words kristen koester-smith | images isabelle rainbow st. john
Deborah Emmanuel took the stage looking reminiscent of Chakra Khan—her afro-like hair hovering and bobbing in a wild arc above her swaying shoulders, highlighting her petite frame. Wobology’s open concert at the marina had attracted the sparse members of the free-spirited movement in Singapore, locals and expats alike, and curious bystanders. Hippie lyrics and funky beats rose up to the skyline, a wacky contrast to the gleaming metal and colored fluorescents of Asia’s financial hub. Fans danced like hyper zombies, hanging their hands to the front, heads down and bodies quaking. Deborah jumped up and down the aisles with her hands raised. She sang about love, equality, and peace.
A critic posted a video of the concert online with the caption “attended some satanic African ritual earlier today”—a comment that didn’t surprise anyone, considering the more common subdued and mainstream entertainment in Singapore today, much of which is controlled and produced by the government.
In Singapore, accomplishment is defined by the five c’s: Condo, Car, Cash, Credit Card, and Country Club Membership—little room exists for creativity and relaxation. The measure of success is how much you have and how much you paid for it—not that it makes people any happier. Singapore is one of the richest nations in the world (Global Finance Magazine put them at no. 3 by GDP per capita), and yet, a 2012 Gallup poll placed Singapore as the least emotional and unhappiest nation in the world (they were feeling slightly better by 2013).
Deborah, a native Singaporean, spoken-word poet, actress, and singer, has a theory about the spawn of all that unhappiness:
I think in essence, it’s fear. It’s something that’s instilled in every Singaporean from birth…All the teachers are [telling you] if you don’t do well, you’re not going to make it to the next level…There’s this fear of stepping out of line or making mistakes…There’s a lack of liberation, and people don’t try new things because [they think] ‘What if I fail?’ Here it’s all about sticking to your comfort zone and doing what you know is a formula for success.
Deborah is hyper-aware of this fear, admitting she hasn’t rid herself of it entirely. She doesn’t care about the five c’s. Instead of Finance, she studies art. She lives for inspiration. Her nickname is “Sunshine.” She spills her honesty and passion on a stage, and she is gratified through that.
Sarah, her younger sister, says they didn’t grow up very “Singaporean.” Their parents didn’t put insane pressure on them to be academic super stars. The girls listened to mainstream Western music. They learned their humor from TV shows like Friends. Sarah and Deborah spoke only English, whereas most Singaporeans speak in their mother tongue at home, be-it Chinese, Malay, Hindi, or Tamil. Under the strict ear of a father who wouldn’t tolerate anything less than language perfection, the local dialect, slang that blends English and bits of the other national languages, never entered their vernacular. “When we went to school we used to get made fun of for not speaking Singlish,” Sarah says.
Words and stories were easy for Deborah in school, but it wasn’t until she was 13 that she attended drama club for the first time and all other interests started to fall by the wayside. By the time she was 15 or 16, she knew she wasn’t going to follow the standard Singaporean business route. For her, drama school made the most sense.
Sarah thinks LASELLE College of the Arts was the catalyst for Deborah’s sense of being out of place. “[When she went to LASELLE], that was the point where I think her thought process diverged a lot from mine. I went to a local school…I think what happened to Deborah is she branched out, she met new people, but she opened herself to it as well. All these new influences came in,” Sarah says. Deborah attended LASELLE for two years, until she had to drop out because she couldn’t afford the fees.
Then, she was sent to prison for a year. She was never charged or convicted of a crime in a court. Some may say that smoking weed and experimenting with recreational drugs when you’re 19 is part of growing up, but as she puts it, “You have to know the rules of the game you’re playing.” In Singapore, if someone tests positive for drugs, they are sent to prison for a year under the title of a “Drug Rehabilitation Sentence.”
Deborah says she was alarmed her first days in lock up—she had never been fully alone until they threw her in solitary, the initiation for every new inmate. She was in a two by four meter cell, and she was terrified of what would happen when they turned the lights off. Out of all that fear, came a realization of peace—the stimulus, a grasshopper.
He settled on her cell wall the first day. She spent a lot of time talking to this grasshopper, about life and her place in the world. She told him her fears. Then, the lights went out and the grasshopper flew away. “The grasshopper came back the next day…I don’t know maybe I was just in the right spot or the tree was right outside or something. But I was like, ‘I have someone to talk to…I don’t have to be afraid. I’m never really alone’,” she says.
Deborah says, and Sarah agrees, that prison changed her. It was in prison that she learned to question things, the government, the world, religion, and herself. She started asking herself why she thought the way that she did. She recognized that humans are all part of something, all together in a way, yet all independent organisms, alone in another way. She believes it was there that she started to really understand what collective consciousness is.
After her release, she continued her word work. When she was 21 she performed as a spoken-word poet for the first time. She won 10 poetry contests, started an open-mic night at local club, and gave two TEDx Singapore talks.
Her poetry is what keeps her substantiated, the way that she controls her emotions. It’s her process of understanding. When an idea comes to her, she lets it simmer until she thinks she’s ready to understand it. She puts it onto paper and tries to “untangle it.” She works it and reworks it until she’s at peace with it, until she knows it. Then, she can perform it.
There’s definitely some validation I get when I can turn what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling into something that is not so abstract and floating in my consciousness. That is really what poetry is to me…it’s turning something abstract into something concrete using language. When I can do that I definitely feel proud of it, that I can coagulate all of this mess into something coherent. It gives me a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
She becomes her poems when she performs. She is absorbed in them and her limbs and movements are extensions of the poems. She says with spoken-word poetry, it’s not just about the words, it’s about cadence and sounds and expression and movement. It should look good on a page, too, but it is meant to be performed out loud. “The more rhythm you have and the more nuance you have in the rhythm, the more beautiful the song sounds even though it’s just made up of words not music. For me, it is music though,” she says.
Her favorite poem is one about age—about being “25.” She feels like an adult and not an adult at the same time, not jaded even though perhaps she should be. She’s surprised by how it makes her want to cry when she recites it.
Most recently Deborah wrote a poem about love—it’s five minutes long and not finished yet, but she says she’s proud because it took her a long time to understand. “It’s a poem about being polyamorous and being open to loving who you love whenever you love them,” she says
Deborah’s keen ear for sound makes her helpful to musicians. She started her current singing stint with Wobology, although she did sing some heavy metal in her adolescence. The band is something new for Singapore. The lyrics are sometimes political (recently Deborah wrote a song against racism after a string of racial comments were posted on one of her TEDx videos), but mainly the band spreads good vibes across a land known for being uptight. Deborah is skeptical of how much locals appreciate it.
Now that she is living in Australia, attending Griffith University in Brisbane for Applied Theatre, she finds the pace of life slower, and more relaxed.
She has time to contemplate the questions revolving in her mind. She has joined a new band, Mojave. Their sound is different from the reggae tones of Wobology, but she says the more she experiments and is exposed to different sounds, the closer she gets to finding out what her own sound will become.
She’s not sure exactly who she is yet. In her words, “I’m never really going to understand anything, because we [as humans] don’t know anything…but in my own way I try to understand.” So she keeps trying to define it, keeps spreading herself across experiences and people and life, trying to find that one feeling and those certain words to match it, that will be the end all—at least for that moment.
She says, “There can only be one poem at any one time.”