by Jade Hidle
Click here to hear Nah Nguyen’s “I Have a Dream.”
A majority of the studies of diasporic culture focus on the aspects of the homeland that have been transplanted to other parts of the world. However, in an increasingly transnational world, it is also important to look at this cultural pollination in the reverse direction—the influence that other countries, namely the United States, exert over Vietnam. In other words, what is being taken back to Vietnam and why?
Of course, there are the material objects—Levis, coconut-scented shampoo, peanut butter, etc.—filling the packages being taken back home, the ones that make customs officials at the airport sigh and pull out their box cutters. And then there are the larger, more complex cultural exports of fashion, film, capitalism, and the list goes on. Within this growing catalog of American cultural tokens being taken back to Vietnam is hip-hop music, and Nah Nguyen is one of the country’s up and coming emcees.
Largely influenced by African American hip-hop artists, Nguyen pares down the bling-bling, sex- and money-obsessed exterior of contemporary hip-hop to revive its roots in social consciousness and activism, but specific to a Vietnamese cultural context. Nguyen has studied in the U.S. and in Singapore, but is proud to claim that he was born and raised in Saigon, where he currently resides. “I am Vietnamese to the bone,” he says. In his collaborations with rapper Mondega (see the forthcoming post on Mondega on January 5th in diaCRITICS) and support from writer Lac Su, author of I Love Yous are for White People, as well as with the help of Facebook and YouTube, Nguyen’s music is gaining exposure in the States, representing what Vietnam can do with hip-hop music. With his second album, Awakening, due to come out on January 15th, I interviewed Nguyen about how hip-hop has been an artistic medium conducive to expressing topical issues in Vietnam.
JH: How long have you been rapping? How and why did you become interested in hip-hop?
NN: I have been writing and recording for almost 5 years, from a newbie to a semi-pro artist. I first got into hip-hop since I was 13, which is 7 years ago. At that time hip-hop was not big in Vietnam. I was a Linkin Park fan. Later on, due to the Internet, I discovered Eminem. I was a hardcore Shady fan until my uncle bought me a Tupac greatest hits CD. Since then I have fallen in love with hip-hop and started to research the culture. I accidentally came across the site rapworlds.com/forums, where I learned everything about hip-hop and rhyming.
JH: Who are your major influences, as a lyricist and a musician?
NN: I have many influences to list, but here are some biggest influences: Chamillionaire, T.I., Nas and Trinh Cong Son. You can say I’m a mix of Dirty South, East Coast, and Asian music.
JH: Do you feel that you have to distinguish yourself from other, predominantly African American hip hop artists because you are Vietnamese?
NN: I think hip-hop itself is a regional music. Hip-hop artists nowadays come from everywhere. Although we may follow the same patterns (the street/ghetto way of living, the culture of braggadocio), we bring different styles and techniques to the table. I would rather adapt myself into this black culture, yet still remain a true Vietnamese.
JH: You seem to have a collaborative relationship with Mondega. How does collaborating with other artists, such as Mondega, help or change your music and your goals as an artist?
NN: With the help of writer Lac Su, Mondega, MAC, and I have come together and we got a collaboration. The track is called Greater Times and it will appear in my 2nd album as well as on Mondega’s new mixtape. Collaborating with other artists gives me chances to learn different techniques in writing, recording and mixing.
JH: In what ways do you think hip-hop is a fruitful medium for expressing issues in the Vietnamese communities?
NN: Hip-hop is straight forward and real, it goes to the heart of young people. The youth tends to look up to and believe in their favorite artists. Therefore, rappers can use their music to get the message across, without being preachy or corny. Here in Vietnam, we are changing these young minds with music. Conscious emcees are addressing issues such as drug abuse, prostitution, inflation, social conflicts, love, gang fights, war… in their music, in a positive way.
JH: A notable detail on the cover of your first album, The Downfall of Nah, is that you have changed the parental advisory label to read “Explicit Knowledge.” What do you feel is the knowledge that you are trying to spread and create awareness of?
