Vietnam: Popular music and censorship
The Vietnamese state operates a thorough system of music censorship, and the few songwriters who dare to directly challenge the authority of the Vietnamese Communist Party or its policies face serious consequences. Focusing on popular musicians, this article charts the history of music censorship in Vietnam from the mid twentieth century through to the current digital era.
By Barley Norton INSIGHT
These lyrics are from a song called ‘Who are you?’ (‘Anh là ai?’) by the Vietnamese singer-songwriter Việt Khang. The song is in the style of a mainstream pop-rock ballad and Việt Khang’s warm, yearning voice seems to implore us to sing along. Yet the lyrics are unusually bold: they speak out about the police’s treatment of protestors, who are portrayed as true patriots.
Việt Khang recorded ‘Who are you?’ after street demonstrations were suppressed by Vietnamese security forces. In the summer of 2011, a series of large-scale demonstrations took place on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in response to rising tensions between Vietnam and China about the long-disputed sovereignty of the Spratly Islands and territorial boundaries in the East China Sea. For several months the authorities allowed these demonstrations to take place, but in September 2011 the government decided that they had to stop, partly due to fears that the rallies were being used to ‘stir up dissent against communist rule’. To prevent further demonstrations, the police employed strong-arm tactics, using violence to arrest and disperse protestors. Since then, activists have continued to hold small-scale demonstrations and to write internet blogs to express their anger about the government’s foreign policy concerning the East China Sea. But large public protests are no longer tolerated.
‘Who are you?’ went viral on YouTube, and shortly after it was posted on the web, Việt Khang was detained by the police. He was formally arrested in December 2011 and was brought to trial on 30 October 2012 after spending 10 months in detention without trial.
Charged with conducting propaganda against the state under Article 88 of the penal code, Việt Khang was given a four-year prison sentence followed by two years of house arrest. A “Free Việt Khang Movement” was established by Vietnamese communities in the US, and a petition concerning human rights, which includes a reference to Việt Khang, was submitted to the US government. After serving four years in prison, Việt Khang was released in December 2015 and returned to his family in the city of Mỹ Tho in southern Vietnam.
Any activity that challenges the primacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party or opposes the one-party nation state is forbidden in Vietnamese law and the prosecution of Việt Khang highlights the draconian forms of punishment that musicians in Vietnam are likely to face if they are deemed to oppose the government’s policies. Given this situation, it is not surprising that few Vietnamese musicians have directly challenged the authority of the Party by writing songs with lyrics that overtly challenge the government’s policies or actions. Yet a few musicians still do. Alongside Việt Khang, another musician, Trần Vũ Anh Bình – a prominent member of the Patriotic Youth movement who was involved in producing some of Việt Khang’s songs – was also charged under Article 88. He was given a six-year prison sentence and is still languishing in prison.
The Vietnamese state operates a thorough system of music censorship. Officially, music must be approved in advance by censors connected to the Ministry of Culture before it is publicly performed, broadcast or released as a recording. The lyrics of songs are typically the main concern of censors, although the way in which music is performed and aesthetic factors are also important.
The censorship of music in Vietnam is not straightforward and cannot be reduced to the overt actions of state censors alone. Music censorship is mostly achieved through a complex system of prior restraint and restriction, and acts of suppression like the imprisonment of musicians and the overt banning of music are quite rare. Acts of censorship are rarely done in an open, transparent way and involve numerous organisations. Censors in the Ministry of Culture and the directors of the state-run radio and television companies, record labels and publishing houses are often not clear about what they should or should not permit. Party decrees on culture and the arts set the general tone, but specifics are often left vague and open to interpretation. Such ambiguity can lead to arbitrary decisions, which are usually not fully explained or justified, and this further encourages a climate of caution and restraint.
A lack of clarity over what is permissible not only spreads confusion, it also plays into the hands of self-censorship. Musicians are left to second-guess what might be censored and this encourages them to err on the side of caution. Such internalised censorship, which permeates the social realities and mind-set of musicians, is often hard to pinpoint, but is all too familiar to many of the Vietnamese musicians with whom I have discussed censorship.
