Arguably Vietnam’s most controversial songwriter, Ngoc Dai, has been featured regularly in the Vietnamese press over the last few weeks after releasing a new album without official permission.
Thang Mo 1, which translates as Village Herald 1, features lyrics like: “have sex, compatriots” and “oh groin, oh buttocks,” causing quite a stir in the traditionally prudish country. Instead of going through official channels and having the contents screened by the censorship board at the Department of Performing Arts, Dai started “knocking on people’s doors” selling copies on his own.
“Before I made the CD I told my friends I want to be completely free. I don’t want to ask anybody to give me the permit. I don’t want anyone to censor me,” he said.
Professional composers have to be vetted by the authorities if they want to have their work broadcast publicly. The reasoning for this goes back to the 1950s when leading communist thinkers believed the arts should serve the ideological interests of the party, the nation, the socialist revolution and the fight for unification. Years later, as the country recovered from war and pursued a market economy, censorship of music also focused on preserving Vietnamese values in the face of globalization.
These days, subjects typically picked up on by the censors include sexual content and anything deemed anti-government.
Even without the sexual overtones, Dai’s album contains plenty of other lyrics to antagonize the censors. Some of these are transcribed on the CD cover: “If abandoning state control is a precondition for a new economy…Then abandoning thought control is a precondition for culture”.
Dai says he thinks censorship has stunted Vietnamese society, with the result that people can’t think for themselves. “I’m just a musician who wants independence in all aspects of life, so I can know who I am. Without independence I don’t know who I am,” he said.
The government soon learned of the CD and stories quickly appeared in the local media describing the album as vulgar and reactionary. It was “ inconsistent with traditions, habits and customs of the nation,” a report on online news site VietnamNet said, quoting the government. Deputy Director of the Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Quoc Chiem, warned people not to listen to it and to hand over any copies they came across.
But instead of putting people off, Dai said the news coverage acted like “free advertising”, with many more people contacting him asking for a copy. His song “Khuyen Mai Tinh Duc”, which means “selling sex”, attracted nearly 50,000 hits on YouTube. Some even took photos of the album cover and posted them on Facebook. Dai says he suspects this was more as a fashion statement than any expression of musical taste, but adds he does not take responsibility for what people do with his music.
Dai may be one of Vietnam’s most outspoken musicians, but Thang Mo 1 is the first album he has released without official permission. He says he hopes his decision encourages others to “overcome the fear” too. With Thanh Mo 2, 3 and 4 in the pipeline, it seems he will have plenty more opportunities to do so.