by Ola Mazzuca
There is nothing Jafaican about Masia One. It’s been a long time since she lived on Marlee Avenue in the Eglinton West neighbourhood of Toronto, where she hit up Mainsha’s for Toonie Tuesday lunch specials and Doubles with slight pepper. Now she’s in Singapore - her motherland, laying down new roots and projects since her start as a hip-hop MC. But there’s only one Caribbean restaurant in the city, and they don’t have doubles. “I went in there cussing them and they weren’t having it,” Masia says from her home in a Skype call.
What do you do when you can’t find cuisine and music to match? You bring the party and infiltrate the system. That’s what Masia One has been doing since returning to Southeast Asia in 2013. The artist and creative director behind her Chiney Money branding company has been pushing hard to sell reggae, dancehall and dub in Singapore’s corporation-like culture. “The message of reggae is not going to be the popular one because it’s not telling you to consume or do things that work within this type of society,” Masia says. “If I was a really good businesswoman I would be selling K Pop to the Asian community. Supply and demand. But I’m consistently caught trying to shove art down people’s throats or pioneer something.”
Born Maysian Lim, the artist first discovered hip hop music when she was six years old. It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back isn’t only the title of a bootleg Public Enemy tape she found at a market - it’s the driving force of her life. Growing up in Singapore, Masia was always told to bury her creativity. “As a kid I would write rhymes and hide them under my bed so my parents didn't really know I had this creative streak. I would hide my paintings. That's why graffiti really appealed to me, because I got to have this anonymity to go out and secretly be creative.” By the time she moved to Vancouver’s North Shore, her classmates could only pronounce her first name as “Mexican” and at the height of her infatuation with hip-hop B-Girl Asia One, she added an M to the latter and made it her own.
Moving east to study architecture at the University of Toronto, her roommate, Jesse Ohtake, the former Programming Director of Manifesto, not only used three rooms to house his vinyl, but led the MC out from under the bed onto the stage. Ohtake promoted an all-female hip-hop showcase at the Comfort Zone, and one night, an artist cancelled. So Masia spit bars. Then came the calls from MuchMusic, leading her to produce the MuchFACT video for her eponymous “SplitSecond Time” - an audiovisual jab at Asian stereotypes. She went on to collaborate with RZA, Talib Kweli and Aftermath Entertainment producers.
Masia was told she wasn’t marketable. Labels from Detroit drove to Toronto, pushing $20,000 across a table, asking to sign her. “It was some rapping in a bikini across a car shit,” she says, insisting it was laundered drug money. “I would have to be doing straight pre-Nicki Minaj vagina raps. [Toronto labels] could only calculate numbers from a precedent offemales to see how profitable it would be. I didn't like either choice, so I told my fans to send me cash in greeting cards - it didn't matter what the card said - and I would send them a CD. I sold 1,000 copies of my first album Mississauga that way.” But the labels needed stats from Nielsen Soundscan.
Bobbing back and forth between Toronto and New York, Masia moved to Hollywood. While working as a pop songwriter in Studio City, she became jaded and needed to find an outlet. “I had two goals; I wanted to cleanse my palate of Hollywood and go to where Peter Tosh was born,” she says. The inspiration came from her brother, who always had Legalize It and Toots and the Maytals on heavy rotation, to experiencing bashment dancehall jams in Toronto. Jamaica was a natural choice.
Hanging out with legends like Sizzla Kalonji to recording at Tuff Gong Studios, Masia was “coasting” for a while before she unwillingly returned to Singapore. Her brother passed away. She was the last of kin. “It was life kicking me in the ass saying, ‘You think you know it all? You don’t know shit. Come here to shake up your world.’”
After a few months, Masia grew grumpy in Singapore’s strict, “soulless” culture. She discovered Dubskank’in Hifi, an underground soundsystem party night produced by Firmann Salim (aka DJ Rumshot). Utilizing her background as a multidisciplinary artist, they joined forces to establish the Singapura Dub Club, an event series that delivers “irie” vibes through culture, food, music and dance. The name translates to “Lion City Dub Club,” as Singa is the Malay word for lion, and a symbol synonymous with members of the Rastafari movement. Although traditional Indonesian music, dangdut, has elements similar to reggae, the genre was still foreign in a bootleg culture of pop tracks sung ad nauseam.
