On 29 June, Joshua Simon had the opportunity to tell his story rescinded at a TED Talk hosted by Singapore Polytechnic. But there are some voices that cannot be silenced or have their transmissions dulled and diluted.
More famously known as a broadcast DJ, Simon had, just two weeks prior, released his debut album Filthy, a 10-song collection of superlatively uncompromising songs, wherein the raw, interrogative power of the messaging corresponds to its widescreen musicality, a panorama of gorgeous, imposing, angel-kissed, blood-streaked sounds gathered under the impetus of a singular, unifying pound.
Downplaying the status of Filthy as a thoroughly vital artefact is like waving a sword at a tidal wave. Especially in fraught times, we look to art for, if not exactly deliverance, then, comfort. But with Filthy, Simon reconfigures the legacy of pop music as a weapon of self-definition, as a double-headed battle axe – one side with which to proceed further into the untamed contemporary jungle of comments and opinions and the other, honed for nothing less than the welcome reclaiming of his soul.
In the ensuing interview, we speak to Simon about how his story informs the music he brings into the world.
How do you feel now that you've had some time to process the TEDx saga. Do you have a different opinion on how things are run now that the incident is over?
I read this quote recently on my friend's Instagram – she's a writer from Brooklyn called Franki Elliot – which said something along the lines of, and I'm paraphrasing: "You should never censor your art, because it could mean more to someone else than to you. Be brave when you create art – there's a level of courage needed when you create art".
I feel like I've done that with my album – especially with the TED Talk thing; it's a little bit more direct, right? With that situation, with the script that I wrote, I didn't dress it up in genre the way I've done with my album. It was straight from the core. I wrote from the core, and I poured my heart and soul and story into it.
So, to answer your question on whether I look at things differently now – no. I've always looked at Singapore this way – I host a radio show every night and I know what the limitations are. I know what is to be broadcast, I know what the IMDA guidelines are.
But, I've always been open on Instagram. I've always been very open on YouTube. And I assumed that, with TED Talk, it would be that vein – where it would be a safe space. So, to be hit once again with, "Nope! Not safe! Nope! We need to debate a little further – we may not want to hear your story here", that was a little bit hard.
Personally, I feel hurt because I was going to share a story of mine that's very precious to me. And it's not a story of sadness, it's not a story where, according to some people in the comments sections, I was trying to "hunt for men". They said that I'm trying to "perverse the audience".
It's little things like that, that kind of reduces my story to just the sexuality aspect. When yes, my sexuality is a big part of who I am, but it's also just one of the parts of who I am – it's not everything. But to be reduced to that denominator really sucks because at the end of the day, the conversation that was had also – the whole big debate – was about my sexuality and it's about "Joshua's TED Talk" and how he refused to censor himself. In the Mothership article, they just said I was a "no-show".
When I read stuff like that, that hurt; it's not that I was a no-show, I actually showed up by not doing the TED Talk. This TED Talk was about embracing who you are and your authentic self. To live up to that would be to NOT do the TED Talk. If I were to have done the TED Talk and just silenced myself and censored myself, I would go against the very principles of what the TED Talk was itself by Singapore Polytechnic, and who I am as a person as well.
So there is a lesson there and I feel like a lot of the articles did not see that. They just looked at it as "He did not show up". or "He was not able to censor himself, and because he was not able to do that, his whole TED Talk MUST have been about sex and about how he's gay and how he's pushing the agenda."
And I feel like the more I try to fight this, the more I try to speak my truth, the more harm it's actually going to cause – because these people are just not ready to listen. In the case of SP, they first told me over the phone via a representative that they wanted to apologise – but their statement had no apology whatsoever. Even if they were to have apologised, I don't think they know what they're apologising for.
So, where am I right now? I feel a little bit distant from everything now – I have not gone back to my TED Talk script. Of all things, the lesson that I've learnt now is that my story, yes it's precious, but I also have to protect it. I think I have to guard it fiercely – I'm not going to just edit it and give you the sweet bits, which was what they wanted.
They said "Edit out the breakup and the coming out story. Just tell us the sweet stuff of how we can just take from this and learn to be better". I'm going to protect that, because if I had done that, I would be pissing on my story. I would be saying that life is just all the sweet stuff and we can eliminate the struggles and sacrifices needed to get to where I am today. I can't do that, I absolutely can't. So, I'm very protective now of my story.
Yes, people have asked me to do a talk somewhere else, but I want to know if I feel safe and if you really want to know my story.
You said that people are not ready to listen, that you always knew it was the case and this incident essentially confirmed it. How is this going to affect, if at all, your subsequent moves?
I don't know if it affects my subsequent moves in the sense where I still do my radio show and make it about entertainment; I've never censored myself in my music, that's for sure. I'm not going to not talk about my sexuality on my Instagram. I still do that and I've always done that. So, it does not change anything.
I'm fine! But I'm worried more about the next person who's kind of like me for the next TED Talk. Is it going to be tougher for that person, now? Is SP or the next institution who holds a TED Talk going to vet through everyone's sexuality and script, because they want to make sure that this debacle does not happen again?
