Dubbed the “Queen of Hip-hop” in Vietnam, Hàng Lâm Trang Anh started listening to rap as a rebellious teenager. Known as Suboi, the Vietnam-based rapper makes her U.S. debut on Friday, March 13, 2015 at Directions in Sound at Mercer. She’ll be co-headlining with New York-based rapper Awkwafina. The show will be hosted by hip-hop producer CHOPS of Mountain Brothers with beats provided by DJ’s Kronika, DJ Vinroc and Bluz.
Hang also makes an acting debut in a cameo role in CAAMFest 2015’s horror flick Hollow, directed by Ham Tran (Journey from the Fall, How to Fight in Six Inch Heels). In fact, this will also be Hang’s first time visiting the San Francisco Bay Area. After her performance at Directions in Sound, she’ll head to SXSW.
The young rapper is one of few women rappers in Vietnam and debuted her first album, WALK, when she was 20. I chatted with Suboi via Skype in the midst of Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations in Vietnam.
What are you looking forward to at CAAMFest?
I was supposed to play at CAAMFest last year—so I’m very excited to finally come to CAAMFest. I have some new songs, some poems. I’m looking forward to the performance and get everybody to listen to my music! I’m going to do in both languages, in Vietnamese and English. It’s my debut in the U.S.!
How’d you get into rap music?
I listened to rap—Vietnamese rap at first, when I was 12. People were like, this is rebel music, you’re not supposed to listen to this. When I turned 14, I listened to Will Smith at first. He was having a video of “Nod Your Head,” from Men in Black movie. I thought it was fun, and I wanted this type of energy and express myself. I listened to more rap and found Eminem. I learned English from him, actually! My English back then were all bad words. I just tried to rhyme and write some songs, when I was 16. That was my first song, called Cold.
When I started rapping, my parents were like, why are you talking on a beat? Nobody really understood it. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of video clips about rap music. I just like words.
So you mentioned that your parents didn’t really understand why you liked rap. What’s their take on it now?
Yeah, now, they’re very supportive. It’s been 7 years. Now they’re like, we think what you do is fine. They kind of understand it is a genre. Hip-hop in Vietnam is growing, so it’s not a problem anymore. People are getting into dubstep and drum n’ bass.
How long have you been a rapper?
I signed onto a label in 2009—Music Faces. I released my first album, “Walk.” After two years, our contracts end and now I set up Suboi Entertainment for a year now.
Did your parents ever put you in music class?
They actually put me in piano class, but then I skipped class and played basketball instead. (laughs). So I’m kind of regretting that. Everything I had to learn by myself from the start again!
Do you currently play any instruments?
I play a little drum. I started rapping in a nu-metal band actually. I really liked the drums, so I just observed the drummer and copied him. That’s how I know drumming. I just traveled to Hawai’i and I really loved the ukulele. I just bought a book and ukulele and just started playing a little bit.
That’s fun. Ukuleles are cool! You can take it around.
Exactly! It’s my size.
What’s your favorite thing about being a rapper?
Hmm. I like it because it’s challenging. Being a female rapper in Vietnam—I’m not sure if they’re sexist, but when they look at a girl who raps, if people don’t take me seriously, they think, oh, she’s cute and she raps. But others, if they take me seriously, they’ll ask, do you want to be number one here? Which I think is a very man’s world. I just want to say stuff and do it in my way, and doing word-play. I like to challenge myself. It’s pretty good because being a female rapper in Vietnam, there aren’t a lot of female rappers yet. But that’s why I want to go to America because I know hip-hop is from there, and there’s a lot of rappers out there. I want to be more than just being one of the rare things in one place.
In your ideal world, who would you like to collaborate with?
Oh sure, there’s a lot of people. I really want to get connected to the young artists in America and in Vietnam. I did some cipher here and that’s how I know a lot of young rappers coming up—they’re really good. I checked out rappers in America. Hopefully, when I perform there, people will see how I do and maybe I can do a collaboration, especially with the producers. In Vietnam, we don’t have a lot of producers. I traveled to New York and I really liked the taste there. I hope to get to know the music scene more in San Francisco.
Also, I really like Awkafina! I checked her music out. She’s cool. I hope to make a collaboration with her.
How was it acting in the horror film, Hollow (dir. Ham Tran)?
Hollow movie explains why everything happens for a reason in a spiritual way. I’m a fan of Ham Tran since Journey from the Fall. It was such an honor to work with him. He made my first role easier to handle and it was actually fun. Now I know how to row a boat! I’m sure you won’t be disappointed! The thing I like about my part is that I normally have to talk a lot during my rap set, here you will see the girl who escaped from the brothel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
See Suboi at Directions in Sound.