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Front and Centre: Minority Voices in Local Music

Baybeats Budding Writer Elly Lau on representation in the underground scene


Published: 4 Nov 2020

By: Elly Lau

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.

2020 has undoubtedly been a whirlwind of a year, politically speaking. Charged slogans like Black Lives Matter have permeated our social media feeds, and there is a heightened awareness of social inequalities, both globally and locally. At home, discussions on race relations have been bubbling, and xenophobia has been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under this climate of discourse, how does the Singapore music scene respond to the challenges of meaningful representation? 

One does not need to take a deep dive to see that diversity is definitely present in local underground spaces. Many musicians come from backgrounds that cut across the lines of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and more. We have the all-women punk band Fuse, who have positioned themselves at the forefront of Singaporean hardcore. We also have emerging singer-songwriters Of Methodist and Chloe Ho, whose brand of confessional pop illustrates the everyday lives of queer youth in Singapore. Yet, given the nascency of the local music scene and the small size of the community, minority representation is still heavily under-discussed.

Music-making cannot be divorced from the social context under which it operates, and minority musicians’ lived experiences are also intricately tied to racial and gender politics. In a time where discourse on minority representation is more alive than ever in Singapore, perhaps the local music scene can be a platform to promote critical dialogue on diversity and visibility—which are the very things that have drawn musicians and music fans to this space. 

I spoke to Ashwin Rao, frontman of garage rock outfit Knightingale, who echoed this sentiment: “The underground music scene is very much open and free. If you’re a minority who needs assistance in getting yourself heard, you can do so without gatekeepers trying to stop you.”

From left to right: Rajiv Singh, Ashwin Rao, Ben Ho. Photo by Maryln Goh, courtesy of the band.

Other than minority visibility, an important ingredient in creating safe spaces is to ensure that minority artists can even access them to begin with. Making and performing music requires many resources, ranging from equipment rental to venue booking fees, marketing and even industry connections.  

“I’m not sure how much of my race and nationality comes into play, but as a PR (permanent resident), I can access the same resources as my Singaporean counterparts. I’m able to book venues without any issues or hurdles. So that’s a good thing,” says Rao.  

It seems that within the scene, there is open access to resources, and minority musicians face equitable treatment on this front. Perhaps the possible barrier to entry here would be one that is class-based: budding musicians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not be able to afford the resources and social capital needed to get ahead compared to their more well-off counterparts. However, it is also comforting to know that there are government initiatives to level the playing field. For example, the National Arts Council offers a multitude of grants to support artists’ creative endeavours.  

Furthermore, platforms such as Baybeats are crucial in supporting artists of different backgrounds. Being well-funded by Esplanade, it serves as a valuable platform for budding musicians looking to get their names out in the public.

“It definitely starts from the people that run these places. For the Baybeats lot, it was a fresh breath of air to play with such diverse bands. Quite a number of minority musicians felt loved and appreciated [there]. We all felt at ease, and to not feel judged by others—that’s huge.” 

Ashwin Rao

Up-and-coming indie pop band Viceboy also expressed their appreciation for such initiatives. “We had the privilege of participating in the Noise Music Mentorship Programme in 2019 despite being complete newbies at the time. Since then, we’ve had many opportunities to perform, and we definitely weren't hindered by our minority backgrounds,” shares guitarist Khalis Zulkifli.   

On a more personal level, it is also worthwhile to examine the narratives crafted by minority musicians. Notably, minority hip-hop artists such as THELIONCITYBOY and Mediocre Haircut Crew have incorporated tongue-in-cheek political satire in their songs, with lyrics that embrace their racial heritage. 

“I remember seeing a band called Tiramisu at IGNITE! Music Festival. Most of their lyrics were in Malay, and it was really refreshing to see that on a big stage in Singapore,” recounts Viceboy vocalist Shahrin Syara. “It’s quite heart-warming to know that there are festivals that prioritise authenticity rather than marketability,” says keyboardist Ahamed Alfaied. Interestingly, this suggests the multilingual potential of the scene, and could be a unique frontier to explore—perhaps we could be hearing indie rock in Tamil in the near future.

Clockwise: Ahamed Alfaied, Khalis Zulkifli, Pranoy Roy Choudhury, Anan Hasan, Shahrin Syara. Photo by @filmisnotbread on Instagram

On the other hand, it seems that there has yet to be a significant pool of artists whose output centres the minority experience. And that is perfectly reasonable too; expecting minority musicians to only make music about their identities can be problematic and tokenistic.

How then, do we draw the line between tokenisation and genuine inclusion? For Viceboy, intention matters. “Randomly putting minorities in a lineup just to create the impression of diversity can be performative,” remarks guitarist Anan Hasan. “Being judged for our skills should still come first, and efforts to boost representation shouldn’t become charity hand-outs for us.” However, they believe that the local music scene should be welcoming of minority narratives, and minority artists should be encouraged to speak authentically about their lived experiences.

For Rao, incorporating the minority experience in his work is a valuable endeavour. “I’m currently working on new music, which does touch on these topics. I think it’s important in this day and age,” he reveals. “There’s clearly a lack of awareness about what an Indian foreigner goes through while trying to settle down here.” Interestingly, there is an interplay of identities here for Rao, as an Indian immigrant residing in Singapore. It would be fascinating to see how these explorations manifest in Knightingale’s music.

Knightingale performing at <i>Baybeats 2018</i>. Photo by Alvin Ho.

In the case of Viceboy, their priorities differ slightly. “Making music about minority experiences is definitely a powerful tool to start conversations. But frankly, we haven’t really done that because we want to create music that all our members can relate to,” explains bassist Alfaied. “Even if we’re minorities, we still come from different walks of life, and what it means to be a ‘minority’ wouldn’t be the same for each individual. That’s why we prefer to focus on more universal themes in our songwriting.”  

Pranoy Roy Choudhury brings up a crucial reminder—minority musicians are not a monolith, and reducing their craft to mere identity politics would be doing them a huge disservice. Ultimately, meaningful representation should strive to create space for a multitude of narratives, without falling into the trap of gatekeeping or performativity.

Surely, for musicians, there is no greater wish than to be recognised for their own artistic merit at the end of the day. But to get there, one must be able to access the resources and visibility needed to even reach an audience. “I hope to see more accessible locations for gigs in the future, and for mainstream media to pay more attention to local alternative music,” Syara expresses. “We just want to feel like there’s a place for us here, and that we’re seen for our passion and hard work.” 

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