Hàng Lâm Trang Anh, 25, was born into a middle-class family in Saigon: her mom worked for the Australian consulate and her dad was a manager at a factory.
Hers was a radically different existence from the 42-year-old Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, who grew up in in a poor part of Detroit, Michigan, with his mom.
But something about his songs on The Eminem Show made a big impression on Anh, who goes by Suboi, when she first listened to them as a teenager.
“I couldn’t believe it, “said Suboi, in San Francisco for her first United States performance at the Center for Asian American Media’s festival, known as CAAMfest. “There was so much energy and rage in how he expresses himself. The flow is so fast I thought ‘I’m going to twist my tongue.’”
Suboi, who performs at SXSW Thursday night, says she was a shy kid, playing around with words and writing little poems she calls silly. She felt insecure about them until she put them to music—then she felt she could express herself, she says.
Rap was not popular in Vietnam when Suboi was growing up, so anything she heard remotely like it made a big impression. Before Eminem, the energy of Will Smith’s song, “Nod Ya Head,” from Men in Black II, captivated her when she saw it on TV. Smith, and especially Eminem, became Suboi’s English teachers. She would listen to Eminen, repeat the words, go to an Internet café, look up the lyrics, write them down, and translate them.
“That’s why my English is so rude,” said Suboi, who also bought a couple of Oxford grammar books to supplement her hip-hop-based language lessons, and started hanging out in areas of Saigon where tourists go, talking with them. “Oh, man, it was all bad words. It was a great way to learn English.”
Suboi, who raps in both English and Vietnamese, got her stage name from her nickname, “Su,” combined with “Boi” for being a tomboy.
Now she’s known as the Queen of Hip-Hop in Vietnam, the first young woman in the country to make it big in the genre, with over a million followers on Facebook, tens of thousands of YouTube views and appearances in marketing campaigns for Adidas and Samsung, among others.
She says her parents didn’t know what to make of her love of rap at first, but now they support her career. When she started out, though, she felt rebellious.
“You know teenagers—‘Nobody cares about me,’ or ‘Nobody understands me,’ and all that shit,” Suboi said. “When I was 15, I started dating, and I met a bunch of bad guys. I had to hide it from my parents because they worried, and then they spied on me. I feel like everywhere I went, even at home or at school, it was weird. That’s why I jumped into music—I felt safe there.”
Suboi took up skateboarding, hanging out with a bunch of other teenagers who loved the band Linkin Park. They started a nu-metal band, and asked her to come perform with them, singing Linkin Park covers.
Although she’d never been onstage before, she agreed. She’s never felt shy in front of an audience, she says. “When I listen to music, I’m in a different world,” she said. “Plus I had my friends with me.”
After she joined the band, Suboi went to a bar to see a friend’s sister perform. The woman recognized her and called her up on stage to rap, and the bar offered her other gigs. She started to build a following, and in 2009, she signed with a label, Music Faces, and released her first album, Walk. When the contract ended, she set up Suboi Entertainment.
Suboi says, as a tiny, cute woman in a male-dominated genre, people don’t know what to make of her. And because of censorship in Vietnam, Suboi has to watch what she says in her songs and on social media.
“I can’t talk about drugs, sex, or making money in the streets,” she said. “When I tell that to other rappers, they say, ‘What do you rap about?’”
Suboi also needs to avoid any criticism of the government.
“I have to use metaphors all the time,” she said. “It gives me a sense of a challenge that I have to go any way around what I want to say. That’s what’s exciting to me about coming here—I can say whatever I want.”
Suboi was supposed to headline at CAAMfest last year—but at the last minute she didn’t get her visa. Now, being here, it’s great being able to meet and talk with others in her business, she says.
She mentions being particularly excited about meeting the Asian-American hip-hop producer, rapper and former member of the hip-hop group, the Mountain Brothers, Scott Jung, who goes by CHOPS. While here, she saw the Golden Gate Bridge—a lifelong dream—and visited artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s show at Alcatraz. She will be the the first Vietnamese artist to perform at SXSW. She just wants to keep making music for people, she says.
“I feel like I belong to the stage,” she says. “Not like, ‘Hey, everybody, look at me,’ but when I reach out for the audience, they’re there.”