I'm sitting here a little past midnight on my birthday, feeling a deep seated need to share these thoughts. I just watched a movie called "Eddie the Eagle" earlier tonight and it was hit a chord of inspiration with me. The movie shared the words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games:
The most important thing...is not to win but the take part, just a the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
I wanted to share some thoughts that delve deeper than memes and inspirational quotes in pastel colours. I wanted to share because I know someone out there needs to hear these words right now, just as I often do.
I'm a Chinese girl from Singapore that fell in love with Hiphop music at the age of 8 after stumbling upon a bootleg Public Enemy cassette tape. Upon this discovery, I searched out anything and everything "Boom Bap" and even sought out more information on anyone name-dropped by Chuck D in his rap lyrics. This led me to reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X by age 9 and Huey Newton's "Blood in My Eye" going into teenage years. The fighting spirit of those oppressed and let down by society, earned my respect. I loved that these most unlikely heroes defined their own path against all odds and criticism to make a positive change.
After immigrating to Canada, my family faced the culture shock of a new country, new rules and new prejudices. I got called a chink on my first day of grade school and my guidance counsellor placed me in ESL, assuming that I could not speak english. (I intentionally shook her hand each time I collected awards for public speaking and essay writing throughout my school years and took a picture with her during my acceptance of the scholarship for English in my final year of high school. This picture still hangs in my bedroom.) I got the nick name Masia One because I was inspired by a pioneer Bgirl named Asia One. This is the first time I understood that women, and one that looks more like myself, are allowed to be a part of Hiphop. I wrote raps and songs all the time, but always hid them in a black book under my bed hoping no one would find it. Creativity was not encouraged when I was growing up and I was taught to be ashamed that I kept wanting to write songs.
The truth is, my expression through Hiphop allowed me to relieve my teenage angst and do so under the anonymity of a pseudo name; a "Rap" character. I remember dreaming that one day, I could walk into a room and everyone would know my name because I was so "cool". I would high- five and greet everyone before unleashing my lyrical skills on stage. I grew up feeling shy and awkward, and in my crew of teenage girlfriends I thought myself as the least pretty. What I could rely on was my reputation as "Hiphop May" to stand out.
I didn't share the songs I wrote in public until I was 21, which is pretty late by pre-teen entertainment industry standards. I was attending University in Toronto, and studying to be an architect. I used to hide behind shots of Tequila to muster up the courage to rap in front of people. Upon the release of my first album "Mississauga", I faced an onslaught of criticism like I had never experienced before. Comments like "Asian bitches shouldn't rap, go be a car model" or "She's so ugly she looks like Jay-Z" and even "You should go shoot yourself". As a rookie in the entertainment business I made a rookie mistake: reading every single demoralizing comment made about me. I couldn't believe it - it had taken me so long to come out of my shell and share my private art. I was so sensitive to the feedback and took the time to write to each and every one of my haters. Every record label I went to told me there was no market for me because "Chinese Female emcee" was an unprecedented demographic at that time. I finally landed a few offers and realized quickly that their interest had nothing to do with my lyrical skills, but the notion that they could fetishize me into rapping in a bikini while pouring tea. (I'm not exaggerating). I started my own record label with the support of my wonderful roommate, and then manager, Jesse Ohtake. In retrospect Jesse was perhaps one of the most important people in my whole career because I just needed one person to believe in me. He gave me my first stage, gave me my first connects and this helped me find my confidence. I'm sure Jesse was told by many people not to waste his time with me, but he ignored them and essentially became my coach. I started my record label Merdeka Group and launched a concert series in Toronto in partnership with Jesse known as the M1 Academy.
I found success in Canada with my songs Split Second Time and Return of the Bgirl and became the first Female emcee nominated for a Much Music (MTV) video award. I gathered support from Toronto's incredible creatives like photographer Kareem Ajani, graphic designer Chris Thomas, producers like Stranjah, Cisco Martinez and Ron Allen and of course my body guard Billy, aka Hooks Jesus There are far more people to mention here but my point is, when good people get together, dreams start taking shape.
