A year after she was boycotted and at constant risk of imprisonment, Vietnamese singer-songwriter Mai Khoi (Cam Ranh, 1983) returned to her homeland and decided to re-start her artistic career with a new music group.
For the first time since the local pop-star was virtually forced to exile, Mai Khoi & The Dissidents performed in Hanoi in April 2017. Confronting continuous harassment from the Communist regime, the band launched its new repertoire in a private event not publicly announced to avoid the censorship system.
Since then, the small auditorium of Phu Sa Lab – Vietnam’s only independent recording studio, located on the second floor of an old French colonial mansion in Hanoi – has become her haven. It has also become the exclusive venue hosting live performances of her new band, which mixes traditional Vietnamese music with American blues and folk, breathing fresh air into the national music landscape with anti-government lyrics and songs of defiance, such as ‘Re-education Camp’.
However, the censorship system watches her closely.
Although the studio is inconspicuous – it doesn’t even have a sign on the front door – police officers forced the owner to request permission for hosting one of Mai Khoi’s band’s concerts in July and threatened to fine him one day before the concert was to be held.
“We went ahead with the show and, towards the end, 30 police and cultural inspectors raided the studio”, recounted Mai Khoi, who also had to move out from her apartment due to pressure from local authorities.
Entering the political space
In 2016, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party announced that independent candidates could nominate themselves for the country’s National Assembly elections held in May that year. Mai Khoi sparked political debate when she became one of the 162 citizens to campaign for a seat and the first celebrity to do so on a pro-democracy platform.
“I wanted to encourage Vietnamese people to participate in politics. Because that is their right”, explained the 34-year-old artist. “[However] the Communist Party does not want any form of independent political organisation; not even one independent member.”
According to official data, only 11 self-nominated independents appeared on the ballots – the lowest number in 20 years. The remaining 900 candidates were chosen by the central government or local authorities, all of which are controlled by the Communist Party. Additionally, human rights organisations claimed that the party blocked nominees. Amnesty International noted that “over 100 non-party candidates who attempted to register, including prominent government critics such as Nguyễn Quang A, were disqualified on tenuous administrative grounds”.
Article 4 of Vietnam’s constitution formally gives the ruling party the right to control the country. In 2013, efforts were taken to amend this provision to allow for multi-party pluralism; however, such efforts “not only failed but resulted in key changes to strengthen the Communist Party’s monopoly on power”, explained Human Rights Watch. Following the elections, the organisation sent a letter addressed to former US President Barak Obama explaining that “in many cases, government or party agents engaged in a campaign of intimidation to block their candidacies from succeeding”.
This is what happened to Mai Khoi.
“Media coverage [about my candidature] suddenly vanished as I gained support. Days later, police officers went to my parents’ house; they asked about my residency status, [and] movements and activities from 2001 until the present day”, the singer said.
Inconsistent information from local authorities handling the bureaucratic process ultimately hampered her candidacy.
Following Obama’s official visit to the country shortly after the elections, Mai Khoi managed to arrange an informal meeting with the US president. Mai Khoi and five other Vietnamese activists aired their grievances during an hour-long roundtable meeting with Obama. That event had little public repercussion, but it did end the singer’s artistic career in Vietnam.
“One of my concerts was shut down by ten police [officers] after I issued the invitation to meet with President Obama. They have [the] power to shut down anything they want”, she explained.
Ever since national media reported the shutdown, all of Mai Khoi’s concerts were cancelled. The singer, who had received an award by the national broadcaster for her 2010 album ‘Made in Mai Khoi’ and was lauded for her song ‘Vietnam’ – a folk anthem praising the diversity and hospitality of her homeland – suddenly turned into the country’s public enemy number one in the field of arts.
“I’m not officially banned from singing, but no one will have me because they are scared it will cause them problems […] It’s like they don’t kill me but don’t let me live”, she said.
Although she knows the consequences of being in the government’s sights, Mai Khoi still shows confidence and hope: “I could go to jail for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ or ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, but I will find the way to be safe”.
This story and video was written, filmed, edited and produced by Ángel L. Martínez Cantera for Freemuse