¥UNG RAJA spits the truth on his music video, ‘Mustafa', switching from acting to music and being a Singaporean Indian
Singapore has seen a fair share of its musicians building a name for themselves. But, if there is one who went viral in a day and tells it like it is in his songs, it has got to be Rajid Ahamed, also known as ¥UNG RAJA. He never would have expected that his English-Tamil remix of Lil Pump's 'Gucci Gang', called 'Poori Gang', would become such a hit when he shared it on his social media pages earlier this year. Instead of rapping about getting b*tches or getting wrecked on every possible drug, Rajid's clearer rendition injects a whole lot of local flavour to it that hits close to home with the mention of Indian dishes. The music video has since amassed over 100,000 views on YouTube, and even though some might not understand parts of the lyrics, a quick scroll through the comment section proved that everyone was hooked.
If you found the 23-year-old familiar even before the birth of 'Poori Gang', you might have recognised his face from other channels of entertainment. The former child actor has appeared on the small and big screens, such as local director Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen in 2015. When Rajid realised that his acting career was a little stagnant, he began venturing into music, releasing two singles — 'Tamilan' and 'Bounce' — last year, back when he was known as MC Raja. Despite being new to the local music scene, he found himself performing at clubs around the world like Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, especially after the success of 'Poori Gang'.
I met with Rajid a month ahead of the release of his music video for 'Mustafa'. Signed by M03 Records, Rajid was immediately recognisable by a flurry of hot pink hair that entered the front doors of Tiong Bahru Plaza's Starbucks. Throughout our conversation about 'Mustafa', racial discrimination and our shared alma mater, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Rajid emitted a sense of humility and seriousness on his craft, while holding on strongly to his roots — something that is reassuring in today's music industry.
Tell me about your single, 'Mustafa'.
It's my debut single as ¥UNG RAJA and it has been in the works for many months. There was a lot of tweaking that had to be done and things that we fine-tuned over the months. We [M03 Records] recently made a business deal with Kartel Records. Because of that, we had to rework a lot of things, but the wait is kind of worth it. I'm a pretty hyped person, as I get pretty excited over things. For me to just wait for the song to come is such a pain, but I know that once it comes out, it will be worth it. It doesn't take much to please myself, so whatever the outcome is, I know that I'll feel great. But the wait was killing me inside! I wanted to know what people thought about it.
How did 'Mustafa' come about?
I live two or three streets away from Mustafa so for me, I literally grew up going there. I realised a couple of years ago what kind of a cultural impact Mustafa has had. Everyone knows Mustafa, but nobody actually talks about it in terms of the media. You don't see people doing a shoot at Mustafa, and I feel that the media doesn't shine as much light on Mustafa as it should be. I recently did a Google search on Mustafa and the kind of news coverage that Mustafa has had was very bleak, and I was so shocked.
Somebody should've written about Mustafa, like come on! It's Mustafa, it's been around and it's changed lives. There was no 24/7 supermall like that. I'm Indian and the owner of Mustafa is Indian, and I feel a connection with Mustafa. I relate to that hustle — the owner started off with a pushcart and now, he owns the whole of Syed Alwi Road. That is some Silicon Valley sh*t. I feel like it is something that I can look up to and be inspired by. So, the term 'Yung Mustafa' is an alias that I created for my artistry. It's a second phase that I created for me, like an alter ego; it's my flashy, rich and famous alter ego, where I have made it, and I am Mustafa himself. There's also a small comical element to it, so that's how the song came about.
I was discussing with my producer, Ezekiel Keran (FlightSch), and we were just bouncing back and forth. He is Indian too, so he knows what I'm talking about. He really liked the idea as much as I did, and then we somehow managed to make it work.
Were the lyrics written solely by you?
Yes. I just sit down and write, and then if there's anything that doesn't really fit or hit the mark, my producer would let me know and then we'd change it together. But most of the time, Ezekiel, who's probably one of the best producers in Singapore, just knows the sound. Whenever I am writing and he feels that this or that could be better, he immediately comes in and lets me know. I get to learn more about myself as an artist as I grow closer to him as a friend. It's a weird dynamic. That's the kind of person he is; very 'for the better'-kind of man. The process of 'Mustafa' had a lot to do with Ezekiel as there's more than 50 percent of him in the picture, and he really moulded the sound — my sound — and the sound of the song. It was heavily driven by his vision on how I should sound like and it was his advice that I took on.
Do you think it was a drastic change on your part?
Not really, but a drastic change in terms of the final product. The way he packaged me was something that I never saw coming. I met him and he said, "I know exactly what to do with you". He brought me to the studio and then we made 'Mustafa' and then he said, "I'm going to tell you some things, your life is going to change and is never going to be the same again." I was like, "Okay, senpai." (laughs) It was very introspective as he was telling me that I could do this instead of that and I could use my voice in this or that way. It was very natural and nothing was forced.
How would you describe your musical style?
