Photography: Nic Shields / Interview: Racy Lim
Part II of SAND Magazine with Subhas. Read Part I here.
In the first of our two-part interview with Subhas, he introduced his concerns with Singapore hip hop — opinions that manifested while on the topic of politics, a clear theme on his album Not A Public Assembly, among personal examinations of home and identity. The words in the songs are direct, aiming at a particular unrest to shake the listening ear. In a city where political music is mostly associated with punk rock, this is new.
Going further into his observations of the genre in this age, the hip hop artist and activist questions the intentions of mainstream hip hop and rap in Singapore, and criticises that efforts to improve social and political conditions are few. In other words, for such a revolutionary genre capable of effecting change, hip hop is still not being stretched to its full potential here.
What goes on in your mind when writing the songs on Not A Public Assembly?
How can I best convey these ideas and stories through the music. I believe when writing a song, the more specific you are, the more general your message becomes. When people listen to music, they are not necessarily attracted to the specificity and details of the songs. When I rap about blk 101 sunset way, people are not going to be able to relate to the playgrounds and the basketball court that I grew up with. What they can relate to is the affinity to an imagined place of home. When I speak about home, it is understood through the listener’s own ideas and experiences of attachment and placemaking.
The more I can go to the depths of why I feel how I feel, the more my work speaks to people, I believe. This album also evokes a certain complexity and struggle to express. Some of the songs were really difficult to write.In the process of making the album with Fauxe, we realised that we were coming together to marinate an acquired taste. Perhaps some people might never understand what we are trying to do, and that’s fine but I never want to water down the message. I have a lot of respect for my listeners. Fauxe and I even joked about this during our sessions – that we were creating something we didn’t even understand yet.
You have repeatedly expressed gratitude to Fauxe for making you a better rapper. What other ways has he informed you?
I’m very fortunate to work with Fauxe because he doesn’t work with a lot of artists, honestly because many of them are always doing the same thing. He is someone who constantly challenges himself to evolve. I’ve learned so much about the production process from him. How he thinks about what makes a sample, how he blends sounds together, how he creates vibes, and how he has always stayed true to self.
Album Producer: Fauxe / Artwork: Natalie Christian Tan
What I’ve learnt from [Fauxe] is just to be brave. He lives by that – being brave enough to try things. Bold dreams attract bold people. We both found each other that way.We are both people who do things with intent and purpose. I have reasons for the things I do that I may not be able to explain to people everyday. Like, why am I vegetarian? My short answer is that I want to be health conscious but I would probably not tell just anyone about my concerns on health insurance, my family background, ethical stances that I’m trying to internalise and mediate on, or how I’m striving to acquire more consciousness going on in my daily decision-making.
My difficult answers resonated with Fauxe’s complex way of questioning, thinking, and responding. This led to our process of conceptualising deeper topics beyond music.He also looks out for me like a big brother, not to mention his faith in my art and incredible foresight. Tell you something funny – because I put a lot into this album, I really wanted it to sound the way I conceived it to be. Towards the end of March, I would go to him and say, we’re running out of weeks, we need to get this recorded. We need to practise. And Fauxe would always reply, Subhas, the album’s already done.
When crunch time came we put in whatever hours we had to, and he was so gracious in opening up his home to me. I don’t see him as a hip hop producer. I see him as a musician and a friend. Throughout the process, I’ve grown so much in terms of my perspectives on life.
A lot has changed in the last five months since you started working with him.
Yes, but that’s my life. I’ve always seen my life as one grand firefight. When I watched Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy’s Thick Beats For Good Girls, I realised, sometimes we need to have controlled burns and light things on fire to manage the chaos and prepare before the inevitable inferno eventually comes. This is where SZA’s album Ctrl comes to mind.
Besides fighting the fire, I think it’s also about equipping those I love with the ability to fight their own fires and making sure they are in a safe place. That’s what leadership is – empowering others to be leaders; and at the end of the day, letting our art tell our stories.
It’s good to feel these things. We must feel these things. The pain we put through the music just makes this life more real.Working with Fauxe was incredible because this connection is not only impactful for me – it’s also something that will last through time. That’s how I see collaborations working. I don’t resonate with artists treating collaborations like money grabs. You’ve got a fan base, and I’ve got one. Come, let’s put something together.
