The fall of Sai Gon in 1975, and the subsequent mass movement of refugees, boosted the Vietnamese population in Australia to 43, 400 people in 1981, compared to the mere 700-people strong population in Australia pre-1975. Australia is now home to the fifth largest Vietnamese diasporic community in the world, with a population of 300, 000 according to the 2016 Census. To these Vietnamese Australians, the notion of home has long been a confusing concept, but music is an arena where identity and place can be navigated and explored. As Andy Trieu - SBS PopAsia Host and AVYLD 2017 Alumni says,
“For many Asian-born Australians, Vietnamese Australians included, the feeling of estrangement and a need to shed their otherness to fit in is a common story. Learning to embrace one’s heritage is a personal journey, and for some, music can act as their guiding compass”
Vietnamese Australians, like other minority groups globally, have found a vessel to explore their identity - and the idea of home - in hip hop and rap music. No discussion about hip-hop, or rap music, is complete without discussing its relationship with cultural identity issues.
From its first introduction in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York City in the 1970s, these genres have provided a means for traditionally disenfranchised communities to speak up and have their voices heard. Since then, as American historian and music critic Jeff Chang said in his article It’s a Hip-Hop World, from Shanghai to Nairobi and São Paulo, hip-hop evolved into a global art of communication and it has become a “lingua franca” that connects people around the world, while giving them a chance to add in their own national flavour.
The Australian hip-hop scene is no different, especially within the Asian diaspora community, where people constantly face an identity crisis and a need for re-connection. As Brisbane-born and raised Vietnamese rapper, Minh Nguyen - also known by his stage name, Chong Ali - explains,
“Art is a form of expression. You need to be able to use your techniques in the right circumstances, to express yourself in a way that will resonate with people”
Many musicians have used rap music and its spoken raw truths as a means towards identity harmony and as a form of resistance against mainstream representations that exclude minority groups. Minh Nguyen says, “Growing up in a cultural melting pot of Australia, hip-hop has been a way for me to tell my stories, express my voices on social issues, my in-betweenness”. In his latest collaboration with Darwin-based Filipino Australian hip-hop artist, Kuya James - Goodbye the two rappers call out to their brothers and sisters to hold tight to their dreams and harness the pain of their ancestors.
With Vietnam gradually opening up in recent years, international investors have taken hold across main cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, and have reshaped the entertainment industry with a local twist.
Across the ocean, in Minh Nguyen’s homeland, Rap Viet and King of Rap are the first two rap competitions to be aired on Vietnamese television. Both shows are adapted from foreign versions - the The Rapper Thailand and South Korean program, Show Me the Money. The success of both shows has been unprecedented among audiences in Vietnam and among Vietnamese overseas.
As transnational and bilateral ties between Vietnam and Australia continue to strengthen, the way Vietnam’s music scene is directly and indirectly helping to shape the lives of its diasporic community is becoming more apparent. A worldwide interconnectedness by way of technological advances in communications has facilitated and contributed to the relationship between Vietnamese Australians and those in Vietnam.
Yet, for a long time, rap music has struggled to find a solid standing in Vietnamese musical culture, largely because the older generation used to associate the genre with the underground scene and rebel lifestyles. With the increasing popularity of the two rap shows, Vietnam is now becoming more accepting of hip-hop in its mainstream music scene. It is heart-warming to see musicians such as Minh Nguyen starting to interact with overseas listeners from their homeland. The release of “Goodbye” has seen the full Vietnamese subtitles for its lyrics. This rising music genre and Vietnamese Australians’ engagement with the homeland through music is a promising catalyst for generational change and innovation in Vietnam.
As AVYLD Chair and Co-founder, Cat Thao Nguyen, says:
“The generational shift in the Vietnamese refugee population towards more engagement with their country of origin underpins the new bilateral diplomatic relationship”
The transnational connection between Vietnamese Australians through exchanges and interchanges of contemporary hip-hop and rap music is one of those steps toward reconciling the old and new Vietnam.
(1) ABC News (2012),Timeline: Vietnamese immigration to Australia
(2)Australian Bureau of Statistics,Migration,Australia 2018/2019
(3) Zhang, S (2019) Asian/Asian Americans and Rap Music
(4) Chang, J (2009) It's a Hip-Hop World
(5) Music Press Asia (2018),Why Vietnam’s Music Scene Could Be Asia’s Biggest Boom in 2019, After China
About the authors:
Excited about adventures for the mind and body, especially dance, music and pop culture, Gemma Truong is an experienced performing arts program curator and arts administrator. She is a supporter of the arts in a cross-cultural environment and has worked in the community sector with a range of organisations, notably: Brisbane City Council, Gold Coast City Council, HOTA, Queensland Performing Arts Centre and Brisbane Writers Festival to name a few. Gemma is currently the Events Manager at the Australia Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue.
Jenny is an Events Coordinator at the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue, currently working as an Integration Aide at Thornbury High School. In completing a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies, Communications & Media Studies, Chinese Studies) at Monash University, she undertook studies and work experience in Indonesia, Malaysia and Switzerland.
Serena is a Content Producer at the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue. She currently works at the Australian National University as a Project Officer in the Crawford School of Public Policy and a Research Assistant in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. She holds a Bachelor in Asian Studies from the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, where she first began studying Vietnamese language and culture.