President Obama is currently on an Asian tour, which involved a three-day trip to Vietnam. His visit there included everything from a discussion on human rights to a meal with chef Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi.
But one of the most powerful and unplanned moments came when the president askedSuboi, a 26-year-old rapper in Ho Chi Minh City, to drop a few bars during a question-and-answer session.
Suboi, who is known as Vietnam’s “Queen of Hip Hop,” offered the president the option of hearing her rap in English or Vietnamese. The president took a diplomatic approach and asked her to rap in Vietnamese. He was also nice enough to give her a little beat, showing off his beatboxing skills.
It was pretty braveshe was willing to rap for a world leader at a moment’s notice, and the president was evidently impressed. When she finished, Suboi translated what she said,
I was just talking about how some people have a lot of money, have big houses but actually are they really happy?
The theme of empty materialism is one that American rappers, including artists like J. Cole, have also touched on at length. In the song “Love Yourz”, for example, J. Cole asks, “For what’s money without happiness? Or hard times without the people you love?”
So, it seems American and Vietnamese rappers may not be so different.
Unfortunately, it also appears that female rappers in Vietnam face many of the same issues female artists experience across the music industry in the US, including rampant sexism.
Suboi explained toPresident Obama it’s not easy to be a woman in the hip hop world in Vietnam, as many are dismissive of the idea of female rappers. She said,
They assume a lot of stereotypes. For Vietnamese people, it’s different. They think rapping is not for girls.
President Obama responded by highlighting that this type of sexism is also evident in the US. He stated,
Well that’s true in the United States too… there’s always been, sort of, sexism and gender stereotypes in the music industry, like every other part of life.
The president went on to discuss the importance of allowing people to express themselves through music in relation to freedom of speech.
Imagine if at the time that rap was starting off that the 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’ve got to let people express themselves. That’s part of what a modern 21st-century culture is all about.
Indeed, there have been many instances since the dawn of hip hop in which the powers that be have attempted to demonize and repress the musical genre.
If they’d succeeded, perhaps Obama and Suboi would never have met and had such an extraordinary exchange regarding music, gender stereotypes, art, culture and freedom of expression.
Watch a video of the president and Suboi’s rap duet above.