The system of music censorship in Vietnam today is not a new phenomenon and is rooted in a particular historical context. In order to understand the current situation it is worth delving into this history.
Music, war and censorship 1954-1975
From 1954 to 1975 Vietnam was divided into North and South along the 17th parallel. In the northern, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) the government, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, quickly moved to establish ideological control over the arts and it was quite effective at using music for propaganda purposes.
In the DRV, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s cultural policy was that the arts should serve the ideological interests of the Party, the nation, the socialist revolution and the fight for the unification of the country. Musical activities were tightly coordinated by the state and an extensive network of state-run music troupes and schools was established. Music was considered by the Party to be an ideological weapon to propagate the new socialist society.
In the 1950s, some leading intellectuals, including the musician Văn Cao who composed Vietnam’s national anthem, argued for more intellectual freedom and criticised the restrictions that were being placed on artists. By the early 1960s, however, the Party quashed this dissent and managed to exert a high level of control over cultural expression.
As the Vietnamese-American war escalated in the mid-1960s, considerable efforts were made to harness music to support the war effort. In response to the bombing raids in the North by American planes, which began with the ‘Flaming Dart’ and ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaigns in 1965, a movement known as Song Drowns Out the Sound of Bombs (Tiếng hát át tiếng bom) was established. Its aim was to use the power of song to boost the morale and resolve of the troops and the general populace.
Musicians in the ‘Song Drowns Out the Sound of Bombs’ (‘Tiếng hát át tiếng bom’) movement performing on the battlefield. Source: unknown
Music that did not promote socialist ideals, such as foreign love songs and pre-war Vietnamese music, was derided as “yellow music” (nhạc vàng) and was banned. Yet some musicians in the DRV like the singer Phan Thắng Toán, known as “Hairy Toán”, dared to perform it. In the mid-1960s, Hairy Toán performed yellow music at weddings and parties, but in 1968 he was arrested along with other 6 other band members. When the band members were eventually put on trial in 1971, they were accused of “disseminating depraved imperialist culture and counter-revolutionary propaganda” and were sentenced to long jail sentences. Even though these musicians claimed they did not have a political agenda and were only motivated by their love for yellow music, their imprisonment illustrates the extent to which Party leaders were determined to crack down on musical activity which they thought would undermine people’s commitment to socialism and their resolve for war. The long sentence meted out to Hairy Toán, who was not released until 1980, served as a warning to other musicians: toe the Party line or be incarcerated.
Compared with the DRV, popular music in the American-backed Republic of Vietnam (RVN) was less tightly controlled. Popular songwriters in South Vietnam had greater scope to experiment with different musical styles and to express diverse feelings about the war. While patriotic and anti-communist songs that expressed support for the RVN government and army were encouraged, the regime was unable to silence dissent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, Vietnam’s most famous singer-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn (b.1939-d.2001) wrote sentimental anti-war songs about the pain and suffering of war, about the desire for peace, and about lost love and human fate.
On 30 January 1968, the army of the northern Democratic of Vietnam (DRV) and the guerrilla forces of National Liberation Front (NLF) launched the Tet Offensive, which consisted of a series of co-ordinated attacks against targets across the RVN. As part of the Tet Offensive, the old imperial city of Hue was attacked and held by communist forces for nearly a month before South Vietnamese and American troops regained control of the city. In the fierce fighting in Hue, thousands of civilians, as well as troops, were massacred and the city itself was reduced to ruins.
Trịnh Công Sơn was in his hometown of Hue during the Tet Offensive and he witnessed the devastation first-hand. In direct response to the horrific loss of life, Trịnh Công Sơn wrote several songs including ‘Singing on the corpses’ (‘Hát trên những xác người’), which conveyed a humanist and pacifist stance. The lyrics of ‘Singing on the corpses’, sung by Khánh Ly, describe corpses strewn around after the battle and the confused reaction of bereaved women. The final lines are as follows:
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Trịnh Công Sơn performed regularly with the female singer Khánh Ly at the Quán Văn club in Saigon and at other venues across South Vietnam. In addition to live performances, Trịnh Công Sơn’s songs became hugely popular as a result of Khánh Ly’s recordings and through the printing of songbooks, which encouraged others to learn his songs.
