(First published in March 15, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Maa Vue of Weston is one of the biggest national sensations in Hmong music
Maa Vue after a concert in Georgia during her tour last year.
Maa Vue uploaded her first video to YouTube in 2010. It was a collaboration with her brother, who was playing guitar and asked if she wanted to sing along. She came up with the lyrics pretty much on the spot, and the two uploaded their performance to YouTube.
She had no idea what it would become. “That one ended up becoming my No. 1 song,” Vue says.
Today, Vue is a nationally known YouTube star and Hmong singing sensation. She famous enough to be recognized when she goes out in public—at least among the Hmong community. Vue also now is president of Yellow Diamond Records, an outfit based in California that saw her talent and signed her to the label five years ago.
Vue embodies the YouTube and music success story. Her YouTube channel boasts more than 42,000 subscribers, and several of her videos have garnered more than a million views (her most popular has had 6.3 million views). Though based in Weston, she’s known throughout the nation. And she’s had a fair share of celebrity moments: people seeing her in public and requesting pictures, for example.
But there are also limits to her fame: Because her popularity is largely among Hmong people, her touring is limited mainly to Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. And the Hmong music scene can be a challenge; she’s had trouble attracting large audiences outside of the festival scene, which is where most of her performances take place. Locally, Vue has found she must limit her performances in the Wausau area to about twice a year, to avoid oversaturating the market.
Vue sings mostly in Hmong—preserving the language is important to her. “The Hmong people have been in the United States for 40 years now, so it’s sad to see the younger generations lose our language,” Vue says. “It’s not spoken as often any more.”
Gentle leap to success
Maa Vue, as she appears when she’s not performing. Fans still spot her in public, and some are even surprised to learn she lives in the Wausau area.
Born in Thailand, Vue grew up in Green Bay from a baby on up, attending high school there and then UW-Marathon County and UW-Stevens Point after that. She credits her high school choir and show choir with giving her the skills to be a performer.
A singing career isn’t what more traditional-minded Hmong elders have in mind for young women, Vue says, and she felt the pressure to marry and settle down.
“In our culture, it was better off if I just pick up jobs and make money,” Vue says. “That’s what your parents expect of you. Singing was a dead-end career, as they saw it.”
Vue persisted despite those reservations, and instead worked with her brother to release the song “Nyob Ua Ke” which means, according to the video’s intro, “Stay together.” The song became one of her biggest hits, helped her land a recording contract with Yellow Diamond Records, and became the title track to her first album. The re-released video, published in 2013, has 4.8 million views.
It wasn’t a catapult to success. That original video released in 2010 started to pick up steam in 2011. It wasn’t until toward the end of 2012 that her videos started to go viral, picking up the attention of Hmong people nationwide and catching the attention of Tre Xiong, founder of Yellow Diamond Records. She signed to the label in July 2013.
“She’s truly the Hmong Adele,” wrote a fan in the comments on her video. Another commenter wrote: “You are so amazing Maa. Your voice is so powerful and so was this song!! I’m in love!”
Many might think that’s the end of a happily ever after tale, but for Vue it was only the beginning of the work. Yellow Diamond is a small label in California with seven artists, including Vue. That meant Vue herself spent a lot of her day doing promotional work, optimizing her YouTube Channel and responding to fans to keep interest alive. “I was pretty much the whole package,” Vue says. “It was as if I was already running my own label.”
And now, she literally is. Xiong announced in February that Vue would be running operations as president of Yellow Diamond Records. She’s handling much of that work from Weston right now, but will be traveling more to California with her new position.
“Since Maa joined us in 2013 as an artist, she has also contributed her professionalism on organization, communication and leadership towards the company,” Xiong said in a press release. “Maa’s talent and her passion to help build this foundation has really impressed me and I could not be more pleased about her appointment of being the president of Yellow Diamond Records. I am confident in her abilities and excited for the future of YDR.”
Behind that success is another struggle in the ever-changing realm of digital revenue. A large portion of her income comes from YouTube, but recent events show how tenuous that is.
Earlier this year, YouTube star Logan Paul uploaded a video depicting a dead body in a suicide forest in Japan. The video sparked international outrage and demands for YouTube to exercise more control over troublemakers. There also has been a backlash from advertisers who have been displeased to find their marketing appear on You Tube videos with vulgar or racist content.
YouTube and advertisers reacted to all this in a way that surprised many: The crack down and pullback affected not only notorious channels, but even those with smaller followings.
Despite a steady following and growing views, Vue’s revenue from YouTube dropped by half recently, she says.
Vue is no Logan Paul, but she’s not small time either.
