The press had begun referring to Đỗ Nguyễn Mai Khôi as “Vietnam’s Lady Gaga.” A talented singer and songwriter, and a strong supporter of LGBT+ rights, Mai Khôi seemed to enjoy provoking the authorities. Commenting on her star power, ABC News said, “She’s been called the Lady Gaga of Vietnam, but Mai Khôi arguably has less in common with Gaga than the Russian activist group, Pussy Riot.”
Born in 1983, Mai Khôi has been playing music since she was twelve years old. In 2010, with the success of her song, “Vietnam,” which won the country’s top song-writing award, and she became a celebrated pop star. She used her fame to push for creative freedom and, gradually, for political freedom. As she grew as an artist, Mai Khôi’s lyrics became more provocative. “We just want to be free,” she sang. “Want the right to be human, living free from tyranny. We want to stop our fear of authoritarianism.” When she stopped submitting her lyrics to the censors, her performances were effectively banned, and she was blacklisted.
I invited Mai Khôi to join us for a few U.S. embassy events. She sang at my birthday party, and I met her Australian husband, Ben, and began to think of her as a younger sister. I worried that she would be tossed into jail.
In early 2016, Mai Khôi nominated herself as an independent candidate for Vietnam’s National Assembly. The Vietnam Fatherland Front, a Party organ that oversees civil society, disqualified her from participating in the election. That spring, she joined the street protests over an environmental disaster in coastal Hà Tĩnh province that had been caused by a Taiwanese company. The police violence she witnessed in that demonstration affected Mai Khôi deeply and led her to write a song about it, “Cuffed in Freedom.”
After naming her band “Mai Khôi and the Dissidents,” the singer realized that she had crossed a line with the authorities, and she changed the band’s name to Mai Khôi Chém Gió (a sardonic name that translates as boasting or exaggerating) when her next album, “Dissent,” was released. “We decided to change because their [members of the band’s] families didn’t want them performing under that name. In Vietnam, dissidents are talked about on the news like they’re enemies of the state,” she told Al Jazeera.
Mai Khôi arranged to be in the United States when the album“Dissent” was released. She waited a few weeks before returning to Vietnam. As she expected, the police arrested her upon her arrival in Hanoi, and she was detained for eight hours.
Dissent is autobiographical, and it contains a social commentary. It charts the artist’s moment of political awakening and personal transition from outlandish celebrity to dedicated song writer and social activist. Compositions such as “Please Sir,” “Re-education Camp,” and “Cuffed in Freedom” are explicitly political.
“You won’t do anyone any good rotting in a jail cell,” I told her.
We took photos together and posted them on social media. I hoped that her having a few photos with the American ambassador, as well as a few with other ambassadors, would make the authorities think twice before arresting her. Still, I warned her, “If you are arrested, don’t imagine that I can get you freed.” I didn’t want Mai Khôi to think that international support would inoculate her if she continued crossing the Party’s and government’s red lines.