Masia One Is Bringing A Reggae Revolution to Singapore
The Toronto rapper is reaching beyond borders to spread the reggae sound.
All Photos via Facebook
It’s been a long time since Masia One lived on Marlee Avenue in the Eglinton West neighbourhood of Toronto, where she used to frequent the local West-Indian restaurant Mainsha’s for Toonie Tuesday lunch specials. Now she’s living in Singapore, her motherland, laying down new roots and projects since her start as a rapper 12 years ago. The artist has been pushing hard to sell reggae, dancehall and dub in Singapore’s corporation-like culture, and it's not an easy task. “The message of reggae is not going to be the popular one because it’s not telling you to consume or do things that work within this type of society,” Masia says. “If I was a really good businesswoman I would be selling K-Pop to the Asian community. Supply and demand. But I’m consistently caught trying to shove art down people’s throats or pioneer something.”
Born Maysian Lim, the artist first discovered hip-hop music when she was six years old. Growing up in Singapore, Masia was always told to bury her creativity. “As a kid, I would write rhymes and hide them under my bed so my parents didn't really know I had this creative streak. I would hide my paintings. That's why graffiti really appealed to me because I got to have this anonymity to go out and secretly be creative.” By the time she moved to Vancouver’s North Shore, her classmates could only pronounce her first name as “Mexican.” At the height of her infatuation with breakdancer Asia One, she added an M to the front and created her own identity. Moving east to study architecture at the University of Toronto, her roommate Jesse Ohtake would prove to be a valuable ally. Ohtake promoted an all-female hip-hop showcase at the Comfort Zone, and one night, an artist cancelled. Masia filled in and did what she does best: Rap. It wasn't soon after that the calls came from MuchMusic, leading her to produce the video for her eponymous “Split Second Time”; an audiovisual jab at Asian stereotypes. This video would be the stepping stone that led to collaborations with artists like RZA, Talib Kweli, and Aftermath Entertainment producers.
Despite these feats, Masia was repeatedly told that she wasn’t marketable. Labels from Detroit drove to Toronto, pushing a cheque for $20,000 across a table, asking to sign her. “It was some rapping in a bikini across a car shit,” she says, insisting it was laundered drug money. “I would have to be doing straight pre-Nicki Minaj vagina raps. [Toronto labels] could only calculate numbers from a precedent of females to see how profitable it would be. I didn't like either choice, so I told my fans to send me cash in greeting cards—it didn't matter what the card said—and I would send them a CD. I sold 1,000 copies of my first album Mississauga that way.”
But the labels needed stats from Nielsen Soundscan. Bobbing back and forth between Toronto and New York, Masia eventually moved to Hollywood. While working as a pop songwriter in Studio City, she became jaded and needed to find an outlet. “I had two goals: I wanted to cleanse my palate of Hollywood, and go to where Peter Tosh was born,” she says. With that in mind, she plotted her move to Jamaica.
While there, Masia hung out with legends like Sizzla Kalonji and recorded at Tuff Gong Studios, “coasting” for a while before she unwillingly returned to Singapore after her brother passed away. She was the last of kin. “It was life kicking me in the ass saying, 'You think you know it all? You don’t know shit. Come here to shake up your world.'” After a few months, Masia grew grumpy due to the lack of vibes in Singapore’s strict, soulless culture. She discovered Dubskank’in Hifi, an underground soundsystem party night produced by Firmann Salim (aka DJ Rumshot). Utilizing her background as a multidisciplinary artist, they joined forces to establish the Singapura Dub Club, an event series that delivers “irie” vibes through culture, food, music and dance. The name translates to “Lion City Dub Club,” as "Singa" is the Malay word for lion, and a symbol synonymous with members of the Rastafari movement. Although traditional Indonesian music, dangdut, has elements similar to reggae, the genre was still foreign in a bootleg culture of pop tracks sung ad nauseam.
To successfully sell Singapura Dub Club, Masia introduced a new culture as “branded and packaged” by providing a membership complete with graphics, t-shirts, and other incentives to fulfill the country’s desire for "atas," a term for the upper class or bourgeois. It wasn't long until everyone from King Jammy-loving expats, young millennial rap fans, and locals rocking designer clothing started attending sold-out events. She started touring as a reggae artist and with her band, the Irietones, she was making deals with promoters, curating each jam and developing partnerships. Her ultimate goal, according to her, is to be the first reggae band from Singapore to reach Jamaica. “Singapore is not typically associated with reggae, but if a bobsled team from Jamaica got to the Olympics, I think this is a small feat,” she says. The band’s journey is based on showing musicians how to “catch a 1-drop groove,” slow down the pace and play in a shuffle style. “Vibe is more important that technical perfection,” Masia says. “It is a musical, cultural and social experiment.”
The club’s modus operandi “Good vibes can grow,” rings true in battling oppressive structures, but Masia’s Canadian tendancy of lending a hand doesn’t resonate with local industry giants. The concept of “protecting your rice bowl” portrays the level of competition in Singapore, bred into children as early as eight years old, where they are divided at school by their comprehension level and class. Masia now faces similar challenges in protecting her contacts—something she didn’t have to do as an MC in Toronto. “I’ve actually been sat down and told, ‘Look. you gotta stop being so damn Canadian. The population is different now. The competition is different. The mentality is different. Protect your shit.’” Still, Masia One has turned Singapore into her own babylon. Blessed by her experiences of seeing layers of culture on a global scale, she is discovering Southeast Asia’s vibrancy by applying her own colour palette and bag of resources. Her creative direction has helped link mainstream artists with countries like Vietnam, where she booked Sean Kingston for a rural farmland-turned-outdoor pool party concert where 5,000 people showed up.
Masia believes that there will always be a niche market for those doing something different. “Creating a foundation for reggae in Southeast Asia for me is like a fun inside joke between me and my brother. Like ‘fuck the Shitstem, but look what we did, homie!’ I didn’t know my purpose when I came back here but it’s starting to shape up.”
In the new year, Masia will also be reinventing herself as an artist with a new album that reflects authenticity and growth. She still finds it ironic to be consistently “starting from scratch,” immersing herself in culturally contrasting initiatives. “You can throw me in the lion’s den," explains Masia One. "But I will find a way to sell meat to the lions.”
Ola Mazzuca is a music journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.