Is Rap A Trend Or A Culture In Vietnam?

Vietnamese rap has evolved beyond a fleeting trend, solidifying its presence in the music scene. Instead of merely imitating Western styles, Vietnamese rappers craft a unique identity rooted in local experiences and culture. Their original works resonate not only with the artists themselves but also with their local community. The genre’s burgeoning popularity and the increasing recognition of Vietnamese artists, both locally and internationally, underscore its cultural significance.

The distinction between a trend and a culture lies in longevity, impact, and community engagement. While a trend enjoys temporary popularity and fades, a culture endures with deep roots in a community or society. It encompasses shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that society members use to interact with their world and one another. Considering these factors, rap in Vietnam can be seen as more than a passing trend. However, it is worth exploring whether it can be considered a part of the culture.

Rap was not initially a part of Vietnamese culture

Historically, rap as a cultural art form was not native to Vietnamese. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it emerged, largely inspired by the burgeoning African-American hip-hop scene. Vietnamese rappers in these early days often adapted styles and themes from Western music. For instance, the first recorded Vietnamese rap song was “Vietnamese Gang,” created by artists Khanh Nho and Thai VG in 1997. This track represented a milestone in Vietnamese music history, offering a potent chant providing stark commentary on gang life, a topic few Vietnamese artists addressed at the time despite being a characteristic of the original rap culture. Notably, it featured a mix of English and Vietnamese lyrics, causing quite a stir among Vietnamese communities in the US. In Vietnam, the song quickly achieved legendary status. While drawing from Western influences, these early pioneers laid the essential foundation for the evolution of a unique Vietnamese rap scene. Their groundwork enabled subsequent artists to expand this base, resulting in today’s vibrant and diverse Vietnamese rap scene.

Thai VG | Source: Spotify

As rap continues to emerge, American hip-hop culture continues to influence even younger generations. 22-year-old Wowy released his first-ever single, “Khu Tao Sống” (Where I Live), inspired by US rap. Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Saigon’s District 5, he understandably raps about the challenges of living in a poor neighborhood and social taboos. “Khu Tao Sống,” Wowy’s rap song released in 2010 with rapper Karik, caused a big splash among Vietnamese rappers because it talks about street life and shenanigans that not many artists on stage would have the guts to mention.

Wowy and Karik | Source: Spotify

Yet, rap integrates increasing cultural factors as it evolves. While some might dismiss rap as a trend due to the sudden surge in rap shows and songs dominating the music charts, it’s important to understand that these songs are popular for a reason. They resonate with the audience, reflecting their experiences, emotions, and thoughts in a way that few other genres can. But their impact extends far beyond being merely a trend. Vietnamese rap also contains timeless local elements that significantly contribute to Vietnamese culture. These elements, deeply rooted in the country’s traditions and history, add a layer of depth and relevance to the music, ensuring that it remains a vital part of the cultural conversation for years to come.

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Storytelling

Rap music has always been an outlet for raw storytelling, where the power of melody is used to tell stories about artists’ own lives and the world around them. Their lyrics touch on personal experiences as well as cultural values, all while delivering a powerful message in a uniquely Vietnamese way. Discussing the art of storytelling in rap would be incomplete without acknowledging CAM.

Rapper CAM | Source: Hồ Võ Tấn Duy

CAM’s songs are more than just expressions of love or deep-seated pain. They serve as intricate diaries that unfold multi-layered narratives, each one a world unto itself. One such narrative might paint a vivid and heartbreaking picture of an ambulance, its siren echoing through the night air, carrying a dying bride and a groom grappling with immense, almost unbearable sorrow. Another might tell the charming story of a young boy who writes daily letters, each one filled with his thoughts and dreams, to the girl at the post office. Or simply how the coffee culture of Vietnam symbolizes communal solidarity.

Local concerns and issues

Contemporary Vietnamese rappers, while maintaining the original spirit of rap, which includes social and political commentary, differentiate themselves by addressing concerns and issues that reflect Vietnamese life and society.

At the age of 14, Suboi discovered her passion for rap by spending hours listening to international artists like Eminem and Will Smith. However, she distinguished herself in the music scene as a Vietnamese artist by uniquely incorporating southern tones and colloquial expressions such as “dzô,” “dzui,” “quẹo,” and “hẻm” into ‘N-sao’. These regional elements and her unique worldview pay homage to Saigon’s vibrant growth. She also addresses contemporary concerns and issues such as social judgment and gender inequality in her work like “Đời” or “Cho Không.”

Suboi is known as the queen of Viet rap | Source: Suboi

Recently, rapper Đen Vâu made a considerable contribution by fundraising for children in highland areas through his collaboration with Pia Linh on the song “Nấu ăn cho em.” The song is not just a piece of music; it is a heartfelt narrative that sheds light on the difficult circumstances these children face on a daily basis. It vividly portrays their struggles in their environment, creating awareness and empathy among the listeners. In the lyrics, Đen Vâu also painted an inspiring picture of a hopeful and bright future for these children, stirring up a sense of optimism and aspiration. This significant social impact, coupled with the power of rap, profoundly resonates with Vietnamese audiences.

Đen Vâu in “Nấu Ăn Cho Em” music video | Source: Đen Vâu

Local materials

The increasing use of local elements in Vietnamese rap enhances its cultural significance. Double2t, the winner of Rap Viet, gained popularity in Vietnam for incorporating the sound of the reed flute and his highland hometown’s dialect into his song “À Lôi”. The entire concept of the song centers on À Lôi, a term used by the Tày ethnic group to express surprise or astonishment, akin to saying ‘wow’ or ‘oh my.’ The clever incorporation of this phrase enriches the song’s cultural depth. The song stands out for its captivating melodies and lyrics uniquely depicting the Tày ethnic group, adding to its cultural significance in the Vietnamese rap scene. This representation demonstrates the genre’s potential as a powerful cultural expression and celebration medium.

Double2T is known for incorporating local materials into his works | Source: Double2T – Nguời miền núi chất

International impact

Indeed, Vietnamese artists are actively adapting and integrating external influences to shape their sound rather than merely following international trends. The cultural aspect of Vietnamese rap gained attention when a rap song by Tibicon went viral in the international community, earning him the nickname “Vietnamese Gunna” after a well-known American rapper. However, despite his international success, he is mostly referred to as Gunna, overshadowing his unique identity. This presents an interesting paradox in the global music industry, particularly for Vietnamese rap. While artists like Tibicon are making significant strides and gaining international popularity, they are often overshadowed by their American counterparts in both name and fame.

Tibicon went viral internationally for being known as Vietnamese Gunna | Source: @vinhlegacy

Thus, it’s clear that Vietnamese rap, though on a promising path, still has a long way to go. Artists need to work tirelessly to ensure their unique style, flow, and cultural elements are not only recognized but also celebrated on the global stage to truly distinguish Vietnamese rap from others. The emergence of new Gen-Z rappers offers hope for further development, potentially elevating Vietnamese rap to the next level.

Beyond a Trend, Nearing a Cultural Movement

Drawing from local and global influences, Vietnamese rap is forging its unique path and could become a significant force in the country’s cultural landscape. Although it’s still in the early stages of being recognized as a culture, its evolution is clear. The beat of Vietnamese rap is more than a fleeting trend—it genuinely reflects the nation’s evolving identity.

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