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Screengrab for the video of "Our Singapore". Via NDPeeps on YouTube.

What is the music of my country? Race, harmony and diversity in Singapore

“All music, any organization of sounds is then a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality.”  

– Jacques Attali

“Gua jahat ada hajat boy”

– Akeem Jahat


Tuning In

The title of this article references a song by the Indonesian band Project Pop, Dangdut Is The Music Of My Country. It was the most immediate thing I latched on to as I attempted to write a bit more on not just harmony, but specifically a kind of collective harmony and what it represents or means.

Much like how jazz music became representative or symbolic of the United States, I found it interesting to find a sort of counterpoint in Indonesia. Whilst I will admit that both claims are potentially controversial, it is helpful in diving a little deeper into the question of, if the US has jazz and Indonesia has dangdut, what is the music of Singapore?

In light of recent controversies surrounding the E-Pay brownface episode in Singapore and Preetipls and Subhas Nair’s response, a video which re-worked Iggy Azalea’s F*ck It Up, a lot of the accompanying responses from experts and ministers spoke of the importance of racial harmony. With Singapore’s National Day taking place around the time of these incidents, during which there is always a new mashup / song / thing to sing to, I thought to address the trapped spirit of harmony in relation to race, with particular attention to rap as a musical phenomenon.

Aside from a relatively healthy music scene, rap’s appearance in various spaces and channels nationwide has been a thing of curiosity for me. From MDA’s music video faux pas to state campaigns or even platforms such as National Day Parade, rap seems to have found a place within the harmonic scale of Singapore’s musical climate. Considering rap’s history, a genre that grew out of resistance and marginality within the context of US’ own tortured ethnic and class conditions, the appropriation of rap by the state muddies the notion of resistance, power and its dynamics. It reduces the complexity of its culture to a commodity, or worst, a costume to parade with.

MDA rap
A screengrab of the MDA rap from 2007. (Source: mrbrown on YouTube)

From a musical standpoint, what is harmony? Let me borrow from Jacob Collier’s lovely breakdown of harmony on Wired:  harmony covers a wide range of categories which include sentiments such as “happy”, “sad”, “dark” and “mysterious”. So when we call upon the spirit of racial harmony in our national discourse, which harmonic spirit are we calling? Because by and large the surrounding discourse seems to focus on desiring peaceful relations or happiness. Which is fine, until you realise race relations is quite a complicated beast – much like musical harmony.

When we think of harmony, it is useful to think of it as complex relations between ideas and not just the idea that if “everyone is happy or not fighting, we’ve achieved harmony, yay!”. Harmony isn’t monophonic. This isn’t helpful in considering the challenge of numerous cultural and ideological lenses converging to dialogue and how it shapes the way we engage with one another. One approach to untangle racial harmony is to accept the vastness of harmony as a web of possibilities in marrying ideas to determine / contemplate on outcomes.

Remote Control

To be clear, my position on harmony for this argument encapsulates everything from instrumentation to lyrics, even more so when we consider the interaction of lyrics with musical arrangements.

Let’s begin by examining Singaporean rapper Akeem Jahat’s quote, “Gua jahat ada hajat boy”, which is from the track Remote Control off his mixtape SeluDOPE (2014). It roughly translates to mean “I’m bad with a purpose”. I’m italicising ‘bad’ because the literal translation of the word does a disservice to the intent of the verse. Jahat puts forth the classic trope of the anti-hero, as later in the verse he raps, “bukan popular / gua rapper population / anti hero tunggu masa / untuk tikam blakang satan”. This roughly translates to mean “(i’m) not popular / i’m the people’s rapper / an anti-hero waiting for his time / to stab satan in the back”. Aside from Satan, the song also makes another Abrahamic reference, specifically an Islamic gesture which is that when someone has passed away, it is customary to recite the surah (or chapter) Al-Fatihah. The line goes “A to tha AL-ta tha tha tha / All my competitions dead / Al-Fatihah.”

Album art for Akeem Jahat’s mixtape, SeluDOPE
Album art for Akeem Jahat’s mixtape, SeluDOPE (2014) (Photo: Akeem Jahat/Wikimedia Commons)

What’s fascinating about the song is how harmonically rich he has illustrated his cultural background for his listeners. Jahat references not only the tropes of rap music (evident in both lyrics and instrumentation), but the cultural references are accessible only to those familiar with Malay/Malay-Muslim culture. Later in the track he goes further by saying “Conteng muka Mona Fendi atas Mona Lisa”, which translates to “to vandalise the Mona Lisa by drawing the face of Mona Fendi”. Fendi was a Malaysian singer who was convicted of murdering a Malaysian politician in 1993. This act of defacing one of the most highly acclaimed works of European art signals an interesting gesture of decolonisation that heralds a new beginning of resistance, not to mention replacing one mysterious and controversial figure with another.

