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R&B artist alextbh brings up Asian concerns and politics of our time

The pop singer has a lot on his mind – from queer concerns, relationships, to politics. He also discussed the millennial's role of navigating beliefs brought forward from our parents' generation. 
R&B artist alextbh brings up Asian concerns and politics of our time

by SAND Magazine

October 29, 2018

Photography: Wanjie Li / Interview: Racy Lim

alextbh is most known for making R&B music and spreading queer love in his home country, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. In the past year, he also received reviews from the United States – most recently premiering his single still mine on PAPER. Still in his early 20s, Alex admits that he has evolved since stepping into the public eye. 

“I used to be very introverted and basically had to force myself. It was very, very difficult. I had to muster courage to go up to people and say hi while playing out situations in my head, what am I going to say two minutes from now? Is the conversation running dry? I never knew what to say to keep a conversation going. After some time, I learned to be comfortable with people. I’m still figuring out how to make proper eye contact because I feel that it’s creepy to just stare into people’s eyes. You know when you talk to someone and you kind of just dart your eyes left and right?”

— alextbh

We first met at Laneway Festival Singapore earlier this year. One month after his performance, he returns to Singapore to work on an unannounced project. We meet at Starbucks as early as 10am, as he had plans to meet his videographer and stylist at noon. When asked about the project, he teases, “I can’t really tell anyone about it right now because the music isn’t out yet.”

As it turns out, he collaborated with Jasper Tan and Mae Tan on the video design and wardrobe for the new drop.

While discussing relationships, I confessed that Stoop So Low was part of my healing process from a heartbreak. A connection instantly formed as he recalled, “It was part of so many other people’s too! I didn’t realise how anger could drive me to write things like that. Right now I don’t think I’m capable of writing that kind of lyrics. Some people believe that anger is what you need to get over heartbreak but I’m past that phase. Lately, I’m more at peace with myself.”

Midway through the conversation, he confesses that he can’t seem to speak his mind and he’s not sure why. “There are little Alex’s scrambling to find the right words,” he explains.

Is there any form of barrier, you think?

No. I guess it’s just really early in the morning and I didn’t have enough sleep last night. I couldn’t sleep at all. I oscillated between waking up and falling asleep, over and over again.

Yeah, I get that. I’ve been having bouts of really bad dreams for the past few months because of that.

How is that possible? I’ve always thought that we’re not in charge… Are we in fact subconsciously responsible for our own dreams? I never thought it’s possible to have bad dreams continuously. I can imagine the cycle though – the way that affects your behaviour during the day.

Do your dreams resemble real life? I haven’t dreamed for months. My dreams are always fucking mundane, involving boys. Never in my life have I dreamed about being chased by a monster, for example. I don’t get that kind of dreams. I always wonder how it feels like to be scared by something like that.

Have you always been sure of your sexuality and identity?

The word for that would be ‘realise’ – I realised my sexuality. I used to date this one girl in high school There was definitely affection but it came to a point when I knew. It kind of just snapped, maybe I like boys.

Honestly, I feel that everyone is queer to an extent. People never really explore their sexuality, or have yet to do so.
So one just assumes that he, she or they are straight. I always knew that I was queer but never really acted upon it. Back then I thought, I guess I’m queer, but I didn’t think it was necessary for me to date a guy until that relationship, or fling, happened.

When was that?

When I was 13 or 14… It was quite pathetic. I bought her one of those bracelets with engravings, jesus fucking christ. Good times didn’t last, though. One day she came up to me in the middle of a lesson and dropped the bracelet on my desk, and everyone stared at us. Back then I thought, you didn’t have to make a fuss out of it. I get it, you’re a Scorpio…

What are you?

I’m a Libra. From what I was told, Libras are either really chill or crazy. I didn’t really buy into astrology until people told me about it. I still choose not to believe in it because a lot of these descriptions are very vague. Even Myers—Briggs can be quite ambiguous, to me at least.

The Barnum Effect?