I mean, I'm still a new artist, so I would say that my musical style is not concrete yet. I wouldn't say that this is my style or this is how I want it to be. I feel that it is ever-changing and evolving. I wouldn't be too quick to make a judgement and say this is how I'm going to sound like forever, so I'm still trying to find the different layers as to how I want my sound to be, and I want it to be that way. That's where the fun part is for me. As much as I was excited for my song to come out, I think the biggest part of the excitement lies in the process. I really live by this: Process to progress.
Do you feel that you're somewhat 'there' already?
I feel that I found the sound that I can attach to ¥UNG RAJA, but personally in terms of artistry, I still want to push the envelope on how far I can go or where I can bring this to or what would wow people. I'm still trying to figure that out everyday.
What inspires you on a daily basis?
Everyday conversations. I think there's something that a lot of people don't really pay attention to, which is the fact that rap is a reflection of who you really are and what your reality is. Rap is not something like buying chains or expensive cars and getting all these girls. Rap is actually rhythm and poetry, and has a deeper meaning to it. What it signifies is the artist's reality. If you see 50 Cent or other rappers from America, there is a lot stigma that it's all about 'gangsterism' or where guys are derogatory when it comes to women, but that may be their reality and the life that they live.
People don't realise that rap holds this significance to the artists' realities. So for me, my reality is what I live through everyday. My conversations with my mum. I speak Tamil at home, when I step out of the door, I speak English. I grew up speaking Tamil, and that is my reality, my root and my truth. What inspires me to rap or what inspires me to create songs and write something down is the fact that these stories are real.
"Rap is not something like buying chains or expensive cars and getting all these girls. Rap is actually rhythm and poetry."
I literally grew up going to Mustafa. At every stage of my life when things changed, when I started to evolve from a prepubescent boy to a teenager to a young adult — whichever stage I was at, Mustafa was always there. I would always go there every Thursday or Friday with my family to buy stuff. I didn't just make a song called 'Mustafa' because people would relate to it. It's because it holds something in my heart.
As a minority growing up in Singapore, I've felt oppression every step of the way. I've had people telling me that I should go to India if I want to make it. I've been trying to make it as an actor for nine years before my rap career. I was a die-hard fan of acting and it was all I wanted to do. I joined Mass Communication in Ngee Ann Polytechnic because I wanted to become an actor. I was two points away from the cut-off point and I had to show them my show reel of all the shows that I have acted in, and then they took me in. That's how much acting was a part of my life, and I went through nine years of that in Mediacorp. Every role that you can think of when they needed an Indian guy, I was probably the one. In Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen, I was the Indian guy.
But, it came to a point where I realised that man, there is literally no way I can be that kind of a great artist I want to be in this field because I realised that the opportunities are not there. I continued to believe that there will be a time to create an opportunity for myself — I believed that for nine years. But, it came a point where I thought that in Singapore's film industry, there is no way somebody is going to put me in a lead role. When I came to that dark conclusion about the media industry here — it might not be true, but it was my experience — after nine long years, I had to accept it. What could be the thing that allows me to express my heart in a way that is true to who I am
Hip-hop has always been around, so I thought of writing some rhymes. It was always there, but I just didn't see it. I've always been writing lyrics and listening to hip-hop since I was eight. But, I always just thought I was a fan of hip-hop and never knew that I would eventually become a rapper. I used to post covers of rap songs on SoundCloud for fun, but I always knew that I could rap since secondary school as I always had the talent to mimic a hip-hop artist. As a hip-hop artist now, I thought to myself that, "Wow, I always had it." So, I met Ezekiel, he brought me to the studio, and everything just happened from there.
When 'Poori Gang' first came out, what struck me the most was that even though most of your lyrics are in Tamil, everyone enjoyed it. Did you ever expect that your song would receive so much love and support?
No! All my life, I've never received this much support for anything that I've done. I've always been average in a lot of things in my life. Like wow, you can be yourself and get this much love? I'll be very honest with you. Being an actor for nine years, every waking hour of my life was me trying to fit in and become something that I am not. But that's a good thing, because it moulded me and shaped me into something that I am today.
Feeling like I had to fit in kind of created a tidal wave of emotions that I just kept in myself. And then when I found rap; when I just made a funky a** remix called 'Poori Gang' and when people started to love it, I was just so shocked. The amount of freedom that I felt was like I had just seen God. God came down to me and said, "You know what, Rajid? I know you've been struggling, trying to find a way to express who you really are, so let me just give you this gift right now, and let you know that you found the way. It is the time to shine."
And the fact that everyone loved it, even though some of them might not understand everything.
The idea to remix 'Gucci Gang' wasn't mine, but my friend's, Fakkah Fuzz. He texted me and said that it would be cool if I remixed it. I was chilling with my mum in the living room and it was 4pm, and I started writing. I called Ezekiel and said, "I got a f*cking brilliant idea and we need to record today." I was writing the hook, verse and the second verse for two hours and on the way to his house. By 7.30pm, I already had the full song, so I went there, recorded, and then we shot the music video right after. I went back home at 9am the next day, right after we uploaded the video on YouTube. It only took one day. We shot and edited it together with our phones.
In your opinion, is it easy to create music for everyone while still catering to a certain community in Singapore?
