Written by Uyên Ly for Hanoi Grapevine
Translated by Nguyễn Thu Hà
Before 2016, Mai Khoi could be considered a unique and remarkable artist in a sea of “easy to sing, easy to remember” Vietnamese pop songs that were on-trend back then on music streaming websites such as Zing or Nhaccuatui. She was among the inimitable singers who were capable of composing and singing her own songs; who dared to experiment with a variety of musical genres from pop, dance, latin to even higher quality of blues… She was granted a good prize in Viet’s Music 2010 – a high quality program held from 2005 to 2015 by Vietnam Television to celebrate new composers – and contributed massively to the development of Vietnam’s musical scene. Apart from her professional career, Mai Khoi attracted the media’s attention for both her fresh, sexy look and lifestyle. Some reporters and audiences stalked every detail of her personal life from what she said to her clothing style, dating life, travelling, etc…
She used to always be “in the spotlight”, ‘til one day, everything about her disappeared from Vietnam’s mainstream press and media channels.
Mai Khoi almost vanished from mainstream media after her self-nomination as the member of the National Assembly in 2016. When typing “Ca sy Mai Khoi” (singer Mai Khoi) into the Google search bar, the first results that came up were articles by foreign news agencies about her 8 hour-temporary-custody at Noi Bai Airport after returning from an Europe tour. The next results were from other foreign news outlets about a singer, a politic dissenter, a democratic activist whose name was “Mai Khoi”, and then further down would be the old pieces of news on her “previous” pop star life.
Mai Khoi’s first song in early 2016 was Trói vào tự do (Cuffed in Freedom) which talked about the utmost desire for freedom of artists. Then the next song she wrote in March 2016 during her nomination to the National Assembly and showed more concerns about politics, democracy and humanity’s issues. “From my view, it is necessary to encourage people to join politics, and to normalize the term of ‘politics’,” – Mai Khôi explained her decision.
Mai Khoi’s concern about politics did indeed become a new inspiration for her as an artist, helping her reach a turning point in her musical career. Her next 12 songs were written and all completed before August 2016. Almost two years later, her album Bất đồng – Dissent including the above 12 songs were released – not in Vietnam.
Mai Khoi in this album was no longer the Mai Khoi in the old days. She became stronger, more challenging, and more pained than ever. There were no more love songs as soft as Baby blues – types of songs with simple rhythm and lyrics, sounds familiar (easy to hear and to remember to common audiences), no more tone of brightness in love songs full of roses, wild grass, or kisses with “pinky colored love”… Instead, there were voices of pain, sorrow, irony, philosophical thoughts, and agony of an artist about society.
This album was indeed inspiring and touching. Lyrics comprised of toughness and sharpness in Mai Khôi’s voice, combined with Khoi’s guitar and other special/exotic instruments, by excellent performance of Chém Gió Band (Quyền Thiện Đắc; Nguyễn Đức Minh) created such a memorable musical production. From unique materials, the artists improvised with each other, mixed and created interesting sounds of amazement and surprises. We could feel their pain, complex emotions, and resentment from their voices and music. There were songs with strong accusation/statement which we could not ignore; calls for our sympathy and action. And some others showed the vulnerability of human beings, make us moved, hurt, and cry with the artists.
Mai Khôi stated that since Bất đồng, she would not make the same music as she did before, she would not repeat her own old songs: “My mind is different now. No more simple love songs, no more sexy songs like before. This is not the right time”.
Bất đồng by Mai Khôi can only be found on Spotify with the keywords “Mai Khoi – Dissent”, or on Itunes. As for the hard copies, you can buy her CDs from Grappa – the biggest independent record company in Norway.
Below is Mai Khoi’s statement about Bất đồng, which shows how she has changed:
I used to think my songs and albums were quite good, I got many shows, money came easy. But I didn’t feel so proud of my productions… I felt frustrated and insulted when suffering from censorship every time I have a performance and a new album release… But now, I can be proud that I overcame censorship, my songs are more emotional and meaningful. [This album] has a significant meaning for me. “Significant” because it has historical meaning. My songs reflect the harsh reality that we see every day, a life of chaos in which I dare to sing aloud, to produce songs despite the oppressive circumstances.
Listen to “Chuyen xe” (Bus trips) – Mai Khoi’s most powerful and touching songs from the album: