Abstract

Rap and hip-hop's diverse dance styles have been practiced in Vietnam since the 1990s, shortly after the country's integration into the world economy. What started out as a sphere of popular culture dominated by men was soon appropriated by female artists. The female rapper Suboi, Vietnam's “Queen of Rap,” is internationally renowned, and more and more young women are engaging in dancing on the streets. This article investigates the aspirations of female hip-hop practitioners in Vietnam's major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. What does leading the good life mean to them, and how do they navigate the ambiguous moral landscape coproduced by authoritarianism and liberalism? Drawing on Aihwa Ong's (2008) concept of self-fashioning and AbdouMaliq Simone's (2019) practices of crafting, harvesting, and detachment, this article examines how young women use hip-hop as a creative device to achieve personal freedom and make a career for themselves. Carving out spaces for themselves in the male-dominated rap industry and dance community, they negotiate existing gender norms in both the music genre and Vietnam's urban society.

Hip-hop is all about aspirations. It is ultimately linked to the good life, as it is used as a medium of social commentary against the status quo (Lee 2010). As a “global signifier for many forms of marginalizations” (Osumare 2001: 173), hip-hop renders the marginal positioning of individuals and groups in the city and society at large visible and audible, while its bodily sensations attract more and more people into this art form. An art and cultural form that travels globally, its uptake differs according to locality. In Vietnam the uptake of hip-hop is closely linked to the country's integration into the world economy following decades of war and isolation. Rap and breaking (breakdancing), and later other dance styles, all emically summarized under the term văn hoá hip hop (hip-hop culture), appeared in Vietnam in the 1990s shortly after the introduction of the Đổi Mới economic reform program. As the government actively pursued the country's integration into the world economy, cultural commodities from other parts of the world were able to enter the country. Students were suddenly allowed to study abroad, notably in nonsocialist countries, resulting in the circulation of hip-hop practitioners, knowledge, and storage devices such as audio cassettes, video cassettes, and photos. However, as the anthropologist Brian Larkin (2013) reminds us, the circulation of cultural commodities requires more than technological infrastructure. Looking at meaning making in the local context, at which objects and subjects enter through circulation, he suggests examining practices of uptake and rejection. Uptake is always driven by desire. Circulation then involves “complex acts of identification and translation,” as well as commensuration, as these images move across cultural differences (Larkin 2013: 241, 245). As a result, the uptake of hip-hop in Vietnam was and still is mediated not only by technical means such as mixtapes, video cassettes, and recently social media, but also by individuals’ desire and willingness to adopt new cultural practices.

The female rapper Suboi recalls how she used to listen to different types of music such as pop, rock, blues, and jazz as a teenager, but ended up making hip-hop music because “This is, you know, the music of rebellious people . . . I need that in my life” (interview, Viet Talk 2015). In a similar vein, Phương Silver Monkey, an icon (đại) of hip-hop dance in Vietnam, says, “Hip-hop is very free. In hip-hop music you can easily create with all the skills you have. . . . In this music, you're free to develop yourself” (Hanyi 2015; my translation). In other words, in hip-hop culture late-socialist youth are able to carve out their own spaces as they seek economic independence from their parents and withdraw from societal expectations.

In his account of young people's navigation through a precarious urban environment, AbdouMaliq Simone (2019) outlines the practices of crafting, harvesting, and detachment as determinants of their agency. Crafting is a specific stylized performance created to attract the “attention of some and the dis-attention of others” (28): “In crafting, there is the recognition of a sought-for instrumentality, of the ability to accomplish something through composition, through piecing together different styles, influences, and skills to gain access to specific opportunities” (30). Harvesting relates to appropriating resources offered by the urban environment to build a livelihood, for instance by putting materials, cultural memories, and solidarities to work for personal goals. Detachment is the active withdrawal of young people, increasingly aware of their expendability, from the expectations of others (28–29).

Local, Socialist, and Hip-Hop Norms

Many young people practicing hip-hop argue with their parents about the purposefulness of their desires to dance or make rap music, raising the question of what constitutes a good person under late socialism. In Vietnam, as in China, the marriage of economic liberalism and political authoritarianism places contradictory demands on the individual, creating an ambiguous moral landscape that late-socialist citizens, in particular young people, have to navigate. The party-state propagates self-entrepreneurship and the private accumulation of wealth while becoming a moral person who is loyal to the nation and the community (Schwenkel and Leshkowich 2012; Zhang 2018). The result is an “ethic of striving” that demands that one rises to the top, with failure to do so seen as not having tried hard enough or responsibly enough (Nguyen 2019: 172). Yet simultaneously individuals accumulating personal wealth and power are expected to share with and take care of others and the community. As Li Zhang (2012: 663) summarizes, “The search for a private self and the good life is still deeply entangled with larger social relationships, moral concerns, and traditional cultural practices.” In this regard, hip-hop, promoting the values of authenticity, competitiveness, strength, and collectivity (Berggren 2014; Lee 2010; Liu 2010), adds yet another layer to the already complex politics of aspiration arising from the realities of people negotiating various value frameworks to create meaning in their lives (Nguyen, Wilcox, and Lin, this issue). Against this background, hip-hop practitioners literally move between different value regimes, becoming translators between different social worlds. On the one hand they strive to make a successful career in the highly competitive cultural industry or in their office jobs; on the other, they embody the translocal values of support and fierceness shared by hip-hop artists around the world. Young women particularly need to navigate different social roles and social expectations; in fact, the convergence of local, artistic, socialist, and neoliberal values becomes most explicit with respect to normative ideas of gender.

Although the predominance of Confucianist-informed gender norms has been challenged (Hakkarainen 2018), they seem to provide a blueprint against which femininity is assessed. Both state propaganda and private advertisements draw on norms of femininity such as the Four Virtues (tứ đức) (Leshkowich 2008) that determine công (women's labor), dung (appearance), ngôn (speech), and hạnh (conduct). Women should be skilled at cooking and housekeeping (labor), be physically attractive to please their husbands (appearance), adopt a humble and submissive communicative repertoire and voice (speech), and finally embody female integrity, presenting obedience to their seniors and husbands (conduct) (Khuat, Le, and Nguyen 2009; Ngo 2004). As I will show, the idea of voice and women's speech is relevant to the evaluation of female rap in East Asian contexts. Nguyen (2015: 153) points out the prevailing ideology of women's domesticity with the underlying notions of caring and providing for the family as the good wife and mother. Yet the young women presented in this article have acquired skills and knowledge that they want to put to work on their own terms, shifting the focus of care from family and kin to relationships with their peers.

Aihwa Ong (2008) introduces the term self-fashioning to capture the individualizing logic of young professionals in Shanghai. Much like Simone's crafting, self-fashioning involves “the astute defining and mixing of different knowledge and the capacity to convert information from one zone into a new value in another” (187). Apart from crafting their lives to support themselves economically, the female rappers and dancers use hip-hop as a creative vehicle to achieve their own aspirations and freedom from social expectations and gender norms. The following analysis is based on narrative interviews with rappers and dancers in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Ninh Binh, as well as go-alongs (Kusenbach 2003) in public spaces and studios in Hanoi. The interviews with rappers are complemented by analysis of rap lyrics and videos.

Self-fashioning in Viet Rap

Rap has been termed an “outlaw expression” (Bradley 2009: 88). It is a means of speaking up and challenging the status quo. In Vietnam, local artists and fans refer to the music genre as Viet rap. Since its beginnings in the 1990s, rap has been associated with violence and unruly behavior, one reason being that battles between male rappers frequently used to become violent; another is the use of foul language, references to violence, and sexual insults. This is why rap is often subject to state censorship (Margara 2014; Norton 2015).

Nevertheless, a few rappers, including Đen Vâu, Lil Knight, Young UNO, Binz, and Suboi, have risen to the top in recent years. Using creative wordplay and verbal art, they evade censorship, rapping about issues that are pertinent to contemporary Vietnamese youth. Much like their East Asian counterparts, their lyrics address social issues such as family, filial piety, love, and education (Lee 2010; Liu 2010). Although Viet rap is increasingly being co-opted by media corporations, the topics rappers address resonate with young Vietnamese, and particularly urban middle-class youth, who follow rap stars on Facebook and Instagram and watch TV shows such as King of Rap Vietnam. Viet rappers who brag about money, wealth, sexuality, and violence are referred to as underground, with a general distinction between underground and overground artists (Norton 2015).

Against this background it is rather surprising that two of Vietnam's most famous artists in the hip-hop music business are female. Suboi is a twenty-nine-year-old female MC from Ho Chi Minh City.1 Her stage name, Suboi, already transgresses the traditional binary gender categories, combining her nickname “Su” given to her by her family with “boi,” coined by her friends due to her tomboy nature. Suboi raps in both Vietnamese and English and claims to be influenced by Eminem; Kendrick Lamar; Will Smith; Erykah Badouh; and, closer to home, Lê Hựu Hà, a Vietnamese musician, and Elvis Phương, a former star on Paris by Night, a popular Vietnamese variety show that has aired in several countries overseas.

Suboi started out singing in a rock band in high school when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. After graduating she became a solo rapper, initially producing tracks herself by downloading beats, writing lyrics, and rapping. When she turned nineteen, she signed with Music Faces, a Vietnamese music label promoting Vietnamese artists (interview, Viet Talk 2015). Working with the Dutch producer Grem Linh, she released her first album Walk/Bước in 2010, and in 2012 she founded her own company, Suboi Entertainment. Two years later in 2014, she released her second studio album, Run, this time with the title only in English. The transition from Walk to Run symbolizes the dynamics of her professional career and personal development. By starting her own label she has become an entrepreneur, giving her the freedom to choose her own staff and write her own lyrics.

Nonetheless, Suboi reflects on the hardships of her choice. For instance, on the last track, “Away,” from her 2014 album, she raps about her struggles early in her career and how other people's opinions and judgments did not prevent her moving forward.2 In the hook she sings, “Let's get away together. Let's get away to a place. Let's get away. I wanna get away get—get—get away.” After releasing this second album she took a break from show business, struggling to continue, but decided to keep writing and making her own music (Viet Talk 2015).

In a similar vein the Hanoian artist Kimmese, born in 1991, accomplished the transition from teenage girl star to mature singer and rapper. When I met her for the first time during a noisy walk-and-talk in the Ancient Quarter one Saturday evening in late October 2018, she explained how hip-hop had become her aspiration in life. She had first encountered it at the age of twelve. In a neighborhood where people struggled financially, she would save all her breakfast money to buy hip-hop CDs on her way home from school. When she watched her first US hip-hop video CD with clips from artists such as Wyclef Jean, 50 Cent, and Usher, she thought “Yeah, I want that. It was like an addiction to me at that time” (interview, October 2018). At the age of fourteen, a Vietnamese music label signed her as a singer in a girl band. Despite being signed by a label and producing pop music, she tried to remain true to herself as a rapper. In his analysis of South Korean rap, Lee (2010: 156) describes how authenticity, the value of keeping it real, is “closely tied to maintaining artistic integrity and not succumbing to commercialism or pressure from competitors and fans.”

Kimmese recalls how her first contract allowed her to write three songs of her own. She decided to make them rap tracks. In the first, she defends herself against accusations of going mainstream and not having her own style. She asks, “How can you know me so well, how could you know what I want, what I need, and what I'm doing?” With this she criticizes the evaluation of her personhood by others, especially in her fragile status as a teenager. She adds that she was tired of being told what to do and how to be by others. So, instead of people judging one another, she suggests that they get along together. “Why don't we just get along . . . ? Why [do] we just like turn around and like be, like an enemy, when we have the same love: it's hip-hop, you know” (interview, October 2018). However, studio postproduction turned her self-written rap track into a commercial music product, undermining its idiosyncrasies.

After releasing her first pop album as Kim in 2012, which was well-received in Vietnam, she left the record label and decided to return to her passion for hip-hop music. Like the dynamization of the album titles being indexical of Suboi's career path, she took an alternative stage name after leaving the music label, finally calling herself Kimmese. Under her new name she recorded a track with Justatee, a major artist collaborating with male Viet rappers such as Lil Knight, Đen Vâu, and recently the female artist Tiên Tiên, from Ho Chi Minh City. The track was produced by Touliver, Vietnam's top hip-hop producer. Kimmese has collaborated with both ever since.

In summary, both women entrepreneurs engage in self-fashioning. According to Ong (2008: 187), self-fashioning is an important part of becoming a successful player in the fast-changing late-socialist market. Both Suboi and Kimmese put the skills they acquired in their early careers to work in their own interests, leaving the music labels under whose contracts they had started their musical careers. In this way they have evaded the music industry by founding their own company or becoming an independent artist, doing everything on their own. Suboi founded her own music label, giving her the freedom to choose her preferred producers, directors, and managers, and finally to become a rap mogul herself. Kimmese, in contrast, has acquired the skills and social capital necessary to accomplish the different stages of the music production process by herself. Bringing together the skills she has acquired and the relationships she has made over the years enables her to access specific opportunities (Simone 2019) in hip-hop music. Both women have succeeded in making a name for themselves in the Vietnamese music business.

Gender Fluidity

The genre of rap music is usually male-dominated, in terms of both the main artists and the language norms. Berggren (2014: 233) points out that the genre's conventions of dissing and battling are full of tokens of masculinity such as aggression, competitiveness, and references to heterosexual sex. In Ci's (2014: 36) words, the representation of the self in rap can be characterized as “wealth-chasing and pleasure-seeking” male subjects. However, the female artists presented above fashion themselves as pleasure-seeking and self-determining but nevertheless caring subjects. In the track “Away” (2010), Suboi appeals to her audience to stop dissing, rapping “So don't, don't bring your black stains onto other people's clothes. And don't, don't talk with each other pouring offensive words into each other's ears. And don't, don't tell stories that destroy others’ reputations” (verse 1, lines 6–8, translated from Vietnamese). In rap battles, the pragmatic function of dissing is exactly to insult and destroy the opponent's reputation. However, Suboi uses the negative imperative đừng (don't) to express her disregard for such derogatory practices. Like Kimmese in her first self-written track, Suboi pleads for harmony, asking her peers to leave her alone and stop judging and harassing others.

By renouncing dissing, these women stand out from their (underground) male counterparts, who frequently make use of foul language and sexual insults. Notably, homophobic insults serve to substantiate their heteronormative masculinity. The two female rappers, by contrast, fashion themselves as ethical citizens in an increasingly competitive socialist market economy, reactivating “collectivist ideas of social life through the idiom of care” (Nguyen, Wilcox, and Lin, this issue). At one moment they adhere to normative ideas of femininity, assuming the expected position of a caretaker, watching out for others and adhering to the gender norm of ngon, using a humble voice and polite speech; in the next, they employ a different linguistic repertoire, raising their voices again to crisscross stereotypes of gendered language use.

In her single “Người ta hiểu” (“They understand”), released in 2017 and addressing her personal struggle against following the conventional path of a young, urban, middle-class Vietnamese woman, Suboi raps, “If you got guts, step up and pull the trigger, instead of standing there saying nothing. I step out from a small alley with big guts” (verse 1, lines 12–13, translated from Vietnamese). Linguistically, her choice of more direct, even aggressive, language matches the message she aims to convey. To emphasize that she is liberating herself from social expectations, the hook repeats: “Whether they understand or not, my life is still like this, whether they understand or not.” In this track she also makes use of the stylistic device of braggadocio. More than just bragging, braggadocio assists by making the MC larger than life. By narrating the story of her life, the MC elevates herself above all others (Bradley 2009). Suboi uses masculine metaphors to demonstrate her superiority: “If they are b-boys, I am Easy Roc. If they are rockers, I am the Chili Peppers. If they are riders, hi! I am Schumacher.”

First, she explicitly references hip-hop, comparing herself to Easy Roc, a b-boy in the globally renowned US Rock Steady Crew. Second, having been a singer in a rock band, she acknowledges the success of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, an all-male rock band. Third, and finally, she represents herself as Michael Schumacher, the Formula One world champion. By taking the positions of outstanding male figures in global popular culture and sport, she produces an image of the self that evades binary gender categorization. The linguistic anthropologist Shigeko Okamoto (1995) argues that in Japan, where the idea of “women's speech” or woman's language also prevails, women make strategic language choices to communicate images and pragmatic meanings of self. Based on her work, Ian Condry (2006: 179) concludes that female rappers use supposedly vulgar, and therefore masculine, language to construct their performative personae.

In fact, rappers can have multiple selves. What mediates “between the ‘I’ of the rapper and the ‘I’ of the character” is the I of the first-person narrator (Cecil Brown, quoted in Bradley 2009: 165). Kimmese and Suboi both use the personal pronoun tôi (I) in their lyrics. This is a strategic linguistic choice, as expressing the I correctly in Vietnamese is no small matter. Self-reference and second-person address are always based on the asymmetric relationship determined by social status, gender, and age, and mirror the hierarchical social system. Consequently Vietnamese interlocutors have to choose from among a broad spectrum of terms for I and you, according to the interactional situation. Most common is the use of kin terms, regardless of the speaker's and addressee's genealogical relatedness (Luong 1990; Thompson 1965). While pairs of proper pronouns such as tôi and bạn exist for I and you, they are rarely used colloquially except in very specific interactions. Tôi is used to express social distance, for example, when dealing with people in authority or those whom one does not know at all. It is very offensive if used inappropriately, e.g., to someone higher in social status or age. With the increase in mass media, the use of tôi and bạn (you; or, plural, các bạn) has become more common in public broadcasting. Nonetheless, young women's use of the first-person pronoun tôi in Vietnamese popular culture, especially in music, is rare. Female Vietnamese singers frequently refer to themselves as em (younger sister), as in most (love) songs an imagined anh (older brother) is present.

By employing the gender-neutral first-person pronoun tôi, Suboi and Kimmese perform selves that do not submit to any gendered or otherwise hierarchical social relationship. In her self-reference, Suboi alternates between tôi, Suboi, and her nickname, Su. Only when she (re)situates herself in her relationship with her father or mother does she use the relevant kin terms, referring to herself as con (child). Her track “Đời” (“Life”) (2016) narrates the story of when her father lost his job, her family almost lost their house, and her father tried to commit suicide, taking up the intimate consequences of socioeconomic transformation that many people in contemporary Vietnam face and which are rarely spoken about in public. This personal life story not only demonstrates the downside of economic development but also unsettles gender roles, as her father, as head of the household, is at least temporarily unable to provide for his family.

In conclusion, young women employ rap as a vehicle to speak up against social expectations and normative ideas of gender. With their wordplay, conscious use of tôi as self-reference, and choice of metaphors, female rappers become gender-fluid, reworking gendered identities. Their gender performance is also an inspiration to their fans, resulting in a public debate about the (in)commensurability of hip-hop and being female in Vietnam.

Dancing the Good Life

But it's really good when you join the dancing, because I see it makes us younger and see everything brighter than normal people. I see that now. Like positive thinking.

—(Nguyệt, female hip-hop dancer from Hanoi)

Twenty-seven-year-old Nguyệt, a renowned dancer from Hanoi, realizes her vision of the good life together with her husband Bi Max, a b-boy from Quảng Trị Province in Central Vietnam. They met at a hip-hop battle event and married in January 2018. Together they overcome gendered expectations about spousal mobility (Kurfürst 2021). Since the Vietnamese wife is commonly associated with the outside of the family and is then integrated into the realm of the inside through marriage, she is expected to move in with her husband's family after marriage. The husband, by contrast, is considered in charge of inside kin relations (Brandtstädter 2008; Nguyen 2019). However, rather than Nguyệt moving in with Max, Max decided to quit his job as a car mechanic in Central Vietnam, where his family lives, and move to Hanoi to live and dance with his spouse. They are members of the same hip-hop dance crew and teach a dance class together. Although they work as instructors in different dance studios around the city, Nguyệt is the family's main provider. She says, “I have a class [that I teach], but since I have family now I think that I have to do more to earn money. So, I work for a fashion company—sportswear—yes, a sportswear company. But it's online, so my time is flexible” (interview, October 2018). Pluralizing her sources of income (Simone 2019), she still has enough time to practice and enter international dance competitions in Southeast Asia. Nguyệt makes it clear that she chose a partner from the world of dancing because he can understand her lifestyle (Kurfürst 2021). As a dancer, she often has to stay out late because crew practice only starts in the evening, usually after 8 p.m., a fact that her parents, particularly her father, disapprove of, and she has to travel a lot. When I met her she was also thinking about having children, although some years in the future rather than immediately, as expected of a Vietnamese woman in her late twenties. On the one hand she liberates herself from the force of domesticity (Nguyen 2019), traveling abroad alone, staying out late at night, and not moving in with her husband's family; while on the other, she acknowledges her responsibility as a family provider, the household member with a stable income in contrast to that of her husband, a freelancer.

Nguyệt holds her own dance class once a week in the park surrounding the Lenin Monument in Hanoi, thereby harvesting the urban environment (Simone 2019) as she uses the materiality and accessibility of public space to create a public domain for hip-hop culture in the capital. Together with other dancers, she makes the physical practices visible and accountable in the city. Dance techniques render the body legible in a shared idiom, offering possibilities for imagining new ways of being oneself as well as being with others (Hamera 2007). As a collective meeting on a regular basis, they share the meaning of hip-hop culture by helping and talking to one another, being connected, and chơi với nhau (playing together) (interviews, October 2018), thereby shifting the collective pole of the good life from the family to their community of peers.

Vy, a female dancer in her twenties from Ho Chi Minh City, explained that in general people in Vietnam know little about hip-hop and associate it with negatives such as young people coming home late at night, people living on the streets, and unemployment. What is more, the parents of dancers seem to fear that their children's desire to dance might interfere with their studies. Dancing appears to be seen as useless, as it does not provide a job or a steady income (interviews, October/November 2018). Vy elucidates, saying that graduating from university while also dancing allowed her to prove that she was still a “good” person, and that she was able to earn money from dancing by working as a dance instructor and winning cash prizes in dance competitions (Kurfürst 2021). Vy's self-assessment of what it means to be a “good” person demonstrates her agency. According to Sherry B. Ortner (2006), agency presupposes awareness and self-reflexivity concerning the circumstances in which the subject finds herself. While she was seeking the personal happiness embodied in dancing, she acted within the moral constraints imposed on her by social expectations of her economic success and moral conduct as a daughter. In fact, she acted against the circumstances she found herself in, as she made enough money from dancing to become independent of her family's resources. Yet as dancing is a precarious undertaking, she also has stable employment in quality assurance. In fact, all of the female dancers participating in this research hold a bachelor's degree and are urban and middle-class. They decouple themselves from “a fixed set of aspirations and development trajectories” (Simone 2019: 27), by taking employment based on their university education and combining it with teaching dance. Simultaneously, they decouple themselves from gendered aspirations, contesting the imperative of marriage (see Zavoretti, this issue), looking for a partner who will support and care about their personal aspiration to a dancing life more than for a provider for the family.

Thanh Phương's parents were not happy about her dedicating her free time to dance hip-hop. Thanh Phương is thirty years old, unmarried, and childless, and lives with and takes care of her parents. With a degree from the University of Law in Hanoi, she works in marketing for a large Vietnamese real-estate company, where she was recently promoted to team leader. Explaining how she manages to maintain a dancing life while holding down a time-consuming and responsible job, she differentiates between “knowledge from school,” and the sensory knowledge she gains from dancing and traveling. She explains that “normal” people working in the office would usually apply the knowledge acquired at school. She considers such knowledge boring, and puts everything she feels and sees around her into her job. As she works in marketing, she researches what people like and what makes them happy. She says that dancing allows her to maintain a more vibrant and creative mind than those of other people (Kurfürst 2021). She concludes that without hip-hop, she would not be able to work in her current position: “I love my job and I love dancing, too. So I wanna mix this like I can use my knowledge for dancing. So I can help more people” (interview, October 2018). Thanh Phương is able to navigate and capitalize on her knowledge of and reference to the different value regimes of late socialism (see Nguyen, Wilcox, and Lin, this issue). According to Ong (2008: 187), self-fashioning implies not only “fine-tuning oneself but also steering oneself through diverse networks of knowledge and value.” Thanh Phương engages in self-fashioning when she puts money from her full-time job aside and uses her skills to generate sponsors to raise money to organize a local hip-hop event. She hopes to have her own studio in the future, and plans to rent a building from the real-estate company she works for, which will give her a discount.

Conclusion

Ong (2008: 195) uses the metaphor “dancing across the fault lines” to describe Chinese professional women's maneuvering of Chinese socialism and Orientalist capitalism and their position in the late-socialist economy. The young women from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City introduced in this article literally dance and rap across the fault lines. Kimmese, Suboi, Vy, Thanh Phương, and Nguyệt are female entrepreneurs who combine the skills and knowledge acquired from school, university, and employment with their verbal and somatic skills and knowledge to advance their personal, economic, and social interests. Their practices of crafting and harvesting (Simone 2019) convert their different kinds of knowledge and their cultural and social capital as members of the urban middle class into economic capital. According to Ong (2008: 187), self-fashioning is the steering of oneself through diverse networks of knowledge and across multiple regimes of value, thereby generating opportunities for strategy and play. The young women presented above are all making strategic decisions to foster their careers while remaining true to themselves. Suboi and Kimmese left the music labels with which they had started their careers to become self-made entrepreneurs, while Thanh Phương decided on a career in marketing to finance her future dance studio. Vy detaches herself from the economic resources of her family by financing her trips abroad to dance competitions herself, proving her moral strength by graduating from university and acquiring stable employment. Play, in this regard, refers to their trying out of creative practices and new ways of being together, as in dance.

Although increasingly co-opted by media corporations, hip-hop continues to transgress social norms in the way that the women dance and rap across the binary gender poles. They detach themselves from social expectations as they delay or reject marriage, or look for a partner who will support their aspirations in life. Despite social pressure, they decide for themselves on the right time to have children. In this way, each of the women becomes “a translator of values, a mediator among the surfeit of forms of knowledge” that circulates in contemporary Vietnam (Ong 2008: 186). Engaging in the cultural practice of rap, they mediate between the global art form and local meanings by addressing their own positioning as young women in both the rap game and Vietnamese society. The ethical work that the female artists perform on themselves also has an impact on the public among their urban middle-class fans and in the national media discussing the (in)commensurability of notions of femininity with hip-hop culture. By combining the use of the gender-neutral first-person pronoun tôi with male metaphors, they evade the hierarchical social order and rework gendered identities. Bringing home achievements such as cash prizes and awards from dance competitions and combining these with conventional jobs, female dancers succeed in gaining recognition from their parents for what they love most. Even in their pursuit of what seem to be individualized goals and desires, they invest in the common project of living well together (Nguyen, Wilcox, and Lin, this issue). Young dancers make their bodily practices visible and accountable when practicing and teaching dance classes in public spaces. Harvesting the physical environment of the city, they aim to communicate a positive image of hip-hop culture, building on values such as sharing and contributing to the community, paving the way for future generations to indulge in their passion for dance.

Notes

1

MC means “Master of Ceremony” and is another term for rapper.

2

I am grateful to Dr. Phuong Glaser, who assisted me with the translation of Suboi's lyrics.

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