By Harriet Kaplan
Suboi (link) is female rapper from Vietnam who raps in her native language and in English. Over time, the Vietnamese artist has gained popularity and gone on to become prominent global entity in the music industry. The hip hop star got her onstage name when she was in elementary school by her friends that nicknamed her Su and combined it with boi to fit the tomboy in her. At 14, she became a fan of hip hop music and used the music to improve her English as a result of listening and rapping along to Eminem and Will Smith’s songs. Quickly, she became a well-recognized and respected rapper from the Vietnamese underground scene. From there, she continued to build on her reputation in hip hop and, channeling her creativity into recording two albums: WALK and RUN writing and documenting lyrics that focus on family, love, social pressures, and daily life in Vietnam. Suboi recently spoke to Black on the Canvas to discuss her career and its earliest origins. The rapper also talked about what freedom of expression means to her and how she is dealing with censorship. The Vietnam born artist shared the excitement and personal satisfaction she gets from interacting with her fan base and is buoyed by their dedication and love of the music.
Has a lot changed for you since you got into rapping and built an enormous following on Twitter and Facebook? Do you have favorite posts from your fans or have they something in particular that has touched or moved you?
Suboi: I started my Facebook page in 2009. There have been a lot of ups and downs and there is more to learn. I love when people post photos of me performing with their cameras/phones. It means they were there! That has touched me the most.
Are you getting any social-political pressure in your homeland due to the music?
Suboi: No, not really because I didn’t say anything about politics in my songs. It’s just a bit hard to say things that aren’t “right” for a commie country, I guess. At the same time, there is no right or wrong in music and art.
I have been reading your Facebook page. I noticed you have been to U.S. Is that recent and/or your first time? How hard was it for youto able to leave your country? Did it feel freeing to be in the U.S. for you? Did you feel liberated?
Suboi: The first time I went to the U.S. was in May 2014 and then I came back in October 2014. Normally, it would be a bit hard for a single woman especially my age if they don’t work, don’t speak English or have some kind of properties to prove that they are not residing illegally due to American’s immigration issue. I was just traveling as a tourist and I have a company here. I have traveled to so many countries before U.S. and I had to come back for shows and a movie premiere that I was featured in VN so it wasn’t a big problem for me. I love it there: so many things to see and do and the art form, history, weather, food, music, events. For an outsider artist, it’s even more inspiring. I love hip-hop, so it was an amazing experiment for me to spend time in the U.S. where it originated from. Everyone has opinions and they are willing to speak their mind, dress how they like and do what they do.
What was it like for you to perform music live in the U.S.?
Suboi: I am going to SXSW in Austin. So maybe when I come back, I can tell you everything about it.
Why did you choose to get out of metal and go into rap/hip hop?
Suboi: I was in a nu-metal band and they needed a rapper but it wasn’t something I was going to stick to. I listened and like a lot of the genre but all I can do is rap so it felt limiting for me.
What influences the lyrics on Walk and Run? Do you think you will always have to write your lyrics in a way that is coded or have veiled meaning so you won’t be censored? When were both albums released? Do you plan to record a new record any time soon?
Suboi: WALK (2010) based on a dreamy (but not naive) girl trying to look for a way to go in life since all the “standards” here are basically about going to school, to universities, make money, get married and have babies. People didn’t really talk about chasing their dreams. So I started off slowly and careful in that direction but still ran into things that actually taught me to be the person as I am today. I tried to speed up that approach with my writing and journey with RUN (2012) and ran into more lessons about people and money and looked more inside myself to reflect on my experiences. I finally released Run in 2014 on iTunes in 109 countries thanks to two Japanese people who supported me since my first album and even before that.
Do you have product endorsements for Adidas and Samsung? I read an article you appeared in ads for them. How do you choose what to endorse and why? Do think it’s more important because of reaching more people through advertising?
Suboi: They came to me in a natural way. I didn’t have any agency back then. I also have a Suboi signature drink with Yo-most – a well – known brand in VN plus a TVC and my own TV show came with it. It was a good year for me in advertising but then I realized it was hard to keep my music my way. People don’t buy album CDs anymore so all I thought that this was a good income, and from that money I produced “Run”. It is important to reach out for more people too but it requires a lot more effort to balance between the product and the artist, so I better work with the product I like.
What was it like going to watch Saturday Night Live back in November? How was the experience for you? Did you get to meet Cameron Diaz, Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson?
Suboi: Man I wish! Haha, but it was wonderful to see how professional people work in the studio and how well the program is scripted. I got to see the set and enjoyed the perfect sound system watching Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson live, from where I am from is no such thing, so you may surprise how I got the experience to appreciate something like that.
Have your dreams been realized pursing this path in becoming a rapper and what message do you want to convey?
Suboi: I’m just a lucky “mother-phở cơm” living with what she loves to do. I’m just trying my best and hopefully someday my expression will be blessed.