All these layers and complexities from a single track is the epitome of what rap music is about. The immediacy of a message encrypted into poetry is central to its culture of resistance. Remote Control is a song about Jahat’s prowess as a musician written from a dominantly Malay-Muslim identity and perspective. Set within Singapore’s context, it is a rallying call for new attitudes and perceptions towards not just music made locally, but the marginal cultures that are abundant in the city.

Changing Channels

Jahat’s proclamation of besting Satan aligns itself to Attali’s description of the musician as “a channeler of violence”, not in the literal sense as the track would suggest, but a political violence, music as a vehicle which enables cultural shifts. Where ‘satan’ could essentially allude to anyone / anything from an influential person to establishments, the musician here invokes the spirit of someone capable of effecting change by taking down evil to bring about a new chapter to their reality.

But it begs the question, which evil? Which “population” does the musician serve, or is servicing? In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Attali puts forth an argument that the musician “plays a double game” –  a musician is both “reproducer and prophet”. When not a prophet disarming the devil, a musician could also become a tool or weapon aiding those with power to shift social realities.

The ‘prophet’ is one who would find themselves at the cusp of power. Rappers embody the archetype of prophethood; individuals who stand before a crowd delivering message after message of social and political awareness. From the riotous and anthemic declaration of N.W.A’s F*ck tha Police in 1988 to J Cole’s 2016 takedown of hero worship, False Prophets, rap music’s history has always been about contesting spaces with power and authority.

Harmony for the prophet is complex, it is messy and filled with tension because there is a desire to make claims to another point of view, another option. If anything else, the prophet potentially brings about a perceived dissonance to a status quo which the population needs to negotiate with or reconcile. In other words, the prophet invites us to question existing harmonies.

On the other hand, the role of the ‘reproducer’ can be seen as a kind of useful idiot going about servicing either private, corporate or state interests, lulling a sleepwalking population into the abyss of propaganda. Maybe that sounds too harsh and ideological, but unlike the prophet, the reproducer isn’t inviting us to question, they are telling us to accept a prescribed harmony. The reproducer safeguards the status quo by regurgitating what has always already been established or known. It perpetuates rhetoric. In the eyes of the reproducer, maintaining harmony is the priority. This isn’t to say that it is a bad thing, the prophets and the reproducers have a lot of work in terms of negotiating their harmonic ideas to balance out the dissonances that occur in society.

A screengrab of the rap A Happy Journey Starts Like That! from 2009.
A screengrab of the rap A Happy Journey Starts Like That! from 2009. (Source: LTA singapore on YouTube)

Consider the various state-led campaigns where rap musicians became pivotal in shaping public opinion. From Phua Chu Kang’s foray into rapping for the Land Transport Authority to another Singaporean rapper, ShiGGa Shay, who was recently part of Gov.sg’s ‘Let’s Beat Diabetes’ campaign, the reproducer services an industry and population they were never a part of, merely transplanted to be part of a political campaign.

Looking into the lyrics reveals the depth of these tracks, for example, in ShiGGa Shay’s track Choose water – Drink up! Shay raps, “You only live once, put whatchu want in your mouth / Bubble Tea Chin Chow was the name of my spouse”. Or Phua Chu Kang’s A Happy Journey Starts Like That!, “hey you, over there / don’t cut queue, don’t you dare / wait your turn to board the train / what’s the rush, there’s no rain!”. If anything, the reproducer sits within a superficial form of harmony at the interest of a totality.

A screengrab of the E-Pay ad.
A screengrab of the E-Pay ad. (Via asiaone.com)
Who Has The Remote Control?

In July, a state-sanctioned series of advertisements promoting the use of an e-payment facility started raising eyebrows with its portrayal of a male Singaporean Chinese celebrity dressed and made up to look like members of the four prevailing races in Singapore, two of whom were meant to be women. This included having his skin darkened to portray an Indian man. There was a public outcry and the usual round of promises to do better.

Social media personality Preetipls and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, then released a satirical rap video, titled K. Muthusamy (the name of the Indian character in the ad), which called out acts of racism by the Chinese majority in Singapore. In releasing their video responding to the E-Pay ad, the collective voice of the Nair siblings could be likened to being the voice of the prophet, decrying violence by shedding light explicitly on the struggles of ethnic minorities facing discrimination in one form or other. In one of their verses, Preetipls confronts a common excuse of those denouncing being called a racist: “but hey / everything is ok / racial harmony day / I got Malay and Indian friends what / that’s what they say”.

