Like many, I first discovered Ytiet in early 2020, waist-deep into a winter depression. A friend sent me one of his first viral videos, shot on a phone and posted to YouTube under an account called “Soytiet.” Please watch this ASAP, my friend wrote. Trust me.
Y Tiet So’s early content was bare-bones, shot vertically with his face close to the camera in settings that spanned from the Binh Dinh countryside to his bedroom. In this particular video, Ytiet was lying down shirtless on a bed, covered in pink sheets. He looked weary, with sunken eyes and wrinkles endemic to the type of person who spends long hours working in the sun. He could have been 30, or 40, or 50. When I played the video, Ytiet started to count in English to the tune of an improvised melody.
“Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five” he began, getting more passionate with each number, at times scowling as though feeling the weight of a song that had none.
Ytiet’s allure, although hard to pin down, is universal by now: In the past year, he has amassed 2.1 million followers on TikTok, a number too high to make a song out of. His counting videos have been sampled by dozens of prominent DJs online and in 2020, Wiz Khalifa released “Numbers,” a song entirely inspired by Ytiet.
When someone straddles the line between genuine fame and meme — the difference between laughing at versus with — it can be hard to draw a roadmap for a sustainable career. When I corresponded with Ytiet’s manager over email, he seemed to want to move away from talking about Ytiet’s number songs and pointed to the singer’s non-number-related discography.
Through our email exchanges, I learned a lot about who Ytiet is and what he wants, things that we can’t gather from his short videos: For one, he doesn’t think he’s a good singer. He knows that he is making people laugh, which is actually the point. He is self-conscious about his gap-toothed smile. And he is prepared to start making more complex music. Although Ytiet is ready for the next stage of his career, I can’t help but note that it will also require us, his fans, to change what we believe he is capable of.
Yet, even in Vietnam, Ytiet may seem an unlikely celebrity. For most of his life, he was a cattle farmer. And rather than being part of the country’s Kinh ethnic majority, he is part of the Cham and Bahnar ethnic group — and speaks Cham at home and to close friends and family. There was little reason to believe that this small-village cattle rancher would reach an international audience and collaborate with A-list American rappers in the span of just one year, especially as an artist-y. In fact, Ytiet told me that his lungs are weak and that he can barely dance because he’s emaciated, a product of having lived a laborious life in the countryside.
But Ytiet doesn’t convey any of the hardships he’s lived through in his videos and having no context for who he really is can be part of the appeal. His online persona is incredibly bubbly and it’s that optimism, carried in the vessel of someone whose body betrays the type of life he’s endured, that is so captivating.
When I asked him why he thought his videos did so well when he first started uploading them in 2020, Ytiet partially attributed the pandemic.
“I understand that the pandemic has been around for more than two years now, causing millions of people to be stuck in life,” he said. “They need to receive joys to ease their minds, and more smiles, to be able to believe that life is full of good things waiting for them.”
And good things are also coming to Ytiet. This past summer, he released two music videos for his songs, “Do You Know” and “Are You OK,” composed in collaboration with American musician Thirstpro under the mentorship of Director Danny Do. Notably, they’re much more complex than his number songs and have the trappings of any generic, hot-100 rap hit, rhymes and beat drops and all. Ytiet wrote all the lyrics and truth be told, they’re absolute fucking bangers. He’s moved on from counting to the themes of love, betrayal and desire. “So come and grab my hand/ So you can understand/ That I want to be your man,” he sings in “Are you ok.”
Now that he is beloved internationally, Ytiet is hoping to use his fame as a way to connect Vietnam to the rest of the world. He plans to use visual markers of rural Vietnamese life in his videos — from the ubiquitous conical hats to the traditional costume of the Tày ethnic group, seen in the video for “Do You Know” to something as simple yet quintessential to Vietnamese life as a jackfruit in “Are You Ok.” Ytiet wants to connect with his fans and reading through the comment sections of his videos, there’s a sense that his small village had expanded into a global online one.
If someone were to ask me today who Ytiet is and why he is famous, I would admittedly still have a difficult time giving a genuine answer. What I do know for sure is why I, personally, am enamoured by him: during a time that feels like the end of times, the allure of Ytiet’s earnestness is electrifying. His fame, unlike most TikTokers', is effortless. He is an outcast among outcasts and yet, he is making it.
The pandemic made many of us realize that we are living in a world where we are told to be perpetually dissatisfied — with our relationships, with our appearance, with our lack of artistic talent. Seeing Ytiet sing at the top of his lungs about nothing at all feels like permission to be. The essence of Ytiet, when you look deeper, is that he is a trojan horse of life lessons: a lesson on being present, a lesson on self-love, a lesson on how far authenticity can take you. It’s why so many of his fans feel so protective over him. It’s why we’re going to root for him no matter what he chooses to do next.