HANOI — The audience sits in the tiny theater. A spotlight opens slowly, exposing the outline of four men on stage tapping bamboo to mimic the sound of rain. A young woman dressed in white emerges from the background and begins to sing.
She is Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, pop star, blackballed political candidate, democracy advocate — and the recipient this year of the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, which recognizes artists who use innovative means to push back against authoritarianism.
In Vietnam, where the Communist Party rules with an iron fist, Mai Khoi has used lyrics to combine themes of resistance and protest. That is enough to make her an enemy of the state in the eyes of the country’s leadership, which keeps a tight lid on dissent at home even as it reaches out to the West and others as a key economic partner in the region.
“I began to write about the feelings of artists and people who have to work under the censorship system,” she said. “People don’t feel free when their work is censored.”
Mai Khoi began to play the guitar at the age of 8 with lessons from her father, a music teacher. At the age of 12, she joined him to play at weddings to earn extra money. She later attended a musical conservatory in Ho Chi Minh City for three years but dropped out.
She said she became bored with the staid program.
The next stop was bars and clubs in Ho Chi Minh City, and she soon won a following. But she did not achieve stardom until 2010, when she won state-owned Vietnam Television’s Album of the Year Award.
Instead of the playing it safe, however, she used her fame and music to fight for women’s and LGBT rights and to call for an end to violence against women.
Sitting in a cafe overlooking Hanoi’s West Lake, Mai Khoi described how dissident friends encouraged her to make a run for Vietnam’s National Assembly in 2016. She called the elections “fake.” Without Communist Party backing, independent candidates have no chance of winning. But she decided to give it a try.
“I thought maybe I could encourage people to pay attention to the elections,” she said. “Before that no one cared about this. No one said a word about the elections.”
Mai Khoi was disqualified from appearing on the ballot, but many Vietnamese say that her campaign was successful in fueling an unprecedented national debate about politics in Vietnam.
Her failed foray into politics led to an invitation to meet then-President Barack Obama along with a group of well-known Vietnamese dissidents and activists during Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May 2016. A photo of the event shows a smiling Mai Khoi, wearing a colorful ao dai, the national dress of Vietnam, sitting to the left of Obama. She says she went into hiding just before the meeting to avoid being detained.
It was also in that year that she began to create lyrics with more of a political edge. The 34-year-old singer has been both dubbed the Lady Gaga of Vietnam — a comparison she is admittedly fond of — and likened to Pussy Riot, the Russian punk activist group.
Then on Nov. 11, 2017, as President Trump’s motorcade drove down the streets of Hanoi, Mai Khoi stood on the sidewalk holding up a protest sign. She later said she protested Trump because he is a “misogynist” and because he failed to raise the question of human rights abuses during his meetings with Vietnamese officials.
Vietnamese authorities began to harass Mai Khoi and her Australian husband, Benjamin Swanton. Her concerts were raided by the police, and the couple was evicted from their home twice. In March, she was detained for eight hours at Hanoi airport after returning from a European tour, and copies of her newest album were confiscated.
Today it’s almost impossible for Mai Khoi to perform in public in Vietnam. As a result, she’s had to resort to performances overseas or at underground venues in Vietnam, such as the show with the bamboo-stick performers.
Several free-speech and rights organizations partnered to bring Mai Khoi to the United States, including PEN America, the Artistic Freedom Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation. In September, Mai Khoi and her band held performances at venues that included Dupont Underground in Washington.
Mai Khoi’s latest album, “Dissent,” includes a daring list of song titles such as “Re-Education Camp,” “Cuffed in Freedom,” and “Please, Sir.” In that song, she pleads with a Communist Party official in a sultry voice:
Will you let us sing?
Let us put up the paintings to admire them,
Will you let us love?"