For THELIONCITYBOY, Singapore is an ever-present character in his songwriting. For NME Radar Sessions, the rapper guides us through his hip-hop come-up and how his country – particularly the heartlands where he came of age – has influenced his artistry. Watch the full interview above.
- READ MORE: Subsonic Eye, THELIONCITYBOY, Khally and Fariz Jabba – watch the NME Radar Sessions trailer now
The heartlands of Singapore, away from the bustling downtown and glitzy commercial districts, are where THELIONCITYBOY keeps his heart – particularly a housing block at Rivervale Crescent within the sprawling area of Sengkang. The home of his teenhood, this flat served as headquarters for a young and hungry rapper, then going by Kevin Lester, honing his craft in a makeshift home studio. Every live engagement he booked ensured another studio upgrade that improved the sonic gloss of his output.
It was during a trip to the United States – a consequence of being scouted by a member of the Black Eyed Peas – that Lester, a mixed-race Singaporean, decided to boldly own his identity. He decided on the artist moniker THELIONCITYBOY, a reference to how Singapore is also known as the Lion City (a literal translation of its name in the Malay language, Singapura).
And is life in Singapore has seeped into his storytelling. Take the song ‘YAYA’, about a girl “from the east side on the green line” (of Singapore’s rail network), or ‘Vios’ and ‘Bitch, I’m On An OBike’ – both songs that use everyday modes of transport in the country, from modest family cars to rental bikes, to colour his adventures (and misadventures).
When speaking to NME Radar Sessions – a series about the intimate connection between art and space – the musician reserves most of his affection for void decks, or the humble open spaces beneath Singaporean public housing blocks. Void decks are places where locals congregate to chat, play games, or spend time petting stray cats. Void decks are community spaces; as Lester puts it, “For young Singaporeans, it’s where you make friendships and where you really get to know people.”
For NME Radar Sessions, THELIONCITYBOY performed the songs ‘YAYA’ and ‘2 THE MAX’, which you can watch above. The latter, released in 2019, digs into his upbringing in that Sengkang block and is dedicated to a group of boys he saw hanging out at his void deck, “the way I did growing up”.
“I’m a product of the place. Who I am [is defined by] stories I made under the block, the friends I made,” he tells NME as we visit that beloved block in Sengkang together. “When I see people under the block, I’m happy that people are still doing that.”
He sees the heartlands as a “special side of Singapore” where people can be at their most casual and comfortable – where the artists, businesses and “great ideas” that all go on to thrive in the busy city first begin, himself included.
Now, THELIONCITYBOY is not only a fixture of the country’s flourishing hip-hop scene, but a public face for another long-held national obsession: football. Whether it’s Premier League-obsessed adults or kids eager to channel their soccer fervour into skill at any patch of grass, Singapore is full of football fans and Lester is no different. “My love of football [started] from scratch,” he remembers. “As a kid, I would play football with my friends. It was a big part of my upbringing in the Singaporean heartlands.”
Besides his music career, Lester is also the creative director of the Lion City Sailors Football Club, which in 2021 became the first local club to win the Singapore Premier League in seven years. He’s made his rap identity part and parcel of his new role, helping craft a chant, titled ‘Ole, Allez, Allez!’, for the team and its fiery fanbase.
And for Lester, his twin passions for football and music stem very much from the same place – from a love of community. Not only are places like indoor football arena The Cage (where he filmed his NME Radar Sessions performance) locations to work up a good sweat, they’re also spots where he can sharpen his field vision and foster camaraderie with people he may not have much else in common with.
“Who you are off the pitch doesn’t matter,” he says. “It doesn’t matter [if you are] a doctor, a rapper, an aesthetician, a minister. You’re on the same team. And I like that I get to fit [into] a space where, on paper, I shouldn’t [belong].”
After THELIONCITYBOY and indie band Subsonic Eye, NME Radar Sessions will continue with artists Khally and Fariz Jabba talking about their own Singaporean experiences. Stay tuned.
This instalment of NME Radar Sessions was produced with the support of the Singapore Tourism Board’s SG Stories Content Fund Season 2
Want more NME Radar Sessions? Find the full series – both interviews and performances – here as new weekly chapters are premiered this month