Founded back in 2006 as the humble Joker Bigsouth Team, Joker Rock Crew is now well known as one of Vietnam’s most prominent break dance collectives. Operating various enterprises—including a dance school, a local fashion store, and an open drink-serving space for southern Vietnam’s hip-hop heads to come together—their rise to prominence is indicative of the emergence of hip hop in Vietnam. Previously, the subculture was almost non-existent, due to the country’s post-war “closed door” policy restricting the population from interacting with external influences. Now, with easier access to the internet and the rise of shows such as Rap Viet—a televised hip-hop talent show for musical artists—Vietnamese people can engage with hip-hop and street dance, interact with the global hip-hop subculture, and develop their own local approaches.
COLORS x EDITORIAL | VIETNAM
For Ho Chi Minh City-based hip-hop collective Joker Rock Crew, street dance is the homeland of freedom of expression
Writer Tiến Nguyễn speaks to Boo and Poppyn, two dancers from one of Vietnam’s most prominent break dance teams, about the rise of hip-hop as in the country, changing stereotypical narratives, setting up their latest club house, and building a legacy for the future.
Boo and Poppyn are two individuals who are driving the scene. Key members of the Joker Rock Crew—Poppyn is a co-founder and the current team leader—they both started breaking in the early 2000s. While Poppyn was drawn to the stripped-back idea of performing on the streets and spent hours being chased by local guards for bothering his neighbors, Boo was already a member of a dance crew, but was unsatisfied with the choreographed and staged routines she was obliged to perform. When they discovered breaking, they were both excited by the dance style’s premise of earning peers respect by displaying your authentic individuality. For this reason, they like to refer to it as the “homeland of freedom of expression.”
It wasn’t easy for Poppyn and Boo to pursue breaking at first, as the style was met with skepticism in the country. It’s not surprising: originating from Afro and Latin American communities in the 1970s, hip-hop has faced discrimination all over the world due to being unfairly associated with vandalism and gang culture. “Of course, people will judge you when you first start doing something that appears strange or mischievous to them,” says Boo, “but as long as you keep your head high, gradually you will earn their respect.”
For this interview, COLORS met Boo and Poppyn at Street Box Hip-Hop House, Joker Rock Crew’s Ho Chi Minh City HQ. It’s not the group’s first clubhouse: they had to leave their original home after the outbreak of the global pandemic due to budgetary challenges. “It was just a reality we had to accept,” says Boo. Dancers in Vietnam, and beyond, are no stranger to facing financial challenges. “In contrast to many successful rappers coming out of mainstream competitions on television”—such as Rap Viet—“winners from dancing competitions still only get paid baseline salaries whenever they are booked for commercial deals.” As a result, most dancers manage their performance careers alongside jobs in other industries. Boo, for example, is a full-time realtor and, as a single mother, is the primary carer for her son. “My top priorities are family, work, and my passion,” she says, demonstrating that alongside being one of many female game changers in the street dance scene, she continues to hold traditional Vietnamese family values. Her son is the one who inspires her to keep working on her passion. “After giving birth, I started doing my dance practice in the mornings before I went to work,” says Boo. “It’s become a meditational way for me to start my day and polish my skills. You have to be disciplined.”
“Of course, people will judge you when you first start doing something that appears strange or mischievous… as long as you keep your head high, gradually you will earn their respect.”
Since moving into Street Box Hip-Hop House, Joker Rock Crew have transformed it into a melting pot for hip-hop culture where they organize regular cyphers, jams, and meet-ups for HCMC-based hip-hop heads and international visitors alike. While the top floor boasts a studio for dance classes, enabling the crew to educate new generations of Vietnamese street dancers, lower floors feature chill-out zones for current artists to hang out and network. The last two floors are home to Joker Rock Crew’s shop and cafe, commercial enterprises that enable them to build towards a sustainable future. By establishing themselves in this way, the crew hope to shake the narrative of hip-hop being a rebellious, trouble-making pursuit of unemployed youths. “Building a community like Joker Rock crew comes with the responsibility of reflecting on your journey, helping those around you, and continuing the legacy,” says Poppyn.
Boo feels positive about the future of street dance in Vietnam. According to her, more and more children of all ages and genders are starting to learn hip-hop. This new generation also keenly shares the routines they learn or choreograph themselves on TikTok, spreading the style to new audiences in the process. While some of the more conservative members of the hip-hop community worry that this threatens the style’s authenticity, and that many of the people sharing videos only do so to attract fame and attention, Boo believes that “you have to take the new generations’ ideas into consideration,” noting that social media was one of the key tools that enabled the style ‘Jookin’ to spread in the country. In her mind, the most important thing is to have fun and respect others. “People who share the same interests will eventually find each other.”
This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.
Text: Tiến Nguyễn
Photography: Megan Courtis and Felix Glasmeyer
Offline Post Producer: Booncha Studio
Offline Editor: Quang Vu
Special thanks: Katia Fisenko, Paul Lorton
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