At eight years old, Masia One discovered hip-hop at Singapore’s Bedok market. Over a decade later, she was living in Los Angeles, touring the world and working with the likes of Nas and Dr. Dre.
She was loving all the opportunities coming her way, until one: a major record deal in New York. Realizing she wasn’t on board with becoming the “Asian Nicki Minaj,” she turned it down, dropped everything, and moved to Jamaica on a journey to rediscover what music was for her. But it turned out that living in the gunshot ridden slums of Jamaica wasn’t as big a challenge as returning to her roots in Southeast Asia.
Masia One, who's real name is May Sian Lim, told VICE that when she came back, “I was so excited to share my experiences. But there were so many closed doors. I learned that in Asia, it takes longer to build trust. I came in saying ‘Let's collaborate; and I was met with ‘Who are you? What do you want from me?’"
“It's not a criticism, it was just me having to relearn my own culture,” Masia, who is now in her 30s, said. “I think if I grew up here, and then left and had more success elsewhere, people would have been like ‘Oh our girl Masia made it!’ But because I was gone from 8 years old, I didn't get the same response.”
Instead, Masia was met with scepticism and disbelief. If she really had worked with RZA and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they said, why was she back in Singapore? "As if,” she recalls people saying. “If you worked with them, why are you in the kopitiam (coffee stall) with me right now?”
But after having lived the extremes of the music industry, closed doors weren’t going to stop her. She created the Singapura Dub Club, throws regular reggae jams and made her own Suka Suka jerk marinade, all in order to build a regional community around reggae and dancehall.
This wasn’t an easy route either. When she first tried out reggae, she was told it was “poor people music.” But she persevered in trying to connect Singaporeans to Jamaican culture, and it turned out to be a major success.
VICE spoke to Masia about her experience going from North America and Jamaica to Asia, learning to re-integrate herself in Singapore, and her love for Southeast Asia’s underground music scene.
VICE: Tell me a bit about growing up in Canada. Did you feel close to Singapore there? Masia: I left Singapore when I was 8, and before then I had already discovered hip-hop at Bedok Market. I used my Chinese New Year money to buy a Public Enemy tape from one of the stalls there. So when I moved to Canada, I was just excited to be closer to the mecca of hip-hop. In Singapore, my cousins were all listening to j-pop instead.
My childhood was amazing in Canada. The schools are more hippy and less competitive, but I did face some racism. Kids would come up to me and say "ko-nni-chi-wa" in slow motion.
When did you decide to make rap music?
Well, I had my little book as a kid where I would write my raps. But I was so shy that I would only perform them to my teddy bears.
The rapping started at the University of Toronto where I had a roommate who was obsessed with hip-hop. He had a last-minute cancellation on one of his all-female hip-hop nights, so I told him "I can rap, I mean... I can try." It was supposed to be a one-off thing. I did it to prove to myself that I had the confidence. But then, because there were no other female Asian's rapping at the time, I got a ton of gigs.
Did anyone tell you that you couldn't do what you were doing because of your race?
When I started in hip-hop I faced a lot of backlash. It's not like today with 88rising and these other acts out there. I was literally the only Asian female face on mainstream TV doing rap. So I got things like, "Asian girls shouldn't be rappers they should be car models." Every time I got into some rap battle I knew there would be some Bruce Lee diss, which made it really easy because I could predict the cliches.
I released a video called Split Second Time addressing all the stereotypes of Asian people in America - everything from harajuku girls to kung fu fighting. I was poking fun at it, but it got played a lot, because people were like, “Yeah that's what Asian people do”. But when success comes, backlash does too. I’d never read such horrible things about myself, like "this bitch so ugly she look like Jay-Z."
What kept you going amid the hate?
When I started touring schools, it changed. There would be that one girl who would come up to me crying after my presentation saying, "I get beat up everyday for being the only Vietnamese girl here, and in one hour, you just made being Asian cool. Thank you." I started receiving dozens of emails from Asian kids about their bullying and stereotypes, thanking me for being on Canadian TV. That made it all worth it.
What made you want to stop making music in America and do it elsewhere?
At first, everything was going great. I got a call from Che Pope, the producer of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, after he saw my video and asked me to audition. My audition song was Warriors Tongue, which has a beat that was originally for Nas. Five years after I recorded the song, it was in Fast and Furious. From Arizona, I was ghostwriting and being developed as an artist in LA. From there, they flew me to New York, and wanted to sign me as the “Asian Nicki Minaj”. I didn't end up signing that contract. Although I loved New York and the glitz and glamour, they asked me, "Are you ready to leave your house without ever having your hair out of place and with your sunglasses on?" I value freedom so much, I knew I wasn't going to enjoy that.
So how did Jamaica come along?
When I turned the deal down, I thought that I needed to reconnect to the raw process of making music. Reggae culture seemed like the opposite of Hollywood. So I flew myself over to Jamaica and worked at a charity. On my first night I heard gunshots. But I loved the energy there. When people don't have anything except their voice to sing and body to dance, that's when I feel they have the truest message and sense of art.
What about Jamaica made you stay so long?
Going to Jamaica reminded me that music was a spiritual thing. I played for audiences that didn't speak a word of English, but understood everything. They can feel the vibe of your music, your voice and how your heart feels when you sing. In an industry where we are taught how to write a good hook and how to style yourself, you become good at making propaganda, but you lose the fact that music is spiritual.
Jamaica also taught me to be a better performer and hone my singing voice. I saw a rasta man in Jamaica with a cooking pot on his head, and he was singing terribly at the top of his lungs. So I asked him what he was doing and he said "you see this cooking pot on my head? I my-style this, no one has my cooking pot style. And my voice? Might not be perfect, but nobody's voice sounds like mine." In that moment I realised that I might not sing like Aretha Franklin, but I have my individual voice. Jamaica changed the way I saw music, and then coming to Singapore changed the way I saw the industry.
What kind of response did you get from people in Singapore when they found out you rapped?
My favourite story was when my mom found out I was working under Dr. Dre. At a dinner, my aunts all came to me and were super excited that I was working with a doctor. In Singaporean media too, they would always start articles about me with "Masia One, who has an architecture degree, is a rapper." Like they had to qualify I wasn't just a stereotype of someone who couldn’t study.
How did you end up going into reggae from rapping?
In Singapore, there were already leaders and champions of hip-hop. As an entrepreneur, I thought of supply and demand and what people need. I saw that Singaporeans need more time with friends, family and to be less stressed out. So I thought "reggae music!"
But as I approached sponsors, they said stuff like "Masia, reggae is for poor people" or racist things like "reggae is only for Malays and they don't buy drinks." So I purposely made my reggae events at atas (upscale) venues, like Ce La Vie, to mess with that stereotype. You want to wear your $3000 Marc Jacobs island collection? You can, 'coz its reggae music! On brand!
What response did your reggae events get?
It attracted artists around the Southeast Asian region, who never had anyone organising it as a business. It attracted people outside too, like Sean Paul and Julian Marley who wanted to know more about Singapura Dub Club. We booked Indonesians, Japanese, Cambodian and other acts from the region to celebrate a genre that lets people de-stress and sends a positive message.