Rap for the vulnerable in Singapore | Human rights news

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

But her work, along with Sister Preeti, has also drawn the attention of authorities in the tightly controlled city.

“I am here to defend my community and as a rapper my role is to speak truth to power, not only for my people, but for all of us who live under capitalism and this authoritarian regime,” the 29-year-old said. old Subhas told Al Jazeera. “Mainstream media can say what they want; anyway, they are spokesmen for the state; a state whose mother tongue is money.”

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

Nearly 75 percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, but the island is also home to Muslim, Indian and other ethnic Malay minorities.

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

A sharp wit and tongue seem to run in the family: Preeti, better known as YouTube counter-influencer Preetipls, not only raps, but is also a proud “plus-size” woman; the complete opposite of the skinny, pale-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 whistle blow against Western-influenced, macho-dominated standards of hip-hop music.

“Growing up, there was almost no plus-size representation in the hip-hop music that I was exposed to, unless it was highly hypersexualized,” Preetipls told Al Jazeera. He has 41,500 followers on Instagram and a YouTube channel with more than 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.”

However, the duo’s growing profile as tongue-in-cheek social commentators has also ended up muzzling their caustic rhymes.

A battle against ethnic windmills

The Nairs’ first brush with the law came 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 makeup. brown face to impersonate an Indian character.

The majority of people in Singapore are ethnic Chinese, but there are also minorities of ethnic Malays and Indians, and race remains a sensitive issue in the country. [File: Caroline Chia/Reuters]

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

The video was quickly taken down, but Subhas was given a two-year suspended warning for allegedly trying to stir up bad feelings among Singaporean Chinese and minorities on the island. Subhas was warned that he would be prosecuted if he was found guilty of a similar offense again.

Chew, who also dressed as a Malaysian woman in a hijab for the commercial, apologized for taking part, while the electronic payment company also said it was sorry.

The Information and Communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA), which regulates the industry, said that while the ad was in poor taste and “offended” minorities, it did not breach the local Internet Code of Practice.

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

“Since the incident, I have not seen a ‘brownface’ in Singapore,” Preetipls said. “Before the ‘brown face’ video, the mainstream media had been totally inadequate in covering racial issues, and it is still the alternative/independent media that regularly provides coverage of racist incidents.”

fearless critics

Despite the warning, in July 2020, Subhas 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 Satheesh Gobidass, a 31-year-old Indian from Singapore, dead at Orchard Towers, one of the city-state’s first shopping complexes and now better known for its murky nightlife.

The last straw for the authorities came when Subhas used a caricature of the publication in the Orchard Towers incident to decorate the stage at the launch of his album Tabula Rasa on March 11 last year at the now closed culture space. alternative The Substation.

On November 1, 2021, Subhas was charged with four counts of attempting to promote ill will among Singapore’s different ethnic groups on the grounds of religion and race with police saying the rapper had violated the conditions of the earlier warning.

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 man who was on death row after being convicted of a drug-trafficking offence.

Nagaenthran’s lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled to such a degree that he could not have made an informed decision. A final appeal to stop his execution was rejected and Nagaenthran was hanged last month.

“I alone took full advantage of the platform and focused on the collective work ahead of us to abolish the death penalty and save the lives of Naga and all those on death row,” Subhas told Al Jazeera.

“In Singapore, so many groups have been displaced, disenfranchised and systematically attacked. Like I said on a track before, it feels like ‘the gallows is the only place we have representation.’”

Rapping 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 popular music and culture: as recently as 2019, Swedish black metal combo Watain had their Singapore debut canceled due to complaints from local Christian groups. – but also satire and social commentary.

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

In one incident, a Chinese man kicked an Indian woman in the chest and uttered racial slurs while doing so, while in another, an older Chinese man confronted an interracial couple together in a park and questioned 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 had “seen significantly more [racist incidents] cases than usual” in the previous months, adding that it was “most likely due to the stress of COVID-19.”

Wong stressed 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, saying the majority needed to be more sensitive to minority concerns. He also announced a new Racial Harmony Maintenance Law to encourage people to live better together.

“Laws alone may not make people get along better with each other,” Lee said. “But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and push people over time to behave better.”

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

A court date is pending.

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

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