Though Malaysia's Ze Rebelle has often been compared with rebellious popstar Lady Gaga, she’s far from an imitator. Born as Sarah Zainal, it is hard not to notice the electronic indie star with a personality as bright as her constantly changing hair colour.
And while she’s earned plenty of well-deserved achievements, Ze’s outspoken personality has also brought fiery criticism from conservative local Malaysians, who take aim at her fashion choices and humorously lewd videos—though there’s a special vitriol saved for her Muslim faith, bringing death threats and calls to repent. But it’s the wrath of Beyoncé’s “Beyhive” that seems to have put more fear in her than anything.
Undeterred, Ze continues to stir the conservative pot with localised covers of popular songs and remixes of her own originals on YouTube. Most of them highlight frivolous social issues, like the supposed “dangers” of Valentine’s Day, which she countered with a Malaysian-language cover of “Only You,” calling it “Kongkek Time” (“Fucking Time”).
Her hard work has paid off, winning AIM's Best Local English Song Award for “In The House”—a collaboration with Malaysian duo Goldfish & Blink—and earning a nomination for Best Lo-Fi Video at the Berlin Music Video Awards for “$ BROKE $,” which she directed herself. And after releasing her third studio album, Univerze, in 2016, Ze is now working on her next single, “Hologram”, recently previewed in a Bvlgari teaser.
We had a chat with the controversial artist on breaking away from cultural norms, incurring the wrath of the Beyhive and why good art should always make some people uncomfortable.
You’ve been in the music scene for two decades, how do you think you’ve matured as an artist?
I think I was quite lost starting out — lost in the sense that it took it me awhile to find a style of music that worked for me. To find my sound. I find it amazing that some artists just know right away, because I didn’t. But I don’t regret the journey because going from R&B to rock to electronic has helped me combine all those elements into the dance music I make now.
At which point of your musical journey did you decide that this was going to be a career for you?
While studying at SAE Institute. It was a scary decision to make; saying to myself: “Okay I love doing this shit, let’s become an artist.” And yes, I speak to myself in plural. I studied audio engineering, and my lecturers both in Malaysia and Australia were amazing. They were very supportive and always encouraged me to learn the music business because they were aware, way before I was, of how important that was as an independent artist. To understand the industry as a whole and not just the creative side.
As a Malaysian artist, what are some of the limitations you feel you’ve had to endure over the length of your career?
Getting your music out there as an indie artist is difficult. In fact, it has gotten even more difficult now. There isn't any outlet I know of that welcomes new music by unknown artists I could submit to. If you know of any, please enlighten me because I don’t. We are also bound by so many unwritten rules that I think paralyzes us. It was out of frustration that I decided to push myself to tour. So I guess in a way those limits were blessings in disguise!
As your name suggests, you’re quite the rebel when it comes to your fashion statement, how did you get over trying to conform to Asian cultural norms?
I've wasted half my life trying to conform, it either did not work or I just end up hating myself for trying. I've always felt like an outcast ever since I was a little girl so it's about being myself really. Nothing makes me happier than simply being myself. And yes, that meant losing some people in my life. But you know what, at least you know the ones that stay are those who love you for who you truly are.
You’ve created quite a social media shit storm with “Slumber Tetek”, did you think that it would cause such a viral response to it?
I made that track because I thought people were liking the Malay covers I was doing of other people's English tracks. I thought, “why not do a cover of my own song?” I've been keen on putting Malay lyrics on an electro track. To me, it sounded pretty cool and I'm proud of my “tetek” song. Yes, I like to curse. My friends are probably not surprised. Anyway yeah, I had an umbrella ready for the shit storm but that wasn't the reason I made the track. It's for those who like what I do, and for them it's worth the shit storm.
In between getting death threats and an army of religious nutters asking you to turn back to God, how do you deal with such vicious attacks?
Everyone's entitled to an opinion. They're also entitled to NOT watch what they don't like it.
What has been the worst backlash you’ve gotten online?
I made a joke about Beyoncé once and woke up to hundreds of friend requests and hate comments on my page. It was the first time I received a tsunami of a backlash. I was NOT ready for an attack much less one from the Beyhive, I can tell you that. I found out later that I'd been on an American tabloid page (Media Takeout) for saying I “dissed” her after her Malaysian concert got cancelled.
For the record, I just thought it was ironic that she was telling us single ladies how to put our hands up when she was a happily married woman. Beyoncé, I love you, but no. I know from experience that telling a guy to put the damn ring on it only drives him further. It's still an annoyingly good song though, I made my version of it called “Bila Nak Kahwin” (“When Are You Getting Married”). Check it out!
Most of your videos address current issues with a risqué approach. Knowing the sensitivities of local culture, do you intentionally want some of the viewers to feel uncomfortable?
I don’t sit around thinking how best to irritate people or make anybody uncomfortable. The videos that I make to address current issues are usually made on-the-fly, it's how I felt was best way to address them. That said, I do love and live by this quote: “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. And to comfort the disturbed is where I usually put my focus on.
How far do you think you can push the boundaries?
I'd love to know the answer to that myself!
At this point of your career, what else have you yet to accomplish?
Wow, a lot! I've still not made a “dangdut” song, just so I can gelek (grind) on TV and do a duet with Malaysian legend, M Daud Kilau. Beauty brands are still making dark skin shaming ads, so our work is far from done. I want to meet my idol Madonna so I can touch her bum (I've touched MIA's, FYI!). Most of all, I'd like to continue having fun and try things I've never done before, so we'll see :)
Check out DocOlv's remix of Ze Rebelle's "Slumber Tetek" here. It is also available for free download, enjoy!
Header image by Rosiegraphie