It plays on semantics and context, I would say. Every time I read 'facts' from astrology, I feel like people tend to shoebox themselves and eventually start acting like it. I’ve seen friends do that, and it’s kind of weird and fucked up. I’ve faced it too. When I read that Libras are supposedly controversial and most of the time people don’t like them, I began to question, ‘do I act like a Libra?’

For me, astrology readings began during the Teenage Magazine era.

Is that one of those magazines with Harry Styles posters that you can tear out? I always wanted to be one of them – a teen heartthrob or whatever. I don’t think I can throb any hearts though. Let me guess – there’s a section specifically on astrology and you guys were into it? Oh my fucking god. How old were you then?

13 or 14 years old.

I read scholastic books when I was that age (laughs). Also, I feel that if we try to read all the astrology signs, we might end up possessing every one of those traits to a certain extent.

I’ve tried reading zodiac signs as well, and I’m a rat. My mom is very into that, and she’s always saying, I’m a water rat and you’re a fire rat, that’s why we don’t mix. And I’m like, that’s an excuse for us not to build on our relationship! It’s a joke, by the way. I love my mom dearly.

She would read those books, come up to my dad and suggest ways to move our furniture. She’s insane and I love it. One time, she paid thousands of ringgit just for some bitch to show up in our house to tell my parents that we should move the cupboard here, and we should tear this wall down, and I went, you’re not about to tear the kitchen wall down!

What’s with Chinese people and their feng shui? I find it kind of interesting, it’s kind of funny. It’s the Asian version of astrology, except our parents take it to the next level.

It’s crazy to see the extent of their belief in it. Do you subscribe to a religion?

Not really, not even my parents actually. Not yet at least. Even though my mom buys into feng shui and zodiac signs, she never really subscribed to any Abrahamic religions. At the same time, she’s not an atheist. I’m pretty much on the same boat as they are.
So I guess that explains everything – they need something to fill that gap that requires them to believe in some form of deity.
It’s the same for me. I could never imagine feeling the presence of god or anything remotely close until I attended a church talk. I hadn’t realised that was an option for many people who are struggling in life.

I wish I could feel that kind of spiritual connection because I lack that in my body. I try to understand it. It’s definitely powerful – one’s spiritual connection with some form of higher power that I can never grasp.

My parents, too. My dad subscribed to religions at some points in his life. He used to be a non-practicing Buddhist and turned to Christianity shortly after he met my mom but we never really practiced it. I remember when I was younger my mom would take me to temples and churches, just to experience religion.

I ended up acting like an ignorant, pretentious person who walks into a church and talks about everything ‘spiritual’. So much that my friend, who was actually religious at that point in time, told me, "you don’t have to make everything so profound. It’s a church – people come here to pray. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking all the time."
Then again, what even is tangibility these days?
I feel like at this point, the world is so skewed that it makes sense for people to hold onto something even if it’s not ‘tangible’. It makes sense. We are living in this really fucked up world and so believing in something, even if there’s no proof of it, is appropriate. 
I went through a phase where I tried so hard to disprove the existence of god and then it just dawned on me, why do I want to do that so badly? Why do I have to prove to anyone that there is no god?
Even if it’s proven that god does not exist, what makes me eligible to dismantle people’s beliefs when it helps them? My present principle is very simple – you believe what you want to, as long as it doesn’t harm other people.

Can I digress?


What form of inequalities have you observed in Singapore?

Racial inequality and racism is really apparent, as much as we try to sweep it under the carpet.

The elephant in the room, I see. It’s mostly how we’re influenced by the Western culture too. We start to realise when people are acting shit. 
I’ve observed that politics in some nations are designed to deliberately confuse people. It feels very pseudo-democratic, almost as if they will always win.
Is race an issue in Malaysia?

Yes, always. It is used by politicians to turn against one another for personal and political gains. They would give school talks about having power over one another, and try to ignite a false sense of nationalism towards your own culture and religion. The parallels between Singapore and Malaysia are there – all you need to do is switch the racial groups around, perhaps.

Listen to 'still mine' here
Stay up to date with alextbh here


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