Ten years ago, Wowy Nguyen began making music with nothing but a microphone and a laptop. Now a fixture on the Vietnamese rap circuit, the eccentric 28-year-old has collaborated with scores of local and international artists, released four albums and begun to branch out into other art forms. Wowy talks breaking into the local music industry, perseverance and the poetry of rap. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Many Vietnamese rappers have an interesting introduction to hip-hop. How did you first discover rap music?
When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a year older than me, she gave me a CD by this Vietnamese guy in the US. The song was ‘Vietnamese Gang’ by Khanh Nho and Thai Viet G. That was the first Vietnamese rap song [I ever heard]. I thought: “Wow. It’s like he’s reading a poem.”

Rap and poetry are really alike: the structure, the wording, the wordplay is all very similar. We’ve had this kind of writing for a long time with poets like Ho Xuan Huong and Nguyen Du, all these poets whose work has been read over the years and some of it has been set to music or made into songs. I saw the similarities and I thought: “Everything this guy is saying in the song is really cool.” Everything that I listened to after that, I had this idea: “I really like this; I really want to do this.”

How did you start making your own music?
In the very beginning, it was all about practice, practice, practice. Just like little kids practice writing the alphabet. At first, their letters aren’t very good so they have to write them again and again and again until they can do it well enough to make a full sentence.

Back then, I didn’t have any albums. I only had one song on a laptop. I went online and learned how to record sound. I bought headphones and a microphone and just started testing out beats. I just started talking normally and eventually I realised I could rap over a beat.

One night, I went out with my friends and when I got home, I sat down and recorded my first full song. It was called ‘Saturday Night’. I retold everything that had just happened 30, 45 minutes ago. You can’t find it online now because I borrowed that laptop from someone else, so all the files on it are gone.

Is it hard to break into the music industry in Vietnam?
It’s not hard [to break into the industry]. The most important thing is to keep doing what you’re doing, keep learning and keep practicing to make your sound better and better. If you aren’t ready yet then one day you will be. Vietnam is a small country but it’s got a lot of people, and everyone needs something new. They watch you every day, so you have to keep working all the time. Everything that you create like this, [with hard work], if you keep at it then you can break into the music industry in Vietnam. It’s only a matter of time.

Your songs have a pretty broad range, from relationships and Saigon life in ‘Hai The Gioi’ to giving thanks in ‘Buddha’ to partying in ‘Dem Tan’. What inspires you to rap?

The thing that inspires me is the world around me. I see something through my own eyes and it has an effect on me. I keep that feeling and that image in my head. When an artist draws a picture, he adds colour and recreates the scene in his own way. For me, it’s the same: I’ll see something happen, I’ll take a scene and then I’ll draw it again and add my own artistic interpretation. I want people to be able to see what my perspective and my feelings were at that time. I want people to be able to see everything that I see because, my God, this life is so beautiful! There are so many things that make you want to create a poem or a picture or a song.

You just put out your fourth album, Lao Dai (Godfather), in April. Can you tell us more about it?
For this album, I constructed a character called Lao Dai, who represents the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. I developed Lao Dai according to those five principles, with one element for each song. For example, wood is someone who’s gentle and very giving: that’s the song ‘Buddha’. ‘Danh No Di’ (‘Fight Him’) is fire. ‘Buoc Toi’ (‘Step Up’) is earth, metal is ‘Anh Em’ (‘Brothers’) and water is ‘Do Tao Lam’ (‘Why I Do’). After those five virtues is the song ‘Loi Ong Noi’ (‘The Words God Said’), which is about the advice of Lao Dai, an older person looking back on his life.

You’re also recording your fifth album, which is due for release at the end of this year. What is the forthcoming album about?
This one will be about the relationship between the sun and the moon: the two want to meet but never can. Now I’m in the studio checking the recordings because this album will be a collaboration of music and dance and other performance arts so there’s a lot to do. Everything is being recorded now and put together so that it’ll be out at the end of the year.

Any other words of wisdom you’d like to share?
There are many people who don’t realise their own strength, who don’t realise what they are capable of. They feel discouraged and small but if anyone can see the words that I’m saying, you can do anything you want. All the challenges that happen are only there to help you. When something difficult cuts you down, keep moving towards the thing you want. Those difficulties are just stumbling blocks on the road to success. Don’t be discouraged: keep doing what you’re doing.