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Interview with champion of musical free expression, Mai Khôi

Mai Khôi is an award winning artist, musician and activist. She was forced to flee her home in Vietnam because she used her platform as a pop star to speak up for women's, LGBTQ+ and free expression rights.

To celebrate musical free expression, IFEP had a conversation with Khôi about her work and the state of musical free expression today.


IFEP: I would love to know a little about your creative process,how do activism and music go Together in your work?

MAI KHÔI: My creative process is always changing. Sometimes I write a poem first and then turn the poem into a song by adding melodies and rhythm. Sometimes, I have a story in my head, I grab my guitar, sing the story out loud with chords and rhythm, and then write the song down. Recently, I have been working with a songwriting partner who is a very talented pianist and composer. Sometimes he writes the music and I write lyrics to his music, or sometimes we improvise and combine the best parts of the improvisation to make a song. Activism always creates emotion and motivation for my songs.

IFEP: You have had to make sacrifices, like leaving Vietnam for your art and your activism, what makes it worth it?

MAI KHÔI: It’s sad that I was not safe and didn’t have freedom to create art in my own country. I had to make a sacrifice to live in exile because being an activist in Vietnam is very difficult—sooner or later you will end up in jail. I choose not to be in jail because I think I can do more to help my people when I’m out here. I still have connections with people in the country and still can organize things with them remotely. It’s not easy to work like this but it’s better than sitting in jail in Vietnam.

Here in the US, I see many problems as well, but at least I can sing, write new songs, and publish them freely without the fear of being arrested. As an artist, sacrificing for freedom of expression is worth it.

Mai Khôi holding her guitar

IFEP: What gives you the courage to stand up against censorship, and why is it important to you to do so?

MAI KHÔI: All artists should see censorship as an insult. Why should someone have that power to change or destroy your art? When I was young, I thought it was okay to avoid political or sensitive topics because the government loved me that way. But that way, I jailed the artist inside me. Over time, the artist grew angry and fought back. I understood why people in the Nhan Van Giai Pham movement fought and died for their creative freedom. I was unluckily born in an unfree country, so I had to become an activist to fight for my freedom to be an artist.

IFEP: Do you have any advice for people trying to overcome musical or any free speech censorship?

MAI KHÔI: Share your own story wherever you go, whenever you have a chance. That is one of the most powerful ways to overcome musical or any free speech censorship.

IFEP: Right now there are threats globally to musical free expression, like the Taliban mass burning instruments in Afghanistan, what concerns do you have about the state of free expression?

MAI KHÔI: I worry about how the world allows the rise of dictatorships that have been threatening free speech and civil society everywhere. The states that violate human rights should receive punishments from the United Nations immediately. Activists under dictatorships should have more protections, more help, and more opportunities to connect to the world.

IFEP: In your own work and life, what does free expression mean to you?

MAI KHÔI: Free expression means everything to me.

IFEP: Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience that we haven’t covered?

MAI KHÔI: I know we are focusing on freedom of expression in this interview, but there are four imprisoned Vietnamese climate activists (Hong Hoang, Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi, Bach Hung Duong) who I want to raise awareness for. They need more support, attention, and protection. They must be secured for release immediately and no more climate activists arrested in the future.


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