HANOI – Known as Vietnam’s Lady Gaga, Mai Khoi was a successful pop singer in the country until she tried to run for parliamentary elections with a message critical of the communist regime.
“Since I got involved in activism, I lost a lot of fans. I have been isolated by the government, I cannot promote my music,” she told EFE at her recording studio in Hanoi.
“My music is banned from Vietnam. I can only do online or secret shows,” she added.
Unlike other Vietnamese dissidents who turned to activism because of political dissatisfaction, 36-year-old Mai Khoi took the leap without having previously been involved in any other movement, but tired of the fact that her compositions had to be filtered through censorship.
“That’s the first reason. Art and music in Vietnam need freedom, a real free space to develop. Under the censorship system, artists cannot feel free to create,” she added.
Despite the fact that the law technically allows non-members of the Communist Party – which has governed the country since 1975 – to participate in elections, her foray into politics in 2016 was met with the restrictions of the regime, who alleged bureaucratic reasons to not allow her and another 100 independent candidates to participate.
However, that attempt and a subsequent meeting a few weeks later with the then-president of the United States, Barack Obama, while he was on an official visit to Hanoi, catapulted her to the front line of dissent.
That rapid rise also meant an end to her musical success in Vietnam.
The police raided one of her concerts, her performances throughout the year were canceled and government pressure led to her losing out on any opportunity to appear on television programs.
“It’s very difficult for me… but I still have to live. I just try to live a basic life. I don’t go out much, I spend my time at the studio with music and every time I go out of Vietnam to perform I earn a little bit to live,” she said.
Her first tour to the US last year and her visit to Oslo to receive the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent represented an oasis for the singer, as her life in Vietnam has become very difficult.
“Two years ago they arrested me coming from Europe and they evicted me from my house. I had to move a lot. As soon as the police knew where I lived, they put pressure on the owner to keep me out of the house,” she said.
“The happiest day I had in the last few years was the day I received the human rights prize, the Vaclav Havel, in 2018. It gave me a lot of energy and I believe in myself more,” she added.
Since she formed the band “The Dissidents,” her songs have been loaded with political messages, and she has also toughened inside due to her experiences.
Behind her gentleness, her sweet, at times wavering voice, and her candid smile, Mai Khoi hides a steely determination, with which she not only criticizes the Vietnamese authorities, but also tech giants such as Facebook and Google who, according to her, bend to the demands of the regime.
A year ago, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, she denounced that Facebook was no longer a stronghold of freedom of expression and had become an instrument to silence dissenting voices.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, and Google (which owns YouTube), have been in the eye of the storm ever since a controversial cybersecurity law came into force in January.
According to the government, the law will help counter reactionary forces and makes it mandatory for the tech companies to provide them with personal data of its users and eliminate content considered to be “toxic.”
Mai Khoi said that she hasn’t stopped denouncing before the representatives of Facebook the problems that exist in the country, and that content and accounts of dissidents are deleted every day.
However, she continues to try to ensure the social media accounts of her friends are protected and said that “there are many critical posts which have not been removed despite government requests.”
The singer laments the degradations of the conditions of the internet and the rise in Vietnamese detentions in the last few years, but she also sees more boldness in society in criticizing the authorities and said that more people, especially the young, are getting involved in activism.
Although she is sometimes discouraged by the political apathy of the majority of society, she does not want to give up and hopes to convince thousands of Vietnamese to run for the 2021 parliamentary elections like her.
“I have less fear than before. I dare to do more things, but I continue to be scared inside,” Mai Khoi said.