‘I used to be a pop star,” says Mai Khoi. She says it more than once. What does she mean? In the international press, she is sometimes called “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam.” (Lady Gaga, an American, is one of the biggest pop stars we have, for sure.) She is also compared to Pussy Riot, the dissident punk-rock group in Russia.
So, what does Mai Khoi mean when she says, somewhat wistfully, “I used to be a pop star”? She explains, “In order to be a pop star in Vietnam, you have to appear on television and be featured in the press. Since 2016, I have been isolated from the media and the public. I cannot appear on TV. I cannot sing in public. I cannot be interviewed for magazines.”
She is, in effect, banned in her home country. But she is still a household name there, owing to the fame she built. And she can be interviewed by National Review, which does not appear, presumably, in Vietnam.
“I am an independent artist,” says Mai Khoi. In America and elsewhere in the West, that can be kind of a boast. It may mean that you’re not “mainstream” — or that you consider yourself “edgy” or unclassifiable. It may mean, simply, that you’re not successful. In a country such as Vietnam, the term “independent artist” has grave significance. “I am independent from the government and independent from a party,” says Mai Khoi. “I am my own person. I am independent from all organizations and companies. I’m just an artist, working for herself.”
She is also a symbol of democratic opposition to the Communist dictatorship in her country.
Over the last 15 or 20 years, this dictatorship has opened up, to a degree — especially in the economic realm. But in the last couple of years, it has cracked down. Critics of the status quo have been arrested, including members of the Brotherhood of Democracy. One of the better-known political prisoners is Truong Minh Duc, a journalist, who is especially interested in workers’ rights. (There are no independent labor unions in Vietnam.)
Mai Khoi is not in prison. She has had the experience of being detained, however. And she and her husband have been evicted from their home — twice. She has been harassed in other ways as well.
Conversing with her in New York, I ask, “Does your fame protect you, to an extent? Would things be worse for you without it?” The answer is yes. “If they did something to me,” says Mai Khoi, “everyone would know in a second. It would be all over the international press. So, if they want to do something to me, they have to think twice.”
She is pretty and graceful, with a whimsical streak, as you might expect in a pop star. She is also serious and determined. She speaks English gamely, able to express herself in an individual way. Her husband, Ben Swanton, is an Australian. “He speaks very good Vietnamese,” she says.
Now in her mid 30s, Mai Khoi was born about ten years after the Vietnam War. She says that people of her generation don’t think much about the war. “What we think is, We have to do something to make a change. We don’t want to live under this system anymore.”
She grew up in the city of Cam Ranh. Her mother is a literature teacher; her father is a music teacher. “I was taught to play music and write songs when I was eight years old,” says Mai Khoi. When she was twelve, she joined her father in his band, which played weddings.
Mai Khoi indeed grew up to be a pop star: In 2010, she won Vietnam’s Song of the Year award. Her song was “VN,” for “Vietnam” (or “Viet Nam,” as it can also be written). In celebration and exuberance, she shaved part of her head, forming the letters “VN.” A lot of people liked it, she says, and a lot of people didn’t.
She repeatedly made waves in a society that she describes as “conservative.” She spoke out for women’s rights and gay rights. Plus, “I caused a national scandal for saying I don’t want to have children and for not wearing a bra.”
Mainly, she chafed against censorship. She always had to submit her songs to censors, who would forbid some of those songs. What’s more, the censors were arbitrary. “The system doesn’t have specific rules for us to follow,” says Mai Khoi, “and the censors have all the power, to do whatever they want.”
She was sick of having to ask permission, for anything and everything. You always have to ask permission in Vietnam. Mai Khoi wrote a song on this subject, “Please, Sir.” “Please, sir, let us sing.” “Please, sir, let us exhibit our art.” “Let us publish books.” “Let us fall in love.” “Let us share our views.” “Let us volunteer for good causes.”
Hang on: What about that last lyric? Yes, Mai Khoi tells me: In Vietnam, you even have to ask permission to volunteer — or to give money to the poor.
Over and over in her song, she sings, “Let us have the rights that are in the constitution.” Oh, they’re there, all right, in black and white; but not honored by the government.
