Gifted young hip-hop artist dies in apparent drowning

Poet was just about to start his sophomore year of college

September 13, 2012

A gifted hip-hop artist who was known for his performances with Louder than a Bomb and other youth groups across Chicago has died.

Uptown poet John “Vietnam” Nguyen, 19, died in an apparent drowning in Madison, Wis., on Aug. 30. He was just about to start his sophomore year at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Only nine days before his death, Nguyen performed at the 17th Annual Chicago Korean Festival in what would become his last public spoken word performance. He uploaded it to YouTube, with this description: "As I aspire to reach more people with my words … I hope to expand; I want my bars to go further than Chicago.”

At UW-Madison, he was a star of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Learning Community, a multicultural artistic program.

"[Nguyen] was an outstanding student artist and leader, easily one of the most talented ever admitted to the university," said Damon Williams, vice provost and the university's chief diversity officer.

Early on the morning of Aug. 30, Nguyen and four friends headed over to Madison’s Lake Mendota to go swimming and watch the sunrise, Nguyen’s sister Kim said. While in the water, one of John Nguyen’s friends reportedly panicked and Nguyen quickly came to her aid, according to his sister. Friends told the family he thrust his friend onto the dock but then went under the water himself. When he failed to surface, friends called 911.  

The university says Madison Fire Department’s Lake Rescue Team was called to the area, where divers performed a search and found Nguyen within about 15 minutes.

Nguyen was a finalist in Chicago's Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival in both 2009 and 2010, and he and his team represented Chicago at the national competition in 2010.

His piece, "Judge:mental" (2010) can be heard here:



His piece, "Epitaph" (2009) can be heard here:




In a note he sent home from college during his freshman year, Nguyen, who called himself John Vietnam, wrote:

"Hip-hop isn't just something you do, it’s the way you live. Emceeing, or, rapping, isn't just a hobby. The values engrained in hip-hop emerge in your behavior and attitude outside of the cypher or song. It's all about peace, love, unity, and having fun. Emceeing is a way to cope with problems in life; art is a result of suffering. Eventually, with enough practice and inspiration, your art becomes something people relate to, because we all go through the same problems. You learn how to be a leader, not just when you're spitting, but when those crucial moments arise in life where you just need to step up. An emcee doesn't just spit, he has the hip-hop culture embedded in his genes. An emcee wouldn't sit back and ignore the problem. Tackle it directly. Emcees should look at grades like the cypher. Get in there, do your thing the way it should be done, and come out knowing you did it right.

Keep doing you, and tell your story. No gimmicks."

Instead of flowers, the family has requested donations be sent to Children of Vietnam, a charity in which he was involved.