The video for "Return of the Bgirl" got the attention of producer Che Vicious, whose work on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill inspired a generation of Hiphop lovers. I moved to L.A. and began sharpening my skills as a song writer - writing for others and really learning how to create a hook. Working with Che landed me collaborations that went beyond my dreams and today I have published songs with RZA (Wutang), Pharrell Williams, The Game, John Fruciante and Talib Kweli.
I couldn't believe someone as unlikely as me, was now working with the biggest names in Hiphop. I believed this was my big break! After a series of mishaps with between investors, record contracts and changing circumstances - I was left questioning if I would indeed remain in L.A. People in the music business labelled me a "stone", which in industry terms is an artist you don't want to work with. Instead they opted for "clay" that can be moulded. Life doesn't go as YOU planned it sometimes. In retrospect, it wasn't the songs with the big names on it that became a hit for me. My first single Warriors Tongue made an impact with over 30 published remixes and most recently used by the legendary Bass Nectar on his latest release "Into the Sun mixtape".
It was a difficult time and I decided to join a school tour called What's the 411 Initiative for Change, that reached out to 60,000 students across Canada, addressing topics like Suicide, Bullying and Girl's Rights. The kids on the tour gave me back my energy and purpose as they shared their personal struggles with confidence and growing up. I could relate, and through my experiences shared with them there were more options than the difficulties they faced.
Shortly after the tour I decided to relocate myself in Jamaica. Don't ask why, I just felt strongly that this was what I had to do if I wanted to continue in music. I ended up recording an EP at Bob Marley's Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston Jamaica with Dub Tonic Kru and a small crew of talented Toronto producers, that has yet to be released. In Jamaica, I began to sing. I was so shy about singing as I had come up around some great singers. I came to learn while living between Orange Hill and Skyline, that your voice is your own...no one is EVER going to sound like you. Practice and make the best of your own voice. Be confident and take heart that you have something special to share. The 1st song I ever sang and recorded went on to be signed by VP Records, one of the most respected labels in Reggae music.
August 1, 2012 I lost my brother - my biggest silent supporter. He never told me how proud he was of me, but all his friends were always bombarded with my songs and tales of where I was performing in the world. Only after he passed, I realized that he wore Masia One t-shirts in almost all of his photos. This destroyed my heart. This shook my family to the core. I moved back to SE Asia, thinking at least I would have a chance to bring all my accomplishments, achievements and ideas to the place of my birth. The fulfillment of my path could come full circle. I was sorely mistaken.
Upon moving back to Singapore, my price tag as a "local artist" now dropped by thousands of dollars for what I had been offered as a "foreign artist". Almost all of my contacts in music and based in Singapore suddenly stopped answering my emails, phone calls and pretended not to see me when I saw them parties. My closest friend's advice to me was "Quit music, you're too old. You should look into working at a flower shop or the zoo, or something different". A DJ I admired for years reiterated the same advice "We are too old. Just find a young thing and mentor them and give them all your contacts." I shared my aspiration to build a Reggae scene in Singapore and every reply repeated the same sentiment "Reggae will never work in Singapore." I love my friends and trusted my associates, and this hurt me quite a great deal.
The greatest challenge was living with a new set of cultural rules and expectations in Singapore. I was faced with daily disappointment from a family member that could not understand my choices in life... and reminded me daily of it. I was not a nice Chinese girl, with a professional job, a professional husband and one day, professional babies. Each time I left the house trying to hustle a piece of work or something to do in Singapore, I was met with scrutinizing eyes "Another late night? Another useless meeting? When will you settle down and do something proper? Look at your friend who has a good job now, don't tell me she's smarter than you? How much money are you really making, peanuts." I don't share these sentiments to put this person down - but realize the words comes from a different time and culture, where Asian women played much different roles. As well, life is expensive in Singapore, and money is celebrated as the pinnacle of success. I began to believe everything I was told and diverted my time and energy away from creative pursuits. I cried daily and felt defeated. I thought I had done pretty well with my career and was now told daily that it all meant nothing. I started to feel like I had wasted my whole life. I started to believe the story they made up for me.
