UPDATE: In January 2020, the New York City Artist Safe Haven Residency Program welcome Mai Khoi for a residency at Westbeth. As part of the residency, Mai Khoi performed to a packed audience at Joe's Pub on March 5, 2020.
Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese artist and dissident musician who is banished from the country's music industry and media for engaging in acts of dissent. She has protested President Trump for what she highlights as misogynistic and racist practices, met with former President Obama after being unfairly rejected from running in the congressional elections, and has spoken with Eric Schmidt about not caving into government demands to censor the internet. Mai Khoi is currently the subject of a feature length documentary that is planned to air on Netflix in 2019.
Mai Khoi made international headlines last November when police evicted her from her home for protesting President Trump's visit to Hanoi. As Trump's motorcade sped by, Mai Khoi held up a sign that read “Piss on you Trump”. Later that evening, a man and a woman who claimed to be employees of the building’s owner, forced their way into Mai Khoi’s home and ordered her eviction on the spot. Police followed and filmed her for several days afterwards. Mai Khoi has since relocated within Hanoi, but is once again being forced out of her house (she has already been evicted twice in the last six months).
“I was just protesting the way any American would protest, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
In March 2016, Mai Khoi broke international headlines by becoming the first Vietnamese celebrity in history to nominate herself to Vietnam’s National Assembly on a pro-democracy platform. Independent candidates have to go through a lengthy and cumbersome procedure to be authorized to run by the Fatherland Front, an organization affiliated with the Vietnamese communist party. Ultimately, Mai Khoi was unfairly disqualified in a rigged vetting process with no independent oversight. Despite her short-lived candidacy, her nomination and her unfair disqualification sparked debates unlike anything seen in recent Vietnamese elections.
After she protested these results, the police and cultural officials raided and shut down one of Mai Khoi’s concerts in Ho Chi Minh City under the pretext that they were conducting a routine inspection of cultural activities. They had brought a reporter with them from the police newspaper who published details of the raid in order to discredit Mai Khoi publicly. Following this first raid, Mai Khoi has been harassed by police, her concerts have been raided, and she has been, for all intents and purposes, banned from singing in Vietnam.
Undeterred by the Vietnamese government’s best
efforts to silence her, in May 2016 Mai Khoi participated in a private meeting with then U.S. President Barack Obama and
representatives of civil society to discuss freedom of speech and the political
process in Vietnam. After the public meeting with Obama, Mai Khoi returned to Ho
Chi Minh city where she resided, only to experience the first harassment by
police in her home. Under the alleged pretense of checking her residential
registration papers, a mandatory document in Vietnam, police tried to force Mai
Khoi to sign a document confirming she was the owner of her Facebook account. Had
she signed the document, she would have been immediately arrested. After
several hours, she was released, but was asked by the police to come back
later. Even when Mai Khoi decided to move to Hanoi, the harassment did not end. On
July 22, 2017, 40 police interrupted a small concert in a private studio that
she had not advertised publicly and for which no tickets were sold. Although
the police ended up leaving without carrying out an inspection, the owner of
the studio was fined between 1–5 million dong for organizing an artistic
performance without notifying the Hanoi Department of Culture at least five
days before the performance.
“We give voice to the unspeakable. Unlike other musicians here, we don’t ask for permission to perform or submit our lyrics to the censors.”
Despite the tireless intimidation, Mai Khoi continues to publicly denounce all forms of harassment and intimidation made against her. The level and number of these harassment episodes worry Mai Khoi, who has said, “I’m worried more than normal right now. I don’t like the word scared, but I’m feeling uncomfortable. I think this is definitely the worst treatment I have received up until now.” Mai Khoi continues to find ways to advance in her projects and to ensure that none of them soften their original messages. She organizes concerts in secret venues and broadcasts them out to the world on Facebook. She is now recording a new album with Mai Khoi and The Dissidents, which includes band members Nguyen Duc Minh and Quyen Thien Dac. The avant-garde and experimental musical trio are unapologetic about its message and, as Mai Khoi describes, “give[s] voice to the unspeakable. Unlike other musicians here, we don’t ask for permission to perform or submit our lyrics to the censors.” Until her protest against President Trump brought her back to the limelight, Mai Khoi had been trying not to provoke the authorities too much until she completed her album, which exchanges the perky agitpop tracks she is best known for in favor of darker, folk- and jazz-inflected songs such as “Re-education Camp.”
Mai Khoi also hopes that 2018 will see the five-year project Bamboom! come to life. This original circus act explores the ideas of eastern philosophy and uses bamboo-based instruments made by the musicians themselves. Mai Khoi is the group's sole singer, an actress, and a musician. She is also deeply involved with Seaphony, an orchestra that seeks to be the first pan-Southeast Asian orchestra comprised of ethnic minority musicians. Seaphony’s first iteration was made up of more than 50 Vietnamese ethnic musicians and culminated in a performance at the Hanoi Opera House on December 12, 2017.
The pressure Mai Khoi faces is reflecting what human rights groups say is the largest and most persistent crackdown in the communist nation in years. Vietnam is currently holding at least 84 political prisoners or dissidents for crimes such as “spreading propaganda against the state” or “abusing democratic freedoms.” In many cases, they have been prosecuted for posting critical comments on Facebook.
Amnesty International newly declared Mai Khoi one of 12 inspiring human rights activists to follow in 2018.
By Sabrina Li, January 2018. Sabrina Li is a student at Harvard University studying English. She is passionate about languages, the power of communication through the arts, and protecting threatened artists.
UPDATE on March 2, 2018: Mai Khoi and The Dissidents are releasing their new album called “DISSENT – Live at Phù sa Lab” on Music Freedom Day, March 3, 2018. Music Freedom Day is a global marker of the right to artistic and musical freedom of speech that was started by Freemuse in 2007. You can listen to the new album here!