In Exile, Vietnamese Musician And Activist Finds A Home In Pittsburgh

Jan 19, 2021

Do Nguyen Mai Khoi gave her new show the ironic title “Bad Activist.” But the Vietnamese celebrity, who’s currently living in self-imposed exile in Pittsburgh, also might have called it “Bad Pop Star.”

Mai performs in "Bad Activist."

These days, she’s working on her music, studying English, and living with her husband in a house on the North Side courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh’s Scholars at Risk program. But just a few years ago, Mai Khoi, 37, was a star in Vietnam. In 2010, her patriotic tune “Vietnam” won a state-run broadcaster’s big contest, and she went on to record ballads, pop-country numbers, and dance tunes, sing and dance in splashy videos, and give live concerts. She even toured internationally.

As a performing artist, Mai knew all about her Communist Party-run country’s regime of censorship. Every note and lyric she recorded had to be run past censors, as did her stage costumes; censors sat in on dress rehearsals and exercised the right to tell her what she couldn’t wear. In a nation with a tightly controlled public sphere, she pushed the limits: Moves like dying her hair pink, and once shaving one side of her head, made her seem outrageous enough that she was nicknamed “The Lady Gaga of Vietnam.”

And I think, Yes, I could be a voice for change

She also drew criticism for saying publicly she didn’t want children, and that she never wore a bra.

“And that’s called like a national scandal,” said Mai, in a recent interview in a North Side parklet a few blocks from her house. “Until now, people still write about this!”

Still, Mai didn’t truly run afoul of the authorities until 2016. That’s when a journalist she knew, who was also a dissident poet, suggested she nominate herself to run as an independent candidate for the National Assembly.

“And I think, ‘Yes, I could be a voice for change,'” she said. “When I nominated myself I just wanted people to know about their right to participate in politics. And I want to be a voice for change for freedom of expression, for artistic freedom.”

The Vietnamese constitution permits citizens to nominate themselves for office. But few take the risk. Like many born in the aftermath of the American War, Mai came from a poor family; her stardom had alleviated their poverty, but left her with a lot to lose. “My mother cry, and she said to me, ‘You want to kill me! You want to be dissident, fight with the government. They will make trouble with us,’” said Mai. But for her own part, she said, “I was not so scared at that time.”

She is extremely fierce

Mai’s run made international headlines, but the effort was short-lived: The government removed her from the ballot. Weeks later, however, she returned to the spotlight as one of a group of dissidents who met publicly with President Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam. Mai believed that Obama could help free Vietnamese political prisoners (such as her father, a musician, had once been), and she briefly went into hiding to avoid arrest before the meeting.

Obama disappointed her, she said. He failed to push for the release of prisoners, and when they met simply told her, “Be patient.” (She autopsies the meeting in her wrenching song “Just Be Patient.”)

Moreover, her newfound activism had serious repercussions. After she announced her candidacy, police took in her parents for questioning, and began raiding her concerts. When she came home from meeting Obama, “Police were waiting to arrest me,” she said, with a laugh. “That was the first time they detained me.” A five-hour interrogation followed.

Her concerts canceled, Mai found her career as she’d known it gone. She went underground, forming a new group straightforwardly called Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, with whom she performed in secret. But while her voice was suppressed at home, her international reputation only grew.

While her voice was suppressed at home, her international reputation only grew

In March 2018, returning home after touring Europe, she was detained at the airport, and questioned by police, this time for eight hours, she said. A few months later, the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Foundation gave her its Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She also drew statements of support from groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the writers’-advocacy group PEN.

“Mai Khoi is quite a force,” said Ashley Tucker, director of programs for the Artistic Freedom Initiative, a non profit based in New York City. “She is extremely fierce. She’s incredibly brave, and I think especially as a woman artist. It’s far less common to be a woman artist-activist.”

Tucker recalled Mai’s November 2017 protest of President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam, in which she held a sign reading “Piss on Trump” (a sarcastically punning play on a Vietnamese blessing wishing “peace”). “The way we’ve seen her protest Trump both in Vietnam and the United States is something truly awe-inspiring even though she’s truly putting herself in danger, especially there when she does it,” said Tucker.

But Mai’s time in Vietnam grew short. In 2019, she said, police threatened her after she sought the release of a friend who had been arrested. “And I think I should stay away from my country for a while,” she said.

She's really in the thick of a bunch of issues which are just the essential issues of our political moment

That November, she flew to New York City for the premiere of a documentary about her, Joe Piscatella’s “Mai Khoi & The Dissidents.” The Artistic Freedom Initiative then granted Mai a three-month artist residency through its Safe Haven Incubator for Musicians NYC program. After the pandemic struck, the residency – which led to a couple of virtual performances at Joe’s Pub, at New York’s famed Public Theater – was extended through 2020. She used the time to develop her show “Bad Activist.”

Mai ended up in Pittsburgh this fall. The Artist Protection Fund, a program of the International Free Expression Project (IFEE), contacted Pitt’s Global Studies Center about hosting her. As part of the Center's Scholars at Risk program, she is an Artist Protection Fund Fellow at Pitt in collaboration with City of Asylum and the IFEE.

While she’s not technically a scholar, “she’s really in the thick of a bunch of issues which as recent events underscore again, are just the essential issues of our political moment,” said Michael Goodhart, the political science professor who created the program.

Those issues include social justice in social media. In particular, Mai has accused Facebook of cooperating with the Vietnamese government to turn over information about activist accounts. She also said the social-media giant silences dissidents by allowing pro-government trolls to report that their posts violate “community standards.”

Mai said she has met several times with Facebook officials, both in person and via Zoom. Contacted for a response, Facebook did not supply a comment for this story by deadline.

Mai is living in Pittsburgh with her husband, Benjamin Swanton, a graduate student from Australia. A housing stipend helps pay for their residence in a building owned by City of Asylum, a nonprofit formed to shelter writers persecuted in their home countries. The stipend also funds a Pitt student who works as an assistant for Mai.

“I feel like I have the right community here in this neighborhood,” she said.

Aside from taking English classes – and experiencing her first snowstorm -- Mai has focused primarily on completing “Bad Activist.” The prerecorded show, directed by Cynthia Croot, is storytelling and songs performed by Mai, in a spangled jacket and lace-up boots. She plays acoustic guitar, with accompaniment by pianist Mark Micchelli.

The lyrics are in Vietnamese and English, with subtitles. One song, “Please, Sir,” sarcastically begs censors for a voice. “Let us give you money, so we have your permission to work / … Please, sir, will you let us sing? / Hang paintings on the wall? / Will you let us love?”

The show’s title refers to Mai’s concern that her activist tactics – which some fellow dissidents disagreed with -- might have done the cause of free expression more harm than good. “Maybe instead of building a movement, I just pissed people off,” she says in the show.

“Bad Activist” premieres Jan. 27 courtesy of Pitt’s Artfull Wednesdays series. It can be screened on the series’ YouTube channel.

Her residency in Pittsburgh lasts until September. Mai said she does not know what she will do after that, but that she is unlikely to return to Vietnam any time soon.

“It’s very dangerous for me to go back there now. So I don’t know when can I go back there,” she said.

Her activism has upended her life – the once-easy life of a pop star. But – interviewed the day after insurrectionists briefly took over the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. -- Mai said her goals include inspiring others to take up the work.

“I think I really want to call everyone [to] become activist,” she said. “Because right now, I can see not only Vietnam, many countries, and even the U.S. is having a big problem, and we should all be activists, to make the better world in the future.”

[Editor's note:  This article was amended Jan. 22 to clarify the nature of Mai's Fellowship in Pittsburgh.]