Between Sound and Story: Rapper Muhammad Bahajjaj

That’s why tears that never fall
Have more than just depth.
That’s why those who always fall have more than just strength,

raps Muhammad Bahajjaj to a riveted crowd clustered right at the edge of the stage. Such lines are characteristic of his repertoire of original songs: while largely confessional, his acerbic insights, addictive beats and fierce delivery often hit close to home—only for soaring orchestrals and bell-like chorals to sweep their balm over the wound. It’s a unique blend of styles, one you hardly hear anywhere else, and created for that very reason.

A Year 1 student who debuted for a Tembusian performance at Carpe Noctem’s finale night in the MPH, he’s won over many with his brutally honest lyrics and magnetic stage presence—quite a far cry from his wry description of himself as “a nobody […] a lousy Lit major trying to survive Sem 2 at this point”. Having entered Tembusu at the suggestion of his older brother, who believed Bahajjaj would “fit in perfectly”, he’s certainly come into his own, whether on stage or among the many friends who only half-jokingly plead for an album release.

Bahajjaj traces his musical origins to a friend who introduced him to a cracked version of FL Studio, a digital audio workstation used by hip hop and EDM DJs. “I’ve been making beats since I was 15,” he says matter-of-factly, “I just experimented with it, I just found a lot of fun making it.” Meanwhile, his writing hails from a different screen and an earlier age. He reminisces about listening to rap on the radio as a primary-schooler, and later SMSing poems to his crush. “Oh man,” he says with a sheepish smile, “That was…” (Probably something some of us can relate to with painful clarity.)

The two seemingly disparate pursuits would converge in his first performance as part of a line-up of other arts showcases during his polytechnic orientation. The initial plan, as per the teacher-in-charge’s request and his own preparations, was to perform a spoken word poem about school. But at a rehearsal, next in line after backflips and grand jetes, he felt the clear dip in energy. He realised, “I need[ed] to pull up some beats.” And as if by the hand of Providence itself, he did find a beat: one he’d made a few years ago but couldn’t find lyrics to back then.

“Sometimes it’s just chance,” he says. “Really. I cannot just say this is the button to make music; button, make music. That’s not how it works. Sometimes it’s time.”

After mixing the newly-rediscovered beat and the words, and after some more modifications, he took to the stage. “And I … slayed!” he crows. “Somebody in the audience was like, ‘Nooo, you shouldn’t be sad, you should marry me!’”

But of course, it’s rarely that easy. His composition is a long and trying process of trial-and-error, of constantly matching and adopting different components to each other. It usually begins with a discovery, a single sound, “like a weird … sound, whether it’s the breath of some synth, or if it’s some choir … That becomes the starting point for production”. Then he makes a beat, and from there a melody to which he composes his lyrics. Other times, he starts with a beat, writes some lyrics, and searches for connections between the two. And connections there must be, word and sound being inextricable parts of the whole, working together in his rap. As he puts it, “the words need something to lie on top of.”.

Behind every song, then, is often months of work and ten other discarded versions. There is that one sample track that’s vanished itself, that one bar that just doesn’t mesh, that one word refusing to rhyme—and the satisfaction when they all come together. “When it comes, I usually just revel in it a bit longer,” he says. “I’ll still create because I enjoy it.” For all its frustrations, the process of exploration and discovery, along with its allowance for failure, is important in its own way. He sums it up by saying, simply, “I find joy making [music].”

To him, this whole artistic endeavour works towards pure expression. “If there is any intention, it’s to let people know I feel pain, all caps. Maybe there might be a cathartic reconciliation with other people when they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I feel pain too’.” He likens it to the cathartic effect of watching tragedy, which creates a space for the audience to feel and process the pain they would otherwise repress according to the demands of society. “Art becomes this avenue for you to just feel things you wouldn’t necessarily vocalise.”

