EXPRESSIVE: Diversity in music with Jon Chua

The founder and creative director of Zendyll Music is no one-hit wonder

  • 15.09.2021

share the story

In hindsight, Jon Chua probably saw this question coming a mile away. And yet, he humours me anyway. “The Sam Willows decided to take a hiatus for, you know, several reasons — the legal ones, I can’t talk about.” There is no discomfort in his stance; no lingering defensiveness over a question posed for what must be the umpteenth time. “I mean, the four of us are good,” he continues. “To be fair, it was always us against the world. They still trust me to work on their projects. And I still trust them to work on my projects as well. We’re still really close.”

On paper, it sounds as if I’ve been given the meticulously-crafted, PR psychobabble designed to dissuade journalists. Strangely enough, I sense no deception in Jon’s tone — just genuine affection and a type of candor that would prove to be a running theme throughout our interview. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and we’re seated in his office at Balestier, the home to Zendyll Music. Founded in 2016, it is a self-identified music agency, performance studio, and production house with an attuned focus on local and regional content. The space in question resembles a mancave, dimly lit and brimming with Lego memorabilia; guitars; and vinyl record sleeves.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jon Chua JX (@jonchuajx)

“It’s been pretty chill,” he says, when asked about what it’s like to head a music agency — a far cry from his days as the vocalist and lead guitarist of The Sam Willows. “I’ve been enjoying myself a lot in the last one and a half years. I don’t like COVID-19, but it gave me a lot of time to just relax and re-focus, so I spent a lot of it building up Zendyll.” That feels like an understatement and a half, seeing how Jon has now successfully scored different types of deals over the last 10 years with the Holy Trinity of the music world: Universal Music, Sony, and Warner. He has also since kicked off a new video series catchily titled Hometown Heroes, designed to showcase Singapore’s latest crop of musical talent.

In person, Jon plays off the achievement, crediting it to the legion of younger artists he’s signed under his label. He jokes about the free drinks; the backstage perks; the parties that he still gets to go to without having to exert the same amount of effort. It’d be easy to dismiss his success as a by-product of his time as a member of what is, arguably, Singapore’s most commercially-successful band. Most people would blanch at the assumption — Jon, however, takes it into stride.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jon Chua JX (@jonchuajx)

“It was basically a game shark,” he shrugs, non-plussed. “Like talent-wise, right? I think the four of us weren’t as talented as a lot of solo artists when we first started, but it worked. It gave me the ability to make enough contacts to build a foundation strong enough that, you know, I could try to sign another The Sam Willows type act, or another Nathan Hartono type act. But you know, where’s the fun in that? I think for us, it’s not about trying to sign the next act that is an influencer-turned-musician.”

There’s no questioning that. Jon gets visibly excited when asked about the artists he’s signed, pulling up a music video on the widescreen TV he has mounted on the wall. I’m not sure what I’m expecting, but the visual of a young Malay artist rapping aggressively about his background and life is not it. “He is a really interesting guy, because he is what I would call not your NDP musician. So when I say NDP musician, I mean, like, artists who could potentially go on NDP,” Jon laughs. “With Ae$op Ca$h, he’s a young Malay rapper. And in Singapore, there is a trajectory you have to follow with that — no disrespect to Malay Mediacorp artists, but you know, it’s people who can go on Suria, and make it from there.”

I point out that perhaps it’s not an unreasonable path to take, seeing how limited the music and entertainment field is in Singapore is. There’s an argument to be made, too, about how race comes into play here, where minorities are oftentimes deprived of the same opportunities granted to the majority. It’s a sentiment Jon readily agrees with; a notion seemingly that birthed the foundation of Zendyll Music.

“So like how Dr Dre had Jimmy Lovine that helped build hip hop in America, someone like Ae$op Ca$h would benefit having someone from the majority race who believes in him, and backs him up. That’s the reality of it,” he states. “The truth is, someone like Ae$op Ca$h needs someone with inherent Chinese privilege. You know, he needs a Chinese person to get him through the door. He’s doing something for me, personally, that I believe in. He is representing a certain population in Singapore whose voice isn’t heard as much.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by el zopo nino (@aesopcash)

This mindset is one Jon brings up frequently. It is dedication to aiding the community with whatever means that he possesses; an acknowledgement of his own privilege while utilising it, almost, for the gain of others. He dubs it the Robin Hood play. “Businesses and brands like to use me as a poster boy for a lot of their campaigns,” he admits. “I do it because good money, right? So, as I mentioned, the Robin Hood strategy — I suck it up to get money, so I can invest in people like Ae$op Ca$h. This is just one example of what we’re doing.”

It’s an admirable goal as any, though it’s far from Jon’s (or Zendyll’s) sole aim. The endgame, it seems, is to build a community; a village of artists and musicians and sound techs that can truly flourish and grow in Singapore’s environment — particularly for disadvantaged groups that have never once considered veering into the creative field.

“We haven’t done it yet. It’s not something we’ve achieved yet,” Jon says, when asked about it. “I might tell you a different story one year from now. It’ll be like, “Yeah, we managed to figure it out — how to help them earn more than minimum wage, how to make them think of career prospects beyond Grab and FoodPanda. Because you know, it’s a means to an end, but it can’t be the end in itself. If there was a way for someone from their community to come up and inspire everyone else, it will build a village of people. It’s not just the artists, either. For every Taylor Swift, you got 1000 people behind them. It creates jobs. And you know, for us, I think it’s about trying to be the platform that creates such jobs.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Zendyll (@zendyllmusic)

If anything, it’s clear to see that Jon understands the jaded yet clear-eyed members of the Gen Z, despite being 31 (or so he keeps reminding me). He values authenticity above all else; hates the rigid, capitalistic outlook that most locals are guilty of; and dismisses all need for unnecessary propriety in the workplace. Zendyll, in the purest sense, is the ultimate expression of who he is and what he stands for — a hope for a more diverse music industry that better embodies the various facets and intricacies of Singapore’s culture. And if you don’t happen to be a fan of that? Well, it’s not likely to bother him any time soon. As he keeps telling me, he’s just here to make “some dope sh*t.” As do we all, Jon.