Mai Khoi the Dissident Artist
Posted on March 23 2021
Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese artist and activist. At the age of 12, she wrote her first song and joined her father's wedding band the same year. She rose to stardom in 2010 after winning the Vietnam Television Song and Album of the Year Awards. Several years later, she became increasingly uncomfortable having to submit her work to government censors and, thinking she could reform the system from within, nominated herself to run in the National Assembly elections on a pro-democracy platform. Her campaign sparked a nationwide debate about political participation, culminating in a meeting with President Barack Obama in May 2016.
As a female-founded and operated lingerie company, we recognize the achievements of women every day. So to celebrate International Women's Day (IWD) and Women's History Month we connected with Mai Khoi to learn more about her fierce story as a dissident artist fighting censorship in Vietnam.
Mai Khoi’s story speaks to finding the strength and power within yourself to be your unapologetic self and fight the systems in place that threaten autonomy over individual voices. We were so inspired by her story and know that you will be too!
T&S: What motivates you as an artist and activist?
Mai Khoi: I used to be a pop star, they called me the Vietnamese Lady Gaga. In 2010 I won the Vietnam Television song and album of the year for my album Made in Mai Khoi.
Journalists were lining up to interview me. I had a lot of shows, a lot of fans, boyfriends, and girlfriends, who all sent me gifts. On talk shows, I gave women advice on how to stay young and beautiful. When I wrote the song Viet Nam, it won Song of the Year. The government loved me and they invited me to perform on national television all the time, they even used my song to promote the tourism industry in Vietnam.
My life was easy and comfortable, but it wasn’t enough for me. I couldn’t feel free under the censorship system. They liked me but they didn’t let me sing what I feel or wear what I wanted to wear. I felt insulted every time they censored my songs and my performance. One day, I was performing in a dress rehearsal for the censorship officials to give my performance government approval, one suddenly stood up and shouted at me in front of many people “STOP! Who allowed you to wear that dress? Get changed or I will ban you from singing forever!”. I couldn’t stand it anymore, since that moment I decided I will not give them another chance to censor me, so I became a dissident artist and activist to protect my right to be an artist. And that decision made me feel the most confident as an artist and a woman.
T&S: Can you describe the people who have been most influential on you and your work?
Mai Khoi: I started to hang out with dissident artists like Bui Chat, a publisher who couldn’t write. Other musicians like Ngoc Dai who had albums confiscated, and poets like Ly Doi, whose poems were removed from official records. Their art and their minds inspired me a lot. I wrote some songs inspired by their poems.
T&S: Considering the consequences, where did you find the courage to stand up to the Vietnamese government?
Mai Khoi: One of my dissident artist friends had an idea that I should nominate myself for the National Assembly’s election. I took a few days to think about this, I thought this could be a good way to change the censorship system. Then I nominated myself. My nomination sparked a huge debate and the government didn’t like it, they tried to make me stop, insulted me, dismissed me. The police raided my concerts, banned me from singing in public, evicted me from my house, detained me, isolated me. Those threats encouraged me to stand up more drastically.
T&S: What milestones of change do you aim to see in the next 5 years, 10 years, 25 years?
Mai Khoi: I hope to see in the next 5 years, we will have more artists who commit to work without thinking of the censorship system or censor themselves. In 10 years, the censorship system will be removed. In 25 years, Vietnam will have multiple parties and a real free election.
T&S: What legacy do you hope to leave through your music and activism?
Mai Khoi: I hope the legacy I could leave is the inspiration and the new art form for Vietnamese artists called Song Cycle. In Vietnam, no one knows about this art form. It’s a performance combined with music and autobiographical/story-telling. I’m making a project called Bad Activist which follows this art form. I’m the first Vietnamese artist to introduce this art form to Vietnam, and I hope this art form would be my legacy to leave for young Vietnamese artists.
T&S: In your opinion, what small impacts can we all contribute to cultivating change in our everyday lives?
Mai Khoi: In my opinion, everyone should consider becoming an activist right now, create a small group first, and then together build a movement. If you can’t create your own group, you can join a progressive group, or volunteer to help an activist who you like. If you don’t have time to do anything, you can contribute your efforts financially.
T&S: Where can we find your music and hear more about your work?
Mai Khoi: You can visit my website: www.mai-khoi.com to know more about me and my music. Right now, I’m an Artist Protection Fund Fellow at Pittsburgh University with the City of Asylum and the International Free Expression Project.
I am currently producing an autobiographical musical performance, Bad Activist, a music-driven performance about my life. The narrative follows my extraordinary trajectory, from Vietnamese pop star to becoming a dissident musician. Bad Activist is a stylized and impressionistic performance piece, combining elements of modern opera with state-of-the-art music performance, simultaneously exploring both the actual historic events of the artist's life, as well as the subconscious dream worlds that have fueled my work.
Mai Khoi recently dropped her latest work Bitches Get Things Done. “This is one of my most recent songs. Inspired by my own struggle with sexism in the nascent human rights movement in Vietnam, the song also coincided with my outrage over the sexist attack by a congressman on Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. In this video, you can sense my unease and exuberance, as well as my passion for social justice: all qualities I hope to be celebrated in the full performance Bad Activist," Mai Khoi said on her work. You can learn more about her and her work at www.mai-khoi.com.