Rap for Singapore’s Vulnerable | Human rights news

Subhas Nair, a Singaporean of Indian origin, has made a hair-raising career in Singapore, attracting thousands of fans with his bold raps on controversial and sensitive topics, including racial issues.

But her work, alongside her sister Preeti, has also attracted the attention of authorities in the tightly controlled city.

“I am here to stand up for my community and as a rapper my role is to speak truth to power – not just for my people but for all of us who live under capitalism and this authoritarian regime”, 29 years old. old Subhas told Al Jazeera. “The mainstream media can say what they want – they are spokespersons for the state anyway; a state whose mother tongue is money”.

Subhas’ rhymes are designed to amplify the voice of what he calls underprivileged “brown people” through subversive, witty humor.

Nearly 75% of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, but the island is also home to ethnic Malay Muslims, Indians and other minorities.

Subhas’ debut album Not a Public Assembly (2018) tackled a range of local sociopolitical issues, from conflicting notions of masculinity to growing up as a low-income minority – all things Subhas has personally experienced. The rapper is also involved in justice-focused mutual aid work for migrant workers – many of them from Bangladesh and India – who are among Singapore’s most underprivileged communities.

A wit and a sharp tongue seem to run in the family: Preeti – better known as the YouTube counter-influencer Preetipls – not only raps, but is also a proud “plus-size” woman; the exact opposite of the thin, fair-skinned models that tend to dominate Singapore’s media.

Preetipls’ debut single THICC, released in 2018, was an ode to plus-size femininity and a blow to the machismo-dominated, Western-influenced standards of hip-hop music.

“Growing up, there was almost no plus-size representation in the hip-hop music I was exposed to, unless it was heavily hypersexualized,” Preetipls told Al Jazeera. She has 41,500 Instagram followers and a YouTube channel with over 16,000 subscribers.

“THICC was about how I felt about my body on a good day and how it was time for THICC girls like me to thrive in the spotlight.”

The duo’s rising profile as tongue-in-cheek social commentators, however, also ended up muzzling their caustic rhymes.

A Battle Against Ethnic Windmills

The Nairs’ first encounter with the law was in July 2019, when they uploaded a self-produced rap video in response to an advertisement for a Singapore government electronic payment service that featured Singaporean Chinese actor Dennis Chew in brownface makeup to play the role. an Indian character.

People walking in front of trees on a street in Singapore
Most people in Singapore are ethnic Chinese, but there are also ethnic Malay and Indian minorities, and race remains a sensitive issue in the country. [File: Caroline Chia/Reuters]

The Nairs’ profanity-laden video – a remix of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s song F**k It Up – targeted Singapore’s Chinese, accusing them of being privileged, racist and exploiting Indians and other minorities.

The video was quickly taken down, but Subhas received a two-year conditional warning for allegedly trying to foster grievances between Chinese Singaporeans and the island’s minorities. Subhas was warned that he would be prosecuted if he was again found guilty of any similar crime.

Chew, who also dressed as a Malaysian in a hijab for the commercial, apologized for taking part, while the electronic payments company also apologized.

Singapore’s Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), which regulates the industry, said that while the announcement was in poor taste and “caused offence” to minorities, it did not violate the local Internet Code of Conduct.

Still, the Nairs video seems to have had some positive effect.

“Since the incident, I haven’t seen ‘brown-face’ happen in Singapore,” Preetipls said. “Prior to the ‘brownface’ video, the mainstream media was totally inadequate in covering racial issues, and it is still an alternative/independent media that regularly provides coverage of racist incidents.”

fearless critics

Despite the warning, in July 2020, Sub posted a response to a video of ethnic Chinese Christians making hateful comments against another community.

In October of that year, he also commented on a murderous brawl that left 31-year-old Satheesh Gobidass, an Indian man from Singapore, dead in Orchard Towers, one of the city-state’s first retail complexes and now best known for its nightlife. Darkening.

The final straw for authorities was when Subhas used a cartoon from the post on the Orchard Towers incident to decorate the stage at the launch of his album Tabula Rasa on March 11 of last year at the now-closed alternative culture space The Substation.

On November 1, 2021, Subhas was charged with four counts of trying to promote ill will among Singapore’s different ethnic groups over issues of religion and race, with police saying the rapper had violated the conditions of the previous notice.

Accompanied by Preetipls, Subhas showed little contrition.

He walked to court wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 34-year-old Malaysian Indian who was on death row after being convicted of drug trafficking.

Nagaenthran’s lawyers argued that he had such an intellectual disability that he could not make an informed decision. A last-minute appeal to stop his execution was rejected and Nagaenthran was hanged last month.

“It was just me making the most of the platform and keeping the focus on the collective work ahead of us to abolish the death penalty and save the lives of Naga and everyone on death row,” Subhas told Al Jazeera.

“In Singapore, many groups have been displaced, underprivileged and targeted systemically. As I said in a track before, it feels like ‘the gallows is the only place we have representation.’”

Rap in a hard place

The crackdown on the Nairs is just the latest example of how Singapore polices not just the most rebellious forms of music and popular culture – in 2019, Swedish black metal combo Watain had its debut show in Singapore canceled due to complaints from Christian groups. local – but also satire and social commentary.

In 2021, a series of incidents renewed the debate over the nature of ethnic relations in the city-state, where race riots in 1964 left some 22 dead and hundreds injured.

In one incident, a Chinese man kicked an Indian woman in the chest hurling racial slurs as he did so, while in another, an older Chinese man confronted an interracial couple who were together in a park, questioning their relationship. Weeks later, a Malaysian woman was sentenced to prison for insulting an Indian woman on a public bus.

After the incidents went viral on social media, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong admitted that Singapore “has seen significantly more [racist incidents] cases than usual” in previous months, adding that it was “most likely because of the stress of COVID-19.”

Wong emphasized that Singapore remains a multiracial society that does not “devalue” diversity, but “we accept and celebrate it”.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted a third of his 2021 National Day speech to race and religion, and said the majority needed to be more sensitive to minority concerns. He also announced a new Racial Harmony Maintenance Act to encourage people to live better together.

“Laws cannot, by themselves, make people get along better with each other,” Lee said. “But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong and encourage people over time to behave better.”

After considering a guilty plea, Subhas decided to go on trial for the charges against him.

The court date is pending.

“I have no illusions of grandeur or aspirations to be rich or famous,” said Subhas. “I just want to speak truth to power and run as fast as I can while the baton is still in my hand.”

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