Rapping for the vulnerable of Singapore

Siblings Subhas and Preeti Nair are raising the voices of marginalised minorities in the buttoned-up Southeast Asian city-state.

Subhas Nair, in a black t-shirt emblazoned with the face of death row prisoner Naganethran Dhamalingam, walks to court with his sister Preeti
Singaporean rapper Subhas Nair (right) and influencer sister Preetipls (left) arrive at court last November when Subhas was charged over comments on race and religion [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

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

But his work, alongside sister Preeti, has also attracted the attention of the authorities in the closely 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 are living under capitalism and this authoritarian regime,” 29-year-old Subhas told Al Jazeera. “Mainstream media can say what they want – they are mouthpieces of the state anyway; a state whose mother tongue is money.”

Subhas’s rhymes are designed to amplify the voice of what he calls the disenfranchised “Brown folk” through subversive, witty humour.

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

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

A sharp wit and 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 very opposite of the skinny, pale-skinned models who tend to dominate Singapore media.

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

“Growing up, there was hardly any plus-size representation in the hip-hop music I was exposed to, unless it was heavily hyper-sexualised,” Preetipls told Al Jazeera. She has 41,500 Instagram followers and a YouTube channel with more than 16,000 subscribers.

“THICC was all 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 growing profile as tongue-in-cheek social commentators, however, has also ended up muzzling their caustic rhymes.

A battle against ethnic windmills

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

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

The Nairs’ expletive-laden video – a remix of Australian female 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 conditional warning for allegedly attempting to promote ill feelings between Chinese Singaporeans and the island’s minorities. Subhas was warned that he would be prosecuted if again found guilty of any similar offence.

Chew, who also dressed up as a Malay woman in a hijab for the commercial, apologised for taking part, while the e-payments company also said it was sorry.

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

Still, the Nairs’ video does seem to have had some positive effect.

“Since the incident, I haven’t seen ‘brownface’ happen in Singapore,” Preetipls said. “Before the ‘brownface’ video, mainstream media has been wholly inadequate in covering race issues, and it is still alternative/independent media that regularly provides coverage on racist incidents.”

Fearless critics

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

In October of that year, he also commented on a murderous brawl that left 31-year-old Satheesh Gobidass, an Indian Singaporean man, dead at Orchard Towers, one of city state’s earliest retail complexes and now better known for its shady nightlife.

The last straw for the authorities was when Subhas used a cartoon drawing of the post on 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 alternative culture space The Substation.

On 1 November 2021, Subhas was charged with four counts of attempting to promote ill will between Singapore’s different ethnic groups over matters of religion and race with the police saying the rapper had breached 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 then on death row after being convicted of a drug trafficking offence.

Nagaenthran’s lawyers argued he was intellectually disabled to a degree that he could not have made an informed decision. A last-ditch 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 in abolishing the death penalty and saving the lives of Naga and everyone on death row,” Subhas told Al Jazeera.

“In Singapore, so many groups have been displaced, disenfranchised and systemically targeted. As I’ve said on a track before, it feels like ‘the gallows are the only place we get representation.’”

Rapping in a hard place

The clampdown on the Nairs is only the most recent example of how Singapore polices not only the most rebellious forms of popular music and culture – as recently as 2019, Swedish black metal combo Watain had its debut Singapore show cancelled due to complaints by local Christian groups – but also satire and social commentary.

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

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

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

Wong stressed Singapore remained 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 had to be more sensitive to the concerns of the minorities. He also announced a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act to encourage people to live together better.

“Laws may not, by themselves, make people get along with one another better,” Lee said. “But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better.”

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

A court date is pending.

“I don’t have 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.”

Source: Al Jazeera