With many collaborations, it often doesn't matter why a piece of art has to be created, or what has to be said... For me, it’s about artistic purpose and intention when collaborating. Does our artistry align? What can we do that you and I can’t achieve individually on our own, or with anyone else?This is why Fauxe and I didn’t leave any one beat out from the album. We did a warm up beat in the beginning but after that the ball just kept rolling. We never rejected a single one because those were the tracks created in the moment. We created them for this album and those were the songs. When I first started out, I couldn’t find a producer who could tell stories like I wanted to. I’m grateful to have met him.
You’ve also expressed that Man on a Mission no longer represents what you stand for today.
I had a lot of fun on that track. Music is also about having fun and expressing yourself, right? I thought the word play on that song was amazing. I really liked it, from double checking on discounts, to discount double-checking, from tearing up the D-league, to Westbrook triple double-getting – that’s a fuckin’ dope line.
Since Man on a Mission, things have changed – not necessarily in the style of music but the way I write my songs, how I think about music, the flow, timing, the breath, and punctuations during the writing process even. That was a moment, but now, everything is more intentional and less about ‘seeing how it goes’. I still listen to it sometimes but I’ve definitely evolved since then.
I don’t see many people thinking about rap as a 10, 15 year plan. Not many ask themselves, when do you wanna stop rapping? What do you want to do after rap? What kind of power do you want to amass?How has hip hop shaped you?
Before I fell in love with the genre, I fell in love with words. The word ‘marooned’ from Wide Sargasso Sea haunts me until today. The phrase, licked before we began from To Kill a Mockingbird too. Those words have changed my life and my approach to life.
I approached this album wanting to create something that many people from different walks of lives, countries and backgrounds can listen to and get to know about Singapore and what it’s like living in Singapore. I must say that everything on this album is written through my lens and so it’s a biased opinion.
That’s the thing – I don’t have an unbiased opinion. This album is my biased opinion about Singapore. If you have a lens and your own platform, share and tell me your opinion. But it does not take away my right to speak my mind about a place that I love-hate.Given that your work addresses policies and observations head on, have you ever thought of releasing music under a pseudonym?
I don’t try to hide it. In Sanskrit, the etymology of 'Subhas' breaks down to mean 'eloquent'. It was meant to be. But really, authenticity is key. No one is ever original. We should strive for originality, but start from authenticity. That’s exactly how I want to be portrayed in my music. I want to have that kind of connection with my listener.
I’m not all these waves of ‘Lil’ this and ‘Yung’ that – it’s just not my style. My opinions as Subhas Nair don’t differ from the opinions of Subhas, the artist. I’m always thinking about my relevancy 10 to 20 years down the road. Even if I don’t make it there, I want these messages to live on and inspire. Inspiration is important to me, and I wear my inspirations on my sleeve. The song Punishment contains three different moments of homage to Kendrick Lamar.
There are artists who have changed my life and just like I want to be that for somebody else, I would also like to recognise those that have for me. There’s incredible power in that.At your show, you mentioned that ‘there’s nothing mandatory except to love’ – which is the core of any activism. Do you believe that one can retain compassion and the ability to love even in the face of aggression?
When people get together and voice an unpopular opinion, and that opinion gets loud, it’s discomforting. Because people are [too] comfortable. Instead of policing tone, we should be really looking at what processes have we been a part of to cause their tone – that in itself is operating from a place of compassion.
To be compassionate is to be human. I think a lot of systems and institutions have removed that from us and kept us so divorced from seeing the next person as equal.That’s how our CMIO model came about. We look at each other as race categories, first and foremost. It’s on our fucking identification. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but I’m saying it is a colonial vestige that continues to be used to divide and conquer people physically and psychologically. Stereotypes are important but the moment they inhibit the way you understand someone and are part of feeding into your bigotry, they got to go. Jollin and I talked about this the other day over Instagram. Our society has a weird way of understanding complexities. We can be aggressive and completely compassionate at the same time. Not only that, the way the male mind has been conditioned in most societies is a problem too. We have been told that we’re stronger and more powerful. Men’s gender roles have been purported to the extent that most men are so separate from their emotions.
There’s this culture that men can’t show weakness, and pain equals to weakness.I grew up like that too and in my earlier relationships struggled with that before I realised that the flaws, fractures, and scars are our source of strength. But we as men sometimes are quick to cover them up. Approaching this from a place of compassion is a reach back to my own humanity, which masculinity in our society is very far off from. There are amazing storytellers who have always been speaking about these complexities. I’m not doing anything revolutionary but I believe it’s somewhat new in the Singapore hip hop scene.
What is Singaporean hip hop to you?
