Vietnamese singer Mai Khôi is known as the Lady Gaga of Vietnam. She could have enjoyed her superstar status. Instead, she risked it all by refusing to be a government propaganda tool.
It was her father, a guitar and piano teacher in the southern Vietnamese city of Cam Ranh, who first awakened Mai Khôi’s love of music. She played in his wedding band and wrote her first song when she was 12. In 2010 Mai Khôi became a superstar with her breakthrough hit ‘Vietnam’, a song about the beauty of her country and its people. The song was used in government propaganda videos and Mai Khôi could have easily enjoyed her status. Her appearance and extravagant clothing earned her the title ‘the Lady Gaga of Vietnam’. But something inside her wanted something else from her career.
‘I was living a good life, but it wasn’t enough for me,’ she explained in an interview. ‘I couldn’t feel free.’ Vietnam is a strict one-party state which suffers from serious censorship. Mai Khôi noticed that many artists seemed to censor themselves, and started engaging with ‘dissident artists who were doing some interesting things’. By speaking out about issues such as violence against women and freedom of speech, Mai Khôi came under increasing government scrutiny.
The exciting documentary Mai Khoi & The Dissidents makes tangible what state harassment is like. In 2016 she ran for a seat in Vietnam’s National Assembly as an independent candidate, but was ultimately left off the ballot. Shortly after that, one of her shows was raided by the police and she was effectively banned from performing in public. And it hasn’t stopped there: ‘They have called my parents in for questioning […], asked my landlord to kick me out of my house, refused my permit to live in Hanoi, and put me under constant surveillance.’ In March 2018 she was detained at the airport after returning from a European tour.
But although she received worldwide notoriety for her activism, Mai Khôi first and foremost still sees herself as an artist. ‘For me, it’s about opening new ways of thinking and acting,’ she said to The Economist, ‘making the unthinkable thinkable and the unspeakable speakable.’ And the best way to do that, is through her beautiful singing voice.
Mai Khoi & The Dissidents was shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2020.