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Mai Khoi, ‘the Lady Gaga of Vietnam,’ finds a safe space in Pittsburgh to create ‘Bad Activist’

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If you live or shop on the North Side, you could be standing next to the woman deemed “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam” without even realizing it.

Mai Khoi, who became a pop sensation in her mid-20s there, winning the Vietnam Television 2010 Album of the Year Award, has been living here with her Australian husband in self-imposed exile since November.

The 38-year-old is the second scholar in residence at Pitt through the Scholars at Risk program at the University Center for International Studies, which is partnered with the Institute of International Education’s Artist Protection Fund, supporting threatened artists by placing them at welcoming institutions in safe countries for a full year. She is also supported by the Pittsburgh-based International Free Expression Project and the City of Asylum on the North Side.

None of that would have been necessary had Khoi just continued to play by the rules imposed on artists by the Vietnamese government.

But that was not part of her DNA. As she explains in “Bad Activist,” an intense performance piece that premiered on Pitt’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, her father was once sent to a reeducation camp for wearing bell-bottoms and playing guitar.

When he came home, she explains, “He was different: No more bell-bottoms. no more making fun of Ho Chi Minh.”

Khoi began her pop career performing in a wedding band led by her music teacher father. Her breakout hit was a 2010 patriotic tune called “Vietnam” that won a contest run by a state-run broadcaster, earning her the fame to record albums, make slick pop videos and perform at home and internationally, including the U.S.

It didn’t take long, however, for her to run afoul of the system. As she matured, she began to express her views on issues like women’s and LGBTQ rights and the environment and push the envelope with costumes, pink hair and songs like “Selfie Orgasm.” She also generated controversy by refusing to wear a bra and expressing her intent to not have children.

“All the pop stars have to follow the government’s direction and work under the censorship system,” she said in an interview Wednesday, describing how they would come to rehearsals to monitor what the artists would be singing and wearing during a performance or on an album.

Vietnamese music fans could watch Lady Gaga videos on YouTube, so they knew what was out there, but she says, “That is the Western pop star. It’s not the same [for] a Vietnamese pop star doing things like that. They wanted famous people like me to be the right model for everyone in the country, of the traditional Vietnamese woman.”

It came to a head the day a government censor came to a rehearsal and loudly objected to her wardrobe.

“When he stood up and shouted at me, it was the moment that I realized I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said.

“The artist side of me drove me to become an activist, to protect my right to be an artist. That’s all we want, to be able to express and create.”

Khoi’s dissident stance grew more fierce when she met a Vietnamese poet who was outspoken about the government in his work. In 2016, she told a a bold step, nominating herself to run as an independent for a seat in the National Assembly of Vietnam.

In short order, she was removed from the ballot, her concerts were raided by police and she was threatened with eviction. Fans and friends feared to support her and the government-run media went mum on her career.

She made headlines nonetheless that year when she sat with President Barack Obama, who on a trip to Vietnam, was meeting with a group of dissidents. She lobbied him to help free Vietnamese political prisoners, but as she describes in one of the “Bad Activist” songs, his response to her was to “be patient.”

“I was very disappointed,” she said, “but I didn’t hate him.”

Her meeting with Obama prompted a five-hour interrogation with police and a more severe crackdown on her concerts, driving her underground to form a band called Mai Khoi and the Dissidents.

The following year, for President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam, she took the streets with a banner reading “Peace on you Trump” with the word “Peace” crossed out and replaced by “Piss.” The next day she and her husband were evicted from their Hanoi apartment by government agents.

Jumping to March 2018, two months after she was named by Amnesty International one of the “12 inspiring human rights activists to follow,” Khoi was detained on the way home from a European tour at the Hanoi airport, where was she held for eight hours and her copies of her new album, “Dissent,” were confiscated.

That same year, the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Foundation awarded her its Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent.

In the wake of threats from police for her attempts to have a dissident friend released, she left Vietnam in November 2019, landing in New York, where Joe Piscatella was premiering his documentary “Mai Khoi & The Dissidents.” Through the Artistic Freedom Initiative, she was granted a three-month artist residency in New York, where she developed “Bad Activist,” which was ultimately shot at City of Asylum.

The music in the piece is a far cry from her Vietnamese pop days, incorporating elements of avant-garde folk and freeform jazz. In telling her story, Khoi ranges from melodic vocals to the visceral shrieks and cries of a Bjork or Lydia Lunch.

“The story in ‘Bad Activist,’ ” she said, “is the transformation from a pop star to dissident artist and activist, so one style of music cannot express all of that different emotions and states. So I have sung in many different styles to match some points of the story.”

Cynthia Croot, head of performance and associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts, directed and developed the script and Pitt PhD candidate Mark Micchelli accompanies her on piano.

“I feel completely free here,” she said of being in the States. “I’m not sure how long I will stay in the U.S., but at least at the moment, I feel free to create art and music. I think I’m having a very good life here.”

Not that she didn’t witness the downside of American life in the past year.

“I think the political system in the U S. has something wrong that people are realizing and fighting against that. Through Black Lives Matter and the pandemic and Trump, it’s showing that even the U.S., where people believe the country has democracy and the right political system, there’s still something wrong, something lacking. I think the racist system is the biggest issue here.”

As for her immediate surroundings, in Pittsburgh, Khoi said, “I love this city a lot. I think the city has great history and great landscapes. I like the Downtown, I like the park, I like the architecture and, especially, the people in Pittsburgh are so friendly and kind. My fellowship ends in September, but I hope I have a chance to stay here longer.”

By Scott Mervis – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – January 27, 2021

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