To successfully sell Singapura Dub Club, Masia introduced a new culture as “branded and packaged” by providing a membership complete with graphics, t-shirts and other incentives to fulfill the country’s desire for atas, a term for the upper class or bourgeois. Masia was told that “reggae would never work” until everyone from King Jammy-loving expats, young millennial trap rappers and locals started to attend sold-out events, showcasing Jamaican progenitors through speakers to Japan’s Papa Ugee in the flesh.
She started touring herself as a reggae artist and with her band, the Irietones, making deals with promoters, curating events and developing partnerships. The ultimate goal is to be the first reggae band from Singapore to reach Jamaica. “Singapore is not typically associated with Reggae, but if a Bobsled team from Jamaica got to the Olympics, I think this is a small feat,” she says. The band’s journey is based on showing musicians how to “catch a 1-drop groove,” slow down the pace and play in a shuffle style. “Vibe is more important than technical perfection,” Masia says. “It is a musical, cultural and social experiment.”
The club’s modus operandi “Good vibes can grow,” rings true in battling oppressive structures, but Masia’s Canadian upbringing of lending a hand doesn’t resonate with local industry giants. The concept of “protecting your rice bowl” portrays the level of competition in Singapore, in-bred to children at eight years old, where they divided at school by their comprehension level and class. Masia now faces similar challenges in protecting her contacts - something she didn’t have to do as an MC in Toronto. “If someone would link me up, it would just come around. Here, I could link somebody with Erykah Badu and never hear from them again. I’ve actually been sat down and told, ‘Look. you gotta stop being so damn Canadian. The population is different now. The competition is different. The mentality is different. Protect your shit.’”
Masia One turned Singapore into her own “Chiney Babylon.” Blessed by her experiences of seeing layers of culture on a global scale, she is discovering Southeast Asia’s vibrancy by applying her own colour palette and bag of resources. Her creative direction has helped link mainstream artists with countries like Vietnam, where she booked Sean Kingston for a rural farmland-turned-outdoor pool party concert. 500 people didn’t show up - 5,000 did.
“People are waiting once a month to get their reggae fix in,” Masia says of Singapura Dub Club’s schedule. There’s also one-off island parties, including this year’s Bintan, where guests included Bob Marley’s granddaughter Donisha Prendergast and Warner Music executives. In 2016, the Dub Club will host on the liberal Gili Islands, where police are illegal due to a cultural belief that they will prevent people from self-governance and everyone travels by bicycle or pony. This exposure has been a great springboard for Masia to connect East and West in what she describes as a “Burning Man Concept” of life. “It’s not a music conference, you’re not shoving this business down my throat, we’re drinking Mai Tais and wining to reggae music, becoming friends and seeing what projects can happen from there.”
Masia believes that there will always be a niche market for those “doing something different.” When she first listened to her brother play Peter Tosh’s speech on “the Shitstem,” she thought the artist was a raging lunatic. Today, those moments are mere roots of the Singapura Dub Club, and its purpose to keep a rebel spirit alive. “Creating a foundation for reggae in Southeast Asia for me is like a fun inside joke between me and my brother. Like ‘fuck the Shitstem, but look what we did, homie!’ I didn’t know my purpose when I came back here but it’s starting to shape up.”
In the New Year, Masia will be reinventing herself as an artist with a new album that reflects authenticity and growth. She still finds it ironic to be consistently “starting from scratch” immersing herself in culturally contrasting initiatives.
“You can throw me in the Lion’s Den and I will find a way to sell meat to the Lions,” Masia says. “Then there’s this Masia that just wants to wear close to nothing, natt up my hair, eat doubles all day and yard.”
In Lion City, she’ll keep fighting against this duality of Masia One and Chiney Money - a simultaneous creator and industry hustler on the hunt for innovation - in society, and with the animals.
Originally published on Noisey Canada by VICE Media