When Pyra dropped her rousing anthem ‘Bangkok’ in late 2020, thousands of fed-up Thai citizens had already been galvanised into fiery protests against the nation’s junta government. The message was (and still is) loud and clear: the people wanted change. And not just any change – they demanded reform of the monarchy, the country’s most revered and powerful institution.
“When I started writing the song, it was during the period of power transition from late King Bhumibol to then-crown prince. People my parents’ age, the majority of which are royalists, had mixed feelings about what was going to unfold,” the 28-year-old recalls to NME.
“For me, I knew that something close to a civil war was on the cards. It’s like I wrote it in anticipation of these tumultuous times we’ve been facing over the past couple of years. What I wrote became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In the accompanying music video, Pyra plays a schoolgirl who gets into a face-off with an evil teacher played by singer-turned-activist Chai-amorn Kaewwiboonpan, aka Ammy The Bottom Blues. “Jump off my Bangkok! Get off my Bangkok!” she demands with a scowl, a third eye forming on her forehead as she transforms into a fire-breathing naga, a mythological serpent said to possess great magic powers. The video also features symbolic references to crackdowns on political activism, such as a whiteboard marked with the date of Thailand’s 1976 student massacre.
Despite being gutsy enough to essentially give the Thai authorities the middle finger, Pyra acknowledges that it’s “extremely risky to criticise the government especially in this climate of fear and intimidation”. Risky might be putting it mildly: several protest leaders have been repeatedly detained and put in jail; Ammy, who appeared alongside Pyra in the ‘Bangkok’ video, was arrested on lèse-majesté charges earlier this year.
It’s an open secret in Thailand that the army has in its employ Information Operations (IOs) tasked with waging information warfare, especially on social media platforms, against those who express anti-government sentiment (authorities have consistently denied the existence of IOs). “‘Bangkok’ didn’t really attract IOs’ attention when it got released,” Pyra says. “The song is in English and, frankly, I don’t think they understood what I was singing about. Also, my music videos aren’t as explicit as Rap Against Dictatorship’s. They’re more on the artistic side, so I sort of flew under the radar.”
“It’s my aspiration to become an activist when I hit 40, so addressing these issues through my music now seems like a natural course of action”
Speaking of the artistry of her videos, Pyra’s recent output marks a striking departure from the ethereal, often subdued aesthetics of her debut EP, 2018’s ‘Better Being: Suriya’. Have her creative visions since evolved? Pyra explains that it all came down to budget: “With ‘Better Being’, everything was self-funded, and I almost used up all my savings in the process. It cost me around 200,000 baht [USD $6,000] to make one music video and I didn’t feel like the people I worked with fully delivered what I had in mind.
“With that same amount I could have achieved so much more, but I guess there’s a price to pay for being a newbie in the business.”
Although she’s only been four years in the industry, Pyra is in a much different headspace than she was when she started out. “When I was younger, I had a lot of insecurities. I was afraid of being judged and I felt like I had to be in a certain box. Now that I’m older, I realise that being an artist means having the freedom to express myself without any limitations. I decided that it’s time I broke free from social norms.”
And breaking free she certainly does. In the single ‘Yellow Fever’, she tackles Asian fetishisation head on with the help of Indonesian rapper Ramengvrl and Japan’s Yayoi Daimon: “Bet you think we’re all made in China / Betchu you think the yellow screams louder / And all Bangkok babies are designer / Betchu wondering if I got a vagina.”
When she’s not busy challenging perceptions or smashing stereotypes, Pyra spends her time crafting social media strategy, something she admits to having ambivalent feelings about. “I actually hate social media. I’ve always questioned why artists have to do all these things on social media in order to make it as an artist. It’s not good for mental health,” she says. “But since it’s inescapable, I wanted to make sure that I gave it my best shot. I did research on the whole thing to find out what style of content goes with which platform, what time I should post stuff, what works and what doesn’t.”
Judging from her TikTok, it seems to have paid off, particularly when it comes to her ‘WELCUM 2 THAILAND’ series in which she exposes the country’s ugly side, deadpan, over a jaunty tune. “I’m officially a TikToker now,” she declares with a laugh.
In Thailand, going viral is one thing, but going viral with damning political content is entirely another. “After [those TikTok clips] did rounds on the Internet, I suddenly got a lot of new followers. When I peeked at some of their profiles, it’s hard to believe that they’re my genuine fans. I suspect they’re part of the IOs sent to monitor my content.” She’s lucky, she says, that her label Warner Music Thailand “has been cool with it all”.
“Speak[ing] out about these things feels natural to me,” Pyra adds. “It’s my aspiration to become an activist when I hit 40, so [addressing] these issues through my music now seems like a natural course of action.”
In Pyra’s immediate future, though, is a busy musical season, starting with her new EP ‘fkn bad pt. 1’, out this Friday. It features two songs that have yet to be released: ‘Paper Promises’ and ‘Suicide Spirit’. In the former, “I talk about the government in general and how elitist it is everywhere in the world. It just happens to resonate with what’s going on here in Thailand and how our government is handling the COVID situation as well.
“The other track, which is my favourite, is where I open up about my own mental health and depression. Then, I have the EP’s part 2 coming out later this year followed by a deluxe album in early 2022.”
From a burgeoning pop music career to political turbulence at home, how has Pyra managed to stay sane amongst all the madness? “As far as mental health is concerned, I think that I’m doing better than most of the population. I knew all along how things would play out, so I’d prepared for it mentally. Of course, there were moments when I got really pissed off, but I snapped out of it. I try to walk the middle ground.”
Pyra’s ‘fkn bad pt. 1’ is out on August 20 via Warner Music Thailand