Trịnh Công Sơn and Khánh Ly. Source: unknown
As Trịnh Công Sơn’s fame grew, the RVN regime became concerned about the impact of the “Trịnh Công Sơn phenomenon” and in 1969 a decree was issued banning the circulation of his songs. However, the ban proved ineffective as Khánh Ly’s recordings were still widely circulated and Trịnh Công Sơn moved from one printing press to another to ensure that he could still self-publish his songbooks.
Trịnh Công Sơn did not associate himself with a particular musical movement or political faction. Other songwriters in South Vietnam like Tôn Thất Lập, Trần Long Ẩn and Miên Đức Thắng, however, were active in the anti-war movement called ‘Sing for our compatriots to hear’ (‘Hát cho đồng bào tôi nghe’). This student-led movement held street demonstrations, public debates and performance events at university campuses, which voiced opposition to the RVN regime and the American military presence.
When I interviewed Tôn Thất Lập, the recognised leader of the Sing for our compatriots to hear movement, in 2012, he estimated that about 10,000 people participated in the movement’s first event in 1968 just before the Tet Offensive. At the protest Tôn Thất Lập told me that his song ‘Sing for my people to hear’ (‘Hát cho dân tôi nghe’) was sung in unison by a chorus of over 200 students. The song begins with the words:
Tôn Thất Lập in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. Photo by Barley Norton
The “Sing for our compatriots to hear” movement grew as more people became disillusioned with the war, especially after the devastation caused by the Tet Offensive. At a street protest held in September 1970, Tôn Thất Lập said the police fired flares from helicopters, threw tear gas grenades to disperse the crowd, and arrested him along with fellow students. According to Tôn Thất Lập the students were released a few days later after going on a hunger strike, but while in prison they continued to sing in defiance. In our interview, Tôn Thất Lập recalled that, during the time when he was imprisoned, the head of the police bureau called him in to his office and said angrily, “You can do whatever you want, but I forbid singing!”. In Tôn Thất Lập’s view the police chief had reprimanded him in this way because he was “afraid of the power of song”. Despite suppressing demonstrations, the authorities were unable to stem the wave of anti-war protests and they continued until the end of the war.
Music censorship in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after 1975
On 30 April 1975, the North Vietnamese army took Saigon, and this marked the end of the Vietnamese-American war. With official reunification in 1976, the country was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Music censorship in the years after reunification was extremely severe. As part of the effort to mould the more commercially oriented culture of the south into the form of the socialist north, the Vietnamese Communist Party implemented “purification” campaigns that sought to eradicate the music culture of the former RVN. Communist cadres pilloried the popular music that had thrived in South Vietnam as neo-colonial poison. The state took control of the distribution and broadcasting of music, and “unhealthy” records, tapes and songbooks were systematically collected, confiscated and destroyed.
Many popular musicians from South Vietnam fled the country and those that remained were likely to be sent to “re-education” camps. In place of the “reactionary” culture of the former RVN regime, musicians were encouraged to compose edifying political songs with nationalist, revolutionary and socialist themes. This situation changed little until after 1986, when reforms began to be implemented.
Music and the renovation policy
The introduction of the Renovation policy, known as đổi mới, in 1986 was primarily aimed at introducing reforms to invigorate the failing post-war economy, but it also signalled a shift toward greater creative freedom in the arts.
The songwriter Trần Tiến was one of the first musicians to take advantage of the shift in cultural policy. In 1987, he formed the rock band Black and White (Đên Trắng) and in November that year the band performed their first concerts in Ho Chi Minh City. In an interview I conducted with Trần Tiến in 2011, he said the atmosphere at the concerts was akin to a street demonstration and he described how many of the audience were moved to tears when they heard his songs. After the second concert the authorities in Ho Chi Minh City acted: they accused Trần Tiến of “inciting a riot” and arrested him. Although Trần Tiến was detained for just one night, Black and White was prevented from performing any more concerts. According to the authorities, the band’s songs had caused “public discontent” because of their “bad content”.