Needless to say, Mai Khoi does not sing “Please, Sir” in Vietnam — except underground.
In 2016, someone suggested to her, “Why don’t you nominate yourself for the National Assembly?” This is the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, filled with party cadres. But it’s true, you can nominate yourself — which Mai Khoi did. This made a big wave. At first, government officials scoffed, saying, “She should stick to singing,” and, “How can a woman who doesn’t wear a bra serve in the assembly?” But ordinary citizens wondered, “If Mai Khoi is such a joke, why is the government working so hard to discredit her?” The government got sterner.
They raided a concert of Mai Khoi’s. They threatened people around her (who, getting the message, kept their distance). Ultimately, they denied Mai Khoi a place on the ballot.
As it happened, the American president, Obama, was about to visit the country. Mai Khoi made a video, inviting him to meet her. The video went viral. President Obama scheduled a meeting with dissidents and members of civil society, including Mai Khoi. In due course, Mai Khoi received a phone call from a friend who had a relative working for the government. “You are under 24-hour surveillance,” said the friend, “and the police will try to prevent you from attending the meeting.” So, Mai Khoi went into hiding — until it was time for the meeting.
Obama met with the group privately for an hour. Then he went before the cameras, with these Vietnamese. Mai Khoi sat by his side. He spoke of each one, saying of Mai Khoi, “We have a very popular artist here who was speaking out in behalf of freedom of speech,” etc.
The next year, in November 2017, President Trump came to Vietnam, but he declined to meet with dissidents or members of civil society. He emphasized a trade imbalance between the U.S. and Vietnam. Irked, Mai Khoi staged a small protest — which, predictably, made a wave.
She is becoming known around the world, which is rare for a Vietnamese artist, of any type. Earlier this year, she won the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, given by the Human Rights Foundation (based in New York) at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She is a voice for people who cannot speak for themselves.
Yet she is controversial, and not just with Communists. She is on the outs with many Vietnamese Americans as well. She caused a “big scandal,” she tells me, when she showed up for a concert in Virginia. They had the old flag of South Vietnam on the stage. She demanded that it be removed, before she sang. She did not want to sing under the yellow flag (the flag of South Vietnam); she did not want to sing under the red flag (the flag of Communist Vietnam). She has her reasons for not swearing allegiance to either of those flags.
“I lost a lot of support because of this,” she says, “but the valuable thing is that I created a big debate about freedom of expression. People are still talking about this and fighting over it.”
Last February, she released an album called, straightforwardly enough, “Dissent.” (It was released abroad, of course, not at home.) For a while, Mai Khoi’s band had the word “Dissidents” as part of its name. But this caused problems, such as threats to the bandmates’ families. So, with understanding and without hard feelings, Mai Khoi removed the word.
Her own parents were “very scared, really scared, at the beginning,” she says. (She means the beginning of her activism.) “They always said, ‘You should stop saying what you do,’ because they know how cruel the Communist party is. They have known them for a long time. But now, they are very proud of me.”
A songwriter from an older generation, Ngoc Dai (age 72), was quoted in the New York Times. Most Vietnamese artists, he said, “cannot overcome their fears to really say what they think. Mai Khoi is a precious gem because she realized the mission of an artist is to speak about the common problems of a society.” I ask Mai Khoi about Ngoc Dai, and she says he used to be a party member, with all the benefits. He was a big star. But then he became a critic of the party and was banned — as Mai Khoi is. Ngoc Dai is uncommonly brave, and so is Mai Khoi.
When I comment on her bravery, she protests. “I have friends in my country who are braver than I am,” she says. I ask whether she can communicate with them. She wrinkles her nose and says, “It is very difficult.” I ask no more.
Her goal is “more freedom” for Vietnam, “real democracy, the rights that are guaranteed to us in the constitution.” What can foreigners do to help? She thinks about this. She then says that Facebook, Google, and other such companies make concessions to the Vietnamese dictatorship that curb freedom of speech. “I think if people around the world put more pressure on these companies to stop doing that, that would be a big help.”
The Communist party ruled half the country from 1954 to 1975. It has ruled the whole country since then. When will they fall, at last? “I don’t know,” says Mai Khoi. “But nothing is forever. Not even dictatorships.”