Her channel on YouTube has more than 42,000 subscribers—compare that to Charlie Berens’ Manitowoc Minute channel with 26,700 subscribers. Several of Vue’s videos have gotten a million or even millions of views, making her a formidable YouTube presence out of Wisconsin.
Vue is something of a pioneer in the Hmong music scene, which primarily focuses around festivals that are the cornerstone of Hmong social life. Hmong people are hard-working and struggle to find excuses to relax, says Yee Leng Xiong, executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau. Festivals are a chance to do that, Xiong says.
Xiong is working with Vue to bring her and other Yellow Diamond Records artists to the Wausau Hmong Festival, which is expanding beyond the sports festival it was last year. The event this year will add a night market; and Vue and other artists would contribute significantly to the festivities, Xiong says.
Vue’s music is a kind of bridge. It fits right between traditional Hmong music (designed to accommodate traditional line dancing), and the work of Hmong artists branching out into rock and rap. Vue ties the two together, which might be part of why she’s such a sensation, Xiong says.
Kham Thong Yang, a Hmong musician and recording studio owner in Wausau who likes to help young artists make demos, has known Vue since before she was famous, and it’s been delightful to watch her fame grow. “First off, she is so talented,” Yang says. “Her voice is so beyond any other singer I have worked with. She is very talented and is a very intelligent business person too.”
Yang echoed the challenges facing a Hmong musician, especially one singing in the Hmong language. The festival scene remains central to such a musician’s career. “The population is pretty small,” Yang says. “It’s hard to put your music out there and garner a real base of support. For someone like Maa to get her name out there is unbelievable.”
A lot of that popularity is among younger Hmong people, Xiong says. Many elders aren’t entirely aware of YouTube, and thus don’t fully understand the impact Vue has had on tens of thousands of people.
“Young professionals in the community who know a little about music know Maa, and they’re very proud of her,” Xiong says. “She is the hottest singer right now.”
Vue’s success is a point of pride for UW-Marathon County, too, says Keith Montgomery, Dean and Regional Executive Officer. Vue was director for the campus’ multi-cultural center and sang as part of a Hmong concert on campus. The campus received several diversity awards during her time there. “She was remarkable as a student leader and it’s great to see what she is doing now,” Montgomery says.
Emily Voss, photographer behind Voss Studios in Wausau, didn’t know the extent of Vue’s fame when Vue first contacted her about a photo shoot. Voss has shot models and actors, having worked in New York, but hadn’t done much with musicians.
“I was very impressed,” Voss said. “How did we have this girl with millions of YouTube views right here in Weston?”
The cost of fame
Some of Maa Vue’s CDs and other merchandise.
Vue likes to keep a low profile in the Wausau area. Many of her fans who live here are surprised to learn she lives here too. Many assume that, because she’s signed to a California record label, she must live in Los Angeles.
After sitting down with Vue, it’s quickly apparent that this singer is very pragmatic and business-minded. Living a middle-class Weston lifestyle makes more financial sense than an expensive LA lifestyle, she says. But even in Weston, her fame can be hard to escape.
She tells a story about walking into a clothing store and hearing her name mentioned over the store’s pager. The store’s manager came out and brought forward a pair of CDs for Vue to sign. Another time, Vue was shopping at Wausau Center mall when a fan, hiding behind some pillars, suddenly jumped out and asked to take a photo with her.
It’s not uncommon for her to hear her name whispered by Hmong fans when she’s out in public. Even though she intentionally dresses down and tries to keep a low profile, many fans are overwhelmed by seeing their favorite singer in person.
Despite that fame, it’s not a gimme that throngs of fans will come out for a show. Vue was part of a tour last year that played concert venues—including Northstar Casino—outside of the festival circuit. It didn’t go so well. “I don’t think we sold out a single show,” Vue says.
And YouTube is less of a revenue source than it once was. While many of her fans might believe that a nationally known singer would live an extravagant lifestyle, in reality Vue’s always thinking about the business side and making ends meet.
Vue is currently looking to branch out, and attract an audience outside the Hmong community, while still staying true to the fans who supported her music career. She wouldn’t be the first to do it.
J-Pop (Japanese popular music) and its Korean counterpart K-Pop gained a following in America in the last decade and still has its international adherents. All that, despite being in a language most Americans don’t understand.
Listening to Vue’s music, I got the sense that it could have similar appeal. Her deep, powerful yet smooth voice might remind some of Adele or Japanese singer Mika Nakashima, who sold a significant number of albums in the US despite most of her music being sung in Japanese (or a creative mix of Japanese and English).
But promoting Hmong culture and helping preserve Hmong traditions is important to Vue, and that will influence her music choice going forward. “I feel like music is a way to unite us,” Vue says. “Everyone can relate to it, it’s so universal.”