Artiste or activist: What makes Namewee tick?

Malaysian musician Namewee (Wee Meng Chee) wins two awards--best rap singer of the year and best Mandarin song of the year (Stranger In The North)--at the 2018 Global Chinese Music Golden Awards held in Macau on Nov 14. Photo: Facebook

Why is it that the mention of Namewee’s name is more often than not followed by some form of controversy?

Even the 35-year-old Muar-born musician-cum-filmmaker must be asking himself that question.

Two weeks ago, Namewee (real name Wee Meng Chee), was in Macau to pick up two major awards at the 2018 Global Chinese Music Golden Awards.

He won for Best Rap Singer Of The Year and Best Mandarin Song Of The Year (Stranger In The North), an excellent haul for any respectable music-maker.

It must have been an exciting evening for Namewee, if somewhat marred by the incendiary antics of China’s 23-year-old Rap Queen Vava, who unceremoniously discarded her Best Female Rapper trophy on the floor and stormed off the stage after venting her dissatisfaction over the award show.

As the male emcee An Hu stepped up to admonish the rap diva, Namewee offered a quick thank-you for his award, before making an even quicker exit.

In a Facebook post addressing the awkward incident, Namewee recalled being on stage together with Chinese rapper VaVa as they were both announced as winners.

“As a gentlemanly gesture, I decided to let her give her speech first. But because of the noise and the echoes on stage, I couldn’t even hear what she said. I only saw how she discarded her trophy on the floor and walked off leaving me standing alone on the stage.

“I found out much later from reading the news when I returned to the hotel. This story teaches us that when we sense something is amiss, the right thing to do is make a quick exit. And also, never offend the powerful or females,” he said.

Malaysian musician Namewee (Wee Meng Chee) wins two awards--best rap singer of the year and best Mandarin song of the year (Stranger In The North)--at the 2018 Global Chinese Music Golden Awards held in Macau on Nov 14.
Namewee won Best Rap Singer of the Year and Best Mandarin Song of the Year at the 2018 Global Chinese Music Golden Awards in Macau on Nov 14. Photo: Facebook

Just last week, Namewee made headlines again.

His newest music video Mingalaba (meaning How Are You in Burmese) is a heart-rending sonata that sheds light on the plight and suffering of illegal foreign workers from Myanmar who are trapped in local detention centres after being cheated by developers who hired them.

Using his channel as a platform for the oppressed, Namewee detailed in a separate video how he became privy to the injustice suffered by illegal foreign labourers after he got thrown into the lockup with them in Penang two years ago for another controversy he was embroiled in.

“Many people are suffering in the lock-up. I hope the new Pakatan Harapan government can do something to help them. I regret that I could not respond to queries from international media and the Myanmar Embassy then. Even now, it may be too late to talk about it. But, I still hope to help some people,” urged Namewee, who even learned how to play the Burmese arched harp known as saung for his music video.

Activists and ordinary folk alike have lauded his latest piece of social commentary. His mother has voiced her support, saying “her son is helping those in need” and even The Star’s multiple-award-winning R.AGE investigative journalism team is picking up the human trafficking story from his lead.

Patriotic artiste

The man is currently busy touring. Just yesterday, he played a show in Hong Kong. The tour kicked off in Taipei in November last year, and went on to play in Singapore last February and then in Genting last March.

Next, Namewee hopes to play in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, preferably at Axiata Arena. The stadium at Bukit Jalil is a venue he has been waiting to perform in for the past eight years.

“In fact, I had hoped to play there on Merdeka day to mark the country’s celebration of independence, but the venue was not available this year,” said Namewee, who made up for his disappointment by conducting his first local autograph session in eight years at Sungei Wang Plaza, Kuala Lumpur on Aug 31.

As a fiercely patriotic artiste, Namewee has been showing his love for the country in recent years by composing Merdeka theme songs reflecting Malaysia’s cultural diversity and celebrating racial harmony.

His 2017 Merdeka theme Ali AhKao Dan Muthu (4.5mil views) attracted so many cover videos on Youtube that he organised a competition to award the top three.

This year, he filmed his carnival-like 2018 Merdeka theme Malaysia Boleh! at the historic Dataran Merdeka.

Even the 2007 song that gained him lasting notoriety, had its roots in national pride; the song’s complete title was I Love My Country Negarakuku and it was his tribute to Visit Malaysia Year 2007.

Unfortunately for him, his fledgling attempt at political satire and social commentary was judged for being too critical and his angsty youthful ideals got him into the first of numerous run-ins with the government of the day.

Which is probably why, right after Pakatan Harapan’s election win on May 10, Namewee immediately celebrated the change of government with a new song titled Good Morning, which went viral almost immediately.

Now, with the change of government, Namewee says he hopes that the authorities can accept his creative style. “I write all sorts of songs, of various genres. I even have love songs and funny jingles. But, people only choose to remember certain ones, probably because they have a greater impact,” he says.

