"Hip-hop is such an intelligent tool to use" : An interview with Akeem Jahat

"Hip-hop is such an intelligent tool to use" : An interview with Akeem Jahat

At some point in his life, Akeem Jahat discovered how he could pull a sword out of stone. His terminally eloquent English-Malay flow, poised-yet-bouncy, pithy-yet-potent, became his Excalibur which he’d wield to become one of the most esteemed rappers in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Inextricable from any conversation about vital Made In Singapore rap music, his name is also synonymous with Malay rap that celebrates the wisdom of the streets in the head-turning panorama of slang.

Due to perform at the Esplanade Annexe Studio for Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts, this Saturday, Akeem and his crew The Mobbin Hoodies will demonstrate how language, when run through the form of hip-hop, can be even more of a life-enriching, storytelling force.

Ahead of his performance, the rapper chats with us about his door-kicking mixtape SeluDOPE, what he has been up to and the evolution of his approach to his craft.

How's 2019 been for you?

2019 has been really good, so far. I think this is one of those years where I’m reaping the fruits of whatever I've done since I was 16. So many things have been unlocked this year, especially the kind of shows that I never thought I would get – one of it being the Sing.Lang show. It's been crazy, dude!

And how was that experience?

It's different from anything I’ve done before. It felt like an alternate universe to me! [laughs] I've never been a TV/radio kind of artist; I've never really had that support, at the same time. But it's so crazy how I sort of skipped a few levels and yet I got invited to that show – it means everything to me.

Plus, I got to work with THELIONCITYBOY and afterwards we hung out backstage, so that was one of the great things that happened there. Besides that, just witnessing the big-ass production was wonderful. It's crazy that I get to be on the same roster as Roof, he one of the guys co-ordinating this. I got to be in the same lineup as Kit Chan – ‘Home’ is my favourite Singaporean anthem! [laughs]

The best thing about Sing.Lang is that I got to be myself. Nobody told me, "You got to do this, you got to say this" – Nothing. It was total freedom; an eyeopening and refreshing experience. 

What has changed for you the most since the time you released SeluDOPE?

Definitely there's a huge shift. Through the experiences and the people I've met, I'm more aware of whatever's going on now. Musically, it's still fun and I'm still the same person. But the thing that changed is that now, I'm more aware of my environment and who I keep around me. 

The tape means everything. I mean, we never thought that it would last this long; I never thought that it would actually resonate until now. It's still fresh to a lot of listeners, and I'm still getting new listeners from that tape itself. It's pretty dope.

It is known that you are heavily inspired by the books that you read. Is your relationship with reading still the same? 

Of course. It's funny how, when I meet songwriters and my first question to them is "Who's your favourite author?”, they reply with: "I don't read, bro". It's crazy to me. Reading will always be my first love – I love the craft of writing. 

Hip-hop also celebrates the art of the flex and contemporary rap is dominated by flex songs. What's a flex to you?

If you're talking about flexing in a material sense, we do talk about it a bit, but it's in a tasteful way. A rapper with bars is just flexing how his mind works. It's nice that people recognise the intricacies behind the bars. 

With my "flex", there are two things to it. Being able to say something that people don't expect is one of them; they are awed by it, like "Oh shoot! Why didn't I think of that?"

S​​​​​​econdly, my "flex" is bridging the gap. Hip-hop is such an intelligent tool to use. We have this intellectual status that we are assigned to. For example, in secondary school, kids are streamed based on intelligence, and that's the gap. I want my music to be able to bridge the gap where everyone just gets it. I always try to close that gap so that everyone can feel like they understand the music together and break down the barriers. I want everyone to feel like we are all the same regardless of what we are labelled. 

How has your relationship with the Malay language changed over the years?

It has evolved so much. Initially, I wasn't fluent in Malay – I used to rap in English. But my demographic didn't really get it, most of them being Malaysians who don't speak English. I realised, post-SeluDOPE, after writing in Malay and getting to learn the language properly, that there are so many ways to use the language. After all, I'm learning my mother tongue. I learnt so much about the words that I never thought I could use. 

I don't really know why I never got into rapping in Malay before that, but maybe it was the stigma of growing up as a Malay kid. In Singapore, there's the idea that certain languages make you look smarter. But, in reality, every language has its levels. 

What do you make of the sudden increase in interest in the local rap scene?

It's nice – that's all we ask for, a new talent pool. When I started out, it used to feel like I'm probably just good in comparison to the other four rappers. It wasn't as fun, also. It was hard to gauge because there were only a few guys doing it, and on a whole different platform overseas. 

Now that we have all these other rappers coming in, on a platform where there are actually real listeners, it's more competitive – it's like, "Oh shit, I think I'm not that good, I got to switch up”. 

I'm not really a competitive dude, but my love for the culture and the craft allows me to appreciate how other people do it as well. 

Who’s caught your interest?

I like Ae$op Ca$h. THELIONCITYBOY has also been doing his thing. As for the younger ones, I like Unknown Radicals

And what's your stand on beef, particularly how it’s become so driven by social media?

In today's context, I think it's pretty corny. I'm an introvert and I don't like to be friends with just anyone, but I sat down and thought about it and realised that if we all come together, how dope would that be? Beef is really corny now, it's corned beef! [laughs] We should all come together and just sit down and put aside our personal feelings. But at the same time, this is human error, I guess. But it's corny. We should all just come together and do a fucking festival and let the fans decide. 

How important are The Mobbin Hoodies to you?

The Hoodies are the first level of family that I have. These are guys who have been with me over the years. If you can do something for somebody who cannot do anything for you – The Hoodies is made up of that kind of people. These guys just like rap, they just believe. These guys are people who never thought they'd be doing this, but next thing you know, "Bro, we're going on stage”.

These guys have been around me for so long so they are used to the pressure. When we go into the studio, they put in 1000% also. 

There are videos of you performing in Malaysia and pointing the mic to the crowd and it singing every word back to you. How do you think we can make that happen in Singapore?

Someone really dope, an icon in Malaysia, told me this: "Just write really good songs”.

There is no formula to it, just go and get that song out. Take Lil Nas X for example, 'Old Town Road' is such a good song, you don't really need Miley Cyrus' father to be on it. If you write a really good song, no one can deny it. 

Look at K-Pop, even if you don't understand it, people are still going crazy over it. I personally like G-Dragon. That shows how good those songs are. 

What are your thoughts on your upcoming Esplanade show?

This show is going to be quite intimate, and it means a lot to me. I recently lost my grandma, who's the most important person to me in the whole world, so it's kind of like a tribute to her. We're getting an acoustic set for this show, so there'll be a stripped down and toned down segment for that. 

Next, it's like a butterflies thing. That's the most cliche thing to say, but I'm looking forward to showing The Mobbin Hoodies as a new family to the world. We are definitely going to play some new songs, too. 

Finally, can you share any information about your upcoming projects?

I'm doing a Detox with the new album. [laughs] But, yeah I'm working on it. I also have two mixtapes in the works – One on my own and one with The Mobbin Hoodies. I'm excited for the crew tape because, for one, I'm spearheading the project for the guys. We also have an idea for something like a comic book set in an alternate universe – that's why you see the drawings and the visuals. Shoutout to Tripillars, the management company, they're the reason we could unlock so much this year.

Catch Akeem Jahat and The Mobbin Hoodies at Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2019, at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Tickets, $27, are available here.