(Photos: Hoa P. Nguyen)

On a recent Thursday night, a woman of petite stature walked onto the stage at Joe’s Pub. Her straight, glossy hair was part black, part cerulean blue. She wore plum lipstick, a glittery jacket and sparkly combat boots. 

A hush fell on the crowd as the artist picked up an unusual instrument. Picture a large bong with a tall neck, along the length of which are slightly spiky, flat tuners that resemble big thumbs. The artist plucked the strings, emitting an echoey sound like that of a gong, blending seamlessly with her powerful, reverberating vocals.

Mai Khoi, the Vietnamese pop-star-turned-activist, later explained to me that she was playing đàn tinh linh, or “goong,” a 14-string bamboo instrument that originated from the Jarai people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  

Her performance was the outcome of a three-month residency program called Safe Haven Incubator for Music NYC. Launched by Artistic Freedom Initiative and Tamizdat, the program aims to support international musicians who face dangerous, violent conflicts in their home country and whose work is censored by their government. Mai Khoi is the second musician chosen for this artistic residency.

After performing a solo piece with the Jarai instrument, the native of the south central city of Cam Ranh took the audience on a musical journey that conveyed her rise from an impoverished childhood to mainstream fame, followed by political activism that cast a shadow on her musical career. 

In this 90-minute show, Khoi sang primarily in Vietnamese and sometimes in English, while a screen projected images, video footage and English translations. Her sarcastic and witty narration served as transitions between the various anecdotes. 

She began with a soothing, patriotic tune about Vietnam, a tune so nostalgic that one could hear some sniffling permeating the room. But the mellow melody didn’t last long. 

Khoi turned back the clock to when she was growing up in a poor home, explaining how she first learned music. Unable to afford a real keyboard, Khoi’s father, a music teacher, created a makeshift one from cardboard boxes and taught her how to play.  She used a replica of the keyboard to sing “I’m a little rose,” the quintessential Vietnamese children’s song. 

Khoi wrote her first song when she was seven and by the time she turned 13, she won a local singing competition that earned her a spot to compete in the national finals in Hanoi. At the time, her parents were wary of their daughter leaving home to pursue her dream. 

As she recalled, they told her, “just be patient.” And those three words remained a mantra throughout the show, whether uttered by Khoi’s parents, Khoi’s poet friend who inspired her to speak up about social injustice, or the people who wanted to shut her out.

Khoi told the story of how her life took a different turn when in 2016, she decided to run for the National Assembly, hoping to change censorship laws in Vietnam. Not only was her name excluded from the ballot, she was officially banned from performing in public due to the critical and political nature of her songs. She began attending protests to raise awareness about the lack of human rights, press freedom and freedom of expression in Vietnam.

One highlight in her early activist years was Khoi’s meeting with President Obama during his trip to Vietnam in 2016. Footage showed Khoi sitting next to the President, smiling, eyes beaming with hope that such an influential, powerful country like the U.S. would care enough to pressure the Vietnamese authoritarian regime to address its lack of human rights and freedom of expression. Not only does the one-party state strictly control the media to favor state propaganda, it also cracks down on dissidents and activists who dare criticize the Communist Party by banning their work from being circulated, sending them to jail or in some cases, and forcing them into exile, according to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch. 

The way diplomacy works, as Khoi later told me, is that human rights are usually attached to economic and military deals, rather than existing as an agreement on its own. “We had hoped Obama would have taken advantage of Trans-Pacific Partnership and the arms deal to put pressure on the Vietnamese government to 1) release prisoners of conscience—anyone imprisoned on the basis of their political views, 2) amend election laws, crime laws and union laws, 3) protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” she said. 

If Obama had been more aggressive about speaking up against social injustice in Vietnam, and if the U.S. had put its money where its mouth was, more human rights could have made their way into the deals signed by both countries, Khoi believes. The audience nodded as she concluded this narrative: “I realized I couldn’t expect a foreigner to come and save my country.”

