Masia One is a Singaporean Canadian rapper currently recording in Jamaica. I completed this interview with her on July 20, 2010.
All right, Ms. Masia…here’s where I get my prerequisite “fangirl” moment out of the way: You are a goddess. No explanation required. Question is, how did the goddess get started? How old were you when you first started rapping?
Aw shux, thanks. I was chosen to be Athena in my grade 4 school play? I was digging being the Goddess of War.
I started writing and rapping when I discovered a bootleg Public Enemy tape in a Singapore market when I was 8 years old. I was always too shy to perform in front of anyone, so I kept a secret book of rhymes under my bed. I first performed in front of a crowd when I was 21.
How did your family feel about your career choice?
LOL. I have Singaporean parents so culturally it was difficult for them to understand initially. I graduated from the University of Toronto with an Architecture degree, a minor in economics...then told my parents, here is the expensive paper that says I'm smart - I'm going to be a rapper now! My family has seen how I stuck with my choice, worked hard and did what I had to to be self sufficient in the business. They are now very supportive of what I do, although my mom wants me to settle down with a nice boy. LOL.
So you got your degree from college but pursued music anyhow. Would you recommend that route to other struggling musicians as well?
Education is definitely a key to a greater scope of opportunity. I graduated with an honors degree from the University of Toronto, but I would say I learned more practical skills from going to a community college at the same time. What university teaches is the politics of business and how to present to corporations (ie: your professor) the things they want to hear, and taking their money for your own purposes. I would always recommend the gift of education to anybody where given the opportunity. No one is one dimensional...if all you do with your entire being is rap, you're probably still in your basement or pimped by the industry. Besides, that expensive piece of paper is a must have accessory for anyone with Asian relatives.
Your songs are highly varied; I detect different influences in your rapping. What drew you to each of these different styles?
Growing up as a hiphop head I loved Digable Planets, Black Star, Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill - but depending on my mood I would blast Wu Tang, Sean P, Easy E....or even Gucci Mane! LOL. I think the way we are marketed to suggests that people can only be one dimensional which is simply not the case. We rely on change to continue evolving and maintaining the creative spirit. As well, I've been fortunate enough to travel all around the world. From gamelan sounds in Indonesia, low riders in Cali, clicking of heels in Tokyo, breakfast in Brixton, sound of traffic in Paris - and especially dancehalls in Jamaica, the world is a play ground to draw inspiration from. I think as music goes digital (purchasing from itunes instead of sectioned "rap" "rock" departments in a record store) and the world becomes smaller through media & communication, we are going to see a mix up of sounds globally with people simply listening for what they feel rather than staying loyal to their genre of music to define their tastes.
My lil sis will kill me if I forget to ask about your sampling choice for “Halfway Through the City”. What brought about the decision to use that particular music?
Sergio Mendes? It's a great sample. When I recorded Halfway Through the City, it was the first time I'd even seen a mic or been in the studio. I wanted to take a chance and just try something I always dreamed of doing. My first songs were often narratives of how I saw the urban landscape. I wanted a song that would capture what I love about Toronto, rolling down the street and bumping into all the people you know, kicking it for a minute and discussing the great possibilities of the future. When the producer Yoroku Saki played the beat, I felt the Sergio Mendes sample perfectly illustrated the carefree feeling I get when I roam the city in this way. Now lets stop talking about this sample before I get sued.
While we’re on the subject, how do you choose the music you sample?
I've actually stopped sampling old records as I became more educated about the music business. I now sample sounds, especially when I'm traveling whether it's to give a voice to a kid I'm teaching in London or the sound of the ocean before day break. I'm thrilled at the mobile technology we have at our finger tips and think it's almost magical to be able to document moments in time and space. Many of the interludes on my record Pulau capture a moment in time. I am currently recording a project at Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica where I am sampling a live band (Dubtonic Kru) and servicing the jam sessions from these amazing musicians to producers I know around the world to remix and create, sample royalty free.
I’ve noticed your involvement with youth. Below a video of yours on YouTube, some Canadian kids were talking about how you came to their high school with Eternia. Meanwhile, the American kids were wondering how come their rappers don’t come to their schools. Tell me more about what you do when you work with kids.
I remember being a kid and having a super corny presentation come into the school with an irrelevant message. I think the thing which plagues both kids today, and the adults they become - is fear and laziness. Fear to try something outside of the norm and laziness to put the work in necessary to create that change. When "411 Initiative for Change" invited me to be a part of their tours, I learned that the president of the organization actually begun creating these arts education tours while still in highschool. We partnered with forward thinking organizations on the tour like "Keep a Child Alive" that encouraged any innovative ideas the artists might have about how to present the message. I believe 411 Initiative for Change is working on doing tours in the US.
I'd also like to note that without working with any particular organization, I've spend time in different ghettos in Jamaica working with kids and helping them express their creativity. I think it is so important for everyone to realize that people are people around the world, and some simply haven't had the opportunity to learn how to use a computer, or garage band. Given the right tools and knowledge, these kids blew me away with their talent and ability to express themselves through music.
Touring aside, have you done any studio collaborations with Eternia? If not, will you? She’s fascinating; what was it like to work with her?
The first show I ever performed, I caught a ride to the gig with Eternia. We connected immediately in discussing the frustrations in music & industry and it was really great to bond with someone that was more experienced in the game to sympathize. I have not done any studio collaborations with Eternia, although we have been asked to countless times to do so. I have, however on my upcoming album with Kops & Robbers collaborated with other amazing female artists like Isis (Thunderheist), Graph Nobel and Brev One. These girls kill it on the record - you'll see!
You seem to go everywhere and work with a lot of different people. How do different artists respond to you? And how do different audiences respond to you?
