For as long as he can remember, Vannda Mann has always wanted to sing. Six years ago, he said goodbye to his parents and siblings, hopped in a taxi, and embarked on a journey to become a musician.
“It’s time for me to search for my dream. I am a person who loves music. Since I was young, I have lived with music. I’ve been everywhere with music. It’s an inspiration for me. It’s a path that I chose, a path that I love,” he told VICE.
VannDa grew up in Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia with breathtaking scenery of the beach. To VannDa, leaving home to find himself was a journey he had to take.
“My family wants me to become a lawyer or a doctor… but that’s not me. So I came to Phnom Penh to explore my passion, to find my voice. That’s how I became the VannDa I am these days,” the 25-year-old singer said. “They didn’t think I would be here long but I showed them. I did not go back.”
VannDa has millions of fans, but he’s not your typical Cambodian celebrity. For one, his face has tattoos, whereas other local acts are clean-cut. Musically, he’s different too. In a country where top hits are covers of Western pop songs, VannDa performs original hip-hop music. But he’s always wanted to be a star, a dream he shares with many his age—at home and around the world—who grew up discovering music online. He looks up to rappers Kanye West and Kid Cudi.
“To me, music is a friend. Music takes me away from dark paths,” he said.
On July 1, VannDa released his second album SKULL 2 (SEASON 1). His latest single “Young Man,” a collaboration with Thai rapper OG BOBBY, is a clapback to haters about the journey of rising to the top.
But those who have been following him for a while would know that VannDa got his big break last year, with his viral song “Time to Rise.” It was the talk of the town for blending hip-hop with traditional Cambodian music.
Its music video features VannDa and famous Chapei singer Master Kong Nay in Cambodia’s national museum. Kong Nay, 78, is one of the few great masters to have survived the Khmer Rouge regime and still plays the chapei dang veng, a traditional long-necked fretted plucked lute. The music video has been viewed more than 94 million times on YouTube, making it one of the most-watched Cambodian songs on the platform.
“I am very proud of the song,” VannDa said.
The single was written for a mobile company’s campaign but went on to become a legitimate pop hit. It reminisces about the past, while passing on the torch to the younger generation.
“It’s time to rise as high as the stars / May both men and women be blessed / To the male and female artists who seek to fulfill their dreams / Go forth and open the new chapter of the treasured arts inherited from me, Kong Nay,” Kong Nay sings.
VannDa then continues: “I said time to rise, time is priceless, rise beyond the sky / Like master Kong Nay, who rose beyond the stars / I do this with my utmost ability not carelessly but with precision.”
VannDa’s love for music started in high school. At the time, he was already telling his teachers and friends that he would grow up to become a singer.
At 19 years old, he released the pop ballad “A Song For My Ex,” followed by “A Song For Ex’s Boyfriend,” both of which were modest viral hits.
“I started getting more fans after those songs were released. I thought: Wow, they accepted me,” VannDa said.
And then, just two years later in December 2018, he signed with talent management company Baramey Production.
A lot has changed since then. As VannDa matures, his taste in music changes, too. Now, instead of love, his songs describe his passion for his country, its people, and his pride as a Cambodian.
“At first, I thought that I had to sing love songs to get into the music industry, because Cambodians are easily into [these songs]—as long as I hit the right points and reflect their lives and their loves,” he said. “[But] as we mature, we become more open to new ideas.”
That’s why he loves his song “Khmer Blood.”
“‘Khmer Blood’ is the first song that I mixed, so I love the style. It means a lot to me. The script, lyrics, and music video reflect the life of Cambodians in all the provinces,” he said.
Just released in January, it has now been viewed over 14 million times on YouTube.
But he says these kinds of songs don’t come easily. VannDa’s music is inspired by his own life and, sometimes, past experiences are too painful to include in a song.
“I have to feel whole to work on a project,” he said. “It stresses me out. It makes me remember what I don’t want to remember. For example, even when I have a bad memory I don’t want to remember, I have to retrieve that memory [in order to write a song]. It’s a challenge and it affects me mentally.”
Adding to the pressure is his dream to elevate Cambodian music, to turn it into something that can compete with music around the world.
“I put 150 percent of myself in every project I work on. This is difficult because I want them to be of [international] standard. I want the songs from Cambodia to be good, not something I only spend a day working on and forget about the next day,” VannDa said.
But he’s ready to take on the challenge.
“I think Khmer music is on the right path,” he said. “And for me, I feel that we do not have more time to wait. We must go.”
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