NN: Downfall deals with some political and social issues that the youth here in Vietnam may not be ready to hear. I talked about drug abuse and prostitution in the track Doi. [Watch the video for this track below!] I addressed the Hoang Sa-Truong Sa issue in the track Lam Chu The Gioi, criticizing the Chinese government for invading the border of Vietnam. In Xa Hoi Thoi Tan, I warned people about the possibility of World War 3, poverty, starvation and pollution. In Chay, I discussed the wrong side of competitions in Vietnamese education system, and the fast way of living the new generation.
Click here to hear Nah Nguyen’s “Doi.”
JH: You mentioned that a lot of your lyrics address issues that Vietnamese audiences, even younger generations, “may not be ready to hear.” What has your experience been with censorship in Saigon? Have you been confronted with censorship or just negative audience responses because your lyrics deal with social and political topics?
NN: I am still an underground artist so I could care less about censorship. I also do not go straight forward into the issues, but rather use sarcastic metaphors to express my opinions. I am also aware that I should not go too deep into political issues because it might not be a smart strategy for my career. That is why my 2nd album will be more personal, more of a “daily life” album and overall it will be easier to relate to.
JH: The songs on The Downfall of Nah are in Vietnamese and English. What are the advantages and challenges to be a bilingual rapper? Are there ideas that you can express in Vietnamese that you can’t in English, and vice versa?
NN: Being a bilingual emcee makes my music original. It helps me to build a bigger fan base. The biggest challenge for me is probably my accent, since English is my second language. The vocab is also different. There are some ideas I can express in Vietnamese fluently (especially metaphors and abstract ideas) that I cannot get across in English.
JH: Do you perform live often and, if so, where do you prefer to have shows? Who do you feel your main audience is, or who would you like your music to reach? Has audience reception been different amongst Vietnamese in Vietnam and Vietnamese in the U.S.?
NN: I usually perform in Saigon. Usually it’s just some small gigs in bars. My biggest fan base is here in Saigon, Vietnam. I have not got much exposure in the States, mainly due to my accent.
JH: One of my favorite tracks on Downfall is “Rap Là Gì.” This song stood out to me because it seems, in part, to redefine (or at least question the definition of) rap, particularly for Vietnamese artists and audiences who are not typically associated with hip-hop. In what ways does the genre of rap music need to be redefined for the context of Vietnamese culture and language? Or, more generally, how does this track represent the messages you want to convey as a musical artist?
NN: Rap music to me is about giving opinions, mixed with poetry, flow, and instrumentals. It has to be something that motivates people to strive for a better life. It has to be deep and profound enough to be called an art, not just random dissing, battling, or mere criticism.
JH: Your next album, Awakening, is being released January 15, 2011. How will this album be different from The Downfall of Nah? What else can fans expect (albums, concerts, events, etc.) from Nah Nguyen, whether in the near future or in the long run?
NN: Downfall was released during a very bad time for me (I quit my old crew, I got myself a lot of hate and enemies, and I wanted to quit rapping). Lately I have settled everything and am ready for a fresh start. Awakening will give people a clearer look in to my life as an artist and a person. It will answer all the questions surrounding me lately. The album is mostly in Vietnamese. I got the concept of the album from the movie Inception—first you fall, then you hit the ground, you wake up. Downfall talks a lot about social issues, but Awakening will be something very personal. Musically, the album has a little south, a little east, and a little Asian feel to it. It got production from internet producers such as 2Deep, Life and Death, Vybe, Heath Waive, Hygrade. The album will feature Mondega and MAC, as I mentioned before, on Greater Times, produced by Mondega. Apart from Awakening, fans can expect some local concerts in Saigon, as my friend Andree Right Hand is coming back soon from Canada. I also have a plan for a Greater Times music video.
Click here to hear Nah Nguyen’s “The Downfall of Nah.”