Hip-hop artiste Masia One on tough times and starting over from scratch
Read our interview here.
Masia One is no stranger to starting over. The Singapore-born hip-hop artiste grew up in Vancouver, and gained prominence as a musician in Canada and a ghostwriter in Hollywood. When she moved back to Singapore in 2015, the artiste had to reintegrate - a process that involved some struggle and rejection. Fast forward to today, Masia has created a reggae and dancehall community with Singapura Dub Club, has had her music featured on Altered Carbon, Snowpiercer, and Fast & Furious 8. Most recently, she penned the theme song for Ti Tou Dao, titled ‘You Only Love Me When I'm Gone'.
We speak to Masia One about her experiences, and at the same time, glean some lessons on how to deal with hitting the reset button on our careers and lives.
Let's talk about ‘You'll Only Love Me When I'm Gone'. Where did you draw the inspiration from for this?
I was originally commissioned to write the theme song for Ti Tou Dao, which is based around the life of Madam Oon Ah Chiam, a Singapore wayang (Chinese opera) star. They briefed me about how wayang was a dying art in Singapore, and I had the chance to meet Madam Oon herself to hear firsthand stories of her struggles, and the hard work that goes into being a wayang actress. At over 70 years old, she's still so passionate about her craft and shared her thoughts on why we celebrate Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera as high art but do not give the same value to our own unique cultures, like wayang. I thought a lot about this on the way home after our meeting, pondering all the heritage sites, nostalgic merchandise or the "what Singapore used to be"-type of posts and this melody and lyrics came to mind — you'll only love me when I'm gone.
You're no stranger to starting from scratch. Given the global pandemic now, what's your top three pieces of advice for people who suddenly find themselves having to hit the reset button on their careers and lives?
#1: Reconnect with your root. I think when we're rebuilding our foundation, we have to start off on the right foot so that everything else that follows can flow with the right tone and intention. Get brutally honest with yourself and ask what you would have done better if you could reset. This could start off with a self-awareness journey and end in a survey of the current market demands. It's an interesting dynamic... when you understand your roots, it reveals what you want for your future.
#2: Believe in yourself and your ideas. I know it sounds like a cliché, but everything in life takes practice. That includes bravery, getting over self-loathing, and dispelling negative attitudes. I had my first rejection letter from a Singapore Arts Grant framed and hung it up in my office. "Your ideas are not viable," it stated, and every day I see that letter and tell myself with a smile, "Lets show ‘em how viable we can get." Another example: I recently put out a cover song challenge, asking artistes to create their own versions of ‘You'll Only Love Me When I'm Gone' so that I could share their profiles with my audience. I noticed that it was the most established, successful, and skilled musicians who said yes right away; many newer and upcoming artistes said no, seemingly preoccupied with how they could push their careers forward. The experienced artistes seemed to have more practice on how to see everything they do as a success, especially if they put their creative spin on it.
#3: Don't be afraid to ask for help. Starting again is never easy, but talking to experts in the field or getting advice from a friend is so valuable. Many people who reset have had their pride bruised and they're afraid of looking unaccomplished by asking for help, but the way to grow is to build a team, so push towards that by first being willing to ask and accept collaborations and help.
You've talked about being jaded after your move to Hollywood and working as a pop songwriter. It mustn't have been easy to get yourself out of that creative rut — what kept you going?
I think it's important for creatives to ask themselves, "Am I telling the story I wanted to tell?" There's endless advice telling us what is trending, or critics telling us that we must do or what we must say. I find that if I start focusing too much on what they think rather than what I am naturally — when I hide a part of me instead of expressing the cultural mixup that I am or dumb down my words instead of sharing the message that weighs on my heart — I get jaded, because what's the point? I might as well be an accountant that dots my i's and crosses my t's.
We all have our own ways to reconnect with our roots. For some it's yoga, meditation, revisiting old haunts, remembering why we began our creative journey in the first place. For me, it was my time in Jamaica. Diving into the ocean every day, eating vegetables I had grown in my own yard and making music with kids that have no agenda except to enjoy singing songs at the top of their lungs. It was a sweet combination of freedom and nature.
How have you been coping with the circuit breaker? What have you been occupying yourself with during this time?
As always, songwriting and creating helps me spend my time feeling the most fulfilled. What started as a social distancing-themed mixtape has now led to enough songs written for a full album including collaborations around the world, with artistes telling their stories of what they are facing. One of my favourite songs that has emerged is with Singaporean artiste Lincoln Lim, which is my first proper collaboration with a Singaporean artiste!
I've also been very busy with my Jamaican Jerk Marinade company, Suka Suka Sauce. Since the circuit breaker, people are cooking at home and millennials are learning how to cook. We sold out my entire stock in a week. The sauce is 100 percent natural and vegan-friendly, with the first batch containing herbs and spices that were personally grown by me (I guess that time of growing veggies in Jamaica paid off!). I've been catching up to the demand by cooking a lot at home, gathering recipe cards for the website and socials, keeping production ready in Malaysia for when the border ban lifts and being invited to livestreams showing people how to make Caribbean jerk at home!
This current situation has an obvious impact on the creative industry. Do you have any advice for young creatives who have been financially impacted, are struggling to find an outlet, or have had to put projects on hold indefinitely?
If you're in a creative industry, this is actually your time to shine! An art-driven life is based on innovation and creating something from nothing - so actually our imaginations and thought processes should be more valuable now. I'd advise not moping over losing your live gigs, and create what you've always wanted to make. Catalogue of content is important and though corners must be cut now financially, have something materialise when you emerge from this time - whether it's an album, a gallery collection, an art zine, a Jamaican Jerk sauce (lol).
For example, I'm not often in the pop and mainstream limelight in Singapore, but I'm always creating music with my producer DJ ALX. With a deep catalogue, I was able to use this isolation time to get songs from my albums placed in quite a few Netflix series, which is great because people are staying home to Netflix and chill more than ever (Shazaam counts are going up exponentially) and financial payouts follow.
Most importantly, I would ask young creatives to use their talent to help businesses and people that are struggling right now. From F&B and retail outlets, to a friend's small businesses or even a charity that might need the support, I always believe artists have a role to use their imaginations to bring innovation and help others. If you're doing the right thing from the heart, finance will eventually follow.