Exiled Vietnamese pop star finds free expression in Pittsburgh with Bad Activist | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Exiled Vietnamese pop star finds free expression in Pittsburgh with Bad Activist

click to enlarge Exiled Vietnamese pop star finds free expression in Pittsburgh with Bad Activist
Photo: Morgan Ommer
Mai Khoi
Vietnamese musician Mai Khoi draws comparisons to artists like Björk, Lady Gaga, and Laurie Anderson. Her lifelong love of music led to arena concerts and, in 2010, the Vietnam Television Album of the Year Award. She became one of the country’s biggest stars and achieved a level of international fame.

That fame turned to notoriety, however, when the Vietnamese government targeted her for using her platform to advocate for the rights of women and LGBTQ people, and to criticize state censorship. Other, more controversial moves, such as raising a banner that read “Piss on you Trump” as the then-U.S. president’s motorcade passed through Hanoi for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, added to her reputation as an agitator beloved by fans but hated by political figures.

“I was just protesting the way any American would protest, I haven’t done anything wrong,” Khoi told The Guardian after the Trump incident got her evicted from her home.


Now Khoi lives in Pittsburgh after her activism led to even more backlash from Vietnam's single-party Communist government, including detention and harassment by authorities, and a ban on her music.

The move, facilitated through the International Free Expression Project, the University of Pittsburgh, and the artist sanctuary nonprofit City of Asylum, allows her to continue calling out her homeland for human rights abuses. On Thu., Sept. 15, she will present the world premiere of Bad Activist, described in a press release as a “ fully realized multimedia production — a tour de force in which Mai Khoi tells her remarkable story and performs with extraordinary musicianship.”

Staging at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the show comes courtesy of a partnership through the IFEP, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization working to advance free-expression rights, and the Center for Media Innovation journalism incubator at Point Park University, as part of its Media Innovator Speaker Series.

“The Media Innovators Speaker Series is designed to celebrate leaders who have made significant contributions to journalism, storytelling, and free expression,” says Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation. “Mai Khoi is among the very best examples of that, and I’m grateful we can celebrate her and showcase her work.”


Bad Activist marks another project between Khoi and IFEP, a group with the stated mission of building a "Marketplace of Ideas" in the former home of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in Downtown Pittsburgh. In 2021, IFEP turned the facade of the building into the Faces of Free Expression art installation, part of an international campaign to highlight Khoi and dozens of other activists from all over the world.

Like Faces of Free Expression, Bad Activist will set out to showcase both Khoi and the work of IFEP. In addition to the performance, there will also be a private afterparty in the Playhouse’s Highmark Theater emceed by journalist Natalie Bencivenga and featuring a Q&A with Khoi conducted by Tony Norman, NEXTPittsburgh columnist and IFEP board member.

Guests can also enter a silent auction of IFEP artworks and a live auction to win a meal with Khoi at Winged House, her home at City of Asylum.

Bad Activist epitomizes the work of the [IFEP] by exalting creative expression while demanding protection for the right of all people to express themselves freely,” says IFEP founder and CEO Greg Victor. “It is a vehicle for Mai Khoi to put on vivid display the exceptional courage, activism, and artistry that have made her one of the world's leading advocates for human rights.”

Bad Activist. 7 p.m. Thu., Sept. 15. Pittsburgh Playhouse. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. $35-250. playhouse.pointpark.edu

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