Right now? It’s lazy, and microwaved. Two words that I’ve always gone back to: appropriated and derivative. I’m not saying that every rap song in Singapore has to touch on politics but a lot of the works I’ve seen grapple with the Singaporean experience on a superficial level.
Just because a Singlish word or an idea that’s local is plugged into a track does not make it ‘Singaporean’. The Singaporean experience is one of the contradictions and so, repeating something 10 times on a track doesn’t mean you’re addressing it. It just means you’re riding on a wave.Also, most rappers surround themselves with yes men. Everything you do is hype and blessings. These are mostly influencers, not rappers. Everyone seems to be riding on each other's wave. What happens when your collaborator runs out of social media clout? Are you going to care about their process or career? I’m not sure. What I’m trying to do here is collaborate with people I truly have friendships with – or with people who I know will still be making music in 3 to 5 years at least!
To me, you can’t be a Singaporean hip hop artist and take money from the state to make works that pander to the system. You watched the music video for 'Lingo Lingo'? Those tens of thousands of dollars could have gone to feeding people and other good causes.
It’s the 'Crazy Rich Asians' facade all over again – how we want to portray ourselves to the world, but the reality of the situation is that people are out here dying, depressed with mental health issues, and without food on their tables or tables for their food.I know a few rappers from the underground scene who are doing work that I support, and I anticipate their work because they seem more in touch with their roots. Don’t get me wrong – ‘underground’ is not a venue. I can be an underground performer and still perform at Marina Bay Sands.
‘Underground’ is where you bring people to and where you speak from. Some might disagree, but it rings true for me.Back to appropriation – let me ask you. Do you think Pek Jin Shen’s rap name is okay?
It’s that Rich Chigga debate all over again, isn’t it?
Of course, and perhaps Rich Chigga who’s now Rich Brian has a different career trajectory, or maybe he has better people around him.
But all I know is that, this form of music is not our culture. We must always pay tribute and never exploit something that is not ours. Someone who isn’t black should never use the N word or reference it. Let’s get that straight for everyone here.Anyone in interviews can say that they are inspired by Tupac and the roots of hip hop, but what happens when your end product differs so much from the philosophy of what Tupac stood for? You’re literally lying to people who are taking time, because every time someone sits down to interview you, or listens to your music, it’s a vote of confidence. It’s an investment in your career. It’s the same for what you put out on social media. When you follow me on Instagram, I see you as someone who wants to be part of a bigger message beyond my music. That’s why if people call me a rapper, sure. It’s one thing I do but I also care about so many other things.
You’re also open about the need for publications to hold themselves up to their standards. Let’s set the record straight – what is lazy journalism, and is the lack of journalism why artists should be creating their own platforms?
Right now, I look to independent publications and journalism to providing an unfiltered platform for artists to share.I feel that journalists are tastemakers and so they have a duty to do proper research and put out something that, at the end of the day, is representative of the work that we’re trying to do to move culture. I’m only talking about hip hop because I’m not creating music of any other genres. It’s unfair to put artists on a list and go, this artist sounds like Lil Wayne, that artist sounds like Nicki Minaj.
That’s how traffic runs, right? Clickbait titles with rappers who are all about the hype – that’s a disservice you’re doing the genre and artist. Anyone who rhymes the same words twice is called a rapper – that’s not true. There is a barrier to entry, at least in the hip hop that I’m trying to speak to and protect. When it comes to microwaved art and journalism, it’s all lazy on everyone’s part.
Just to clarify, journalism is also art. Sometimes, it feels like no one really puts time in on both sides. The quality goes down, and we end up in a place where we celebrate mediocrity.Also, who is vetting the articles that are published? How many of our platforms actually hold themselves to a standard and are trying to innovate? Everything popular is wrong, as Oscar Wilde said.
Stop labelling anyone as the future of something, or the next (inserts iconic musician here). Give it a break. If people are looking to you for information, you have have the power. As a concerned reader and fan of the genre, I would like to see publications quality controlling and putting names behind their work. Anything else is irresponsible.
Which goes back to your belief that artists should create their own platforms.
Not just that. Giving back to other artists is important too. I strive to create a system to enable young hip hop artists to have the ability to create so that they don’t have to be dependent on grants or money from the state – it is always conditional. The art suffers as a result.
I’m a brown man. Most other rappers and hip hop artists in Singapore are brown, and many of them come from lower income backgrounds. I want to empower these youths. I’m for that kind of empowerment.
