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Does Local Music Have To Be ‘Singaporean’?

Baybeats Budding Writer Harris Jamal asks, what does 'local' music actually mean?


Published: 4 Nov 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

This article was written by a Baybeats Budding Writer under the guidance of mentor Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times.

So what makes local music actually local?  

Admittedly, when I think of the words "local music", there really isn’t a definite line in which I could draw the boundaries. I kind of always took the categorical phrase for granted. If that’s what the media calls them (local artists), then that’s what they are. I never really thought about the people who sometimes don’t feel like they are accepted by the community for being the way that they are. I have never had to question my identity like that.  

Nathan Hartono’s recent open letter to Singaporeans on how he identifies as one, intended as a push back against the hurtful criticism directed at him for fronting the National Day Parade 2020 campaign, was heartbreaking. It should serve us all a huge reminder that there is still so much to do here. There is no place at all for racism or xenophobia in our country. The music community stands behind this message. 

It would be useful to think of these arbitrary lines now, more than ever. Does local music have to be intrinsically Singaporean? And by this I mean, must it be really written by a Singaporean? What about PRs and non-Singaporeans who have lived here for some part of their lives, don’t they matter too? In this feature, I interview Lewis Loh, 24, a Singaporean artist trying to make a name for himself in the local music scene and Sai Akileshwar, 35, a programming officer from Esplanade, with extensive knowledge on the matter.  

I knew bright-eyed boy LEW before he even came to be a part of the music scene. Soft-spoken but confident and fearless, my Company In-Charge was a huge personality in camp, and I could not be even prouder of where he is today. Five years on from a fateful shared taxi experience, we greeted like old friends. LEW, or Lew Loh as he wants to be known now, groggily composed himself for the interview—complaining of the difficult adaption to a new twelve-hour differential time zone in Boston. LEW is there for school, studying in the esteemed Berklee College of Music. He was used to having char kway teow for dinner at this time but the sun would be just beginning to rise. As cliched as this line sounds, his heart was still here. This is as Singaporean as it gets, I thought.

I spoke to LEW on how he sees things from this "outsider" perspective, being an artist in the local music scene that has spent a lot of time outside Singapore. Lewis was born and raised in Hong Kong until the age of 18. He moved to Singapore to live here by himself for the first time to serve National Service in the Singapore Police Force. Lewis refers to this growing phase in his life as a defining moment in his music career and credits the city for bringing it out of him.  

“Singapore just became a canvas for experiencing these new things and so, it definitely had an effect on my songwriting.” Lewis speaks with a polished American accent and sings that way too. I probed him about his music and asked if there were any experiences of discrimination for not sounding "Singaporean" enough and on what it means to qualify as local music in this context.  

He says that there were elements of that but he would quickly brush off the haters as non-listeners of local music anyway and would instead focus on the positives, referencing the deeply loyal community of fans that he has here. If there were any detractors that would cast doubt on how he himself identifies as Singaporean, then they were surely a small group.

The conversation then flowed into what was then a natural contrast-comparison to another one of our National Service batchmates, Fariz Jabba, and his new wave of hip-hop multilingual lyricism—combining Malay, English and sometimes Singlish in his raps. While LEW’s music doesn’t indulge in the multilingual lyricism of Fariz Jabba, he explains that he wrote his songs based on lived experiences here and so he feels as local as anyone here. And rightly so.

We can now have a nuanced view of what local music is from this emotional aspect. LEW’s personal experiences provide us with a useful qualitative reach in which to measure these complex standards, or at least there is one known understanding of that now. So long as it is a lived experience of being in Singapore referenced in the lyrical content of the songs, then it should rightfully qualify as Singaporean music.  

Still, it did not satisfy the other doubts in my mind about what constitutes local music. In coming to terms with a more broad and objective definition of the categorical phrase, I sought advice from Akilesh. 

Akilesh, who was busy preparing for Baybeats Online spared some time from his busy schedule to talk to me about these issues. Despite working through the weekend, his enthusiasm for the state of local music in Singapore still remains.

I first asked him to talk about the state’s view of local music and found a surprisingly positive reaction. The state itself is desperate for local, burgeoning talents to succeed and has placed a lot of resources in helping musicians here, regardless of their national status, to realise that dream. Esplanade is one such organisation that pushes for such local music to thrive and Akilesh would aptly describe themselves as “culture progressors” in that context.

We dove deeper into issues of culture and agreed to the consensus that local music is ever changing and so, it isn’t a single, distinct, specific sound. “I could see Afro-Latino-influenced music being part of the local scene in the future,” he predicts. It’s hard to imagine these words being uttered just a few years ago, but that is the reality in which Akilesh believes we are living in today. Hence, the Singaporean local music identity is a constructivist concept and so it will always be a perpetual work-in-progress.

Reconciling these thoughts now to myself, it seems almost impossible to know what the Singaporean local music identity truly is. Trying to define it as I had ignorantly intended through distinct sounds, lyrical content or accents, would make the widely complex and multifaceted experience essential. We should be open to embracing music from all sources within our tiny island and to not measure one’s "Singaporean-ness", in whichever form they may be, before deciding to brand them as "local". I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg to spark more conversations about Singaporean music and in promoting greater tolerance in our society at large.

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