Not A Public Assembly by Subhas “is not rap, it’s a TED talk”
image courtesy of Shao Kai Chng
At a time when hip-hop as a genre is evolving and reinventing itself, few rappers have managed to strike the balance between innovation and good old political commentary, which hip-hop has always particularly been known for. While the greats of old seem to be missing the mark, rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are cementing hip-hop as a genre to take seriously, even in the age of mumble rap. It is here that Singapore-based Subhas makes his own politically-charged contribution paired with skill and lyrical mastery in the form of his latest release, Not A Public Assembly (NAPA).
Lyrics to the songs here.
With lines like “Home is where the heart lands,” “Conscript is a con script, modern warfare, is war fair?” and “Hanging by a noose, hanging by a thread,” NAPA is chockful of clever wordplay acting as a catalyst for the powerful dialogue that Subhas is starting. Perhaps the standout factor of the album is the fact that despite centering on the globally-relateable concept of mental enslavement, it’s still a very personal album, making several references to Subhas’s homeland Singapore, like the mentions of mak cik (aunt) and udon (a type of thick wheat flour noodle of Japanese cuisine) in the song Heartlands, and the song Punishment, which is an ode to Malaysian national Prabhagaran Srivijayan, who was sentenced to death in Singapore for drug trafficking in 2014.
Although talented electronic producer FAUXE has set up a complex soundscape for NAPA, Subhas plays around it with ease. Blk101sunsetway, the first track on the album, grapples with the frailty of family ties against a dystopian-sounding backdrop. The line “I am not a statistic, I’m a dreamer, I’m a misfit, I’m a mystic” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Heartlands is colored with nostalgia and is an interesting listen; the bit Subhas does about the “59 dollars” is one of the more light-hearted parts of the album, the little comic relief we’re allowed before NAPA takes a darker turn. Monarch is a motivational number about not having to fit in, and it’s swiftly followed by Modern Slavery.
Punishment, a heavy track about imprisonment, capital punishment and the nation’s lack of compassion, builds up to Riot! / Dumbshit!, which is chaotic and catchy in equal parts, and calls out the wealthy and society’s lack of empathy. When Subhas says, “This is not rap, it’s a TED talk,” we’ve never been paying closer attention to either. Then comes Firstworld, a semi-satirical track about the upper class. NAPA ends with a solemn, heavy note on Swearing In, and that’s when you finally let out the breath you didn’t know you were holding in.
When asked about all the uniquely Asian ties on the album, Subhas says, “In terms of artistic process, I believe the more specific an artist is with their writing, paradoxically, the more general the message becomes. This is why the tone of this album is first and foremost self-reflexive. For example, on my first track, Blk101sunsetway, people do not resonate with it because they have a lived experience in that specific place or geography; but rather the way I am grappling with an idea of home is perhaps what resonates with them.
“People are always going to imbue their own meaning and imaginations into the art they consume. That is how we perceive, and when you dig deeper into the roots of what you’re saying, you allow for someone to borrow your lens of seeing. I think this is especially important being a South East Asian artist, in a region where we have so many languages, cultures, histories, traditions, and voices that go unheard. If we all do our best to create what is authentic, I believe we can regain control of our own narratives and begin reclaiming our identities. That being said, we lived in a globalized world – there is no escaping that. If an artist wants to use their platform to speak about a global issue, all power to them. You can be authentic and deeply self-reflexive and still have a big picture message that resonates to many different places and faces.”