Of the types of pain that pattern thematic concerns in his songs, he brings up loneliness and loss. “I feel that, and I think everyone feels that,” he says. In particular, he recalls the rare occasion a song’s composition came more readily to him: directly after a breakup. Societal pressure, the education system, and stress also feature in his songs. Singaporean students are all about the grades, he laments, and are expected to make more and more sacrifices for those grades. “You’re just a number at this point.”

To him, his art is his therapy, though not a cure-all. “Decorated sh*t is still sh*t, right? … The pain that we go through, it doesn’t mitigate it, it doesn’t make it any easier, I still face it, but it’s a way to channel it I guess.”

“This is really for me,” he reflects. His music is a combination of things he likes, rap beats, and contemporary classical music. “I’m trying to make a sound that I don’t hear a lot [these days] … There’s this one specific sound that I really want to hear, but I can’t find it, so I’m just making it I guess.” What he puts first is his own enjoyment, not the audience’s, and that’s clear enough in his performances. When the richly-textured symphony comes on in place of a chorus, his eyelids slide shut and he leans back in his seat, relishing each note. His enjoyment almost seems part of the performance itself, drawing you in.

Among the music he enjoys are those of musicians Max Richter and Jóhann Jóhannsson. Richter, classically trained, has been an influential figure in post-minimalist compositions at the intersections of contemporary classical, minimal electronica, and alternative pop. Similarly, Jóhannsson produced innovative music, blending electronic instrumentation with classical orchestration. On the other end of the spectrum, Bahajjaj cites Childish Gambino along with his producer Ludwig Göransson as key influences on his own music. Their 2018 release, This is America, blends South African choral singing and trap-inspired sounds to address gun violence and racism in the United States. “[Their music is] powerful, and sad, and fragile at the same time,” Bahajjaj says. “There are all these mixed emotions that go hand in hand with … the nature of complexity in human beings.” He also admires Joji, also known as Filthy Frank, who blends trap and R&B into atmospheric, melancholic tones. (Interestingly, Joji himself has also cited Childish Gambino as an influence.)

Apart from this diverse range of artists, he also draws inspiration from other mediums. His experience with film in polytechnic exposed him to film scores, which have their unique form and element, and are often composed to infuse a scene with more emotional depth. His love for literature is also apparent in his compositions.  His song “Treplyev”, samples a scene from “The Seagull”, a play by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. As a human being, he related to the protagonist’s struggles with love; as an artist, the protagonist’s obsession with creating new forms. He finds some influence from these narrative forms, recalling a friend who commented, “When I listen to your tracks, I feel like I’m watching a movie.”

That said, it’s rare that he shares his original work with others. Part of it, he admits, is his insecurity. “Every artist affiliates their art to their self-worth,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen isn’t bad criticism, it’s no criticism.” Despite his insecurities, he credits the encouragement of his friends for his renewed determination to take on a new challenge and perform before an audience. With a nervous smile, he earnestly says, “I just hope people will like it.”

Having performed several times within the college, he hopes to take his music further, possibly by taking up music theory and new equipment. Perhaps most exciting, though, is his hint at a possible release after this semester’s exams and final assessments. “I recorded some already, I’m like halfway through,” he says.

In the darkness of the MPH, Bahajjaj extorts,

They never give it up
Search your heart
For what’s missing.

The syllables crest the rolling waves of choral music both angelic and haunting. The cheering crowd falls silent. His next words resonate throughout the darkness, like a promise. Like an invitation.

There is more to ourselves than the ceiling. It’s the space
Between us.
It is laced
With dreamers.
It’s a chase
To truly be us.

The lights come back on, the crowds disperse, the stage disassembles. Back on the floor, Bahajjaj exuberantly thanks his friends. Even then, his sheer vivacity makes it seem as if a part of him is still lingering on the stage while another part strives towards a new one. After all, this song is just the beginning.

Header, feature, and article images by Tembusu Arts Council.

About the author

Tan Yanrong is a first-year literature major who has all the right opinions on all the wrong things.