A Student of the Game — Multi-Award-Winning Singer-Songwriter Shabir Says It Like It Is10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
Shabir — multi-award-winning singer-songwriter, producer, composer, Singapore Youth Award recipient and a trailblazer in Singapore’s Tamil music scene. Since making his breakthrough as the winner of Vasantham Star’s inaugural edition in 2005, Shabir has composed scores for both local television and film, as well as starring in several local dramas. As a recording artist, his hit songs remain mainstays on international airwaves.
Shabir made the leap to Kollywood in 2013 collaborating with multiple-award-winning composer Ghibran to write and sing two songs for action thriller Vathikuchi. To date, he has scored six Indian films. One of his songs “Yaayum” for thriller Sagaa has amassed over 62 million views on YouTube. His accomplishments and contributions to the local community earned him the Singapore Youth Award in 2017, making him the first musician of Tamil/Indian descent to win the award.
Normally based in Chennai, Shabir moved back to Singapore earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He joined Say it like it is host Nicholas Chee for an earnest and inspiring sit-down conversation about his journey so far, sharing his insights and his life philosophy.
Now on its third episode, the talk show series hopes to inspire fellow creatives through the stories unravelled from heart-to-heart conversations with figures from Singapore’s creative and cultural industries. Made possible with the support of Our Singapore Fund, Say it like it is will conclude with its last episode this Friday at 4:30 pm on Facebook group SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group.
Raised in a single-parent household together with two brothers, Shabir’s early life was tumultuous. He shared in an interview with Channel NewsAsia that at one point the family had to move from one relative’s house to another, with things never easy for the family. Frustrated with being a target of bullies in secondary school, he soon got into fights and subsequently fell into wrong company.
Although a lot of his teenage years were marked by gang skirmishes and brawls, Shabir still felt like an odd one out in his gang, often finding time reading at the library. He recounted: “I was generally interested in knowledge — I still am. If Lucifer asked me what’s that one thing you desire, I would say, ‘Knowledge’, and he would be so bored by that response.”
Throughout the ups and downs, one thing remained consistent for Shabir: his passion for entertainment. He soon learned to channel his anger into music, with his brothers being a strong influence in Shabir taking this course.
The youngest in the family, Shabir’s brothers have both emerged as prominent names in Tamil entertainment. His older brother, Abbas Akbar, is a Singaporean filmmaker, screenwriter and actor for films and television, perhaps best known as the director of 2017 feature film Chennai 2 Singapore. His eldest brother, Elias Mikhail, is an award-winning actor, starring in several local productions. The three brothers would work together on Abbas’s directorial debut Certain Chapters in 2009.
Shabir credits Elias as the reason why he and Abbas are in the industry. He added: “We were listening to music [since young] when it was still on cassette tapes and [Elias] would play them and discuss the intricacies of the songs — the basslines, the lyrics, and things like that… he was 12 years older than me so he was also like a father figure to us.”
“He would write songs, he would act, he would direct his own theatre plays… he would play a song and say, ‘Act it out.’ He did a lot of schooling for us from a young age. I think Abbas was the one who always fairs better than me in all these little skits that he asked us to put up. Nevertheless, he was the one who made us feel like you can be sort of like a polymath and interested in a few things and also do it well.”
Following his breakthrough as the winner of Vasantham Star 2005, Shabir would find wide success scoring and acting in local television dramas while producing music hits after hits through his independent albums. However, the multi-awards-winner soon found himself limited locally.
Shabir explained: “I realised that no matter what I do, it will never be noticed as much as my counterpart in the Chinese industry is doing or even the Malay industry. [The Malay music industry] is also closer. It’s so near you can do a Malay song, it can be picked up in Malaysia. It’s easier that way, we can travel by road… when it comes to Tamil [music industry], it wasn’t like that.”
“[There are] so many challenges because we the smallest [group], we are the minority and we only have one radio station which is burdened to play so many different kinds of songs… Oli 96.8 do their best when it comes to independent [music]. Same goes to Vasantham, they try to play independent videos and do their best. But there is only so much the local community can do because the numbers are not there, right? It’s nobody’s fault.”
Shabir shared that another set of obstacles Tamil musicians face is with the lack of an independent Tamil music industry and that they would have to penetrate “double iron curtains” — the film industry and the film music industry.
