Last December, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore sold out the entire run of 500 tickets for Back to Live, a concert featuring up-and-coming local musicians. It was the country’s first large-scale live entertainment event since the beginning of the pandemic, though by then “large” was a relative term, given requirements for social distancing. The Sands Theatre normally has a capacity of 2,500.
“We worked with the Singapore Tourism Board and the Ministry of Health to figure out how to stage live entertainment in a way that’s safe, based on health restrictions,” says Adam Wilkes, president and CEO of AEG Live Asia, which produced the event with Collective Minds, an agency that has organised tours for the likes of American jazz musician Kamasi Washington and rapper Anderson Paak around Asia.
It was a rare opportunity for local artists who, due to travel restrictions, had the chance to be more than just opening acts for bigger international stars. For once, they became the headliners and took centre stage. As Singaporean pop singer Benjamin Kheng wrote on Instagram, “This moment was kinda amazing.” Fellow performers Charlie Lim and Aisyah Aziz debuted their collaborative bilingual track, Won’t You Come Around, which features lyrics in both English and Malay. Lim posted, “Thank you for making us feel alive again ... here’s to better times ahead.”
“This past year has been a reminder that, even as so many experiences become virtual and available on demand, live music is irreplaceable,” says Wilkes. “It brings people together. You can’t replicate the experience of being with your community.”
Musicians in Asia have been able to connect with local fans in a more meaningful way than ever before. Many used social media to become community cheerleaders, collaborating with other local artists and encouraging fans to support small businesses. Better still, they’ve actually had the time to sit down and make music.
“The Asian music scene is growing exponentially,” says Zaran Vachha, founder of Collective Minds. “The artists are able to have an output of music they haven’t had before. Obviously you have larger international acts like Rich Brian [from Indonesia], but the more homegrown scene has been vibrant, and more people are looking to Asia for inspiration rather than the other way around.”
Here, we look at artists, promoters and producers on the rise in Asia’s music scene.
“Zero income, a back-to-back streak of bad news ... it was one hit after another,” Singaporean rapper Yung Raja recalls of the early months of the pandemic. “It was weird, man.”
Yung Raja is normally known for his blue-sky optimism, a buzzcut that changes colour like a nightclub’s strobe light (at the time of writing, it’s fuchsia) and for references to Singapore and his Tamil heritage in his music. A recent release, Mami, starts with the lyrics “Mami wearing sari not a skirt”.
Like many others, the pandemic initially threw Yung Raja, whose real name is Rajid Ahamed, into a funk. “Speaking to friends really helped in gaining perspective and recouping that lost spirit,” he says. “I was able to rebuild that by being open and vulnerable to the people closest to me. I realised I wasn’t the only one going through what I was going through.”
Stuck at home for the foreseeable future, Yung Raja has built a home studio where he produces music via sessions with other artists over video chat. In October, he released The Dance Song, an upbeat track filled with motivational lyrics that, similar to Pharrell Williams’ Happy, inspired hundreds of fans to post videos of themselves dancing to the song. “It’s something I will hold close to my heart for a long time,” says Yung Raja. “I had the best time of my career so far making that song. Seeing how people respond to it is something I will never forget.”
To date, The Dance Song’s original music video has over one million views on YouTube.
“2020 was a catalyst for many things: deep introspection, self-reflection; it taught us all to learn how to spend time with ourselves and go inwards rather than look outwards,” he says.
“Everybody is getting into a much more positive groove, starting 2021 with the best foot forward. So far, it’s been one of the best starts to a year I’ve had, both creatively and personally.”