"I used to be a pop star," Mai Khoi says in her presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum this September. "I had a lot of fans, shows and money."
Khoi, known as the Lady Gaga of Vietnam, traded in the trappings of fame to push for human rights and creative expression in her home country. It's a decision that's gotten her effectively banned from singing in the authoritarian country — and one she doesn't regret.
"I was living in a good life," says the 34-year-old, "but it wasn't enough for me."
The pop star is petite and her English is lilting, as though her voice has been pressed upon a sinusoidal curve. Her words feel carefully plucked and laid down, one and then the next, in an earnest effort to communicate herself clearly, even in a tongue in which she has to search for words deliberately. (English is not Khoi's first language. Her quotes are transcribed here in the way she speaks.)
Two years ago, Khoi was a successful musician with multiple albums who'd won one of her country's biggest music awards. Still, she grew bored of the Vietnamese pop industry thanks to the country's restrictive censorship system. "I couldn't feel free," she says.
Vietnam is a communist, single-party state that forbids any challenge to its leadership and where rights such as freedom of speech and religion are severely restricted. Its human rights record is dire, according to non-profit Human Rights Watch, and some say it is "contending for the title of most repressive Asian government."
She stopped spending time with singers and musicians who she said censored themselves and spent time instead with "dissident artists who were doing some interesting things."
Soon, she became inspired to take political action. In 2016, in an effort to highlight the limits of political expression, Khoi attempted (unsuccessfully) to register herself for a parliament seat. "I was rejected from the ballot unfairly and [without any] transparency because Vietnam is a one-party state that does not allow for political opposition," says Khoi.
This move was the start of Khoi's problems with the government. Three weeks after submitting her nomination to the National Assembly, Khoi's music show was raided, she says, and a notice was put into a Vietnamese "police magazine " with the intention "to let people know that I am effectively banned from singing in public. So I couldn't sing in public in my country."
To be clear, Khoi is "effectively" banned because the Vietnamese government can not specifically ban her from performing, she explains. However, publishing the notice had a chilling effect. "People don't dare to invite me to sing," she says.
Since Vietnam's media is state run, Khoi was also no longer invited to appear on TV or in the press, Khoi explains to CNBC Make It.
Khoi in 2010. Photo courtesy: Mai Khoi.
Also that year, Khoi attended a public protest after toxic industrial waste was released from a steel plant called Formosa Plastic contaminating waters and killing fish. She said several thousand peaceful protestors took to the streets and were beaten bloody by the police — including women and children, Khoi tells CNBC Make It.
"And what I've seen in that protest," she says, "that's the most strong feeling, the most strong emotion I receive and it make me sing out loud."
By May 2016, President Barack Obama visited Vietnam and Khoi was among those who met with him. She had made a video inviting Obama to meet with her ahead of his visit. "You know, the video went viral," Khoi says in her presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
A friend with a relative who worked in the Vietnamese government informed Khoi that she would not be able to attend the meeting with Obama because the state police had her under 24-7 surveillance.
She went into hiding and found her way into the meeting. "I could come to the meeting," she says. "I made it." Khoi delivers this dramatic piece of her story softly to the Oslo Freedom Forum audience and with a proud smile. She is rewarded with loud clapping.
In his Vietnam visit, Obama acknowledged the work of popular artists to speak out on behalf of freedom of speech and expression. In a video statement at the time, while seated next to Khoi, he said: "It is very hard to prosper in this modern economy if you haven't fully unleashed the potential of your people and your people's potential in part derives from their ability to express themselves and express new ideas, to try to right wrongs that are taking place in the society."
Obama added, "And so it is my hope that increasingly the Vietnamese government seeing the enormous strides the country is making has more confidence that its people want to work together but also want to be able to assemble and participate in the society."
Obama also shared with Khoi some important advice about change, saying that difficult change must come slowly, like how water shapes a rock, Khoi tells CNBC Make It.
One challenge Khoi faced in getting Vietnamese people on board with her mission was that people in her country don't understand what freedom of expression means or why it is important.
To show them what was possible, she created a sign to protest President Donald Trump who came to Vietnam but did not discuss human rights. The message on the sign: "Piss on you Trump."
"The protest sparked a healthy debate about freedom of expression in Vietnam," Khoi says to The Economist. It also underscored the difficulties ahead for the Vietnamese in embracing new rights.
"What surprised me most was the extent to which people in Vietnam have authoritarian ways of thinking," Khoi says to The Economist.
Khoi's life has changed dramatically since becoming an activist. After returning from a tour in Europe last March, she was detained in the Hanoi airport for eight hours.
The detainment saddened Khoi. She felt ill thinking of the system that would allow her to be detained. It was a reminder that the people of Vietnam "are so weak we can't do anything to fight for our right," she tells CNBC Make It.
Since becoming a focal point of the authoritarian regime in Vietnam, Khoi has not been able to earn a living, she says. Fans send her money, in part, through a "donate " page on her personal website to help her meet basic needs and support her activism.
Those fans have also changed as she's become more politically active. She says many Vietnamese are too fearful to support a dissident.
But she has new fans, she says, people with open minds and passionate hearts. "They can see what happened in Vietnam and they understand why I'm standing up for human rights," she says.
Currently, Khoi is working on a graphic novel and video art to raise awareness for the lack of human rights in Vietnam. She's also taking on yet another behemoth: Facebook.
Facebook had an essential role in fueling expression in Vietnam and the service helped her spread the word about her nomination to the National Assembly and even to her meeting with Barack Obama. However, she says in an op-ed for the Washington Post, the site has no independent oversight in Vietnam leading to locked accounts, silenced journalists and and paid accounts sowing division.
Khoi demands change: "Facebook has been a huge force for freedom in Vietnam, but this positive effect is now being reversed as the social media platform is delivered to authoritarianism. I hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable for this," she writes.
Facebook had not yet responded to an email sent Thursday by CNBC Make It seeking response to the letter from Khoi when this story was published.
Khoi says she doesn't think of herself as an activist. In her mind, she's an artist working to help people act and think in new ways.
"For me, it's about opening new ways of thinking and acting," Khoi says to The Economist, "making the unthinkable thinkable and the unspeakable speakable."
She tells Make It later, by email, "What I'm doing now is sharing my stories, my experiences, my music. I'm still an artist who inspires people to think and act in the new way."
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