Five Singaporean Musicians Going Against The Odds to Chase Their Dreams

As we near the end of 2020, it seems to be the right time to take stock of the past 12 months. It’s been a strange and uncomfortable time for many, but also an opportunity for growth for countless others. At T Singapore, we’ve looked inward to rediscover the various Singaporean artists, musicians and models who have been steadfastly pursuing their goals, while contributing to the arts and entertainment scene here and beyond.

For December we thought it fitting to end with a bang with five Singapore-based musicians who have been making new music content this year, namely Jasmine Sokko, Benjamin Kheng, Yung Raja, Tabitha Nauser and Aisyah Aziz. Their music may span the gamut from rap to electronic to pop, but there are also striking similarities in terms of their hustle, grit and pure talent, and their determination to continue making music and art against the odds.

Aisyah Aziz

Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.
Chopova Lowena dress and beret, Cartier earrings and bracelet.

Over a Zoom video call one afternoon in November, Aisyah Aziz, the Malay singer-songwriter, speaks to me from within her home. What struck me instantly was her casual, confident disposition, perfectly set off by her head of bold, vivid yellow hair cropped into a pixie cut. In a loose, white T-shirt, she is snacking on a pack of roasted almonds. Her face, devoid of the graphic, daring makeup looks she often wears in public, is dominated by wide, round eyes, softly angular cheekbones and a pointy chin. Her speech is laden with Singaporean colloquialism and often ends in laughter, conveying a sense that the 26-year-old doesn’t take herself too seriously; one is instantly put at ease by her relaxed presence.

Another notable trait of Aisyah is how she likes to answer almost exclusively through anecdotes. She recounts instances to me as though she’s thinking out loud, her self-referential responses — “And I was like… And she was like…” — marked by a spontaneity in word choice and in her animated facial expressions.

This hyper-candidness might lull one to imagine that her career as a musician, which she embarked on at age 19, has been an easy course.

In 2015, Aisyah launched her professional music career in Malaysia after finishing sixth in the Malaysian reality singing competition Akademi Fantasia. Her most loyal fans know her for her vocal skill in Malay pop, a recognition she still acknowledges now, saying, “I know that I sing better in Malay.” It would be two years later that her sultry voice, which tends to trail off in an idiosyncratic rapid vibrato, would receive critical acclaim on a regional stage. She bagged three awards at the 2017 Anugerah Planet Muzik (APM) awards: Best Collaboration for the independently released track “Tanda Tanya”; Best Singapore Song and Best APM Song for her duet with the Malaysian singer Haikal Ali, “Senyum Saja.” In the same year, she won the award for Singapore’s Best Asian Artist at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, where she also performed live.

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Benjamin Kheng

Moncler Collection jacket, sweater and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier and Ecrou de Cartier rings.
Moncler Collection jacket, sweater and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier and Ecrou de Cartier rings.

On a warm evening in late July 2016 at The Coliseum, an open-air event area at Hard Rock Hotel in Sentosa, a single spotlight illuminated Benjamin Kheng, who was alone on stage. Clasping his mike, the singer was dressed casually: a headband around his forehead, a sleeveless white top, skinny jeans. A 2,500-strong crowd was huddled in front of the raised platform, their faces glowing as they held up their phones and pointed them at Kheng.

It was the first-ever concert of The Sam Willows — a pop quartet Kheng is a part of — following their debut record “Take Heart.” And this moment was the part Kheng performed his solo.

Instead of the upbeat sugary tunes the audience had come to expect from The Sam Willows, he recited a poem. Written by him earlier that year and backed by a tune, the spoken word poetry was melodious. But more than that, it was powerful. The maladies of modern-day youths were made to rhyme in quick-fire succession. Self-probing queries like “What’s a thousand likes worth if you don’t like yourself?” were thrown in. What sounded like a personal note to self cut incisively into the heart of this crowd, who were most definitely part of the Instagram-obsessed generation.

The name Benjamin Kheng is hardly foreign to most of Singapore’s millennials and Gen Zs. The 30-year-old made his name as one quarter of The Sam Willows, which was formed in 2012 with his sister, Narelle Kheng, and long-time friends Sandra Riley Tang and Jon Chua.  Last year towards the end of May, after seven years of actively producing EPs and performing gigs, the band announced their hiatus on Instagram, citing the need “to take a little step back to reflect, to grow, to come back fuller.” 

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Jasmine Sokko

 

Prada top, skirt, heels and belt, Cartier Pasha de Cartier steel watch 35mm, Clash de Cartier rings and bracelet. Jasmine Sokko’s own mask.
Prada top, skirt, heels and belt, Cartier Pasha de Cartier steel watch 35mm, Clash de Cartier rings and bracelet. Jasmine Sokko’s own mask.

As a child, Jasmine Sokko spent a lot of time pondering the etiology of the world she perceived.  “I could never quite fit in growing up because I spent a lot of time in my head,” she says. Sokko put those negative feelings into music, using the art form to express her frustration with the rigid strictures of Singaporean society. Her eureka moment came when she realised how a certain feeling could be condensed into a good two, three minutes of pleasant sonic experience — for a stranger half the world away. “The kid in me saw this as a noble pursuit,” says Sokko.