Actually, in a way, I am kind of glad now. Because now, it won't be a surprise. Now the next person who is gay and is going to talk about his life is going to say, "Y'know what, you guys didn't give Josh a chance. So, I'm actually not even going to bother. I'll find another place and another platform where I feel safe".
So, I don't think it affects my next move. I feel like a lot of us who are minorities or kind of backed up in a corner, we're in a very blessed place to be able to create our own platform. It's like, "Okay, you don't want to hear my TED Talk? I'm going to write a book about it, about the theory that I was going to present at the talk."
And maybe the book will never be published, maybe it will never be a bestseller. But I can still do it – I can still write it. If I'm not invited to your house, that's fine. I have my house. I'll go build my house and that's totally fine. It doesn't change my next move – I just know now what my lanes are and what areas you're policing, I just won't be going there. And by me not going there, it means you won't get my story; too bad!
All that also coincided with the release of your album Filthy. Have the recent events affected what it means to you?
No. See, the album is dressed up in genre; I dress it up in this night imagery, it's colourful and the music is noisy, delicate in places and gritty in others. I feel, like, that, to me, is my little art piece and I'm also able to sort of separate myself from that whole thing. It's almost like the TED Talk Josh is also quite different from the music Josh.
Even though, at the core, the album is also about the breakup. It is also about me falling in love, losing that love, struggling with it and the grief – those same things are covered in the TED Talk. Whereas in the music, I was able to sort of create a story and put it out there.
The same people who write these shitty comments about me online about how "gays need to shut up", they probably listen to Sam Smith's 'Stay With Me'. They probably listen to Calum Scott's 'You're The Reason'. They probably love Queen and watched Bohemian Rhapsody. And Elton John's 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight?' – what do you think he was writing about when he wrote that song? What do you think Sam Smith wrote about when he was writing 'Stay With Me'?
That's my point. We pick and choose what we want and we put it in a box and fit it to ourselves. In a way, the music stuff has never been an issue. No one has ever come up to me and be like, "Hey, you should censor yourself in your music", because it's very different when you dress it up in genre. It's very, very different. It's almost like, when, you watch TV – we've always seen drag queens on Channel 5; we've always seen drag queens on commercials; we've seen Liang Po Po; we've seen Liang Xi Mei; we've seen Kumar; we've seen drag all the time! I'm talking about when men dress up as a joke – on TV it's no a problem; or when we have a sissy boy on the poster of a movie.
It's always somewhat socially acceptable that we pick and choose – the drag queens are fine, the super flamboyant sissy character in TV shows are not a problem. But the moment two men hold hands, oh, it becomes too real. I don't really know what I'm getting at with this here, but I think, in music, it's kind of buried up a little bit in all the familiar elements of the chords, genre or style that you can kind of close one eye. But when I'm telling you exactly point-blank that I'm gay, I have been in love, I have been hurt, and that this is my truth, it becomes a little bit harder to swallow.
It doesn't affect my music because it is already padded – it's almost like a fantasy and an illusion. But how people have perceived that my story about me standing up as a person with a microphone, is apparently more powerful and more dangerous to society, is bizarre.
Filthy is an album about the night, not just a night but your night. What about the night is so intoxicating to you that you had to commit it to song?
In cities that I've been to, such as Bangkok, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, Singapore and New York, I've seen that play out – where people become, whether it's who they actually are or who they want to escape into being, at night, very easily, once the moon comes out. I don't know whether it's the energy of the moon or the lack of lighting that we suddenly feel like the freaks can come out of ourselves at night.
You'll see someone who's a very calm, collected, serious person in the daytime be freaky and crazy, doing all these things they will never do. It's not just that but also falling in love and dressing up, putting makeup on and going in drag. Or being a complete asshole and hiding secrets – voyeurism, exhibitionism, all the sick twisted shit – the filth comes out at night. Whether it's the filth that frees you or it's the filth that ultimately does you in because it's your secret – your secrets are what will do you in.
I picked up on that since a very young age. Everywhere I go, every culture I see, people are very different at night. And once the Sun comes up, the huddle and run like little cockroaches back into their little crease and crevice, and switch and come out pretending to be someone else and try to fit in with society. And I've found no more fascinating thing than the night itself, because it says a lot about the people around me, but it also says a lot about me. I noticed that at night, even though it's the lack of light, I notice people more. I notice how vulnerable people are at night. I notice how much more open they are and how much more comfortable they are with being vulnerable at night as compared to in the day.
I've always preferred the lack of lighting. I prefer situations with dim lighting. Since I was young, I always liked to have everything very dim and very dark – I don't like a lot of direct light. I just never liked that.
Is music your filth?
That's a very interesting question. I am very careful about music. I think some people can listen to music and they listen to the melodies, some listen to the lyrics, some listen to the rhythm. Some people can listen to it very casually. You listen to music very differently from the next person. I listen to music in a very dangerous way – I kind of embody the music that I listen to.