Shabir decided to “go for the jugular” in 2016 by moving to Chennai, the heart of Kollywood. However, the move presented a new set of challenges. Naysayers doubted his talents, criticised his use of slang in songs, and questioned how a Singaporean could possibly succeed in India’s second-biggest film industry. Shabir also entered Kollywood at a competitive peak, namely with the depth of talent including heavyweights such as A. R. Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja still active in the scene.
Regardless, Shabir has beaten the odds with music for several hit films under his belt. His work on 2019 horror-comedy Raju Gari Gadhi 3 marks the first time a Singaporean composed a score for a Telugu film, adding onto his accolades as the first Singaporean to score six Kollywood Tamil feature films. His seventh Indian film as a composer — and his favourite project to date — is upcoming film Sinam. Starring Arun Vijay, the film is slated for release in March 2021.
Despite all his achievements, the hitmaker earnestly shared that he still sees himself as a “student of the game” and that he felt he has failed much more than he succeeded. He added: “I’m as curious as I was. Maybe even more curious compared to when I started and I think I have so much more to learn, so much more to do.”
“I think it’s the failures which I learned from more [than the successes]…when you fail, you sit down, you felt… I value my failures very much. I wear them like a badge… If there was any success then I would share it with the people around me. But all the failures belong to me and only me.”
Sharing this his success, Shabir has collaborated extensively with community organisations such as SINDA, working with at-risk youth through the SINDA’s Game Music programme. Since his recent return from Chennai, he has collaborated with the TENG Ensemble to create the Triptych Series, a three-part music video series aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to spread positivity and to continue to show their support for the migrant community.
Shabir has also dedicated himself to giving back to the music community. Through Shabir Music Asia, he has worked to connect upcoming artists with brands for support, while putting out free tutorials on music production, trying their best to extend a helping hand whenever possible. He said: “I never believe in withholding information, never believe in not sharing…I think it’s also part of my life philosophy. Giving something to the world we came in — it’s like the rent you pay for your existence. I also believe in leaving the world better than how you found it.”
“I think we artists have the responsibility to actually be as generous as we can. We should never work in silos, in my opinion. We should always try to reach out, connect, and help each other because we’ve only got us. If we don’t help each other, who is going to come and help us? Yeah, they’re gonna call us non-essential and put us in a corner. If we are all huddled into a corner together, we might as well help each other and try to be as essential as possible.”
Looking ahead, with the film industry’s slow down, Shabir looks to go “all-out” with the independent scene. Shabir will kick 2021 off with the release of a new music video for his song “Thanimai”. He will also be at Let’s Celebrate 2021, Mediacorp’s annual countdown show, performing the theme song “Better” with Gareth Fernandez, JJ Neo and Hashy Yusof.
All these insights from the superstar and more, including Shabir’s favourite poets, the importance of passing on knowledge, and countless nuggets of wisdom, on this episode of Say it like it is. For the latest updates, follow Shabir on his Instagram and Facebook accounts.
On the season finale of Say it like it is, the talk show will welcome writer and host Jemimah Wei to the red sofa. Don’t miss the show this Friday, 18 December at 4:30 pm on Facebook.
(2:05) Start of episode
(6:50) On Shabir’s early life
(08:39) On Shabir’s brothers
(15:19) On how 2020 has been like for Shabir
(17:12) On Shabir’s collaboration with the TENG Ensemble
(21:28) On his journey home from Chennai earlier this year and “Ezhuvom”
(24:15) On Shabir’s first lessons entering the industry and the importance of failures
(25:29) On Shabir’s very first gig at 16
(27:10) On Shabir’s Vasantham Star win in 2005
(28:30) On haters and what can be learned from them
(33:45) On why Shabir decided to venture to Chennai
(34:50) On the challenges as a Tamil musician in Singapore
(41:30) On his latest and most favourite project
(46:49) On digital streaming platforms
(49:20) On how Shabir had to engineer his own songs in his early days and the importance to constantly acquire new skills
(50:30) On if Shabir has any regrets looking back
(57:00) On how Indian and Singaporean fans differ
(58:10) Shabir’s advice for aspiring singers
(1:01:06) On Shabir’s favourite poets
(1:02:25) On the type of films Shabir enjoys
(1:05:08) On the local musicians Shabir would like to work with and has worked with
(1:09:55) On Shabir Music Asia
(1:15:53) On Shabir’s upcoming projects
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