Stepping inside one of Saigon’s underground nightspots one hot and sticky Friday night I find a huddle of young Vietnamese men all jostling for space in a tightly packed, coven-like circle in front of the DJ booth.
Kitted out in baggy t-shirts, hoodies and jeans, baseball caps and bandanas, they pass the microphone around, taking it in turns to rhyme in rapid fire to a whooping and hollering crowd:
“Họ bỏ đi, không quan tâm lời ta đang nói / Không thích giáo lý, nhưng thích lời gian dối.”
“People come and go, and don’t really care about what we’re trying to say / They don’t like to be lectured, but they want to hear the flattery.”
This is Kaza, a 22-year-old Saigon rapper who is part of the Infamous crew.
“I started rapping at school. I was angry,” he tells me.
Like many artists in Vietnam, Kaza doesn’t always have the artistic freedom he wants. But as his rhyme hints, he does take his frustration to the mic. “I want to talk about how unfair life here is for some people. About how they don’t get listened to.”
Emcee K, another well-known Saigon rapper, echoes Kaza’s sentiments. On his upcoming debut album with an explicit title, “Love Sh*t”, K says he wanted to talk about “the streets”.
“I wanted to say that life ain’t about love all the time. Like when homies lie and backstab each other to get through the day. Injustice in society when the killer doesn’t go to jail and the civilian who tries to protect their rights gets put in jail.”
LC King is another hot young talent. Like many Saigon rap stars he started as a break-dancer, or a b-boy, back in 2007, and has evolved into a rapper and producer, recently joining a new crew in Saigon, Pretty OG.
“Hip-hop saved my life,” says King. “I write every day in the morning before I go to work and I’m always thinking of new rhymes. It helps me talk about things and connect with my friends.”
Kaza, K and King are all regulars at these freestyle Cypher hip-hop nights, founded and organized by British DJ Steve Hill and German graffiti artist Luki. The pair started Cypher just 18 months ago, but it’s now one of the most popular hip-hop events in Ho Chi Minh City.
“We work hard to get young kids to come and rap. Some of them have never rapped outside their bedrooms before. It’s cool to see,” Steve says.
LC King as Pretty OG’s chief rapper. Photo courtesy of Pretty OG
Short shelf life
Steve adds that it can be a challenge to get Vietnamese rappers along to the events, as often they have to rap around full time jobs and can’t stay beyond 10 or 11 p.m.
Both King and Kaza tell me that Vietnamese rappers also have a short shelf life.
“Most rappers here aren’t over 25 because that’s when you have to get married and start a family,” says Kaza.
At just 22, Kaza is already dreading the end of his nascent hip-hop career, which is exploding with requests to perform solo in local venues as well as at these organized events.
“Hip-hop is my life. I never dreamed I’d achieve so much and I don’t know what I’ll do when I can’t rap anymore. But that’s how it is here. You have to work, you have to get married, you have to stop.”
King agrees, adding that this is a pressure he often has to face. And at 27, he is pushing the boundary.
His first event with Pretty OG – consisting of Tiger, Rodney, King, Phutoro, DJ Swing Master Jay, DJ Arsan and U.S. rapper Prince – was held at late night hot spot Piu Piu and was packed by both young Vietnamese and foreigners until well past 2 a.m., underlining a rebellious youth culture that is usually the first sign of a society in transformation.
One of the newest crews on the scene, 95 Generation, is further testing cultural limits.
Hieu, a.k.a Mojo, An (AK), Long (SMO) and Loi (Thoc), are four of this 10-strong group of 21-year-olds that, rather than live at home with their parents as most people their age do, all live together in a home-cum-studio.
Instead of working long hours in traditional jobs, the group finds more creative ways to fund themselves that allow them to dedicate more time to their music.
95 Generation, one of the newest crews in Saigon’s young hip-hop scene. Photo courtesy of 95 Generation
“You have to teach yourself music in Vietnam and practice, practice, practice every day. That’s why a lot of music here isn’t good quality. We want to make high quality music – that’s what we want to do differently,” says Thoc.
Founded just two years ago by Thoc and Long, 95 Generation already has a large following on YouTube. The crew also has big ambitions: “We want to build an entertainment company; we want to show the next generation that they have to make sacrifices and make music from their hearts.”
This crew has no plans to stop making music in order to settle down.
Life for young people in Vietnam is changing; old expectations are giving way to new ambitions and the fledgling hip-hop scene is one of the areas these frustrations are being aired loudly.
“We are only at the first step of hip-hop in Vietnam,” says Thoc. “We have a long way to go before we catch up with the U.S.”
It’s an exciting time for young Vietnamese rappers – but progress won’t come without challenges.