At times during her New York performance, Khoi was moaning, whimpering, occasionally bursting into tears, such as in the preface of her song, “Re-education Camp.” The lyrics came in a staccato rhythm: “Only you guys / who invented the re-education camp / need to sit in there […] You’ll have time to repent / to regret / to slap yourself on the face for being cruel.” This was a reference to the unjust imprisonment of numerous Vietnamese activists and political artists in recent years.

Khoi sang about her experience of being followed by the police and watched at all times. She also opened up about her efforts to perform in secret, but added that more often than not, she would be found and the police would shut down her shows. They would not arrest her based on the content of her songs but instead insisted that she did not have a license to perform. 

* * *

The day after the performance, I visited Mai Khoi in her studio apartment at Westbeth Artist Housing in West Village, a residential complex for artists working in the city. I first met Khoi a year and a half ago when she performed with her band Mai Khoi & the Dissidents in Washington, D.C. 

Now sporting a striped t-shirt and pink slippers, Khoi was fixing a late lunch. She was making bún cá miền Trung, a fish vermicelli soup typical of Central Vietnam that reminds her of her hometown. It was three in the afternoon so I didn’t feel particularly hungry, but I couldn’t resist the smoky aroma of the mackerel so I took her up on her offer—and I’m glad I did. “Living in New York is very expensive so I cook at home a lot,” she said. “If it weren’t for the residency program which provided housing for me, I can’t imagine how I would be able to afford this place.” (We spoke in Vietnamese and Khoi’s responses have been translated into English and edited for clarity.)

Choosing to become an artist means an unpredictable income, and Khoi said she has already made peace with that fact. What’s more important to her is that she has the freedom to make the music her heart desires.

But that also comes with a cost: she doesn’t have a home. “I think living elsewhere is better and safer than in Vietnam, both politically and environmentally,” she said. 

Khoi doesn’t own a home and she has always rented in her home country. This has meant the police could pressure her landlord to evict her at any time, putting the blame on Khoi’s political music. “The police would raid my apartment and tell my landlord, ‘[this person] is a subversive, if you let her stay in your property,’ she said, imitating the cop’s raspy voice, “‘you’ll suffer the consequences.’” 

Having lived in different cities in Vietnam, from Sai Gon to Hanoi, in between Khoi lives wherever she can perform, be it Europe or America. “My activism makes me mentally unstable,” she added. “It physically makes it harder for me to create, but spiritually, it builds up a tension in my body and in my mind, all of which is then channeled into my songs.”

Khoi explained that her drastic shift from pop to avant-garde music was inevitable—she was no longer singing just about patriotism, love or how beautiful her country was. “When the topic of my songs changes, I need to change my style as well,” Khoi said. “Say I’m writing a song about a protest I just witnessed; I can’t express all of my feelings through pop music, I have to use these harsh, raucous sounds to depict that experience.” 

Going experimental is a daring artistic choice because the genre is an acquired taste for most people, and it’s even harder to reach a Vietnamese audience. “I want to sing for the Vietnamese people but they don’t seem open to my music. They just want something easy to listen to,” Khoi said. “I’m an artist so I don’t need to make music to feed the popular taste since creativity is my goal.” 

Khoi considers her music a gift to herself and to other people. Whether people want to accept her gift, she insists that it doesn’t matter because it’s the thought that counts. That’s why Khoi is especially appreciative of those who still come to her shows. She believes the mere act of showing up signifies immense courage.

The artist is aware that because many people in the Vietnamese community here in the U.S. support President Trump, they tend to boycott her music. “I think they aren’t informed enough of what Trump does,” she continued. “Their media consumption is limited so they don’t really know what’s going on.”

While her main audience now includes many foreigners from Western countries, Khoi isn’t worried that they cannot easily connect with her music. “I sing in Vietnamese, a foreign language to them but I think they can still understand because music is universal,” she said. “I’ve seen people cry at my show.” There’s no doubt those who speak Vietnamese are able to deeply understand the messages she’s trying to convey through her songs, she added, “but only if they allow themselves to open up to a different kind of art, usually those working in creative fields.”