At a town hall meeting with young people in Ho Chi Minh City today (May 26), US president Barack Obama turned an interaction with a young Vietnamese rapper into a discussion of hip hop music as a means of cross-national communication—and offered a thought experiment to illustrate the importance of free expression.
Rap, he pointed out, which “started off as an expression of poor African Americans, now suddenly has become a global phenomenon, and is really the art form of most young people around the world today.”
Imagine, if at the time when rap was starting off, that our government had said ‘no’—because some of the things you say are offensive, or some of the lyrics are rude, or you’re cursing too much. Then that connection that we’ve seen now, in hip hop culture around the world, wouldn’t exist.
In Vietnam, free speech is severely restricted, protests are suppressed, and bloggers and activists routinely face violence and imprisonment. Obama was gently reiterating a point he had made earlier in his visit, when he urged the country’s Communist leaders to improve its stance on human rights—at a meeting in Hanoi that some activists were prevented from attending.
“Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways,” Obama told the students and government officials at at Hanoi’s National Convention Center Tuesday (May 25), but “there are still areas of significant concern.”
Some have complained that the vagueness of such remarks, as well as the end of America’s arms embargo on Vietnam, has effectively given the country’s Communist leaders a pass.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Obama was answering a question from Suboi, a well-known Vietnamese rapper whose full name is Hàng Lâm Trang Anh, about the role of arts in international relations. She treated him to a few bars of one of her raps first, which he later used as an example of cross-cultural connection.
“If I read a novel by somebody in Africa, now suddenly I understand more about how we are similar,” Obama said, “and if I listen to a Vietnamese rap, and it connects to the things that I’m feeling, now I feel closer to a country on the other side of the world.”
Art’s power to connect people is what makes governments want to suppress it, he explained. ”Look, let’s be honest, sometimes art is dangerous though, and that’s why governments sometimes get nervous about art,” he said. “But one of the things that I truly believe is that if you try to suppress the arts then I think you’re suppressing the deepest dreams and aspirations of a people.”
“So you gotta let people express themselves,” he said. “That’s part of what a modern 21st century culture is all about.”