For the last three months Nguyen Thanh Huy and his friends at a university in Hanoi have a new Saturday evening rendezvous: at a coffee shop to watch a TV reality show that seeks to unearth talented rappers.
After each episode they rewatch it on YouTube and talk about it with friends.
Huy, 21, says: “I did not like rap since it used to be associated with gangsters and street culture, but not any more. There are a lot of famous rappers in Vietnam with beautiful songs.”
The young man is among millions of Vietnamese who have been hooked on rap music recently.
Judges and coaches on ‘Rap Viet’ are famous rappers. Photo courtesy of ‘Rap Viet.’
Rap, which was earlier not popular in Vietnam due to its dark and violent content, slowly won over young music lovers before finding its ways into the mainstream.
The genre first appeared in Vietnam in the late 1990s but did not attract many fans until around a decade ago when many rappers became popular on the Internet.
In the last few years dozens of rap artists, mostly underground, have appeared and achieved success with their music videos getting millions of views and shows attracting tens of thousands of fans.
One of the most prominent faces is Den Vau, famous on the underground and independent music scenes and an icon of rap lovers in recent years.
He first came to prominence with the massive success of “Dua Em Di Tron” (Taking You To A Hideaway) in 2015, which fetched him several awards.
Last year he was the most streamed domestic artist in Vietnam on Spotify, the world’s biggest music streaming service, and his concert in Ho Chi Minh City sold 5,000 tickets in 10 minutes. Den Vau’s latest song “Troi Hom Nay Nhieu May Cuc” (It Is Cloudy Today), has amassed 18 million views and 614,000 likes on YouTube.
Names like Binz, Suboi, Wowy, LK, Khoi, Karik, Big Daddy, and B Ray also have many hits under their belt and millions of fans, marking the rise of the genre in the Vietnamese music industry.
In October, Rapper Binz’s music video ‘Bigcityboi’ has impressed U.S. entertainment website Billboard, which has hailed his performance. The video has raked in over 62 million views on YouTube, and made its way to the video-sharing site’s Top Trending in several countries within 12 hours of its premiere on July.
In August something unprecedented happened: rap made its way to national television.
Reality shows looking for talented rappers began to air on prime time on Saturday nights, wowing audiences and smashing TV records.
Videos of performances from the shows got millions of hits on YouTube and thousands of comments. One episode had more than 700,000 concurrent viewers on the streaming platform, a record for a TV show in Vietnam.
“I am shocked by the rise of Vietnamese rap, but it is a nice shock,” MC Ill, a leading rapper, says.
Rap for Vietnamese
The influence of foreign culture brought rap to young Vietnamese, but it not gain prominence until local rappers began to write lyrics with more diverse stories, poetic words and metaphors and similes.
Rappers are nowadays smart and professional and put a lot of effort into their songs and lyrics, the opposite of what people thought about rap, rapper Neko Le says.
DSK sings about daily life, Binz about love in poetic terms and Mr. T talks about patriotism; some contestants on TV sang about friendship, family and traditional folks, making their music accessible to a wider range of audience.
One artist with gentle soft lyrics is Den Vau.
“How are you doing? Still the usual daily grind at work?
From dawn to dusk for a measly pay?
How are your coworkers? Any greetings in the elevators?
Any squabbles or digging up dirt on one another during meetings?
This is from his song “Bai Nay Chill Phet” (This Song Is So Chill), which is very popular, especially among those running in the urban rat race.
To take their rhythms, words and puns to more people, many rappers have stepped out of their underground world and cooperated with famous singers in the last few years.
Karik, one of the first rappers to collaborate with mainstream artists and achieve success, says: “The world of music is massive out there. If I live in the underground world, I will be a frog in the well.”
His 2018 song “Nguoi La Oi” (Hey Stranger), for which he collaborated with young singer Orange, was a big hit.
Earlier this year “Chan Ai” (True Love) performed by Orange and another rapper, Khoi, became one of the most trending videos on YouTube.
Later “Tu Choi Nhe Nhang Thoi” (Softly Turn You Down) by Bich Phuong and rapper Phuc Du also became a hit on several streaming platforms.
The so-called underground music has become a loose term as many artists, especially rappers, have stepped out and been widely recognized.
A performance by Den Vau in October 2019. The rapper is well-known for his poetic lyrics. Photo courtesy of Den Vau.
Another reason for the rise of rap is that it came as a breath of fresh air for audiences who were tiring of mainstream music.
“We have listened to pop and rock music for decades; rap is such a new lovely genre,” Huy, who calls himself a new fan of rap, says.
Rap has been around for years, but underground, and so not many people cared about it, but now new factors have made it popular, film director Nguyen Quang Dung reckons.
However, some people are skeptical, saying the genre could return to anonymity after the shows end on TV.
Rapper Ha Le asks: Will producers of these rap competitions keep supporting them even if they are not profitable, or will they only chase after whatever giving them commercial benefit?
Training a future generation of rappers will be vital to sustain the music because, unlike pop, rap is harder to listen to and takes people a long time to get hooked, he says.
In the meantime there is a glimmer of hope: more and more rappers are being recognized, and people have started opening their hearts to the genre.