RTB Fest 2021, Malaysian Hip-Hop Shows Us What It’s Made Of
By Adriana Nordin Manan

If you’re a hip hop fan who gets flustered at the idea of moshing and finds the thought of catching feels while surrounded by a rambunctious, sweaty crowd squarely unappealing, then the recent RTB Fest 2021 was a way to enjoy a smorgasbord of Malaysian hip hop from the comfort of home. The main takeaway from the experience was: we’re far away from the South Bronx, but hip hop’s globalization has taken on a vibrant form here in Malaysia.

Featuring 25 acts and streaming for 11 hours straight, the RTB Fest was a perfect plunge into Malaysian hip hop for those of us whose knowledge of the scene ends at Joe Flizzow, Altimet, or Poetic Ammo. Each act was live streamed from different locations, most of which shared an aesthetic of neon lights (mostly to display the names of brand sponsors) in a dimly lit space that looked like the living room of a bachelor pad.

Given the number of acts featured at the Fest, there was an invariable range in energy and attractiveness to individual viewers. There were also a few instances of too much Auto Tune and muddling diction, at least in the case of English. Personally, I find hip hop’s appeal in its fiery lyrics and beats, which together can serve tight vignettes about life and bestow a sense of energy in the moment. The Fest provided plenty of material for an observer to consider and appreciate as the current look and feel of our own hip hop scene.

A casual follower of Malaysian hip hop, I used to question the predominance of American English in its delivery. At the time, it came across as trying too hard to sound like you’re from the Bronx when in fact you’ve never left Subang Jaya. But I’ve lightened this stance after watching a recent conversation between Altimet and music producer Jennifer Thompson on Tapau TV, where Altimet explained that especially in the early days of the local scene in the 1990s, mimicry of American performers was the only option available for new artistes who had no local predecessors to learn from.

If the emergence of hip hop in local languages is a sign of progress toward cultural embeddedness, then artists such as Dato’ Maw and Jinggigang are ones to track. In a scene where English and Malay are the predominant languages, Dato’ Maw and his Ban Huat record label have received a lot of media coverage for their Mandarin and Hokkien hip hop. His set took place in what appeared like a sparse apartment on the upper floors of a shoplot, and although I didn’t understand the language, the fervent delivery definitely crossed the divide. What I especially liked was that the music was slow enough that you could still sway and bop your head to it. His English songs had plenty of four-letter words, perhaps to compound the air of angst.

Seven guys who sing in Tamil and English, Jinggigang’s performance was the kind where the audience could tell that they were having fun. To my non-Tamil speaker ears, Tamil hip hop sounded more effortless, like the language’s form was better poised to inhabit the rapid and lengthy lines without sounding clumsy. But maybe this exclusively aural experience is the privilege of the non-speaker, who cannot judge on meaning, diction, or enunciation. In one song, Jinggigang took aim at “Machas,” decrying the “fakes and phonies” while declaring themselves “real Machas.” Asserting masculinity is a common theme in hip-hop, so Jinggigang’s rendition could be read as following the mould.

The few women acts at RTB Fest revealed different artistic compulsions. Lil Asian Thiccie laid down female heterosexuality and material indulgence from the start, with lines in the first-person that started with summoning a partner, and then describing lavish plans for the evening, leaving little to the imagination. “Romps at The Ritz” and “rides in the Benz” were among the lines that stuck. I must say though, that the bare-all lyrics were delivered very softly and with unusual restraint for such come hither exhortations.

Kungfu Heidi exuded cheeky friendliness in her set. Backed by guest male rappers in her first song, “DTA,” she switched between English and Malay to exalt the daily hustle and hardships that people face. There was a hearty religious declaration that one doesn’t often hear accompanied by turntable scratches. Things took a political turn too, with lines that went “Don’t trust anybody trying to divide us and profit from it.”

Beaming from her hometown Kuching, Arabyrd cut a mysterious figure with her flowy red dress and white Cleopatra-style face veil. After watching her perform three songs, she struck me as someone who gives off Erykah Badu meets hip-hop vibes, earthy and smooth. Her third song was also her first written fully in Sarawakian Malay, with beats that resembled the sound of gamelan. None of her lines really stayed with me, but the scene is large enough for the performers and the poets.

The organiser of RTB Fest is Raising The Bar, a hip-hop collective and organiser of indie concerts around the country. Their publicity material leading up to the Fest declared their pride in turning ten this year, and how far the local hip-hop scene has come. I walked away from it richer in my knowledge of artists to follow, as I enjoy their music and what they have to say. All in all, the RTB Fest was a much-needed burst of vim and vigour that told us what we needed to hear: the show indeed goes on.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Adriana Nordin Manan is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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