On Tuesday, May 24th, 2016, President Barack Obama took a question from Vietnam’s queen of hip hop at the Ho Chi Minh City town hall meeting in Vietnam. But what President Obama anticipated to be a simple question became much more.
“Do you need a little beat?” Obama asked her. “Go ahead, c’mon.”
“Vietnam or English?” she asked.
“In Vietnamese, of course, but I won’t know what it means,” the President replied.
Hàng Lâm Trang Anh, aka Suboi, spit her verse and later offered a translation. “I was just talking about how some people have a lot of money, have big houses but actually are they really happy?” said the 26 year old.
Suboi wanted Obama to speak on the role of the arts within international relations.
“I want to know how important it is for a nation to really help and promote their art and culture to help nations in the future,” she asked.
Obama’s answer was that artistic expression is important for helping people relate to each other: “Music, poetry, representations of life as it is and how it should be — those are the things that inspire people. And 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, on a diplomatic trip to several Asian countries, took the opportunity to advocate for artistic freedom.
“Let’s be honest. Sometimes art is dangerous, though. And that’s why governments sometimes get nervous about art,” he said. “But one of the things I truly believe is, if you try to suppress the arts, then I think you are suppressing the deepest dreams and aspirations of the people.”
Suboi also described the challenges she faces as an Asian woman in hip hop.
“They assume a lot of stereotypes,” she said. “For Vietnamese people, it’s different. They think rapping is not for girls.”
Obama told her those concerns are not unique to Vietnam.
“That’s true in the United States too,” he said. “There’s always been sexism and stereotypes in the music industry like every other part of life.”
The talented female rapper-singer-songwriter, who was signed to Music Faces record label in 2009, was the first Vietnamese artist to perform in the U.S.’s South by Southwest Festival in 2015 and has been invited back for the 2016 festival.