You might recognise Sokko, 25, on Instagram through pictures of a young woman with long, jet black hair, often worn with straight bangs that frame a masked, petite face. Her slightly over 100 posts — selfies, album art, live performances, fashion editorials, magazine covers — telegraph a sense of close curation. In the Instagram generation, virtual profiles are often used to define and characterise an individual, and Sokko uses that to her advantage. “Electronic tunes from pluto,” reads her Instagram bio. “I wish I were a humanoid so maybe I don’t have to carry so much feelings with me,” reads a caption, accompanying a selfie of Sokko. “This astrogirl is ready to launch soon,” reads another, accompanying an image of her in her signature all-black outfit. And throughout, a deft use of custom masks, visors, sunglasses, a strategically placed hand or smartphone to obscure part or most of her face, something she has done since 2016.

2016 is also the year Sokko entered the music scene with her masked persona and electropop songs. While the singer-songwriter wears dark masks like armour, in her music she conveys vulnerability and explores her insecurities. This is not to be mistaken for frailty; her soft, subdued voice registers quiet strength, boldly crooning the nuances behind her weakness. “Trust me when I say I always wish my music can sound more badass and dangerous,” she says, looking back. “But I somehow happen to express my feelings better through my music than in any other manner and I am often quite taken aback by the honesty.” 

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Tabitha Nauser

Moncler Collection sweater, leggings, boots and scarf, Cartier Clash de Cartier and Ecrou de Cartier rings.
Moncler Collection sweater, leggings, boots and scarf, Cartier Clash de Cartier and Ecrou de Cartier rings.

Growing up, Tabitha Nauser would watch her mother, a professional Singaporean-Indian singer, perform on television. Her family would gather to view playbacks of her mother’s performances on cassette tapes, and sing together as a pastime. “I didn’t understand the concept of performing being an actual job,” the musician and singer tells me over a phone call in November. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this looks like so much fun, it doesn’t look like work at all.’”

A young Nauser always hoped to emulate her mother and sing for a living. Along with her cousins, she would put on spontaneous performances, breaking into song and dance for the adults at her maternal family gatherings.

But it was also in her childhood that Nauser was indoctrinated with the idea that art was an inferior pursuit in comparison to, say, a career in finance, or one in medicine. “Even for me, when I told my parents I wanted to do music full time, everyone was like, ‘Oh, but what’s your back-up?’” she says. “But it kind of just went in one ear and came out the other ear for me. I still carried on and did my own thing.”

In 2009, she auditioned to compete on the reality TV singing competition Singapore Idol, and eventually placed third in its third edition. Besides kickstarting her professional singing career, the show also exposed Nauser to opportunities within the local entertainment industry. She started hosting on TV and radio jockeying and even scored a role as Mimi Marquez in Pangdemonium’s production of the musical “RENT.” These side gigs were taken on with the goal of amassing enough money to fund a full-time music career. “When I was starting out, I was super aware that it was going to be hard,” she says. “So, I wanted to make sure that I was in the best position to do music. When I was in radio, I told myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to give myself some time here, save up as much as I can. And then when I feel like I’m ready, I will focus on music 100 per cent.’”

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Yung Raja

 Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.
Moncler Collection jacket, hoodie and trousers, Cartier Clash de Cartier ring and bracelet, Ecrou de Cartier ring.

In 2017, Rajid Ahamed started his music career under the stage name MC Raja, releasing two singles, “Bounce” and “Tamilian,” while being part of a music talent programme under the youth development non-profit *Scape. Fresh on the local music scene, he sought to create music that gripped him. “Being a fan of hip-hop pretty much my whole life, I’ve always found rappers impactful and inspirational — to have a voice and spreading the messages you stand for was something I’ve always been drawn to,” he says. 

In 2018, he took on a new moniker, Yung Raja, a stage name that he has used since, given by his manager and mentor, the Singapore-based music producer Flightsch. He deems meeting Flightsch the most important moment of his career. “It was this man who steered the ship in a direction I’d have never [thought to travel] in,” he says. “You don’t meet many mentors in your life.”

The Singaporean rapper and songwriter of South Indian descent is now known for his feel-good hip-hop tracks in which he raps, with youthful abandon, in both Tamil and English. He has had two single releases and three remix tracks in the past three years, all of which quickly gained him local and regional recognition, especially in Malaysia. Youths who have had to confront their Indian heritage, often in conflict with the metropolitan, Western-leaning culture of the region, are particularly taken with Yung Raja’s linguistically hybrid style that celebrates both his roots and his experience growing up as a first-generation Singaporean. While he may not be the first to do so, he might be the first to lend an insouciant cool to the distinct style, bringing it mainstream. “Now, it’s about adding more layers to my craft,” says Yung Raja. “It was a lot of exploring in the beginning but now I’m driven by my sound and my intention to touch people with my art.”

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.