Sometimes it’s not just about having resources but the kinship and network between people who want to do something. It’s about pushing people towards staying loyal to what they believe in.Hip hop and government are incompatible entities. We cannot have our messages censored by the state. I refuse to have IMDA dictate or allow a young artist to self-censor what they’re saying. My message to these organisations is: stay away from hip hop – unless you want to share platforms to let us speak our truths. We are not your mouthpieces.
What about record labels? As someone who sees no value in the corporate machine, how does your vision align with eventually signing to a label?
It’s not that I see no value in the machine. It’s just that I live by values and a code of ethics that are by and large not similarly valued by the machine – for the most part.
Working with a record label is a different dance altogether, where I have to choreograph between what I am doing and what I could be doing, and I’m ultimately finding a partnership that can best serve the art. I am gambling on myself.
Ultimately, we never get what we deserve – only what we have the leverage to negotiate.So I’m slowly building leverage. I’m going to be an independent artist until I find a partnership with a label that aligns with my values. It’s also about finding or achieving something beyond just creating and promoting music.
Going back to journalism, it’s the same. I will never ask someone to feature my work. The ones who find my work are people who are curious about who I am or what I have to say. At the end of the day, Subhas as a persona doesn’t matter. I care most about cultivating the person, and opportunities will come when they may. This leads me to a conundrum — because of the way I conceptualise my art, I find it difficult to understand how magazines can feature someone’s music without also endorsing the other things that this person represents.
Maybe journalism just has a different start and end point here.
But how many media sources actually bother to find out an artists’ oeuvre of works before approaching them for a story? How many of them recognise that there’s no such thing as an unbiased opinion?It boils down to the lack of critique culture, doesn’t it?
Instead of sitting on a fence and saying that every music release is a great one, how about stepping up and pushing artists, for example, to rap about topics more than bike shares – especially when they are in their mid-thirties? Not many will take that step, especially with a small industry in Singapore. I understand that. But it is a disservice to the genre and its potential.
Everyone hangs on to industry friendships and relationships, and the art suffers as a result.But guess what – we can still be someone’s friend, and hold them accountable to their art. By saying that, I don’t mean that rappers should necessarily be in competition with each other. I mean that rappers should empower each other, reclaim that power, and write about things that actually matter. Not just convincing other people who are from a similar background to you that you are richer than them… Talking about cars, women, ‘blessings’, and having fancy fucking shit in your music videos. There is little substance to that.
Some may claim there is this incredible intersectional masculinity of reclamation and selfhood that is going on. If so, come on my podcast – let’s talk about it. But for the most parts, I am not sold. What you mostly see as Singapore hip hop is not what we are all about. We are more than that.
I want rappers, especially young rappers of colour to start questioning instead of settling. Figure out why we rap about the things we rap about. There is more poetry in the process of unpacking things.If there comes a point in time when every artist owns a platform, where do you see the need for journalism going?
I don’t think we’ll reach a world where every artist would want or need that kind of independence. The platforms we see today are still going to exist. It’s just very limiting when people are only on these platforms when there’s something to promote. Whether or not I have an album coming up, I still have things to say. With some things, music is the best medium. As for other things, sometimes an honest conversation over coffee is the best way to put it out. There are too many things that I stand for and want to share that I feel like I have too short a life to achieve, and so verbalising them is important.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own process and struggle of why they want to create music. I know mine is different from a lot of people's.Some people might create music just because they want to mess around with autotune, that’s fine too. But don’t put me on a list like that, with influencers or people riding on the wave because that’s disrespectful. It is what it is. I just hope people can listen to the album and the way it’s being put together—the musicality, lyricism, the messaging—and engage with it.
I hope I can lead by example. I don’t think we have OGs. I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop artists here – probably only one or two. My message to young artists is – create your own platform, stay independent as long as you can, and say fuck you more than you ask for permission or forgiveness. Be your biggest critic.
Finally, do you think objectivity can be achieved when it comes to addressing artistic, social and political concerns?
All my opinions are biased from my own lived experiences. I don’t think there’s objectivity but I do believe there are three sides to the truth – your version, my version and the truth itself. These versions are conveyed by our voices, just like a translation. When I’m translating a text, there’s no way I’m translating the language based on the intention of the original author to a different language that has a whole different code of cultural and linguistic configurations. The translation is going to be biased. It’s relative and we are merely interlocutors.
But I’m willing to throw away everything that I understand about something if I’m convinced that I was completely wrong about how I thought about a certain issue. This is part of my evolution as a person. Everything that we understand as facts right now is based on the current limits of our understanding.
There’s a lot of rigour that goes on in my own opinions, which I question a lot. But I am ready to learn, and I am always learning.