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Mai Khôi is an award-winning singer, composer, and activist. She rose to stardom in 2010 after winning the Vietnam Television Song and Album of the Year awards as one of the first female songwriters in Vietnam. As a pop star, Khôi released seven albums in genres of Vietnamese pop and dance, and made regular nationally televised performances. Several years later she became increasingly uncomfortable having to submit her work to government censors and, thinking she could reform the system from within, nominated herself to run in the National Assembly elections on a pro-democracy platform. Her campaign sparked a nationwide debate about political participation and culminated in a meeting with Barack Obama in May 2016. Her activism came at a high price, however: she had her concerts raided, was evicted from multiple residences, and was detained and interrogated by the police.
Khôi’s artistic transformation is evident in Mai Khôi Chém Gió, a genre-splicing dissident trio she founded in 2016 that combines protest music with free jazz and lost musical traditions of Vietnam’s hill tribes. She also went on to participate in Seaphony, a project that aims to create the first pan-Southeast Asian orchestra comprised of ethnic minority musicians, as a conductor, arranger, and composer. Her current project, Mai Khôi and the Dissidents, is an eclectic and experimental jazz-ish quintet that’s as likely to launch into a noisy protest song or collective improvisation as a lullaby or love ballad. She is also developing an autobiographical multimedia stage show called “Bad Activist” that combines original music, projections, archival footage, and storytelling to fiercely advocate for democracy and freedom of expression in Vietnam and around the world.
Since 2019, Mai Khôi has lived in exile in the USA. In 2019, she was a resident artist at SHIM:NYC, and in 2020, she was awarded an Artist Protection Fund Fellowship in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh, City of Asylum, and the International Free Expression Project. Mai Khôi was an Exiled Writer and Artist in Residence at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh from 2020-2023; she has continued to reside in Pittsburgh after the conclusion of this residency.
In recognition of her work at the intersection of art and activism, Khôi has been awarded the 2018 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent and the 2022 Four Freedoms Award for Freedom of Speech.