With Singapore‘s music scene becoming more diverse by the year, one young rapper is determined to redefine the idea of hip-hop here. 22-year-old Nikhil Senan is the rapper behind ‘TRIBE‘, a song that reflects his struggle to accept divorce, disapproval, and disloyalty as part of the inevitable tumultuous chaos of life.
Nikhil’s debut single comes after years cutting his teeth on open mics in Boat Quay and jam sessions, leading up to an acclaimed live showcase at #UMAMISOUNDS last month alongside singer-songwriter Linying and R&B funk group Astronauts. In this interview, he talks about his latest work, his favourite rappers, and what’s lacking in the local music industry.
Hi Nikhil! What do you love about hip-hop music?
Hi guys! The short answer is everything. The better answer is that I love the sound, the emotions, and the magnitude of the projects. Their impacts, the imagery, the details, the contrast … it’s like a beautiful self-portrait of humanity done in mosaic.
When did you start rapping and what got you into it?
Nobody has asked me that yet! I started rapping – which I understand as a marriage of rhythm and rhyme – in kindergarten. I went to a school called Julia Gabriel’s, and we used to read poems aloud in groups. I remember being fascinated by tongue twisters too. It was a short road then to singing along to the hardest tongue twisters on the radio – which if you’re around my age were obviously Eminem songs. I was also enthralled by Linkin Park’s rapper Mike Shinoda. I rapped along to every song and still know the lyrics to the entire Fort Minor album. It grew from there and it still does. What got me into writing rap music is a longer and sharper road, involving young heartbreak, vodka, and Kendrick Lamar.
What makes a good rapper? The flow? The lyrics?
There’s no objective answer to this other than “a person who believes he’s a good rapper”. Flow, lyrics, tone and perspectives connect differently with different people – which itself is interesting. I had a vanilla childhood and a rocky road late teenage and early twenties, and the rappers I listened to changed too. Mike Shinoda & Kanye West are worlds apart, and they’re both excellent rappers.
Talk to me about the making of your debut single, TRIBE. What was the inspiration behind it?
TRIBE was inspired by my life. I’m always thinking about life and observing little and big things. When the littlest things connect to the biggest things, I call that the truth. I find that Love is all & all is Love. I use the metaphor of the tribe to describe this connection we all have to each other. This tribal flame burning inside every living being. This truth I explore in relation to certain family issues.
Who would you say are the top rappers at the moment, internationally?
For what rap music means to me (again, there is no objective test here), I’d say the top rappers whom I’ve had the chance to listen to that are making music today, are Jermaine Cole, Kanye West, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, and Pusha T. And even within those names there are so many different styles and motivations at play.
If you had the chance to collaborate with one of them, who’d it be?
There aren’t many rappers in Singapore compared to say, R&B artists. Why do you think that is?
All local artists are inherently rebellious. It’s so thoroughly against the grain of our culture. That explains the numbers. Rapping is a less common skill than singing in Singapore. That explains the size of the pond. However, the skill – rare as it is – has not historically been used in interesting ways here. Rap (and perhaps life) is about expressing yourself, not impressing others, and our rappers haven’t been that inspiring in this regard.
If you had the power to change one thing about Singapore music industry to help independent artists – what would it be?
Independent artists are the artists of the moment. It feels like traditional label-artists have hit a point of saturation and homogeneity. However, labels are the gatekeepers to streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Artists could team up with labels or other instruments and facilities of the music industry to distribute their music. Producing music without a label has never been easier, and getting meaningful air time has never been harder. It could be a healthy partnership. Remember: the industry is not an issue, per se. In fact, it’s the only authentic attempt we’ve made to distribute art of this nature. I applaud the bravery of the local music scene and industry for working with their talents for uncommon goals. The industry keeps the lights on. The artists keep the stage alive.
What are you plans moving forward?
I’ve got a degree to finish and friends to catch up with. I want to grow as a musician, too, so more experimenting and understanding and repeat, until I feel like another project is developing. Then I’ll be back here, talking to you guys!