In spite of this, I'm a stubborn person and kept throwing Reggae parties called The Singapura Dub Club alongside my partner Selecta Rumshot of Dub Skankin' Hifi. Initially jams were empty events and lost quite some money. I remember one instance where 2 Singaporean students wanted to interview me for their term paper and met me at a Singapura Dub Club event. They couldn't believe a Singaporean had worked with famous names or toured around the world. When they came to the party, I was at the door collecting cover charge on a quiet night. They said "Errr we thought you're Masia One, why is there no one here." I replied "Because we are not just throwing an event, we are introducing a Reggae culture Singapore. We are building from the ground up. Gotta start somewhere right? " They left shortly after and decided not to interview me.
After months, Singapura Dub Club grew and more and more people throughout the region heard about what we were doing. Our developed a loyal membership base, debuted Reggae and Dancehall artists for the first time in Singapore and launched an annual Island party to link East and West (this year Gili Dub Club May 27-29, posting more information soon!). The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation CBC published a story on my efforts in South East Asia followed by an article written in Noisey / Vice. The foundations for sharing more Reggae culture to my homeland had been set but something was still missing... I was no longer an artist. I stopped writing songs for almost 2 years. I never took time off to paint and hardly met up with friends to laugh if it was outside of business meetings.
I set off back on the road, touring Indonesia, Vietnam and most recently the Philippines. Each time I touched a mic I poured my life blood and soul out to the audience. It was a blessing to be back on the mic and was even invited by Goldie to rock his stage at Malasimbo Festival in the Philippines. My hunger returned, and my dreams began to circulate again. I stopped believing the negative stories fed to me. You see, if you cannot grow in one place that does not mean you are not valuable. Know your value, find the place you can bring value and BE valued. For me this place was not my homeland, but my home region. South East Asia is vast, diverse, bustling and rich with culture and inspiration.
So young grasshopper, if you have read to this point, thanks for taking the time. If you've skimmed, here is what I would like to share with you:
Don't buy the stories that are told about you. Tell your own story, forge your own path. Often, those stories are a reflection of another person's hurt, lack of confidence or fear for their own path. Know yourself, own your craft and keep it growing.
We are taught that struggle means you have somehow failed, but this is not always the case. The only way to breakthrough and create something with impact and a lasting foundation is through struggle. If you imitate what is already popular, there is little resistance, but there is little meaning.
No Half Steppin' You either in it to win it or your not. The number of times Creatives are told "Well it's a nice hobby isn't it?". Your life is not a hobby and should be taken seriously. If you are serious about your work, get serious, all in.
"The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well"... The world is a hyper competitive place and we are conditioned to believe the winner is the one that has conquered all, instead of the one that can co-operate and bring people together. Disunity and war weakens any movement and those that know better can take advantage of this. Remember when good people come together, and work together, this is a very powerful thing and the impossible happens.
Circulation is Key. Get over your fear by DOING. Just like working out or meditating, once you take the first steps you can start out slow, start the blood flow and circulation, forge where you are going and really start excelling.
Get out of the fishbowl. Don't only hear the perspective of the fish that live in a glass bowl. Find the ocean and open up your possibilities. There is a greater chance for you to find your audience, once you're on a bigger playing field. You may have to cut off some goldfish along the way - but they will come back around when you find success.
The person that will hurt you the most, will be the closest people to you. Makes sense right? But it hurts like hell...embrace it, learn from it, get stronger...and don't stop loving.
Don't forget how to dream. A friend once told me not to work with Singaporean musicians because they "don't know how to get past the bad times" and "don't know how to dream". I don't think this is true of just Singaporean musicians but applies on a bigger scale. If you have a vision, you can see something bigger, past the current difficulties. Persevere til you reach the other side.
These are my birthday reflections. Another year older, another year wiser and ready to write my fourth album, paint more, laugh more and take time for myself outside of work more. Wish me luck my friends and thank you for all your wonderful Birthday wishes.
- Love Masia.