Photography: Nic Shields / Interview: Racy Lim
Part I of SAND Magazine with Subhas. Read Part II here.
“Someone died, and everyone is so silent. Where are our artists?”
Hip hop artist and activist Subhas questioned following news of the death of Dave Lee, an NSF who suffered from a fatal heat stroke – the cause of negligence from authorities. When asked about the downsides of comfort in our society, he challenged, “a lot of dreams have been erased and lives unnecessarily lost because of conscription, and that’s just one thing. How not to talk about these things as a rapper?”
His debut album Not A Public Assembly, released digitally a week after his album launch show at The Substation, embodies his critical analyses of social and political imbalances in the country he grew up in. It is in the lyrical and production processes that Subhas, together with mentor and producer Fauxe, accurately depict the complexities of Singapore without glamourising everyday situations or turning to overused catchphrases.
On one occasion, I brought up a provocation by poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at — if you care too much about Singapore, first it’ll break your spirit, and finally it’ll break your heart. This rings true for many activists and citizens who have been beaten down for attempting to activate reforms. In response, Subhas agreed to the message but was quick to turn the mood around.
“I’m here now. We’re here now. There are too many spirits to break, voices to quell, and hearts to unhear.” — Subhas
There’s an undying aggression attached to Subhas’ activism through music and his upcoming podcast. Though, this frustration is not to be confused with blind anger as each track on the album also reveals a thoughtful individual who displays tremendous love for life and his surroundings.
You wasted no time in waiting before speaking out about changes and reforms. As both a rapper and an artist who’s comparatively new debut wise, what does all this mean to you?
I’m not someone who believes in non-reformist reforms. I don’t believe in working within the system for change because eventually the system deadens you and your spirit. Have you watched Breaking Bad? There’s one scene in which Mike Ehrmantraut said, no more half measures. I believe in that. I like to do things the right way from a place of compassion, and fight the good fight.
I’m not saying my moral complex is any more authoritative than anyone else’s. But I think that people don’t often go to that place to make decisions – looking inwards and finding what’s right. I think people skip that process, and allow others to tell them how to feel or what to think, or how to perceive.
It’s a balance between perceiving and observing but there are enough people in our society who placate with non-reformist reforms – spending time observing and working in the system for decades or so before giving back. While I respect that, I have faced these realities very intimately in my growing up experience.
For example, if we stick to talking about National Service, I don’t want another young man to live for 18 years of his life being psychologically manipulated towards this manufactured idea that serving time for two years is normal. It’s a traumatising experience for a young boy knowing that’s the narrative one has to go through to ‘become a man’, and there’s neither option nor choice. Not only that, but there’s also the erasure of history, public discourse, cultural traditions, and individuals' identities to fit the larger nation building agenda here.
I didn’t waste any time in making known my standpoint when I started making music because this genre in Singapore has not lived up to its potential from the standpoint of socio-political change.
Do you think you’ve waited too long?
No. I think a lot of my life has prepared me for my career as a rapper. You have to live a little before you can tell stories that are worth listening to, and also, I’ve always done work wherever I can. My senior thesis in school was about migrant workers and the post-riot condition of Little India – it was called How Has The Securitization of Space Post-2013 Riots Affected Migrant Workers Experience of Public Space in Little India.
Thinking back, I probably wouldn’t want to hear myself rapping as an 18 year old. My emotions were very much valid but they may not have manifested towards something that might be comprehensible or allow other people to relate to. What I have being 26 now is a certain perspective – I can speak with a privilege of hindsight but yet with incisiveness and tact.
On top of that, my music comes with the understanding that I have done other things to try to advance these causes, but they haven’t worked.
Not A Public Assembly pays homage to everyday heroes – in particular your mention of Melissa Chan, who’s a real person as well as an embodiment of, to quote you at your show, you and me. What’s the difference between the everyday person and the everyday hero?
The reference is an embodiment of the potential of you and me. For me, it’s about a refocusing.
We live in a culture that puts someone with a cult personality on a pedestal, and there’s a great amount of power that comes with having visibility in this world of clickbait media and Internet noise.
I’m just trying to be a more conscious consumer of music; and as an artist, to be more intentional about how I approach my platform – when I say something on a song, it becomes immortalised on that track. Integrity is important in this aspect. I have to choose wisely who and what I want to endorse and stand for.
With the Melissa Chan reference, I just wanted to shout out an everyday hero. AbdouMaliq Simone wrote about the idea of ‘people as infrastructure’. I believe it is happening here and it is my duty as a rapper to document it.
Music holds great power in moving ideas towards the mainstream. The reason that MINDEF employed influencers like Pek Jin Shen to create a song that glorifies conscription is the same reason I am creating music. With regards to Dave Lee, do we really think Jack Neo does not have blood on his hands? On this album, I wanted to shed light on issues I believe are important – more so than most things we see in front of us.
I associate the world around us to a streaming service. How much of the music we consume is because the music is inherently good rather than what the corporate machine has put in front of us, or what other people tell us is good? I wanted to create something that could still be relevant 10 or 20 years from now, and something that people could always return to for inspiration, hope, and points of discussion.
I see Melissa Chan as you and me because we have the potential to stand up, change lives and leave a legacy that’s beyond something we can predict. There’s no way Melissa Chan would have ever thought her name would end up in a rap song when she was stepping up to do what she did. We have to support good work in the capacities that we can.
The magic is that we don’t know who might amplify our voices later down the line – so we have to keep standing, speaking, and sometimes yelling.
