2017 was definitely a huge year for non-Western rappers coming into the mainstream spotlight. The 88 Rising collective comes to mind with members Keith Ape, Joji and Rich Chigga all enjoying a serious come-up this year. Elsewhere, Vietnamese rapper Suboi has been on her grind since she was 17, improving her English by rapping along to her favorites like Eminem and Nas.
Spitting bars in both English and Vietnamese, Suboi made her American debut in 2015, performing at SXSW and even opening for Skrillex. In May 2016 she even freestyled for Obama while he was president during a Q&A in Ho Chi Minh City. Only a handful of American rappers can say they’ve performed for Obama, let alone rappers born and raised in Saigon.
We caught up with Suboi to talk about that surreal moment, but also about her recent 2.7 EP released by her very own Suboi Entertainment company. She also let us know her personal favorite rap song of 2017.
Dig into our interview with Suboi below, and get acquainted with the Vietnamese rapper poised to take the world by storm.
How did you start writing raps and what was it like recording your first song?
When I was nine, I used to write poetry but nobody considered what I wrote to be poems. The way I wrote ‘em was kinda funny because I made up my rules. So when I started to discover rap it was like a confirmation that I can speak in whatever way I want – that it’s bigger than the rules, it’s about expression, communicating, exchanging knowledge, having a voice!
What was it like to freestyle for President Obama?
That moment is still so surreal. It was at a “town hall” event which was the first time I learned what a “town hall” was – being able to talk to someone from authority openly, and this time, the most powerful man in the world! I was going to ask the question other artists didn’t get to ask, and the rest is history.
For those of us that don’t speak Vietnamese, what are some overarching themes in your Vietnamese lyrics?
Whatever happened to me and the lessons behind them. I was just sharing my experience and somehow communicating with my fans about what I’m learning as a young person, what it’s like to be oneself. The journey is still going on…
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career?
To do everything on my own. Little did I know, I can only do best when I focus on what is within my power. I’ve had to look for my own way, and though there are rappers that came before me, everyone’s path is so different from each other. I kept on track by listening and watching the international artists but the culture and mindset are not the same. I faced money, trust issues and being jaded at a young age, and that originally led me not to open my mind until I took a chance to travel and see the world.
Why have you chosen to stay in Vietnam despite the censorship?
It’s my home, it’s where I grew up.
How did you get started again on what would become your 2.7 EP after losing demos you had worked on for ages?
I got connected just to jam and perform together at a local bar with Mino & The Band. They are a jazz band from Norway, they came to Vietnam to teach at the HCMC Music Academy. They were visiting Vietnam for a few weeks and were about to play at this local music bar.
I wrote these songs years ago but three of them are still true to life so we decided to record the sessions, and there is 2.7, so it’s sort of midway between my second and third album!
What’s it like running your own company, Suboi Entertainment?
I have a great team. The biggest lesson that took me eight years to overcome is to find and trust the right people. Owning a company doesn’t mean I have to do everything (obviously, I can’t) so I let the people do what they do best.
What was your favorite part of shooting the video for “Người Ta Hiểu?”
There was a sense of familiarity on set that I loved. The locations were all places I knew and loved, and the crew were all friends.
What’s your favorite rap song released in 2017?
“Bodak Yellow!” Yurrrr.