Ultimately, as a Singaporean artist, you have to know who you are talking to. I took some time to understand who my demographic is. When you understand the market and who you are talking to, it becomes so much simpler in terms of the process of putting out your thoughts. Whatever it is that you do, it has to cater to the market, which contains your demographic, and they are the people who give a sh*t about you. All that time has been spent recording in the studio, trying to find the sound, to make myself better as an artist, and to understand the industry. I will consider that homework.
There are a lot of young local artists making a name for themselves these days, but little to none actually sing in their Mother Tongue, especially in Tamil. Do you think that it is important for more artists to represent their own culture and community?
Yes, yes, f*ck yes. That's the reason why we learn our Mother Tongue, you know? That is who we are. I'm so sick and tired of being made to feel embarrassed when I speak Tamil. Growing up at every phase of my life, I've been made to feel like I should feel that way. I never felt proud speaking my Mother Tongue out in public. Never. Maybe it's the friends I hung out with, maybe it's the schools that I went to, I don't know. As an actor, no matter which production I'm at, I'm never required to speak Tamil, and this kind of pushed it further and further away from me. Then came a point where I realised that I have to stop, because I will move too far from who I really am. The truth is, that is who I am and my roots. F*ck, I'm Indian, what do you want me to say?
It's about time somebody steps forward and speaks about this. The fact is that if you don't represent your culture, then nobody will represent you in the end. If you don't speak about your people, nobody will give a f*ck about what you are saying, because your people will be the first people that will support you. When 'Poori Gang' first came out, the first bunch of listeners were probably all Indian, then it spread to their Malay friends and then their Chinese friends. The next thing you know, everybody is listening to it.
"The fact is that if you don't represent your culture, then nobody will represent you in the end."
As an artist, what more do you think can be done for minorities in Singapore to be represented more?
There needs to be more artists that dare to speak up. I feel like there are a lot of artists that we have in Singapore that have an insane amount of talent, but for some reason, they feel alienated in the industry because of the people that dominate the industry. Now is the time where artists can break through into the market with the entrance of me, Fariz Jabba and the underground rappers or artists. All we need is for that to continue happening, where young artists should feel like Singapore gives a f*ck, so the more they feel like Singapore gives a damn, they would put out their stuff. Eventually, Singapore will be filled with a diverse amount of musicians. All it takes is that one person to step up.
Growing up, I didn't have an Indian role model that I could look up to. There were some people that are Indian, but nobody said the things that would make me look up to them as a role model. Everybody was either too politically correct or too polished. It's 2018, and motherf*ckers have Twitter; it's about time the truth comes out because it is what it is. People like me are being oppressed everyday. We are not given the same amount of light. I may be wrong statistically, but this has been my experience. And guess what? It's a lot of my brothers' and sisters' experiences too. The fact that I have the opportunity and the platform to say these things, I feel that this will create a ripple effect of changes that are going to come upon hopefully soon.
You appeared on Joe Flizzow's 16 Baris. How was the experience like?
I was nervous to kill it. That was the turning point in my life. I put out my rap video in January and Fariz Jabba did it before me. Both had a lot of views, but us actually getting called by Joe Flizzow to come down for the show is crazy. He is like the Southeast Asian godfather of rap, and for him to personally call us new rappers down, it's like, what more validation could we want?
I've also noticed that you have collaborated with Fariz Jabba many times. How is it like working with him?
We are the complete opposites — he's all about the arts and I have the perspectives of a businessman. He wants to dance and he's a born performer while I was a moulded performer. I have some skillsets that he doesn't have, and the other way round. . The fact that I can do what I love now with one of my most favourite human beings, what more do I want? I can't thank God enough for this life. I'm not rich and popular and I could care less about that, but the fact that my foundation has been laid out like this, that I get to take a step into the industry with my best friend. It is such a beautiful experience to see how the two of us are progressing in life and stuff, making it together. It feels like I'm going hand in hand with this guy.
Do you think that there are a lot more doors open for you after the recent successes that you had?
For sure. I think people are starting to notice Fariz and I for what we represent. That's what Singapore has been lacking in. Singapore hasn't seen such a vocally diverse bunch of talents together at the same time. I'm here spitting in Tamil and English and he is spitting in Malay and English. People probably didn't expect that from Singaporeans, and I would never have too. It just happened so organically and I feel like it is something that people didn't know they liked. So, when we did that together, doors f*cking opened like magic. All of my life, that was what I wanted — being represented properly and for people to care about what I have to say about my life and my people.
Who would you like to collaborate with for future singles?
I have top three in no particular order: Sam Rui, Tabitha Nauser and Charlie Lim. I've always liked Tabitha Nauser (laughs).
Do you have any upcoming projects fans can expect from you? Can we expect a full-length album soon?
All I can say that Fariz and I are working hard to put out our own solo projects. We've been putting in the work day and night, almost everyday. We have made a lot of songs to give the fans more music and content, and a lot of great things are going on, especially at M03 Records. The game has started and it feels like an exam! I am very focused.