One of Trần Tiến’s songs that caused much controversy was ‘Naked ’87’ (‘Trần Trụi ’87’). The song begins with the following lyrics:
‘Naked ’87’ is a passionate rock ballad that speaks out against the use of music as Party propaganda. The lyrics challenge the system of censorship, which only permitted songs that “praised” the new society and ignored the severe hardships many were suffering in the post-war period. In a recording of the song, which is available on the internet, Trần Tiến’s vocal delivery is full of heartfelt anguish and seems to encapsulate the disillusionment that many people felt during the post-war economic depression. The reflections in the song lyrics on the impoverished position of those who gave so much for the war – including the ‘mothers’ whose sons fought in the war – are given added weight by the fact that Trần Tiến is himself a war veteran. In the song, the exodus of Vietnamese refugees to the US after 1975 and the dire circumstances of Vietnamese working in the Soviet Union are exposed as a sign of lost pride.
In the spirit of the new cultural freedoms promised by the Renovation policy, in “Naked ’87”, Trần Tiến offers a candid view of life in post-war Vietnam that is far removed from Party rhetoric. Trần Tiến told me his aim was to truthfully reflect people’s realities and sentiments, yet the authorities clearly thought he had gone too far. Despite the cultural liberalisation of the Renovation policy, the prohibition of Trần Tiến’s songs in the late 1980s made clear that the freedom of expression for musicians was still circumscribed.
As Vietnam introduced further market reforms during the 1990s, the government became increasingly concerned about declining morale standards, especially among the younger generation. Anxiety about morality led the government to initiate a campaign against “social evils” in the mid and late 1990s. Karaoke bars, which had become places where prostitution was commonplace, were a prominent target of the “social evils” campaign, and scrutiny of pop song lyrics also intensified.
In a high profile case, an album called ‘Solar Eclipse’ (Nhật Thực) featuring the famous pop diva Trần Thu Hà, encountered problems with the censors in 2001 because some of the lyrics were deemed to include “vulgar” sexual references. All the songs on the album, which were composed by male musician Ngọc Đại, use poems by the young female writer, Vi Thùy Linh. Lyrics thought to be too risqué included: “My body goes crazy when it is held in your arms” and “Suddenly in front of me, the skirt of a nun flew up”. While such lines may seem very mild, they were criticised for not conforming to Vietnamese cultural values and were “corrected” by the censors. When I discussed the censorship of Solar Eclipse with the composer Ngọc Đại in 2011, he expressed his view that the corrected lyrics were “coarse” compared with the original lines. Yet he said that he had no choice but to comply with the censors’ demands otherwise the album would not have been approved. After several months of delay and modifications to the titles of songs as well as lyrics, the album was officially authorised for release. However, only 7 of the 13 songs that were performed during the live concert tour were permitted on the album. Despite the censorship of the album, the Vietnamese press hailed Solar Eclipse as a significant landmark in the development of popular music and the album sold tens of thousands of copies, a large number in the Vietnamese context.
Ngọc Đại performing in the Hanoi Opera House in 2009. Source: unknown
Since ‘Solar Eclipse’, Ngọc Đại has continued to push boundaries and court controversy. In 2010, I made a film called ‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’, which focused on Ngọc Đại and his band Đại Lâm Linh. The film includes a scene in which a panel of censors criticize Đại Lâm Linh’s concert performance. Although Đại Lâm Linh’s recorded album was not censored, the panel suggested that Ngọc Đại should “correct” and “improve” his songs so that there was “less noise and screaming”. As reported by artsfreedom.org, Ngọc Đại got into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities again in 2013 when he unofficially self-released and sold his solo album ‘Thằng Mõ 1’.
Vietnamese rap, the Internet and censorship
The rise of the internet in Vietnam since the late 1990s has greatly increased access to popular music from around the world. Although Vietnam is one of the most restricted countries in the world in terms of internet access and is listed as an ‘internet enemy’ by Reporters Without Borders, the censors have targeted most of their efforts on contentious political and religious content and they have found it hard to restrict the circulation of music.
