Vietnamese rapper Wowy stands under a spotlight in a ruffled white, Gumby-shaped hooded suit, surrounded by traditional patterns painted in a circle. He drops lyrics about conquering his past and finding serenity over an electro pop beat and a lofty piano melody. A soaring chorus sung by Cải lương opera star Nguyễn Thị Bạch Tuyết catches flight, and the 77 year old is rendered with vibrating digital lines in lidar style. Working alongside the esteemed singer is an achievement that Wowy relishes. “It’s crazy I’m able to work with someone who’s been through so much,” he gushes. “I’ve been trying to work with a cải lương singer for several years now, so this is really special.”
It’s been a long road to get to this point for Wowy, who grew up in a poor section of Saigon. “As a kid, it was like being a soldier. I lived in the hood. I was poor. Had nothing to eat. There was gangsters and people selling drugs. It was chaos,” the 34 year old says, before pausing and reflecting. Then he adds, “It didn’t seem like it back then, but when I look back at it now, I realize it was chaos.” But he learned English in school and taught himself more in his spare time because he was an avid reader, even as a kid.
Before he got into rap, graffiti caught his attention, and he started painting at around 18. “Kids like us had a gang and started bombing. My name was everywhere,” he smiles. ” I was very young and didn’t care about shit.” It got him into trouble since graffiti was viewed as anti-government and the police arrested him a few times. “I didn’t have money to buy food in school, how could I afford paint?” he says, which added to the difficulties. “It was too many things to handle. So I’d just draw on paper. And I’d write lyrics at the same time. I just kept doing that.”
The rap music that piqued Wowy’s interest was Viet-American artists like Thai Viet G and Khanh Nho, which his sister had on a burnt CD since it was illegal to sell in stores. “I was shocked by the rhythm and language. It was very different from pop music,” he says. At the time, Eminem was very popular in Vietnam, but since it was in English, no one cared about what he was saying. These guys were rapping in Vietnamese, though. “A couple of the songs were gangsta rap and political which is very rare here. So as a kid of course we were really interested in it. And we wanted to do it. Monkey see, monkey do.”
Eventually, Wowy met some wealthier kids who had production gear and started recording with them under the name South Gang. But his lyrics got him in trouble with the police again. “I tried to avoid problems and found other problems,” he laughs. “We got blacklisted by the government. The politics are really sensitive. But we were just kids and would see stuff in the news and make songs about it.” They got picked up and brought in to speak to the authorities, where they were told to explain their motives. He says it scared him enough to switch up his style and instead focus on things like how kids can improve their lives.
Wowy was uploading music to the forums that Viet rap gravitated around at the time and doing performances wherever he could, hustling with music to survive. His lyrics stood out. “Most of the songs were about love back then, and we were making songs about motorbikes, working for money, and doing things our own way.” But the rest of South Gang moved to the US. “I was left here because I’m from the ghetto. It was very lonely. I was very, very alone. But I just survived.” He persisted and eventually found other young guys with studios to work with and his name kept growing. When he dropped “Khu Tao Song” in 2012, it became what is likely the first track to blow up on YouTube in Vietnam. “They just came to my neighborhood and filmed with no script, we probably spent like $25 total! We were still watching music videos on television back then. So when they saw it on YouTube they were surprised, like, ‘It’s so raw, so gangster.’ It made my name.” From that point on, directors from all over started approaching him to make videos. And he eventually learned to produce his own clips.
He also starred in the festival-touring film Rom, in addition to making music for the soundtrack. But the movie was never approved by the government and so it’s still unavailable within their borders despite its international recognition. “I wrote a letter to the government saying we’re not political. We want to make Vietnam better, we don’t want to do it harm,” he says. “But the internet got the letter first. It became a famous case.” To this day, there’s no release date for it in Vietnam.
In the past few years, rap in Vietnam has turned into a cultural force, largely due to the spread of the internet and reality TV shows, and Wowy credits television for putting him onto a path to true celebrity. In 2020, he was invited to be a mentor to De Choat on the Rap Viet competition show, who went on to become winner of the season. “Before that, I was on TV doing performances and interviews. Sometimes I was on the news,” he says. But now he’s reached a new level of stardom. He thinks the television shows have been good for rap, enlightening older generations and providing a financially sustainable path for artists. It’s certainly benefited him. “To go from a street kid who doesn’t know shit to meeting billionaires. It opened the door for me to understand a lot of things. From the hood to here. I’m still walking.”