DPA International, Hanoi, Oct. 31, 2016– Known locally as “Vietnam’s Lady Gaga,” pop singer Mai Khoi has put her career and freedom on the line by courting controversy in her conservative homeland.
Her latest album “Cuffed in Freedom,” due for release by year’s end, features a pro-democracy message in a country where opposition to the single party communist state is effectively banned.
From her beginnings as a risque pop star teasing the nation’s conservative approach to sexuality, the so-called “Lady Gaga of Vietnam” has recently upper her challenge to Vietnam’s authoritarianism.
“I’m not against the government. I just show what they should do and what the citizens want them to do,” Khoi told dpa.
Earlier this year, Khoi nominated herself as an independent candidate for a National Assembly seat, seeking to directly confront the country’s political establishment.
She was quickly disqualified – nominations have always gone to Communist Party supporters – but not before she openly showed herself as a regime critic.
Retribution was swift. Khoi vanished from TV and radio. One of her concerts in Ho Chi Minh City was raided by police. Despite having the support of nearly 38,000 followers on Facebook, she was no longer booked for local shows because venues feared government action.
“It only takes one decision from someone in the government to stop people from inviting you to sing anymore. Even the national media stops talking about you,” Khoi said.
Fellow musician Ngoc Dai, a contemporary composer whose 2013 album was banned by the government ostensibly for vulgarity, said Khoi “dares to speak the truth.”
“She is both a witness and a historic person in this country. What she has done is to contribute to change society for a better environment and country that all people want,” he said.
Criticizing the government in Vietnam can be risky due to laws that threaten prison time for spreading “anti-state propaganda.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch says Vietnamese prisons currently hold at least 130 prisoners of conscience, although the regime denies holding political prisoners.
Khoi shrugs off the potential threat of imprisonment.
“T hey can arrest me . I’m not scared,” she said.
Khoi’s activism has gained her admirers from abroad. US President Barack Obama met with the musician in a closed-door session with other activists during his visit to Hanoi in May. Khoi said she asked Obama to continue pressuring Vietnam’s leaders to enact democratic reforms.
While she said she respected Obama, she also castigated him for not doing more to promote human rights in Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese people admire you for who you are, President Obama, but they don’t yet appreciate you for what you have done for our country. This is your last chance,” she recalled saying to Obama during their meeting.
Khoi only performs underground shows in Vietnam these days, usually with foreign diplomats and local civil society activists in attendance, at a discreet Hanoi auditorium away from prying eyes.
She travelled to Germany this month to meet with like-minded members of the Vietnamese diaspora. Overseas Vietnamese, she said, are often receptive to her activism and interested in how they can help bring about change.
She hasn’t always been political. Khoi’s rise to fame centred around an edgy persona that took aim at local social conservatism. The 33-year-old’s 2014 single “Selfie Orgasm” urged listeners to “flick it to Facebook,” while “Saigon Boom Boom” was an ode to promiscuity in Vietnam’s largest city.
She quickly met critical acclaim in Vietnam. The country’s largest TV station gave her its song and album of the year award in 2010.
Khoi has downplayed her frequent comparisons to Lady Gaga.
“With Vietnamese people, something just a little weird is Lady Gaga,” she said, adding that her pink hair and revealing attire were enough to ruffle feathers.
These days, Khoi is interested more in challenging the Vietnamese government than in teasing sexual mores.
Her image has changed dramatically since she became political. Gone are the dazzling dresses and overtly sexual lyrics. Her music’s electronic beats have been replaced by acoustic guitar and traditional Vietnamese instruments.
Uong Thanh Ngoc, a 28-year-old filmmaker, said the singer’s 180-degree transformation was “awesome” to witness.
“It’s getting more aggressive now with the topic of politics, protest and human rights, but her approach is using traditional instruments, like a bamboo flute and drums, to create more depth,” he said.
Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a 43-year-old dissident blogger also known by his pen name Anh Chi, said he appreciated seeing a Vietnamese celebrity speak her mind on social issues.
“It’s great to see what she does,” Tuyen said.