How Suboi Became Vietnam’s Biggest Female Rapper


Though she’s Vietnam’s Queen of Hip-Hop, HaÌ€ng LaÌ‚m Trang Anh (better known as Suboi) still remembers being a shy teenager writing sad poetry. “I’d show it to my aunt and uncle, and they’d be like, ‘This is so silly!'”

Suboi learned English by listening to Will Smith and Eminem, who inspired her to turn her poetry into music. “It was very emo-rap,” she says, laughing. “The first song I wrote was called ‘Cold.’ It was like, ‘I’m a teenager, and nobody understands me!'”

Her stage name is a combination of her nickname “Su” combined with “boi,” because all of her friends in school were boys. “They used to say, ‘We’re going to call you Suboi, but since you’re not a real boy, we’ll turn the ‘y’ into an ‘i,'” she remembers. “So now, I’m like, ‘Look at me, I’m all grown up!” She laughs. “I still like the name, though.”

She first began performing when one of her skateboarding friends wanted to start a nu-metal band like Linkin Park and needed a rapper. She was 17, and it was her first time being on stage.

“I was kind of quiet, but when I got on stage, it felt like, ‘This stage is mine,'” she says. She loved shocking people in the audience who assumed she was a vocalist. As seen in her music videos, she struts and smirks with the best of them, dressing up her standby baseball jackets and hoodies with giant ghetto-fabulous earrings and blinged-out knuckle rings. “That’s how I made friends. Even now, I don’t socialize much or communicate very well, but I can write everything in my songs.”

Suboi is the first young female rapper to make it big in Vietnam. In 2009, she signed with a label, Music Faces, and rapped on Vietnamese pop star Ho Ngoc Ha’s chart-topping singles “My Apology” and “Girls’ Night.” In 2010, she released her first album, WALK.

She was an instant star, with millions of followers on Facebook, popular music videos and endorsement deals for Adidas and Samsung. But all the attention and fanfare felt very superficial to her. “Everyone would come at me with champagne, but to me, that wasn’t really success,” she says. “I still lived in a normal apartment. To showbiz people, I wasn’t very glamorous, so I didn’t feel like I belonged. People would ask me what it’s like being the number one female rapper in Vietnam, and I’d say, ‘It’s cool, but I still have to find a way to pay my electricity bills.'”

Though she thought she had won the lottery career-wise, in reality, she was losing money. When her contract ended, she had a hard time finding a manager she could trust, so she set up her own company, Suboi Entertainment, and began work on her next album, RUN.

On her own, she was free to travel the world, step back from the spotlight and get re-inspired. Her new songs run the gamut of topics and emotions, from “Saigon,” about her love/hate relationship with her home city, to “Cookie Song,” where she raps about baking weed cookies. But Suboi has to be creative with her lyrics. “It’s very different,” she says. “Vietnam is a Communist country, and I can’t talk about money, drugs and sex. So people are like, ‘Girl, what do you write about?’ I do write about that, but you have to use a lot of metaphors. In English, you can be direct and say whatever, so it’s a little better for the flow. But it’s cool. Writing in Vietnamese challenges me, because I have to find another way to say things.”

In March, Suboi performed in the United States for the first time, with stops in San Francisco; New York; Orange County,California; and Austin, where she was the first Vietnamese artist to ever perform at South by Southwest. She also recently made her acting debut in Ham Tran’s horror film Hollow.

At this point in her career, she doesn’t care about stardom anymore, because she knows all artists have their ups and downs. She points to one of her songs, “TrÆ¡Ì€i Cho.” “In Vietnamese, it means ‘God gives me,’ but if you switch the words to troÌ€ choÌ›i, then it means ‘game,'” she explains, of her word play. “Every verse is a funny story about my life, even if it’s about having bad luck. So even though it’s about what God gave me, it’s also a game. He makes us laugh while we’re playing this game of life.”


Feature image courtesy of Frank Lee
This story was originally published in our Summer 2015 issue. Get your copy here