Indie, rap music on song, for how long?

By Long Nguyen   December 15, 2020 | 09:03 pm PT
2020 has seen indie and rap artists embed themselves in Vietnam’s music scene, but what happens when they go mainstream is anyone’s guess.

When global streaming platform Spotify released its "Wrapped 2020," listing the year’s most-streamed artists and tracks in Vietnam and other countries, rapper Den Vau emerged the most streamed Vietnamese artist for a second consecutive year.

The most streamed song in the country was "Mascara" by Chillies, a five-member Vietnamese indie band debuting in 2018. The list of five most-streamed songs in Vietnam also included "Loi Nho" (Small Alley) by Den Vau, whose songs, according to Spotify, has been listened to for more than two million hours by his fans in 2020.

The streaming giant’s listing shows clearly that the popularity of indie and rap music has been rising in Vietnam, finding a special resonance amid 2020’s ordeals.

Chilles on the cover for their Cu Chill Thoi (Just Chill) single in July, 2020. Photo courtesy of Chilles.

Chilles on the cover for their "Cu Chill Thoi" (Just Chill) single in July, 2020. Photo courtesy of Chilles.

Indie, or independent music that is produced independently of record labels and their marketing strategies, has brought new sounds to Vietnamese contemporary music scene for several years now, with many prominent artists like Ngot band, Ca Hoi Hoang, Trang, Vu, and Chillies.

In 2020, while some artists took a break amid the pandemic, indie and rap singers introduced new songs and videos, achieving millions of views and hearings on many platforms.

Chillies, a rising star, released four songs this year, all of them hits. One of their biggest hits is "Co Em Ben Doi Bong Vui (I Am Happier With You), a gentle pop song with ballad rhythm that has been listened to nearly four million times on Spotify and garnered 10 million views on YouTube after it was released in February.

Their latest hit, "Qua Khung Cua So" (Through The Window) was released in November with a cinematic music video, attracting many fans.

This year also saw some new faces grab attention. Nguyen Bao Tung, who comes from a design and architecture background, brought out a new album called "26: Individualism" in which he sang "Con De Men Hat Vao He" (Crickets Sing In The Summer) with Trang, another prominent indie singer.

With more than 135,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, Trang’s has brought a signature feminine approach to songwriting and music composing.

International attention

The popularity of indie artists in the country has caught the attention of international audiences, too. In June, the French Institute in Hanoi (L’Espace) invited local indie artists like Mac Mai Suong, Vu Thanh Van, HUB and Ngot bands to perform at its "Fete De La Musique" (Music Festival), which was livestreamed to music lovers worldwide.

"We want to bring a free and open stage for young Vietnamese artists. Through the Internet, we hope to take them closer to both domestic and international audiences," said Thierry Vergon, L’Espace director.

Rap music has also flourished this year, with a highlight event being two TV competitions, "Rap Viet" and "King Of Rap," that reached millions nationwide.

On YouTube, videos of rap performances from the shows got millions of hits and thousands of comments. On November 14, the finale of Rap Viet, a TV reality show meant to discover talented rappers, attracted more than 1.2 million viewers, a record number for an entertainment show.

Rap songs from these shows also hit music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, garnering top positions in many charts. The "Rap Viet" channel has more than 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, with many songs listened to more than a million times each.

One of the most successful rap artists in 2020 is Binz, a judge at "Rap Viet" whose hit "Bigcitiboi" has raked in over 67 million YouTube views and entered the video-sharing site’s Top Trending list in several countries within 12 hours of its July premiere.

"You turn on your TV, go to YouTube or Facebook, you will see rap everywhere," Binz commented.

A different music

Indie and rap music, which have emerged from the underground music scene where artists make their own songs without pressure from record labels, have offered the Vietnamese audience new artists and songs in diverse genres and styles.

"While many stars and mainstream singers offer similar things, many indie artists create a difference," said senior musician Quoc Trung.

Trung said domestic audiences want to try "new dishes" with more flavors, instead of having those that are cooked with the old recipes by mainstream artists.

Many music critics agree that indie and rap artists' independence from the underground has allowed them to compose with more creativity as they do so without chasing money or public recognition. This has given their music a refreshing feel and made an artist’s personal touch stand out.

However this "free" creation of music does not guarantee kudos from the audience by itself.

Many rap artists say a lot of effort has to be made if they want to win over their fans. This has seen many of them combine rap with other kinds of music and make the lyrics gentler, without the darkness traditionally associated with the genre.

Binz, nicknamed the "Poet of Vietnamese rap," confirmed this, saying many rappers now research and learn more Vietnamese to make their music gentler.

Another indispensable factor in the success of underground artists is the flourishing of streaming platforms that allow singers to reach out to millions of listeners without paying a lot of money needed for making physical albums and advertisement.

A 2019 report from the U.K. research firm, We Are Social, revealed that Vietnamese netizens spend an average of one hour and 11 minutes to listen to music on the internet every day.

With Soundcloud, Spotify (which has around 286 million active users globally) and the population’s increasing obsession with YouTube, indie and rap artists are thriving.

Many singers and rappers have chosen these platforms to premiere their new products, attracting millions of listeners and viewers.

As 2020 draws to a close, many of them are still working hard to release their works to a wide audience.

Hanoi-based duo Limebócx has combined hip hop with Vietnamese traditional music. Kaang recently released her EP "Den Va Di - Nhung Manh Ghep" (Come And Go - Pieces), Vu premiered his new MV, "Di Qua Mua Co Don" (Walking Through Lonely Season), and Trang and Binz have revealed that their new songs will be released soon.

A mainstream challenge

Challenges are inevitable. Musician Duong Thu, who has supported some local indie artists, said they may lose their true colors and value when they become mainstream artists and gain many related benefits.

"Such worries are reasonable because indie artists now can deliver fat benefits that many people want to exploit," Thu said.

Vietnamese rappers say they know they have a lot to do to keep their music in the hearts of people and maintain the rise of a new talented generation, especially when modern recording technology is helping artists a lot.

But fads die out, and only something with genuine artistic value will survive over time, said rapper Young Uno.

Success will not come if these artists do not pursue their music passion with professionalism and commitment, said Nguyen Viet Thanh, vocalist of indie band "Ca Hoi Hoang" (Wild Salmon).

He said: "We have created music with endless efforts. To take our music to more audiences, we know we have to walk a long road and try many genres."

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