Suboi: From victim of violence to Vietnamese queen of rap

When Suboi was 17, her jealous boyfriend beat her up. At 30, most know her as the queen of Vietnamese rap.

She gained nationwide acclaim after recently appearing as a coach on hip hop TV series "Rap Viet". In the 2010s, international newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian hailed her as a pioneer of Vietnamese hip-hop.

Born in 1990, Suboi (real name Hang Lam Trang Anh) discovered her love for rap at 14, when she would spend hours studying international artists like Eminem and Will Smith, learning their lyrics by heart.

Vietnam, singer, rapper, Suboi, Vietnamese rap, hiphop, rap, music

Suboi on the "Rap Viet" hot seat. Photo courtesy of Vie Channel.

The name Suboi is derived from "Su," her nickname at home, and "boi," referring to her self-confessed tomboyish nature.

At 17, with her father out of work due to an accident, the aspiring rapper was forced to work to support her family, while also dealing with the death of her best friend.

At the time, she became acquainted with a man abroad online, who later came to Vietnam to meet her. When the jealous boyfriend commenced beat her up, she found respite from the trauma by burying herself in music.

In 2009, songwriter Duong Khac Linh introduced the young rapper to an entertainment company run by Duc Tri, a famous Vietnamese composer. According to Suboi, a rapper working for a professional entertainment firm was a rare thing because at the time, hip-hop was only popular on some online forums.

She gained increasing popularity after working with singer Ho Ngoc Ha, her equally feminine and reckless rap style attracting many fans.

Having experienced life's ups and downs, the rapper weaves the sadness of youth into her music.

"Mom gave me brown eyes. Life gave me sad eyes. Laugh at the curse, laugh at the arguments, laugh at the retaliation... Haha, let me be a loser," Suboi wrote in "Nguoi Ta Hieu" (People Understand).

In "Loi Thinh Cau" (Appeal), she delves into emotions of insecurity: "Give me one minute to breathe... Waiting for someone to take back my dream so I can escape this numbness."

"We live in a society that thrives on judgment, forcing us to take everyone's opinion into account before each act. This is an obstacle to development," Suboi said.

Vietnam, singer, rapper, Suboi, Vietnamese rap, hiphop, rap, music

Suboi (red shirt) in an MV. Photo courtesy of Suboi.

In "Doi" (Life), the rapper relates the tale of her family: "And at night my life grew sad. I could not believe it when Mom told me to come home immediately. Dad had a traffic accident, he lay on the bed and I couldn't recognize his face. Did Mom just say we lost something, Dad?"

On the song's release in 2016, Suboi affirmed she no longer blamed the past. "Life! Impermanent. Please live with a big heart. Life! Impermanent."

Queen of rap

Over a decade, Suboi has tried to export Vietnamese hip-hop to the world. Sitting in the Rap Viet hot seat, she told a contestant not to limit his thinking by assuming Vietnamese rap is all about traditional topics like farmers or rice fields.

"We are Vietnamese rappers, we broadcast our voice internationally," she maintained.

In 2015, she told The Wall Street Journal that "Vietnamese hip-hop has so much more to offer" an industry dominated by the plastic trappings of K-pop.

"Whether performing in Vietnamese, English or a blend of both, she sounds strong and assured, like she may be her country’s own Queen Latifah or Ms. Hill," the newspaper wrote, comparing Suboi with the two legendary America rappers.

In 2016, at a town hall style meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Vietnamese youth in Ho Chi Minh City, she asked Obama his views on the importance of arts and culture to a country, attracting international attention when she burst into rapping.

A year later, she made it to the 30 Under 30 Asia, an annual list put out by Forbes to recognize the most influential young people in the continent.

Her popularity gave her an opportunity to work with famous Japanese singer Utada Hikaru on her song "Too Proud" in 2018.

In 2015, she was featured in a CNN video, introducing audiences to culturally-rich Saigon.

She became the first Vietnamese artist to feature in Vogue Japan and appeared in a documentary on Asian hip-hop in 2019.

"I compete with myself in music, I travel from place to place by my own energy and mind. I must ensure that today I do better than yesterday, the day before yesterday, and become a better new version of myself," she stated.

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