After the video went viral, a police report was filed under claims that it was offensive, and the video together with the Nairs were placed under investigation. Requests were made from the police and IMDA for the video to be taken offline from Facebook and YouTube, with some individuals issued warning letters to remove the video from their personal profile pages and not to circulate the video further. The Nairs have since been let off with a two-year conditional warning, with the IMDA saying that the E-Pay ad was done in “poor taste” and issuing a reminder of “the importance of paying attention to racial and religious sensitivities”. 

In tandem with all of this comes the spectre of racial harmony, with proclamations on the importance of safeguarding it and how it is a work in progress, but incidentally, it is never fully articulated what sort of “harmony” this is. If racial harmony is a work in progress, does it mean there is a finality to this project? What are the conditions of work for this to take place? What is the intended outcome? 

A screengrab of K. Muthusamy by Preetipls and Subhas Nair.
Racial harmony? A screengrab of K. Muthusamy by Preetipls and Subhas Nair. (Via channelnewsasia.com)

As I have argued earlier, harmony isn’t just a singular thing. Harmony is an evolving, shape-shifting, polyphonic spirit. If we are hoping to have a serious discussion about racial harmony, we should see it as an ongoing cultural / political project where constant negotiations are being made in the interest of sustaining a composition of diverse ideas. The key point here being constant negotiation.

Negotiating can be an unpleasant task, but at least to me the point of negotiating is to be able to find a resolve amongst dissonance to allow for two or more contesting ideas to be “in harmony” with each other at the interest of moving forward. That’s not to say that dissonance is a bad thing, but where dissonance is often associated with something that is unstable, it is desirable to want to stabilise something before something else potentially goes wrong. This is where both prophets and reproducers begin their work, that is, to work out how they would signal the need for change whilst simultaneously preventing absolute catastrophe.

But back to the question, who has the remote control to our project on racial harmony? And why have efforts to control it thus far come out all wrong? From cultural anthropologist Margaret Chan’s op-ed claiming “Brownface is not Singaporean” to the failed “social experiment” on racism from the silent majority published by the Singapore Kindness Movement (the latter article of which has been taken down), I think quite simply, it is due to a desire to upkeep this monophonic, superficial sense of harmony at all costs.

What Is The Music Of My Country?

If racial harmony maintains itself as a work of fiction that different communities can’t write and modify, we will forever be forced to appreciate a piece of music in a very one-dimensional way, to accept a singular kind of happiness and the way it’s written. No, thank you. Here we depend on the prophet to herald a new beginning, a proposition for another way of being harmonious with one another, one that doesn’t flatten or dismiss the complexities of diversity. What will be the music of Singapore?

Despite the dominance of rap’s appearance in the political and cultural mainstream, it is still one of many genres which are part of Singapore’s harmonic repertoire, and is not the music of this country. Over the century some forms and genres have emerged and paved the way for new ideas to manifest itself, from pop yeh yeh, Vedic metal to xinyao – these are unique cultural vessels nested in the respective communities they are from, but the identity as a totality is in constant flux. It never settles. And even if it did momentarily, it has always been contested given the diversity that this small city cradles.

Album art for Enemy Of Duality (2016) by Rudra.
Album art for Enemy Of Duality (2016) by Rudra, a Vedic metal band.  (Photo: RUDRA Singapore on Bandcamp)

Perhaps to find an answer to the question of this article is too much of a political project – when in its essence, it is a cultural one, a people-driven one –  and the answer will ultimately be controversial. And maybe it’s not important to answer it. Perhaps we don’t need to find our jazz or dangdut equivalent, but more importantly see the diversity of musical expression emerge, each taking its time on stage to propose a different way of thinking about our existential crisis in this city. Perhaps once the prophet has offered a way to perceive, the reproducers’ work begins by amplifying some of these ideas, and in that process gain critical mass.

Everyone has a stake in composing this ongoing work and authorities facilitating this process should be mindful of allowing and generating deeper, more meaningful conversations of the things we are ignorant about and insensitive to. We need to move past a superficial rhetoric that has led us to this suppressed and angered present. If we are serious about racial harmony, we need to be ready to listen together through all the sadness, happiness, zaniness and uncertainties.

About the author(s)

bani haykal experiments with text + music. As an artist, composer and musician, bani considers music as a metaphor for cybernetics and his projects revolve around modes of interfacing and interaction in feedback/feedforward mechanisms. He is a member of b-quartet and Soundpainting ensemble Erik Satay & The Kampong Arkestra. In his capacity as a collaborator and soloist, bani has participated in festivals including Media/Art Kitchen (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan), Liquid Architecture (Singapore) and Singapore International Festival of Arts.

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