INTERVIEW/China-banned music wunderkind finds freedom of expression in Taiwan

11/15/2021 03:32 PM
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Malaysian musician Namewee speaks with CNA and Taiwan+ in a joint interview. CNA photo Nov. 15, 2021
Malaysian musician Namewee speaks with CNA and Taiwan+ in a joint interview. CNA photo Nov. 15, 2021

By James Lo and Adam Graudus, CNA staff writers

Banned from China's airwaves and wiped from its internet, the worst of his critics like to portray Malaysian rapper Namewee's (黃明志) song "Fragile" (玻璃心) with Australian singer Kimberley Chen (陳芳語) as vehement anti-Beijing propaganda.

Conversely, the song's perceived slights at Chinese nationalists have also made it a huge hit in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yet Namewee told CNA and Taiwan+ in a recent interview in Taipei that the song, like all his work, is inspired by a desire to express rather than offend.

"I think creativity shouldn't be limited, because we are musicians. To me, I created a bittersweet love song that is catchy. I guess the lyrics were interpreted differently by different people. That is the magic of the song."

Since its release on Oct. 15, "Fragile" has racked up over 30 million views on YouTube -- and also drawn the ire of Chinese nationalists.

The song's lyrical undertones, with veiled references to a possessive "pink" other-half, are considered by some to be an intolerable dig at the Beijing government and, more specifically, its army of keyboard warriors.

But Namewee insists there's no beef -- and especially not one borne out of a fragile response of his own to dashed dreams of a career in China.

"When people accuse me of writing songs bashing China because I failed to launch a career there, that is false. I have never initiated one in China. I have always done things on the internet and elsewhere."

Namewee says he had held meetings with several agencies in China, even telling them he was open to releasing localized versions of his work to placate the country's censors. But it was the insistence that even his international releases adhere to Beijing's standards, the rapper says, that proved a dealbreaker.

"The agencies said all my creations, my lyrics, would have to be scrutinized and inspected. I realized this would affect the original intentions of my work."

"So out of respect for them, I said we shouldn't work together. That way, they won't affect my work and I won't affect theirs."

Namewee says this pursuit of unbound expression is a universal understanding shared by his peers in China, if not by his detractors.

"I seldom use WeChat, but I do have some work partners in China, and they have a huge chat group where they say things like 'Hey, that song you wrote, that one we can't type about. I just want you to know it is good.' They have to say that because if they typed out the name of the song, then WeChat inspects it. Praise from people in the same field, that's the honest truth."

Malaysian-born musician Namewee (left) and Australian-born singer Kimberley Chen (right) celebrate the success of their duet, "Fragile," at a presser on Nov. 15. CNA photo Nov. 15, 2021
Malaysian-born musician Namewee (left) and Australian-born singer Kimberley Chen (right) celebrate the success of their duet, "Fragile," at a presser on Nov. 15. CNA photo Nov. 15, 2021

"Not rebellious per se, just not a good follower of rules."

While "Fragile" is not the first of Namewee's works to court controversy -- his song "Oh My God" and film "Babi," among others, have created PR and legal headaches for him in Malaysia -- he emphasizes that his creations are meant to "tell people such [social] problems exists."

This propensity to push the envelope began when he was a child.

"I've always been a rebellious child. Not rebellious per se, just not a good follower of rules," Namewee said.

"People would tell me not to touch cacti, because such and such would happen if I did. And I would touch it. People would tell me that I would get a cold if I stood in the rain. And I would think, 'really?' and sneak out when the adults were asleep and experience being rained on in the middle of the night," he said.

"I have the tendency to want to find out for myself if what I have been told is correct."

Namewee and his parents. Photo courtesy of Asian Tone Cultural and Creative Industry
Namewee and his parents. Photo courtesy of Asian Tone Cultural and Creative Industry

But as an adult, Namewee insists, it is not his intention to stir up problems deliberately.

"Many people think I like to step on people's toes. But to me, the more sensitive something is deemed, like the issue of race, the more it should be explored and discussed," he said.

"Because there is a reason why something is sensitive, and if we don't question it, then the underlying problems will never be resolved."

A graduate of Taiwan's Ming Chuan University, Namewee currently splits his time between the island and Malaysia.

"Taiwan, to me, is where I present my work. But in truth, I release them online anyway, so the whole world can see. That is why my works feature artists from different countries, like Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, Hong Kong, and a lot of others."

It is the breathing space provided for universal notions of creative expression, rather than a con-amore affinity for place or culture, that has seen Namewee base his career out of Taiwan.

"Honestly you can create anywhere, but when it comes to releasing work, Taiwan is a place where I can properly do what I intend to do with my work. It is more tolerant. Take my song 'Ghost Island,' (鬼島) for example, in which I made fun of and criticized certain things about Taiwan. In other countries, I might be given a hard time, banned, removed, excommunicado even. But here? I was nominated for 'song of the year' at the Golden Melody Awards!"

"I feel that we as humans need mutual understanding and interaction."

Between 2013 and 2020, Namewee released seven Asia-themed albums featuring various Chinese dialects and other languages from the continent.

Namewee's inspiration to create the discography was largely due to a documentary project he embarked on in 2009. For a while, the artist made extended stays in other countries en route home, planning a return to Malaysia's capital scheduled to coincide with the nation's Independence Day.

"The reason why I was able to make seven albums based on Asia is because I used to be a backpacker," Namewee said. "I visited 20 to 30 countries for prolonged stays, not like just a day or two of touring. I tried to blend into the cultures."

"Like, I was in the Philippines for two weeks, and I was in Mongolia for half a month, in the middle of the grasslands, where I spent time with the people there and got to understand how they see the world. It is only after running around Asia all those years that inspired me to make the 'Asia' discography."

Despite his success with "Fragile," Namewee says he doesn't have a plan for total music industry domination mapped out.

Instead, the rapper says he intends to explore other countries and cultures through music, film and even writing, aiming to create artistic works that focus on the similarities instead of the differences in people.

"I feel that I want to use my music to bring everyone together. In the past, it was just pure fun. But now, it's safe to say that this is a distinguished feature of mine."

Enditem/ASG/cc

Photo courtesy of Asian Tone Cultural and Creative Industry
Photo courtesy of Asian Tone Cultural and Creative Industry
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