Prolific songwriter

With 1.8 million subscribers on Youtube and 1.9 million followers on Facebook, Namewee’s fanbase is quite international.

This is due in part to his propensity for unusual collaborations with singers, actors and other content creators from different countries, including the United States (Wang Lee Hom), Hong Kong (Candy Lo), China (G.E.M.), Taiwan (Tiger Huang), Thailand (Bie The Ska), Japan (Meu Ninomiya) and Vietnam (Ho Quang Hieu).

Malaysian singer Namewee and Chinese singer G.E.M.
Namewee has collaborated with China artiste G.E.M. Photo: Filepic

The prolific songwriter is a deft hand at churning out catchy melodies, which he attributes to a habit he developed from young. Listening to various genres from all over the world helped him to cultivate a natural knack for composing strong hooks.

“I have seven albums, four which are not released in Malaysia: Asia Most Wanted (2013), Asian Killer (2015), Crossover Asia (2016) and All Eat Asia (2017).

“I released three albums in Malaysia, all before 2011. After 2012, I stopped publishing my albums in Malaysia due to excessive censorship. So, they are only available in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore,” said Namewee, who is already working on his next album titled Ultimatum To Asia.

While he has worked with so many artistes, local and international, Namewee’s most watched video on his YouTube channel remains to be Stranger In The North (140mil views) which features a collaboration with Wang Lee Hom, one of Mandopop’s biggest stars.

The song recently landed on several music charts in China after it was sung by a contestant using new lyrics on The Rap Of China.

The song not only earned Namewee a slew of new fans from China, it also won him the Best Mandarin Song Of The Year award at the aforementioned 2018 Global Chinese Music Golden Awards.

Plummeting weight

Although his name is typically associated with rap, Namewee says he is actually a rocker at heart.

During his high school days, he formed a group known as Aunt Band with his friends. But when he left to further his studies in Taiwan, he had to leave the group.

While he was in Taipei, he still wanted to continue making music, so he took to rapping instead.

His online moniker Namewee is derived from his given name Meng Chee, which in Chinese, sounds like the term for name.

In keeping with his hip-hop image, Namewee often strikes a flamboyant figure with his funky eyewear and quirky outfits.

In person, he is down-to-earth and very much slimmer than when he first made his debut.

Most obvious is how he lost 30kg in two years, his weight plummeting from 91kg to 61kg. In fact, he lost the first 20kg in just two months, from May to July 2015, largely due to having suffered a major blow when his movie Banglasia got banned by the previous government.

This drastic change in size is interestingly documented in the 2017 music video where his 61kg self duets with his 91kg self for his song Pretty Hurts featuring American violinist Lindsey Stirling.

Major bouts of food poisoning and peptic ulcers have left him unable to consume most solid food, thereby seriously limiting his food intake to only liquids and very soft foods that are easily digestible.

“Even eating only a little bit of hard food like rice would result in so much pain that I cannot work for at least half the day. So, I mostly have soup only. And some porridge. Or some koay teow. I cannot eat chillies. No spicy food at all,” he said.

Pressing pause

Banglasia was originally scheduled for release on the eve of Chinese New Year in 2014, before it got banned in Malaysia.

However, the 90-minute-long feature has already premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival 2015, and screened at New York Asian Film Festival, and Osaka Asian Film Festival 2015.

So, Namewee is hopeful that it will finally hit Malaysian cinemas.

“I made four movies (prior), then I stopped making movies when Banglasia got stuck at the censors. I can only move on to making more films after this is settled,” said the award-winning filmmaker, whose maiden directorial effort Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011), won him the Most Promising Talent Award at 2012 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Then in 2013, Nasi Lemak 2.0 bagged the Best Screenplay Award at Malaysia’s inaugural Golden Wau Awards, while We Are Gangster from his second film Hantu Gangster (2012) won for Best Theme Song.

Despite his angry persona, Namewee has a soft spot for his furry four-legged friends.

He has published several videos lamenting the callous treatment of strays.

He has two dogs, a 13-year-old Shih Tzu named Ah Bi and a five-year-old Labrador named Di Di.

He has been helping to organise charity concerts in Muar to raise funds for the H.O.P.E. animal shelter that houses 3,000 dogs.

“This is not easy because people don’t really care much about animals here. They will ask why we are not donating to humans instead.

“I do my best because the shelter really needs all the help it can get. It is after all the dog year. We should take better care of them.”

There are other issues that Namewee addresses in his YouTube channel, which range from hard-hitting social commentary to wacky tomfoolery.

And, while he often takes it upon himself to air the grievances of the downtrodden in his attempt to right the wrongs of social injustice, Namewee wishes there is someone who can help him in a problem he is facing.

“Until now, I am still blocked every time I travel out or into Malaysia because the instruction to arrest imposed on me has not been cancelled yet.

“I’ve gone through this for nearly a year now,” he fretted in a Facebook post.

Try as he may, Namewee just cannot distance himself from controversy.

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