I love people, the nuances of cultures and I believe that music is essentially made FOR the people. I want to make music that makes people feel free and independent. I have worked with artists that make punk rock, afro beat, reggae, easy listening and when the vibe is good it doesn't matter what walk of life you come from - it's going to result in great music. I think nowadays artists forget they are suppose to be innovative, take chances and show the public things they might not have seen or heard before.
All around the world I've always received an amazing response from the crowd, and my eyes have seen so much. I think people are so used to understanding a rapper looking a certain way, or hiphop to sound a specific way that often people will try to compare me to what they know! In France I had someone say "Ah oui, Gwen Stefani?" while in Cali kids say I should like Lauryn Hill or Missy Elliot. I think I like it best in Jamaica when the crowd holds up their lighters and yell "Gangster Chiney Gyal".
In recent years, we’ve seen a drastic increase in collaboration between black and Asian musicians (the “Blasian” Movement, so to speak). What are your thoughts on this steadily growing bond?
I don't really know much about this movement, but it would make sense given business interests shifting to Asian Markets like China & South East Asia. I'd make music if you were blue or green as long as you can flow and have a good vibe. I would find it more interesting to explore the collaborations between black and Asian activists in 1960s & 70s like Richard Aoki & the Black Panthers, Yuri Kochiyama having lunch with Malcolm X or even how Ho Chi Minh lived in Harlem - then consider how musicians are the new politicians and activists in this day in age. Email me your thesis papers please.
You seemed to have a serious tie with Jamaica. How did this come about? I ask because for someone who professes not to know much about the growing “Blasian” Movement, you appear to be a living example!
I travel so much that people are just people to me now. Sometimes when I'm in Bali, Indonesia, I think I'm in Jamaica or when I'm in Stockholm, I think I'm in Japan. I've gone to speak Chinese before, and blabbed a mix of French, Malay slang and Chinese before realizing the hybrid language I just unintentionally made up...I don't know how NEW this cultural mash up is - Chinese-Jamaicans have been facilitating recording studios and record releases out of Jamaica since reggae entered the music industry (look at VP records story). Bob Marley recorded his first commercially available song with a Chinese Jamaican.
That would be my take as well. This "bond", so to speak, isn't new; but its existence is often shrouded...at least it is here in America.
So what’s it like being in Jamaica? How long do you expect to be there?
When I'm in Jamaica, I feel like a dream is my waking life. I could be chillin' on the block and reasoning with Super Cats dad or roll up to the Belmont fending off flirtations from Peter Tosh's nephews.
I love working with the band Dubtonic Kru while in Kingston - musicians with amazing experience and talent (Bass player records for Jimmy Cliff, Drummer tours with the Mighty Diamonds...you know "Pass the dutchie pon di left hand side") I love that music is ingrained in every part of the culture in yard - the singer I work with named Kamau works at the docks moving heavy crates all day yet when he arrives at studio and sings, he makes Trey Songs look like a bitch.
I love that one can be quintessentially themselves. When people have very little material things, they only have their personal style and talent to put their best foot forward. I have been so many places in the world where people have so much, but they are terrified of their own shadow. This is boring to me - life is raw and I'm tired of everything fed to people having to be dumbed down for the slowest denominator.
I will own a farm in Jamaica one day soon - and you can come see me there growing Mangos, painting & writing songs while drinking June Plum juice. Come visit, just roll your own spliff. Look out for my live band album with Dubtonic Kru, a slew of Toronto producers, and recorded out of Tuff Gong Studios titled "MERDEKA RADIO".
Thanks for the invite (chuckles). Now, in a section of Eternia’s documentary, MC Lyte discussed the lack of easily visible female MCs in North America. Why do you think we’ve seen such a decline in the visibility of female MCs here? Especially since there are, in reality, so many!
Because dicks run the business, it's a frat club that successfully took care of it's members.
Because intelligent women with clear understanding of self worth get tired of an industry of shady producers, bars that change their mind and pay in beer tickets, misogynistic ideals in marketing, green rooms that smell like musty nuts, managers that agree to engage in business in exchange for a movie dates (you get the point)...these women often just move onto acting, DJ'ing house music, singing yacht rock or most likely, starting a family.
There is no lack in female emcees, there a lack in the longevity of female emcees. As the music biz graduates from bad record deals to bad 360 deals, they want a barbie to play Hollywood with. Female emcees have already broken the status quo by virtue of spitting in a cipher of all dudes or picking up the mic and expressing themselves with less than Destiny Child demure. They are a poor candidate for the industry's new business model.
Recently I've been called a "trouble maker" by more and more people in the biz. At first I was confused as I didn't do anything I would consider offensive or "trouble" so to speak. Then I realized the trouble I had caused was fucking up their perceptions of the female Asian Model Minority "Geisha" bullshit. I'm about to cause a whole lot of trouble and become a muthafuckin' problem. It's gonna be fun!
Amen to that! So what are you currently working on and what we can expect from you in the near future?
I've signed to a new label based in LA called Kops & Robbers, and recently completed an album with the label's producer Che Vicious. Che V. produced much of "Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and works with artists like Dr. Dre, Eminem, Aretha Franklin...you can imagine that this was my dream producer to work with. I"m thrilled about the resuling music - mixing up grimy flows, dancehall tempos and elements of punk. This will be my first mainstream debut with guest appearances including RZA, Talib Kweli and others I will let remain a secret for now. I am also completing my live album with the band Dubtonic Kru recorded at Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica.
My first single "Alright Now" will be dropping August 2010 encouraging people to "put down the guns, pull up the light", because I feel this is a message the world needs right now. Stay updated at www.masiaone.com I'm very excited...the take over is near.
Masia, thanks again so much for doing this!
Anytime, one love.