B-Boys, rappers and New York
When the sun goes down and the heat becomes bearable, the b-boys of Hanoi head to a park in Hai Ba Trung District, where they gather on the smooth tile floor outside a massive stone building and practice.
Their leader, 28-year-old Khanh Linh, directs the dancers in handstands and flips, periodically taking breaks to watch YouTube videos of past performances on a laptop in the corner. “This is my crew that will compete in Thailand in September,” he tells me.
Called SINE, the group won Battle of the Year in 2013 and 2014, and have danced in competitions all over Asia and Europe. Now, they’ve recruited new dancers, and Linh is hard at work every night training them.
He learned to dance in a similar fashion, when he stumbled upon the BigToe crew practicing in a square in 2003. Six months later, they invited him to their studio, and he danced with them until 2010, before breaking away to form SINE with 16 other members.
When Vietnam was first exposed to hip-hop culture in the early 1990s, people were scared, Linh explains.
“When we saw American movies, we always saw the guns, and the fighting. So we thought, this is hip-hop. But we can’t bring American hip-hop culture to Vietnam. We need to make our own culture.”
“We dance battle because we don’t want to use guns,” Linh explains. “We call ourselves b-boys, not b-men… because we only want to have fun.”
The genre in America has become synonymous with things like gang violence and drug-dealing; it began as a form of expression for struggling youth in New York City’s impoverished Bronx neighbourhood. But Vietnamese hip-hop lacks this painful origin story, and likewise, much of its aggression.
“We share more than we fight. Young rappers in town, sometimes they have a beef. But at a certain point, you realise you should focus on doing bigger things for the community,” says 23-year-old rapper Hung Nguyen, known in HCMC as Emcee K. He recently opened a small venue called La Canala, which hosts Saigon Cypher, a monthly event for young emcees and DJs.
The 21-year-old Nguyen Luong Ngoc Lam, known as Kaza, is a regular on these nights. “It’s like a showcase for the homies and everyone else to gather around, chilling and rapping peacefully,” he writes. Peaceful, indeed. The event has three rules: “No beef, no aggressive battles, and no bad vibes.”
“I usually rap about everything I see in the streets; the unfairness of society, or traffic in Saigon, or my family, my love, and my city,” Kaza explains.
Hip-hop events around Vietnam are still largely random, and not always easy for expats to find. “Some of them don’t even know there’s an underground hip hop scene going on,” says Adrian Rodgers, or Pain, of the band Hazard Clique.
A Scot who grew up in Spain, Adrian has been in Vietnam for six years. He started Hazard Clique with a Vietnamese rapper called Black Murder, who he met through one of Vietnam’s biggest underground rap bands, G Family. They brought in a songwriter named Cam, and together, the three of them deliver bilingual, high-energy shows reminiscent of Western acts like Wu-Tang Clan.
“Our style is so classic, that a lot of the modern rappers don’t even know what it is; they were born into the era that Eminem created,” he says. “So some of them, when they see our stuff, they don’t get what we’re doing.”
I stumbled upon one of Hazard Clique’s performances while photographing last year’s Quest Festival. It was packed, and the crowd was jumping en masse to the trio’s outstretched arms, bouncing up and down like the conductors of a human symphony.
“That was the first time we got to perform on a really big stage with a big crowd in front of a lot of expats. We were really happy with the reaction, and people were asking for more,” Adrian remembers.
Even with the lack of regular hip-hop events, more is sure to come; but you may have to dig for it. Luckily, digital platforms are giving the underground room to flourish.
“Hip-hop heads in Vietnam depend a lot on the internet,” writes Kaza, who uploads all of his music to Soundcloud, and uses Facebook to promote it.
“We [just] released our first music video in Vietnamese. We got about 400,000 views in a couple of weeks,” says Adrian.
He hopes this exposure will remind the new generation of Vietnamese rappers about the genre’s roots, and promote creativity instead of cookie-cutter commercialism.
Back in the park, Linh has similar dreams for his b-boys. “One day, I hope I can take all of my members to New York.”
Driven by a passion for the lifestyle that keeps them dancing every night of the week, it’s only a matter of time.