YO! MTV Raps celebrates the diversity of hip-hop in Asia

Local rapper Yung Raja and DJ Kim Lee host the new Asian edition of hip-hop series YO! MTV Raps.
Local rapper Yung Raja and DJ Kim Lee host the new Asian edition of hip-hop series YO! MTV Raps.PHOTO: ALL IS AMAZING

SINGAPORE - Picture a room full of rappers from all across Asia - not all of whom speak the same language - finding common ground through their love for hip-hop.

That is the premise of the new Asian edition of television series YO! MTV Raps, which makes its debut on MTV Asia on April 15.

For rising Singaporean rapper Yung Raja, who is hosting the show with DJ and former FHM cover girl Kim Lee, the experience was transcendental.

"When everybody came, 30 over rappers from all over Asia came in. Everybody had the kind of energy that was just unbelievable," says Raja, 23, who raps in English and Tamil.

"There were people who couldn't speak English that well but even then, people were all on the same frequency, sharing the love of hip-hop, the love of music. To be part of that was truly special."

The original YO! MTV Raps television show, which ran from 1988 to 1995, played a prominent role in spreading hip-hop music and culture from the United States to the rest of the world.

The Asian reboot of the iconic show will be a 10-part series, with a focus on hip-hop talents across Asia.

Lee, 30, who topped FHM Singapore's 100 sexiest women in the world list in 2011, also has a segment where she examines how Asian hip-hop artists have made an impact in Los Angeles, where she lives.

"For me, as an Asian-American, I'm familiar with Asian hip-hop, but to experience and to see everybody on set, I'm like 'Oh my God, the whole Asian hip-hop scene is so underrated'. The world needs to see this".

She singles out rappers Reddy from South Korea and Vava from China, whose music was used on the soundtrack of 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians, as some of her favourite performers from the show.

The full season of YO! MTV Raps follows a one-off episode aired on June 2018 that featured hip-hop artists from Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. A segment from that episode showing artists rapping in different languages garnered 1.3 million views online.

Besides performances by hip-hop artists from 11 countries, the fortnightly show also features freestyle raps hosted by popular Malaysian rapper Joe Flizzow, as well as game segments hosted by fellow Malaysian rapper Zamaera.

Other than the television show, the series also includes 40 mini-episodes that will be released on MTV Asia's YouTube page as well as various social media platforms.

Says Raja: "Television consumption culture has changed, and the producers were trying to figure out a whole new way to build something in line with the current way of consuming content."

The former actor turned full-time musician came to fame with his hit song, Mustafa, in 2018. He was born in Singapore a few years after his family moved here from India.

"Growing up here, I felt like a lot of people didn't understand me and I was struggling to share my story. When I found hip-hop, it felt like a calling, it made me feel comfortable to share my story."

Lee, who was mentored by Apl De Ap of hip-hop/pop group The Black Eyed Peas, says that she grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by hip-hop.

"To me, hip-hop is a lifestyle, it's more than just a genre of music. It's a cool way to express yourself."

Both she and Raja agree that hip-hop has transcended its American roots.

Its message of empowerment is the reason why it is relatable around the world, says Raja. "I would say hip-hop is ultimately freedom of speech, it's people talking about their lives. When somebody is talking about their lives on a track, people relate to the emotion of the rapper and because of that, they form a connection, and through that, it empowers people.

"It came from the struggle of Black America, but that energy of being able to relate and empower and uplift and heal souls - that is one of the things that hip-hop has been able to achieve from day one."

YO! MTV Raps premieres on MTV Asia (Singtel Ch 350 and StarHub Ch 533) on April 15, 8pm (repeat telecast at 11.20pm). New episodes air every two weeks.