So is music filthy, is music my filth? I'm a little unsure. But I do know that it is very potent. Because the music that I'm currently listening to, whatever it may be, I become the song; I emote the song. If I listen to something that's too dark, it can really sink me like a storm. If I listen to something sassy, suddenly you get a very different Josh – you get a Josh who'll start cat-walking. If I listen to some old-school stuff, my voice will just naturally deepen, my demeanour and my posture changes. So, I don't know if it's my filth, but it is very potent, powerful and strange thing for me. And my favourite kind of music is that which affects me – I mean, there are some songs that I listen to that I don't get much of a reaction from; and there are certain songs that make me almost shape-shift according to what I listen to.
The traditionalist view of the album is that it's a cohesive collective of songs, but on your album, no two songs are the same.
I think there are songs that pair very well together. I kind of constructed the album in the sense where I would have a song in mind, but then I'll have a little bit more to say. So, I'll pair something together. For instance, 'Scream' goes well with 'Blackout'. If you listen carefully you the end of 'Scream', there's one instrument that we isolate, and it's that same instrument that we start 'Blackout' with – so that way, it's cohesive. And I mentioned some of the lyrics for 'Scream' in 'Blackout'. From there we go into 'Filthy' and 'Cherry', and they go very well together. And then we have 'Starlight' and 'Drive', and they are paired very close together. 'Bones' and 'Ghost pair very well together, and then 'Hush' and 'Tokyo' get paired together.
No two songs are the same, but I think they all kind of service each other. I like that the album is supposed to go from midnight all the way down till dawn, and by 'Tokyo' you do get some sunlight at dawn. Things get a bit more quiet towards the end of the album, as compared to the start, which is super chaotic. But yeah, no two people at night are the same, no two hours of the night are the same – I think the night itself transitions and changes, and there's a lingering sense of dread but it's also still always progressing and always transitioning; I kind of want it to be that way.
But also, I get bored easily. It's also influenced by my listening habits of albums – whenever I download a new album or I buy a CD as a kid, I would look for the songs that immediately speak to me. And I'm happy that this album is doing that for a lot of people. Anyone that has listened to the album will tell me the one song or two songs that they like, and it's very different. Every person has different songs that they like. The lead single is not necessarily the one that everyone loves, no.
There's someone who messaged me form London who told me that he bought the album, love the album but he deleted 'Cherry' the first day – and 'Cherry' is the lead single – he thought that it was an abomination. And I laughed! I completely understand, and I laughed because someone else likes 'Cherry'.
At first, no one really cared about 'Bones', which I thought was going to be my next single. But then, here and there, there'll be people who'll tell me that they love 'Bones', okay then that's your song!
I like that the album kind of has something for everyone, and it also tells me about them. It tells me more, like, when Of Methodist, whom I love and adore, told me that the one song that he was drawn to the most was 'Ghost', I was so happy! It tells me more about Of Methodist than anything. I like that my songs are telling me about the people who listen to my music; every person who comes up to me to tell me that they like a particular song, I'm learning about you.
And, lastly, did the process of making the album bring out a side of yourself that wasn't there before?
No, I think he was always there. I think, for the longest time, I've always known that I'm a rockstar. [laughs] In a way, I think a lot of us know that we're rockstars, but we spend so much of out time and energy trying to prove it to people. We spend so much energy. When I close my eyes and listen to music – most the time it's not even my music – when I listen to, say, Michael Jackson's music, I can see myself doing those moves.
When you see the Beyoncé stans doing the full-on choreography in public when the song plays in the club, you know when they're listening to that song in private, they are imagining themselves at Coachella as Beyoncé – with the wind, with the hair, dancing, doing the full-on choreography. They know they are rockstars. They're not worshipping Beyoncé – they're enjoying the glory of being a rockstar. And it's hidden in them! But they go about their lives trying to prove it to everyone, until that one time the song plays in the club and BOOM! the world see it.
It doesn't change anything, I've always known that I'm a rockstar. But does that mean that I think I'm better than you? No! It's just that I'm so happy that I get to live that now. I get to say that this is my art – but I'm not just doing Beyoncé, I'm doing me. This is my story. These are my songs. And I paid for it, it's very expensive. I worked really hard – I went through demo after demo, writing after writing, to try to get every word and ad-lib where they're supposed to be. Every instrument's volume is tuned to the exact decibel it's supposed to be in. We've gone through so many versions of everything; I've sat right there with my producers while crafting the songs.
It's my art project, and I'm very proud of it. But I'm also very separate from it now, now that it's out in the world – you guys can take it and listen to it the way you want to listen to it. But, this is how I keep my ego in check, no one will ever understand my album the way I do. That's why anyone that tells me they enjoyed the album or not, it doesn't really hit me. That's because I am happy I created it and, now, you go do what you want with it. Let's see what you can come up with.
Let's see you write your story. Let's see you take your story and put it into another avenue, whether it's a book or a TED Talk or a song or an album, or just be better as a person everyday.