During her journey from growing up in Ninh Thuan in the shadow of a tobacco factory, to marketing lead for an artist-management company, to manager of Suboi Entertainment, Kiwi Tho Phan has learned a lot. Along the way she’s become more spiritual and mystical too…
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
“Cultural exchange. Musical exchange. Love and passion…” Kiwi Tho Phan says listing off her current motivations. By her own admission, it’s been a crazy (almost) five years since she started to manage rapper Suboi.
There were the shows in Russia, international breakout single “Doi”, the Obama moment (Suboi famously rapped for the then US President during his well-publicised trip to Vietnam), the posthumous release of single “Lam Mom”, changes of direction like the jazzy collaboration with Mino and The Band, big brand sponsorships like the Toyota campaign and the Kenzo campaign for H&M and most recently the video and track “Bet on me”.
“The Russia shows were when I decided to commit to Suboi Entertainment,” Kiwi smiles.
“I remember there was a big group of Vietnamese overseas students waving their arms and singing along but everyone else in the audience was connecting to the music too, even though they didn’t speak Vietnamese or English. The energy was flowing back and forth between them and Su – and that’s when I realised the power of music is more than just language…”
She is, she admits, “a feeler” – she needs to spend time with people, getting to know them, before she’ll commit to anything. “But when I commit I go all in,” she shrugs.
During the “journey” Kiwi’s been getting more spiritual and mystical. “Words can really manifest actions,” she says. “We were in H&M in New York before Suboi had any sponsorship or anything and I said ‘one day people like H&M will be calling’. A week later they called asking Suboi to be part of the Kenzo campaign with people like Chloe Sevigny and Chance the Rapper…”
It’s a long way from her working-class upbringing in Ninh Thuan where her family – and everyone in the community – worked for the Vietnam Tobacco Company. “Did I start smoking at a young age? No, when I was seven or eight I rolled some paper up and tried smoking it….and it put me off cigarettes for life,” she laughs.
Today, Suboi Entertainment is a proudly all-women operation. That includes the team, regular collaborators like producers Tiffany Izzie Chang and Jenni Trang Le, and people like video director Sally Tran who did the video for “Cho Không”.
“I think women can do everything,” Kiwi says thoughtfully, “and there’s none of that over-confident ‘I’m going to do this and that’. Women just get things done.”
But they did collaborate with Hawaiian director Bradley Tangonan and DOP Jeremy Snell for the “Bet On Me” video.
“Shooting on film, over budget, production challenges…” she remembers about the October shoot, “but I love that track and video because I feel like it’s the closest to who Suboi is. She’s not really performing, she’s just being herself. And I like the traditional sounds of the song. Then there’s Nina…” she adds referring to Suboi’s first child that she’s pregnant with in the video.
What’s your favourite Vietnamese rap song of all time?
Datmaniac’s “May Con Meo”. I love cats. And this is the story about a cat. I love the song and I love Datmaniac’s poetry, the way he writes. I feel very connected to it.
And your favourite Suboi song?
Every track is like a baby. I like “N-Sao” and “Bet On Me” for their music videos. But the strongest song I worked on was “Doi”. It was intense and it was the first time we really worked together.
Then there’s “Bet On Me”. I feel this, her latest track, opens lots of doors to new musical directions. This is hip hop that’s not about drinking and drugs and parties and gangsters. It’s about self-expression. I feel that’s the true meaning of hip hop…
What’s the first music that you bought?
But the first music I ever bought was the Britney Spears album “Baby One More Time”. I bought the CD but what I really loved was the live performance – even though I’ve since learned she didn’t actually sing live! I was so in love with her back then, she was so pretty, so talented – she had everything.
I’m always falling in love with artists after watching them live. Like Beyoncé and her “Homecoming” documentary. She pushed herself to the limits.
And I love how Jay-Z was there to support her. Having that dynamic is healthy; having a partner support you and let you shine. It takes a lot to be in the spotlight. Everything around the spotlight has to be dark, so the focus is on that person…
What do you secretly listen to when noone’s around?
I’m very open with my music playlist. But I do listen to meditation music. Every single day. When I wake up, when I go to bed. And I like ambient artists like Tri Minh too. I also use the Calm app to help me fall asleep. I’ve slept through entire flights thanks to that app. I pass out in minutes – three sentences and I’m gone….”
Do you think any genres of music are under- or over-rated?
Opera is overrated. It creates an alienating class system. I don’t like music that requires me to have to dress up to go to a concert.
And the most underrated is Vietnamese traditional music. I feel those artists and I respect that they really do it because they love it and not for commercial reasons…
You’re going to live up a mountain. You can only take one song. Which would you choose?
Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. It’s so simple but so life-affirming. I like the story that it was a tribute to his three backing singers: Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.
What songs would you like played at your wedding…and at your funeral?
For my funeral, the Robyn and Röyksopp track “Monument”. That song talks about life and death. And that everything in life is about love. And that’s true.
For my wedding, I think it would be a Suboi song. She wrote a song – I’m not sure if it’s finished – about weddings and how women don’t have to take that traditional role and be the submissive wife of someone…
Describe the ten tracks in your guest mix for us.
First is Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”. Every single time this song comes on, I can’t stop dancing. The groove…the vibe that Janet brings to this.
Then, of course, there’s a Suboi track. This is her latest song, “Bet On Me”. It’s an ode to motherhood. Change. And belief. I’m proud that I was part of the journey of making this track. And this track speaks to my heart the most of all at this moment.
After that, the late, great, troubled, talented Whitney Houston. I’ve chosen “The Greatest Love Of All” for the emotion it brings. This song is timeless. And the lyrics make me feel love.
Next is another American singer. The legendary and very alive Erykah Badu. I’ve picked “Appletree”. Then, Yerin Baek. Her “Bye Bye My Blue” is a cute song to be played early in the morning while you’re still in bed, yawning, contemplating the day.
And, after that, Yaeji’s “One More”. I saw her during the trip to New York I told you about earlier. She’s one of the sweetest, most grounded, genuine artists I’ve ever met. Her music is progressive, and it’s a great representation of the new wave of artists coming through.
After that, I’ve chosen Robyn’s “A Monument To Everything”. There’s a lyric in the song: “Soon when the moment comes, I can say I did it all with love…” That resonates with me. Do everything with love. With passion. And you’ll be free. By the way, I especially love the saxophone part at the end of the song.
Next, Brazilian trans-artist Liniker with the track “Prentente”. I saw Liniker’s performance on A Colors Show recently and I was hooked immediately. The vibe, the message, the healing.
Then, another late legend. Amy Winehouse with “Valerie” live at the BBC. Like a lot of other people of my generation Amy is very close to my heart. And “Valerie” is a classic.
Finally, there’s Florence + The Machine’s “Queen of Peace”. I’m ending the mix with the artist I’m going to seek out for a live show in 2020…
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.