessly. 

She's built her career over years of dedicated practice and a razor-sharp ear for the hip hop zeitgeist, all while not forgetting her roots. Her appearance in the comprehensive 88rising hip hop documentary also shows how she's making moves in the grander scheme of things. 

The result is an artist whose tales are littered with uniquely Vietnamese imagery, without ever coming across as forced. Her subversive approach to words have gained her praise around the world, and she's since been a singular force worth your time with each new song. Now branching out into acting, Suboi continues to dominate each space she takes. 

We speak to our Yo! MTV Raps episode two special guest rapper about her roots, finding her voice and nurturing inner talent. 

MTV Asia: Tell us about your experience at the Yo! MTV Raps shoot. Were there any surprises? 

Suboi: I really like the director's idea. The fact that we have to do it live, it actually takes a lot more work and precision, but that's what I like about it, because that's the only way you can keep the same energy throughout. Everybody on set was very supportive, especially the dancers and the extras, and the set was really nice.

As an artist from Vietnam's hip hop scene, what do you find most admirable about regional hip hop in Southeast Asia? 

As an Asian artist, especially a Southeast Asian artist, we put in our own culture. I really like the idea of East meets West. 

Watching episode 2, we learned you already knew Kim Lee, the host of the show. What was it like being on set with her?

Of course – she's Vietnamese, Vietnamese American. I met her when she was a DJ, touring with Far East Movement, in 2014. I'm very proud of her – she's a hustler, she works really hard, she's beautiful, and she does her own thing. 

Describe the current hip hop scene in Vietnam. How is it changing? 

Of course, hip hop is getting more popular in Vietnam. When I first started, it wasn't that big. I'm not the first generation, but we were a very, very small community, and on forums only. And now everybody can make their own videos. The internet helps a lot.

Now, more and more people are listening to hip hop, especially younger generations. Vietnamese people are basically poets. There are a lot of good rappers out there, and a lot of really good lyricists. Rappers are going on big stages now; it's a very important time – hip hop is getting big. 

Tell us about the music acts that captured your attention when you were young. 

At first I listened to English music just to learn English, because I like the language. I listened to easy songs so I could sing along. I started rapping because I listened to nu-metal, like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. I joined a band and we played nu-metal music, and I was the rapper. 

And then I felt that band life was kind of hard for me, being in high school, so I went back to my computer to write songs, and rap. I was listening to Eminem, and because he's not black, I felt like "Ok, well you can actually rap when you're not black" – that's the first message Eminem gave me. 

And he was very angry, and I was an angry teenager, so I'm like "Ok, I can express myself through this", and that's when I started to rap a lot more. I have three "moms" *laughs* – I love Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Erykah Badu. 

How about more recent inspirations, and how they've helped to guide your music along the way? 

For modern inspirations, I've been listening to French hip hop like Niska and A2H – I really enjoy not knowing what they say. I also like American rappers like J.I.D and DaniLeigh. My favourite rapper is Snow Tha Product – I saw her at SXSW three or four years ago. Her rapping is always good, and her energy onstage is crazy. 

Another artist who's not necessarily hip hop is Sevdaliza – I enjoy more than one type of music.

What do you like about the Vietnamese language for rapping? What advantages does it have over rapping in English?

I like the Vietnamese language when It comes to rapping, because the message I can put in can be very poetic or very vulgar. But because of the tone, the intonation is fixed, so it's very hard. In English you can sing high or low, but in Vietnamese it's not the same – it's very hard to sound cool and have a message that's memorable at the same time, to non-Vietnamese-speaking audiences.

I understand Vietnamese the most, so it's best to rap in my language, but to make it cooler I like to rap in English too. We have a lot of different words for different levels of expressions.

Yeah, Vietnamese is very rich.

Catch the full episode 2 of Yo! MTV Raps featuring special guest Suboi, right here at mtvasia.com (free!) or on YouTube 

Subscribe to MTV Asia's YouTube channel for more Yo! MTV Raps

Wanna discover more rappers in Asia? Check out Yo! MTV Raps: Rapper Roundup articles and our Yo! Rappers series


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