Were you required to perform any balancing act when it came to addressing individuals and pointing out the flaws of the system?
Nah, I see it as lying on the same spectrum. How can you get people on a call to action to ‘riot’ against a system of neoliberal capitalism and unfettered economic growth and at the same time celebrate the quotidian Singaporean experience? But this is exactly the love-hate relationship and while the juxtapositions are complex, it reveals the multiplicity of our experience as Singaporeans.
How do you both love and objectively hate a place that has contributed to some of the things that went on in your life?
I think we all do. For me, there was definitely a phase when there was more hate than love. There has always been that push and pull. I have been biting my tongue from speaking in a public platform for too long. There is too much self-censorship here, and that’s the Panopticon at optimal efficiency and at its most insidious form. For me, it’s when you dig deeper and when you give back from an authentic place within – that’s when you start loving, because you have now invested spirit back in place.
It’s interesting because the complexities of the everyday have shaped my ability to code switch – in both speech and how I move within different social spheres. But yeah, the reality is that I could be in a fancy-ass college event ‘mingling’ only to come home to a reality that is very different.
Remember that STB slogan Uniquely Singapore? The messiness is what’s uniquely Singapore. Not the facade nor charade that we put on. Sometimes, you can address symptoms—and apply lipstick on the proverbial pig for the world to see—but the fundamental fractures remain. The lipstick is a deflection of attention from real issues. But yes, for me, it’s all about addressing parts that are most messy, complicated, and do not fit in the cookie cutter idea of what being a Singaporean is.
Some people may have incredible power, but not a platform within their positions in society to make change. As a rapper and someone who stands for justice and for those who are marginalised or less privileged—people who fall within 'the other'—I think it’s important to create and use my platform to speak. If there’s someone like Melissa Chan, I’m going to speak about it. Similarly, if there’s someone or something that moves us backwards, I’m going to call it out.
Were you ever worried about people treating Not A Public Assembly as a one-time consumption where one feels empowered after listening to an album, only to end up forgetting about it the next day?
That’s fine, I think. It’s what I do with most music. With most tracks I listen to, I probably don’t get past 30 seconds – that’s the reality of it. I think those who make it beyond and give it a chance will realise that this is not your everyday rap or hip hop album. This is a piece of me, and if people can relate to that… Even if it speaks to a handful of people – that is all that matters. For me, it’s important that the ideas of what the album stands for transform into something tangible.
Album Artwork: Natalie Christian Tan
The album in itself is a stand for the right to hold and share an opinion, to speak, to think, and to question. It’s so comfortable here that people can go their entire lives without having an opinion on some issues – that’s crazy to me.
We need to stop asking for permission or forgiveness, and start flipping the finger a whole lot more. We allow so many of our life decisions to be made by the state. I have to qualify – there’s a balance between standing loyal to an opinion that comes from your beliefs and principles, and allowing space for that position to evolve over time and through experience and discussion.
Yes, I am intolerant of intolerance. Period.
I’ve been listening, whether to other artists or friends in conversations, and trying to understand things from a place of compassion and empathy – especially opposing views. There are so many people I know and love who also share and talk about these things. I’m just doing it in the form of music and rap. There are so many other people who are making the same cases that I make. Some people have dedicated their entire lives to the causes that I’m talking about in one song. I am just lending my voice.
One thing that I noticed at your show is that people gravitate more towards social and political messages when they are presented in a physical space, as opposed to a commentary on social media or a casual conversation. Advocacy in a physical space is more likely to be accepted as education than anywhere else. How fucked up is that?
That’s why the Speaker’s Corner is restricted and policed. This is why we have laws against public assemblies. Because I can grab a soapbox, stand up to speak, and people will listen. It’s the same idea that you’re talking about but the state is two steps ahead. That’s why public speaking spaces are managed and you need a license to even busk – because they’re scared of these voices and messages.
I agree with you that it’s fucked up, but the more I say, the higher we stack our soapboxes and the louder we yell. Also, it’s important to me to surround myself with people who’re on the right side of history. I have no problem telling someone to fuck off if they subscribe to some hate ideology. I keep my circle small.
This is why music is important in our climate. It is a platform for people to engage with views when they listen to a track or album. This is also why I hold rappers to a higher standard in Singapore.
After listening to my album, it’s not about whether you agree with my stance on 377A or capital punishment. I don’t expect people to agree with me. I just expect people to engage – whether with me or other people. That being said, engagement is intangible. It’s also difficult to argue or break down an issue when people don’t come from a point of compassion, or lack logical backing to what they are saying.
My take is that it’s important to ask the right questions and approach conflict in a way that allows the other person to draw parallels to the ideologies they subscribe to. Find common ground. I don’t think it’s a middle ground, actually. It’s not about agreeing to disagree. It’s about lending a different perspective and letting people draw their own conclusions. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Engagement and communication is pivotal for change – because change isn’t in the outcomes. Change is in how we get about the outcomes.
The problem lies in: how many people are willing to admit that they are wrong, or might have been lacking in their thinking about certain issues? I’ve been wrong so many times. You have to engage but we like to keep ourselves in our little boxes, and society likes to keep us in our labels and clusters. Again, I am just engaging through music. I hope my songs fall on the ears of professors in elite institutions, some wealthy people, some people with other kinds or riches, kids, everybody. Importantly, I want our youth to know that it’s okay to say ‘fuck you’.
Say it often, and speak your truth.
I was talking to a polytechnic lecturer on a GrabShare ride the other day. She brought up that character values in school are an examinable subject. Sad, right?