Manifesting dreams & unlearning with Vietnamese superstar Suboi
The rapper drops new album No Nê & talks about her musical journey of discovery
Asian Rap star Suboi has had seven years to grow as an artist since her last album came out. In that time a lot has happened to Vietnam’s de facto Queen of Hip Hop. She’s released numerous singles [some of which are on her new album No Nê] and one EP, rhymed for Barack Obama [who beatboxed!!], performed at SXSW in the US, been a mentor on Rap Viet, the biggest Hip Hop TV show in Vietnam that attracted millions of viewers, been covered by major news outlets like The Guardian, CNN, and BBC, and recently became a mother.
That’s a pretty full life, and we even left a bunch of stuff out. For those who don’t know who Suboi is, here’s your introduction. She’s Hàng Lâm Trang Anh, a native of Ho Chi Minh City AKA Saigon who decided she wanted to be a rapper as a teenager and has manifested her dream and then some. She rhymes in Vietnamese and English and is not only the first female rapper to blow up in Vietnam, but one of the first independent Viet artists to make noise internationally, period. Now, she’s on the cover of LiFTED!
We caught up with her on the eve of her dropping a new album No Nê, which she explains means ‘Full’ in Vietnamese, but at the same time means ‘NONE.’
This past decade has been a pretty amazing ride! Would you mind going through some highlights for our readers?
Hello LiFTED readers! Thanks for having me. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about myself in my 20s, and the lessons got deeper in my late-20s when some of the things I thought I understood were actually more complex and had more layers than I knew. As humans we learn more through pain and broken situations, and I treasure these experiments so much. In exchange, I’ve learned to grow into myself more and more. I became a mom just last year, so all my music projects went into hibernation for another year, which was not the plan, but COVID-19 came to remind us of God’s plan, didn’t it?
Can you talk about making your first album versus making and releasing No Nê? What have you learned about writing, recording, and performing? Has your process changed?
I can tell you about my mental growth. I’ve been learning more and more everyday about perspectives, and there is no one truth in anything. I’ve always been fond of differences and individuality, to the point where sometimes I found myself at odds with the Vietnamese music industry - even like an outcast sometimes. But now I’m learning to look more at what we have in common, and I’m just talking about the fact that we’re all human beings.
All of that has been stamped into my songs over time. No Nê is the eyewitness of that journey, and the description of my transformation. I always take time to write my songs, but I still can’t believe it took me three years from starting to releasing No Nê. I wrote and produced this album with two US producers, Zach Golden and Pat McCusker [and later Bill Scher for those guitar riffs.] We just vibed and made a bunch of demos, and then I finished writing and recording in Vietnam. I wanted to capture my transformation musically and mentality through each song on the album.
The Rap of China was a watershed moment for Chinese Hip Hop. It put them on the map. You could make the argument that Vietnamese Hip Hop is only on the radar because of you. How does that make you feel?
I must be blessed! It has not been an easy journey to promote Hip Hop Music in Vietnam - especially 10 years ago. Recently, it has become more popular and mainstream all across Asia. People are starting to welcome it and infuse the Hip Hop lifestyle into their cultures. The next generation has the internet to learn the music, so Hip Hop music will keep growing going forward.
Some of your past singles are on No Nê. Did you feel it was important to have the new album include some of your released singles ? What are the new songs like? What’s been influencing you lately?
No Nê was written in two studio sessions in 2018 and 2019. I also started to listen to French rap more in 2019 so my flow was a little influenced by that. During that time, I wanted to unlearn everything that I’d been collecting and forming as my formula. As someone who’d always been writing on multi-levels, I really liked the fact that when I listened to French rap, I didn’t understand shit, so I was more drawn into the melodies, interpretation, and the feeling of the whole energy. I always want to do something different from what I already did. I feel like with No-Nê, I’ve already succeeded in that I have unlearned.
Like many Asian rappers, you started learning English by listening to your favorite MCs. You mentioned Eminem as a big influence. Who are the other rappers you loved as a teenager when you were just getting started?
The Eminem story for me was really about young Suboi finding out that it’s OK to be angry, to talk some hard shit in a song, and to try to rap fast. It was about me starting to find the confidence to rap. I learned English from listening to Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Spice Girls, and more songs from that amazing era! I also listened to a lot of rock music. I loved metal-core bands like As I Lay Dying, All That Remains, Bullet For My Valentine, and Killswitch Engage.
But I will tell you now what really got me into rapping was actually Nu Metal bands like Linkin’ Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn, and even System Of A Down. They are the ones that got me into performing since I joined a Nu Metal band when I was 17 as a rapper. Then my English got a bit more advanced through rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent, Will Smith, Eve, Missy Elliott, B.I.G, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Foxy Brown - and then I dug deeper with Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Fugees, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, NWA, and Pete Rock. I also picked up cues from other genres, from Classical, Blues, Jazz, Reggae, and Bossa Nova. It’s all been part of my musical journey of discovery.
You recently had a baby, congrats! It was pretty daring and personal to make a video for ‘Bet On Me’ when you were very pregnant. But it was also startlingly effective and to date the video has over five million YouTube views. Was there any backlash from that?
If my daughter Nina [named after the one and only Nina Simone] can see this video when she is a bit older, seeing herself in the womb, listening to whatever her mom was singing to her father. For that alone I’ll be cool. When I saw those comments by people who were happy for me, I feel blessed to be able to share my journey with my audience and my friends. I think there will always be people who comment from their reality and what they understand, so I couldn’t worry about it, especially during my pregnancy. That video wasn’t made to attract mass attention anyway.
It was so cool to see your track ‘CHO KHÔNG’ on the VIBE Presents Urban Asia album, along with artists like Yung Raja, Reezy, and another Asian queen, Mrs M from Mongolia. Do you have any plans to collab with other Asian artists?
Finally, please tell us what’s in store for you in the next year?
Promoting the No Nê album is still the main focus for next year, then collaborating with artists around the world and especially Asia. There’s also a cool project not related to music that I’m working on, but that will be later on.
Big thank you to:
Photographer : Hậu Lê
Stylist: Tigre Bia
MUA : Xi Quan Le
Nails : Quinada
Outfit: Nie Dao, Fanci Club, Tuấn Hiển
Production : MAU Collective