“When you imply someone is a liar and call someone a racist, you are giving license to everyone in Singapore to call these people those same words,” says rapper Subhas Nair.
In an interview with VICE journalist Eduardo Liotta, Singaporean influencer Preeti Nair and her rapper brother Subhas Nair talked about the recent ‘brownface’ scandal which resulted in the pair being slapped with a two year conditional probation by the police.
After seeing an ad by E-Pay which featured Chinese-Singaporean actor Dennis Chew portraying four different characters including an Indian man for which he donned artificially darkened skin, the duo put out a rap video.
The video, which featured a remix of Iggy Azalea’s “Fuck It Up”, drew attention to the issue of discrimination in Singapore society, specifically calling out the majority Chinese for exploiting minorities for financial gain.
Subhas explained in the interview that the E-Pay ad was cultural appropriation and exploitation, but this time on a corporate level. He felt that he “couldn’t let it go”, which is why the pair decided to release the video.
Preeti told VICE that the video blew up on social media while she was on a flight to Bali. By the time she landed, she found out that the video has gone viral and was now being investigated by the police.
Giving license for racism
One contentious point of this whole scandal was the duo’s first apology which was a spoof of the apology put out by the company behind the controversial ad, Havas.
Preeti and Subhas used similar language to Havas’ apology and didn’t miss the chance to throw some shade, again shining a light on the issue of discrimination.
The government, however, was not impressed. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) quickly released a statement to condemn the rap video, describing the lyrics as “blatantly false” and claiming it was racists against the Chinese in Singapore.
“This spoofing is a pretence of an apology, and in fact shows contempt for the many Singaporeans who expressed concern at their blatantly racist rap video,” said MHA.
Subhas said to VICE: “When a ministry releases a public statement, what kind of license does it give people? When you imply someone is a liar and call someone a racist, you are giving license to everyone in Singapore to call these people those same words.”
Explaining why they chose to mirror Havas’ apology, Preeti said ”It’s been a lifetime of shitty apologies from people who have painted their face brown, it’s been so exhausting. I wasn’t going to let another shitty corporate apology go.”
Subhas added that he wasn’t keen on apologising to begin with as he considers it his duty to stand up for things like this. “It’s the most hip-hop thing to do, to use music to get people thinking, talking, and questioning power,” he explained.
The slippery slope goes both ways
The release of the video sparked a national-level debate about racism and the social divide between ethnicities in multi-cultural and multi-racial Singapore where the majority race is Chinese.
On whether they were expecting the video to have such a big impact, Preeti said that she thought people would like it because “it’s a catching song and it speaks the truth”. However, she wasn’t hoping for any specific outcome, adding “I call out a lot of bullshit, so it was normal.”
Subhas, on the other hand, said he did it for his people. He explained, “I did this for people who look like me who may not be able to articulate their anger and frustration; those who needed a soundtrack to that feeling. They needed to know that artists like Preeti and myself are always going to use our platforms.”
The rapper continued, “When I spoke to the police, I told them, “If we didn’t have a song like this, it could have been a lot worse. The slippery slope can go down both ways. It’s not fair that you get to determine which side it goes.” You can’t say this will lead to hundreds of videos, when this could also have become something actually dangerous if we did not have a tension release like this… this shit builds up.”
In a statement, the police said that investigations were launched after reports were filed against the duo’s video, noting that “The video was in clear contravention of the Penal Code. If this video were to be allowed, then similar expletive-laden, insulting, offensive videos, targeted at all communities will have to be allowed.”
Talking about the investigation process itself, Subhas and Preeti said they spent hours in the police station answering questions. While Preeti was in Bali, Subhas spent 4-5 hours in the police station on the day the video went out, giving them a lyric breakdown.
He cheekily told VICE, “I was called down to the police station and they asked me for a lyric breakdown of the song. I told them I usually charge for a lyric breakdown, but I’m trying to avoid a charge, so I’ll do this free of charge.”
When Preeti arrived back in Singapore, she was held at the airport for close to an hour as the police verified details of her trip to Bali. The next day, she said, she and Subhas spent 9 hours being questioned at a police station about their intentions behind the video, who came up with the ideas, and explanations about what it all meant.
“I had to explain each lyric and visual, and sometimes, the visual was us pointing a middle finger and I had to explain what it meant,” she said.
Western influence over Singaporean issues
The interviewer then delved into what the pair thinks about those who say they are influenced by politics in America. Preeti explained, “I don’t think this song would have existed if I wasn’t in Singapore. So it’s very [unfair] to immediately try and disassociate from it and be like “Oh it has to be because of the pop culture references and the West references. We didn’t teach this in school so we don’t know where Preeti and Subhas learned this from.”
Preeti added that she also despises the argument that ‘brownface’ is a Western phenomenon.
“Like sure, the conceptual idea originated in America, but the act of painting yourself a different skin colour is fucked up,” she said.
“Can we acknowledge that? Whether it’s blackface, brownface, yellowface or whiteface, it’s whack. You can’t say brownface is not a Singaporean thing. You are making it a Singaporean thing by doing it.”
Subhas then chimed in with an similar argument of how people don’t seem to mind when local radio stations ‘borrow from the West’ given that their airplay is American pop music.
Later, Subhas described what it’s like being a minority in Singapore and how some people do not speaking up about discrimination or racism they’ve experienced:
“It’s scary being the only brown person in a Chinese dominant space, and there are far too many spaces like that. If someone is coming up after this and saying ‘I face this and this but I don’t speak about it. Why should you?’ then you are complicit in your oppression.”
Though he added that it’s ok to not say anything, acknowledging that there are power and privilege asymmetries between brown people too.
He went on to say, “I grew up hating my Indian-ness because there was not much for me to look up to and aspire to be. Today, I’m living my best life because I love my sister, my mom, myself. I have forgiven myself and those around me. So by just existing and creating, we are fighting something bigger than us.”
That, he says, is why they made the second, more sincere apology.
“It was unfair to the allies and to those standing in solidarity fighting those online battles.”
When asked what they’ve learnt from this experience, Subhas said that justice has to be redefined in Singapore, adding that the way forward starts with dialogue.