Exposure to a vast array of music on the internet has stimulated many young Vietnamese musicians to experiment with styles of popular music like metal and rap. The “underground” rap scene in Vietnam is one of the most vibrant areas of musical activity that has proliferated in cyberspace. Most underground rap would not pass the censors because of its explicit lyrics, but it is widely circulated on social media, local internet forums and international sites like YouTube.
Underground rap addresses a diverse range of issues that concern young Vietnamese, but most rap does not deal directly with politics. One notable exception is the track by the rapper Nah called “Địt Mẹ Cộng Sản”, or “ĐMCS” for short, which translates as “Fuck Communism”. Nah, whose real name is Nguyễn Vũ Sơn (b.1991), grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, where he gained a reputation for conscious rap that commented on social issues.
Rapper Nah. Source: Oogeewoogee.com
In 2013, he went to the US to study and, while there, he released ‘ĐMCS’ (‘Địt Mẹ Cộng Sản’) on YouTube in 2015.
The translation of the rap chorus is as follows:
Shortly after being posted on the internet, ‘ĐMCS’ went viral and it has stimulated considerable media interest, especially outside of Vietnam. It is unclear what the response of the authorities will be if and when Nah returns to Vietnam.
The circulation of uncensored rap tracks on the internet has enabled young Vietnamese to express themselves, at least to their peers, in ways that are far removed from anything that is permitted in the official media. This would seem to be indicative of the increasing inability of the state to control cultural expression in the way it has done in the past.
The potential of the internet for bypassing state censorship has often been noted, but it is important to point out limitations. In Vietnam, censorship of the web is widespread and without official permission to broadcast on state-run media, to perform publicly and to release recordings, it is hard for musicians to reach a large audience.
Technological change and access to the internet has challenged, to some extent, the state’s ability to control musical expression. Yet the Party is still quick to punish musicians who are seen as a political threat, as demonstrated by the imprisonment of Việt Khang discussed at the start of this article. As in the past, songwriters in contemporary Vietnam who dare to write lyrics that directly challenge the authority of the Party or its policies face extremely serious consequences.
Barley Norton is a Reader in the Music Department at Goldsmiths, University of London and is currently serving as Chair of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology. His publications include the book ‘Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam’, the co-edited volume ‘Music and Protest in 1968’, and the film ‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’. His writing on music censorship includes the chapter ‘Music and censorship in Vietnam since 1954’ in the Oxford Handbook of Music Censorship.
Translation of all lyrics were made by the author, except for the song ‘Địt Mẹ Cộng Sản’.
Campaign for the release of Hoang Nhat Thong
Hoang Nhat Thong (real name: Tran Vu Anh Binh) was sentenced to a six-year prison sentence in October 2012 and a further two-year house arrest sentence upon release for “anti-state propaganda”, related to his production of songs by Viet Khang (real name: Vo Minh Tri) that criticised the country’s violent response to anti-China peaceful protests, as well as his own songs expressing concerns over a lack of social justice in Vietnam and the dictatorship of the government.
Binh founded the Patriotic Youth movement in April 2011 to advocate for democracy and religious freedom, as well as Vietnamese sovereignty over China’s influence. He also ran a blog where he posted songs and articles advocating peaceful protest.
Binh was arrested in September 2011, alongside Khang and another movement member, and was held for 13 months in pre-trial detention before his sentencing, even though Vietnamese law limits such detention to a maximum of four months. Binh remains in prison today. Khang, who was sentenced to four years in prison and two years of house arrest was released and returned to his family in December 2015.
Police have harassed Binh’s family, threatening that his treatment will grow harsher if they talk about his case to foreign media, yet they, along with many supporters, continue to advocate for his release.
» Oxford Handbooks:
‘Music and censorship in Vietnam since 1954’
» Documentary Educational Resources:
‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’
» University of Illinois Press:
‘Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam’
» Cambridge University Press:
‘Music and Protest in 1968’
‘Who are you?’ (‘Anh là ai?’) by the Vietnamese singer-songwriter Việt Khang
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in September 2016.