A silver lining for emerging musicians in Asia during the pandemic is that with international stars unable to tour, they’ve had the spotlight all to themselves. Artists and industry insiders consider how 2020 redefined music in the region
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.”
Indonesian singer Kallula spent lockdown in Jakarta with her boyfriend, singer Bam Mastro, who is a member of the band Elephant Kind.
“Lockdown wasn’t easy. In the beginning, I was experiencing depression, and tried things like hypnotherapy just to try and cope,” she says, adding that the day after our interview, she had a meeting planned with her label, Darlin Records, to discuss her next steps. “With vaccines now available, we finally feel like we can start making plans. I can’t wait to perform in front of an audience again.”
In September, Kallula and Bam Mastro produced a two-track release titled Home Vacation. “It’s about being in quarantine, about taking time to reflect and just unwind. It’s about longing for this to be over and getting on with life,” explains Kallula, who on Home Vacation sings lyrics like, “We won’t be the same. Begin again.”
Since 2014, French-born, Hong Kong-based Florian Melinette has championed the region’s music scene through his agency, FuFu Creative. His music festival Shi Fu Miz, which he founded in 2016, brings independent artists and DJs from all over Asia to Hong Kong twice a year. “Our only job is to gather people to dance and enjoy music,” says Melinette.
With music festivals off the table last year, Melinette decided to release a series of compilation albums titled 88 Double Happiness, with 80 per cent of profits going to One Tree Planted to support reforestation in the region.
“The goal is to plant 800 trees with each album. We chose to name it Double Happiness because people get to enjoy new music while supporting a good cause,” he explains. “Even if we can’t do Shi Fu Miz this year, we want to push the Asian underground scene, as there are so many incredible artists who deserve to be heard.”
The album 88 Double Happiness: Volume 1 features an impressive line-up of indie artists, including Go Dam from South Korea, Luxixi from China and Dazzle Drums from Japan. Volume 2, set to be released on June 16, will feature Joi Lau from Hong Kong and Saint Guel from the Philippines.
“Do you still have a concept of weekdays and weekends?” Malaysian singer Alextbh muses from his apartment in Kuala Lumpur, which he’s redecorated into a “minimalist dream” during his time in lockdown. “I don’t know. At this point, my last two brain cells are hard at work.”
Despite waves of Covid-19 fatigue, Alextbh, real name Alex Bong, has kept himself busy. In May, he headlined a virtual music festival, Asia Rising Forever, hosted by record label 88 Rising, which focuses on Asian talent, having signed artists such as Niki, Rich Brian and Keith Ape. In July, he released his EP, The Chase.
He also starred in a campaign for BMW Malaysia, which is a big deal, given that Alextbh is the country’s first openly queer pop star, and has used his music to challenge the country’s notoriously conservative stance on LGBTQ rights, even if it’s something as subtle but significant as the pronouns he uses in his songs.
“I do appreciate having this much freedom and this much time on my hands,” he says. “I’ve realised that maybe I want to switch to other genres, try new things. I’ve been more bold, experimenting with different sounds.”
Known mostly for moody R&B ballads, Alex says he’s “enjoyed making music that’s more upbeat and more poppy”. Turns out, he’s pretty good at it. In April, he featured on a remix of American pop star Laura Marano’s song Honest With You.
Adam Wilkes and Zaran Vachha
Before the pandemic, a day in the life of promoters like Adam Wilkes and Zaran Vachha meant they could be eating Peking duck with A$AP Ferg and his posse in a private Hong Kong dining room before his sold-out warehouse concert one day, and watching the sunrise over a misty Thai jungle following a nine-hour set by French music collective Ed Banger at Wonderfruit music festival the next.
“We work from Tokyo to Mumbai to Sydney to Beijing,” says Wilkes, adding that in 2019, he was travelling for about 70 per cent of the year. “It’s wonderful, but it takes a physical toll. Despite the obvious professional setbacks of 2020, I’ve been able to focus on getting healthy and spending time with my family. I’ve watched my daughter go from one to two-and-a-half years old, and that’s the silver lining. I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
For Vachha (right), 2020 started with crushing losses. Collective Minds had a stellar roster of Asia tours lined up for the year, including UK rapper Stormzy, DJ and founder of Acid Jazz Records Gilles Peterson, and Jamaican-American singer Masego, who in April received his first platinum certification.
“It was meant to be our biggest year. We had booked over 200 shows, and then we had to cancel them all,” Vachha recalls, adding that the year was ultimately a hard push in a better direction, forcing his team to reevaluate who they are and what they do.
“I originally started Collective Minds as a creative agency that propped up creativity in the region. We were on a tram track with the concerts we were doing before the pandemic. It’s all we felt we were good for,” he says. “We were able to start again. We got to choose, for the first time, what we want to do versus what we have to do. We’ve been able to explore other facets of creativity and entertainment.”
Hong Kong pop star Joyce Cheng says the pandemic “forced me to be creative in how I showcase myself”. She started her own YouTube channel, Joyce is Moist, where she posts skits (she gets her sense of humour from her late mother, Hong Kong comedian Lydia Shum, or Fei-Fei), make-up tutorials and occasional cover songs with fellow musicians.
“It’s just an excuse to jam together and to feel the music,” says Cheng. “A lot of people think that in times like these, arts and entertainment aren’t important, when in fact they are extremely important in helping people to channel their emotions in a healthy way.”
Last autumn, Cheng released a song called My Little Nightlight, which she says was a way to “thank all of the little nightlights that have shown up in my lifetime”.
“The inspiration for that song was ... well, what’s the use of a nightlight? It’s not strong enough to light up a room, but it provides comfort and a sense of security,” says Cheng. “I hope I can create that for others through my music during these difficult times.”