As part of a new CNA documentary series titled Roar!, four Singapore musicians have been tasked to write some new music for National Day that will challenge the canon of standard NDP songs through their edgier themes.
Benjamin Kheng, Aisyah Aziz and Wang Weiliang have written songs about personal struggles growing up in Singapore, such as PSLE pressure and seeking acceptance.
But instead of a personal experience, rapper Subhas Nair, who’s known simply as Subhas, chose to write about migrant workers.
All four songs from Roar! are available at https://wmsg.lnk.to/Roar.
Subhas decided to address the topic because there are several issues regarding migrant workers in Singapore that the 27-year-old, informed by his degree in Urban Studies from Yale-NUS, feels strongly about.
“These people don’t come here as just numbers. They are human; they have interests and passions,” he said. “And human rights includes, to me, a minimum wage in a country that you’ve built.”
The song he has written, titled Utopia, is performed in collaboration with Migrants Band Singapore, a group of instrumentalists and singers who hold full-time jobs in industries such as construction, plumbing and security.
The 20-odd members play the flute, tabla, harmonium, piano and many more. Last weekend, they and the other three musicians featured in the documentary performed their songs live at the Crazy Elephant bar, ahead of the documentary's release next month.
In a way, though, Subhas has also managed to find parallels between their stories and his: Growing up with an abusive father in a home where his parents struggled to pay rent, he’d always felt like he was one of society’s marginalised.
Even now, “As an independent rapper, I don’t get many mainstream platforms,” he said. “As a brown man in Singapore in this industry, there’s not a lot that comes by.”
AVOIDING THE “POVERTY PORN” TRAP
When the opportunity to work with CNA arose, Subhas was focused on using his music for social good, and this involved thinking beyond the superficial.
“I realised there were two real traps in this. The first one was that it could be very exploitative,” he said. “Think about it: This Singaporean songwriter goes and meets with migrant workers, spends some time with them, interviews them, takes their stories, writes their song, sells their song. Who makes the money? And is that restorative justice?”
He continued: “From the start it was, ‘If I’m doing this, then I’m doing it to make sure that migrant workers who are in this documentary are remunerated.”
He added: “I don’t want to just speak to random migrant workers and create poverty porn. I want to collaborate. I want to work with a band. And it turns out there’s this band, Migrants Band Singapore, that we were put in touch with.”
It was important to him that that the migrant workers featured on the show be compensated for their time and efforts, but because it was against policy for the documentary to pay its interviewees, Subhas worked out a solution. Now, “They are featured artists on my song. So, you pay me for my craft, and I budget accordingly.”
After that came the second potential trap: Tokenism. Even though “I related to them so much because of diaspora and thinking of myself as South Asian”, Subhas knew the migrant workers’ story would not ring the truest if it were told through his voice. Furthermore, “I don’t understand their instruments; I don’t play them. I also didn’t want them to speak in English or say anything that I wrote.”
So, instead of having them perform a song he wrote, he went to one of their performances in Nee Soon and made a recording of them performing a ghazal titled Aar Kichu Chai Na Mone Gaan Chara, which is Bengali for “I have everything I need because of this song”. That recording is now part of the track.
As artists, he said, “We just capture what’s there. We are the vehicles. We are not the most important. The most important are the teachers, the firemen, the mothers feeding children and waking up early in the morning, the hawker aunties with the varicose veins on their feet from standing for so long. Those are the people whose stories we must amplify. Our job is to be authentic about those stories; to tell our Singaporean stories.”
LESS TALK, MORE ACTION
Meeting the individual band members was an evocative experience. “And then when they started making music, I felt jealous,” he quipped. “They are so talented… I learned so much just being in that space and talking to them.”
But beyond raising awareness through this project, Subhas believes in change through action – by looking at issues such as minimum wage, for instance. And, as another example, “A professor that I know, Anju Paul from Yale-NUS, is working on a migrant care index. How important is that?”
He asserted, “We can achieve awareness by talking about something – or we can achieve awareness along the way as we demand justice.”
In his view, “We can live in a country where we’re all prospering – we just have to redefine prosperity to encapsulate compassion, empathy and almost a responsibility for the social mobility for these people.
“That’s why I chose to do music. Because I know that I can influence a generation of people. Because I know it’s more powerful than they understand.”
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Growing up, music was one of the pillars in his life. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and Immortal Technique “raised me”, he said. “They were my fathers. They were my brothers. They were like everything to me.”
Subhas’ own father walked out on the family when he was a teenager, leaving his mother and younger sister, YouTube personality Preetipls, fighting to pay the rent.
As a boy, playing basketball represented his other bolt for freedom. “Basketball was my escape from my hell, which was living in my house, because my father was so toxic and lost everything that we had through his gambling addiction,” he said.
Subhas eventually became a national player, went on to attend Hwa Chong Junior College and, armed with a Georgette Chen scholarship, obtained his degree from Yale-NUS College, where he now works as an Executive for Athletics and Recreation.
Through it all, he knew that rap was a calling. With the music of his favourite artists, “I could escape from being here in this body, in this Singapore, and be anywhere else if I just listened,” he said. “They gave me reason to stick around in this life. I would probably have taken my life if not for hip-hop. Now, it’s a duty for me to build on the tapestry that has already been started. This is a part of a larger movement towards something greater than us, towards escaping cycles of poverty, pain and trauma.”
That’s why Subhas hopes that Utopia can open a door to freedom for Migrants Band Singapore – if in no other way, by having them as featured artists on his song, assuring them monetary compensation for their music.
And even though he’d had experience volunteering with and interviewing migrant workers before, each new person he met while working on the project had a different story to tell, making him increasingly conscious that, “As (band leader) Nil Sagar told me, ‘Our migrant histories cannot be told in one song.’”
He added, “I didn’t expect to be moved so much, being there.”