What's the "Lady Gaga of Vietnam" doing here in Pittsburgh? – PGH City Paper

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“At first, I did a lot of solo performances with Bad Activist. Now, I have a band behind me with different, bigger arrangements,” Khôi tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “I’m so proud of our band. The arrangement is excellent, full of energy, and has many layers of emotion. It matches very well with my story.”
Khôi’s story begins in Cam Ranh, Vietnam, where she grew up learning guitar and writing songs. Her foray into stardom began when she won the Vietnam Television album and song of the year awards in 2010, the latter for her patriotic hit “Vietnam.”
But after advocating for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, along with refusing to submit her lyrics to censors, Khôi was blacklisted from performing, moving her shows underground. Her band, Mai Khôi and the Dissidents, changed their name to Mai Khôi Chém Gió when musicians received threats from the police.
“In Vietnam, you’re not allowed to get more than seven people together without commission. I had to organize secret shows in our studio to fight the censorship system,” says Khôi, whose 2018 live album Dissent – Live at Phú Sa Lab opens with a jazz-pop plea for freedom of expression titled “Xin Ong (Please, Sir)” that pairs vibrant saxophones and acoustic guitars with Khôi’s impassioned vocals.

click to enlarge What's the "Lady Gaga of Vietnam" doing here in Pittsburgh?

CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Artist, composer, and activist Mai Khôi

Having been detained by the police and evicted from her Hanoi apartment, Khôi moved to the United States in 2019, arriving in Pittsburgh a year later. Through the International Free Expression Project, University of Pittsburgh’s Scholars at Risk program, and City of Asylum, she was given an Artist Protection Fund fellowship.
For the show, the Dissidents reformed in Pittsburgh, bringing together a rotating cast of saxophonists, pianists, drummers, and bassists. With the help of director Cynthia Croot and musical director Mark Micchelli, Khôi feels secure in this version of her autobiography.
“We’ve been working on many different things in the last four years. The main thing is [that] the production design hadn’t been completed until last month’s Joe’s Pub show,” explains Khôi. “We had a very good production designer, Aaron Henderson, who helped me work with the videos and pictures that I collected in the past 10 years [and] some new footage that we made together.”
While tinkering with Bad Activist, Khôi has regularly performed concerts of new material. With the Dissidents, she occasionally shares songs like 2022’s vibrant “We Never Know,” which exorcises grief through wailing vocals and morphing jazz instrumentation, or “La​̀​m Gì Đe​̂​̉ (What to Do),” which appeared on a benefit compilation for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund late last year. 
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