Creating songs that are truly from home

You might have seen it online - Lingo Lingo, a supposedly SG50-themed music video on YouTube by the Ah Boys To Men movie stars, and the brickbats from netizens it has been getting.

The video shows them singing, rapping and dancing in front of 50 supercars ("Yes, please count them", the text accompanying the YouTube video gleefully exhorts), a private jet and buxom, scantily clad women.

Many decried it as a cringeworthy display of crass material wealth, showing a lifestyle out of reach to the masses here.

That is ironic because the makers of the video were "celebrating 50 years of our Singaporean language" as it says in the introduction.

In this country, there is probably no greater leveller than the mixed rojak of words and phrases that make up the local vernacular.

A little background on the music video: It was produced to accompany an hour-long film titled Lingo Lingo Where You Go.

Produced by film director Jack Neo's production house, J Team and partly paid for with $50,000 in funding from the Singapore Memory Project's irememberSG Fund, the featurette purports to explore the origins of Singlish through a "charmingly humorous jaunt down memory lane".

A spokesman for the National Library Board, which is behind the Singapore Memory Project and the irememberSG Fund, told local tabloid The New Paper that the grant was only for the featurette and that J Team were fully behind the funding and production of the music video.

Making a music video with the same theme as the film is well and good, but somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of flashing Lamborghinis, Ferraris and a private jet as the two singers sing lines that include "represent who we are" and "this Singlish of our own, will you hold it closer or let it go?".

Oh, and to spice it up, they also had women who do little more than act as eye candy because that is going to bring in the views, right?

To be fair, the video, which has racked up 180,000 hits in less than three weeks, probably has more fans attracted to the star power of actors, rappers and singers such as Tosh Zhang and Bunz and their slick, choreographed dance moves. And I have to admit, the K-pop style melodies and beats are pretty catchy.

To date, it seems like the video has garnered more supporters than haters on YouTube. It has more than 1,800 likes compared with more than 1,175 dislikes.

Would it have received as much flak if it was advertised as a music video targeted at fans of expensive sports cars and those who can afford them?

Probably not, because hip-hop and many other contemporary pop videos have never shied away from such ostentatious displays.

Take the music video for Trap Queen by New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap, which features the characters holding up wads of cash. Like Lingo Lingo, it also references "Lambos" (short for Lamborghinis).

The fans obviously love it - it peaked at No. 2 on the mainstream Billboard charts and the music video has racked up 218 million views on YouTube.

Sean Combs, reported by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in hip-hop, hangs out of a fancy helicopter in the video of one of his singles, Coming Home, and with a wealth estimated at US$735 million (S$1 billion), he probably owns it too.

I think artists should be given the licence to embellish themselves a bit. Great pop songs have always been a balance between a reality that the fans can identify with and a fantasy that they can look up to or admire.

However, representing the "baller" lifestyle in a song about Singlish is a misstep.

I have no doubt Zhang and his Ah Boys To Men cohorts live a glamorous lifestyle and it is within their right to make a song and dance about it.

But Singaporean pop would truly have come into its own when it can take inspiration from foreign counterparts while still making it sound like it is created only by someone who grew up in Toa Payoh and Bukit Timah and not in the Bronx or Gangnam District.

Hip-hop culture might have its roots in the streets of New York City in the United States, but the beauty of the movement is how it has spread all over the world, with many practitioners and artists assimilating the music, fashion, dance and art forms with their own local cultures and language.

Some of the earliest rap or rap-influenced songs made popular here, such as Kopi Kat Klan's Why U So Like Dat? (1991) and Dick Lee's Rasa Sayang (1989) and their overt use of Singlish are admittedly cheesy by today's standards, but it made them stand out in the context of the global hip-hop scene.

Today's batch of home-grown rappers, including Shigga Shay, Lion City Boy and the wordsmiths who make up groups such as The.XS Collective, are streets ahead in lyrical sophistication and musical innovation.

For the most part, they are aware of the need to find the balance between staying true to hip-hop's tenets, whether it is through the accent or the image, and making their craft distinctively Singaporean.

As for those super cars in Lingo Lingo, while they are owned by only a tiny percentage of society, the Lambos and Maseratis in the video were provided by local members of The ExotiCars Club.

So, in a way, the video represents a part of Singapore, but maybe not in a way many of us will recognise.

This article was first published on September 2, 2015.
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