While fielding questions from members of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, President Barack Obama was given the perfect cue to discuss human expression in the communist country when Suboi stepped up to the mic.
The female rapper asked the president how important arts and culture — hip-hop in this well-known Vietnamese artist’s case — is to promoting a strong future for a nation. But before answering the question, Obama challenged Suboi to perform a verse: “Let’s see what you got. Come on!”
After Obama offered to beatbox for the young artist, he watched as she rapped in Vietnamese. Obama admitted he couldn't understand Suboi’s native tongue, and she explained that she was “just talking about some people having a lot of money, having big houses; but actually, are they really happy?”
Arts and culture is routinely suppressed by the Vietnamese government, and the country also enacted restrictions enacted that limit Internet-users ability to criticize the government. Decree 174, effective since the beginning of 2014, threatens fines just shy of $5,000 for government critiques on social media.
Freedom House, a watchdog organization “dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world,” ranked Vietnam the third worst country in the Asia-Pacific region in its Freedom of the Press 2016 report. China marginally edged out Vietnam as being more suppressive while North Korea ran away with the title, marking an unprecedented 97 on a scale of 100 — with 100 noting the worst.
In a country where bloggers, reporters, social media users and even rappers can’t express themselves in their posts, stories, tweets and songs, Suboi wanted to know art’s influence in a country championed by democracy.
Obama admitted that he understands government’s hesitation for free and open expression but said, “If you try to suppress the arts, then I think you’re suppressing the deepest dreams and aspirations of a people.”
He mentioned that rap was conceptualized in poor neighborhoods of America and while N.W.A. may not have been featured in Ronald Reagan’s Walkman, the group wasn’t regulated — not even after its famed song “F*ck Tha Police” came out following the controversial 1992 acquittals of the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King the year prior.
“Imagine if at the time when rap was starting off, that our 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,’” Obama said. “That connection that we’ve seen now in hip-hop culture around the world wouldn’t exist.”
Obama made freedom of the press and expression a priority throughout his three-day trip to Vietnam, which is the first stop in his 10th trip to Asia, which will be capped by a visit to Hiroshima.
Image credit: Flickr/Marc Nozell
Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.