'The things I’ve done should not be controversial', says Malaysian rapper Namewee

Stranger In The North, by Malaysian rapper Namewee (left), who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, had more than 100 million views on YouTube.
Stranger In The North, by Malaysian rapper Namewee (above), who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, had more than 100 million views on YouTube.PHOTO: MODE PRODUCTIONS

Malaysian rapper Namewee's popular music video Stranger In The North was inspired by migrant workers in Beijing

8Q

The top trending Asian music video on YouTube for Singapore last year is not by one of the usual kings or queens of Chinese pop.

Instead, it is Stranger In The North by Malaysian rapper Namewee, 34, who also composed the music and wrote the lyrics.

Popular Chinese-American singer Wang Leehom appears on both the song and the video, but as the featured artist. It has racked up more than 100 million views in total on YouTube.

The track is on Namewee's fourth album, Cross Over Asia (2017).

He will be holding his first concert in Singapore on Feb 3 at The Star Theatre.

People first sat up and took notice when he released a controversial Mandarin-Hokkien version of the Malaysian national anthem Negaraku in 2007. He took aim at corrupt cops and racial discrimination in I Love My Country Negarakuku.

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The artist, whose real name is Wee Meng Chee, has since chalked up other contentious songs. They include You're Not Red, which takes potshots at Internet trolls, and High Pitched, on the showboating antics of contestants on Chinese reality singing shows.

In August 2016, he was detained by the police for four days - but was, ultimately, not charged - for allegedly defiling a place of worship with intention to insult the religion. He had filmed part of the music video for his song, Oh My God, in a mosque.

1 What was the inspiration for the song Stranger In The North?

I had some work in Beijing in 2015 and I found it to be completely different from the city I had encountered as a backpacker years ago.

Parts of it had been torn down and rebuilt and there were a lot more migrant workers there.

I took this four-hour walk and observed the difficult and dangerous work they were doing - burying cables, burning coal, preparing food - in the minus 10 deg C temperatures outdoors in winter. I identified with them as I was an outsider there as well.

2 How did you get Wang to sing on Stranger In The North?

I had his WeChat contact so I sent the song to him as I thought he was suitable for the chorus. It was kind of a gamble, but he agreed so fast that I thought he was joking.

He recorded his part on his own - I didn't dare to have any opinions - and later made changes until he was happy with the outcome.

I learnt a lot from him. He's very demanding and detailed when it comes to music, down to how you sing each note.

3 You recently collaborated with film-maker Jack Neo for a remake of the theme song to the variety show Comedy Night (1990-2000), which has hit more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. Were you a fan of the series?

I'm from Muar, probably the northernmost point in Malaysia where you can still receive Singapore television signals. I was a naughty kid and was never home. But every Monday night, I would park myself in front of the TV set at 7.30pm, waiting for Comedy Night to start at 8pm. It was a very important part of my childhood.

4 Why do you choose to use humour in your songs?

A lot of things in Malaysia deserve to be criticised. But I choose to do it in a way that is more satirical and fun.

There are fewer restrictions when it comes to the Internet, so I use it as a medium to express myself or vent (by putting my songs online). Without this outlet, I think Malaysians would be even more unhappy.

But after recording High Pitched, I haven't been invited to appear on any of the Chinese reality music shows. I guess no one likes to be mocked.

5 What happened with the filming of the music video at a mosque?

Oh My God is about the fact that everyone needs faith, so I wanted to present different religions in the music video to show that they are all the same.

We went to Penang and shot in Chinese temples, a church, a Hindu temple and a mosque.

These were all public attractions and there was no need to get a filming permit.

There were some complaints after the video came out and the guy at the mosque who had given us verbal permission to film there denied doing so.

6 Do you seek to court controversy?

All these things I've done should not be controversial.

It's about freedom of speech and if I see a problem, I'll voice it out.

Whether something is controversial or not is not for me to decide.

7 You have done music and also made movies such as Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011). What else do you want to try?

This tour is a big step for me as I've never done one before.

I've never even done a solo concert in Malaysia. My ultimate goal is to hold a show there.

I would love to have a show at KL Sport City stadium in Bukit Jalil as it's a big and classy venue.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

Just remember my songs. I put a lot of effort into them and I hope that some can last. No need to remember me as I've too many flaws - humans are all imperfect.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Stranger is a hit on YouTube'. Print Edition | Subscribe