Obama Calls Out Sexism and Discusses Censorship in Global Hip Hop Culture
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting with members of the U.S. government’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In the last question of the night, Obama was addressed by local rap artist Suboi (real name Hàng Lâm Trang Anh).
“This young lady, she stood up and is like…<keah>. I couldn’t say no to her. She had her hand up. I thought she was going to hit me if I didn’t call on her,” Obama said jokingly.
The 26-year old blended into the audience quite easily, and Obama could be forgiven for not recognizing Vietnam’s “Queen of Hip Hop”. The first female rapper to become successful in Vietnam, Suboi has over 1.3 million followers on Facebook and sponsorship deals with Adidas and Samsung.
But because of government censorship in Vietnam, Suboi and other rappers have to be careful of what they say in their songs and on social media.
“I can’t talk about drugs, sex, or making money in the streets,” she said in a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast. Suboi is also careful to avoid any criticism of the government.
Sensing her chance on an international stage, Suboi addressed Obama.
“As an artist, we have a lot to say. We have messages. And I want to know how important it is for a nation to really help and promote their art and culture to help the nation in the future?”
“Before I answer your question, why don’t you give me a little rap?” Obama replied.
Suboi launched into several lines in Vietnamese (translated below):
“When I’ve been alone at home in my big house/
when I’m rich like a king/
I wake up suddenly. I realize things aren’t going great/
But whatever, it’s all good. It’ been a crazy day/
when I close my two eyes/
I’m rowing without obstacles, floating with the clouds”
“I was just talking about some people having a lot of money, having big houses, but actually, are they really happy?” she explained. “A lot of people look at us, and see things, and they assume. Or a lot of stereotypes, you know like me, an Asian rapper, looking at the cute girl. But people don’t know. For Vietnamese people, it’s different. They think rapping is not for women.”
“But that’s true in the United States too,” Obama said. “I mean there has always been sort of sexism and gender stereotypes in the music industry, like every other part of life.”
Obama went on to address her question.
“Artistic expression is important…And one of the most important things about art is it teaches you to not just think about yourself but it puts you in the head of other people. So you start realizing somebody else’s pain or somebody else’s hopes and you start realizing that we have more in common…if I listen to a Vietnamese rap, and it connects to the things I’m feeling, now I feel closer to a country on the other side of the world.”
Obama has publicly pushed the Vietnamese government to give more freedom to the citizens. He used this opportunity to pitch to governments to be more open to artistic expression, even critical topics.
“Sometimes art is dangerous, though. And that’s why governments sometimes get nervous about art. But one of the things I truly believe is that if you try to suppress the arts, then I think you’re suppressing the deepest dreams and aspirations of a people. And one of the great things about the United States, for all of our flaws in a lot of areas, is that we do give much greater expression to our culture. And something like rap which stated off as an expression of poor African-Americans, now suddenly has become a global phenomenon and is really the art form of most young people around the world today, in a lot of ways. Imagine if at the time when rap was starting off that our government had said no, because some of the things you say are offensive. Or, some of the lyrics are rude. Or, you’re cursing too much. That connection that we’ve seen now in hip-hop culture around the world wouldn’t exist. So, you gotta let people express themselves. That’s part of what a modern, 21st-century culture is all about.”
— Greg Schick (World Hip Hop Market)