Many years ago in a Singaporean marketplace, a young girl by the name of Maysian Lim had just been given her Chinese New Year money, and was looking for ways to spend it. Somehow, Maysian ended up in a music store selling bootleg tapes. Like most children, she was attracted to bright colours and larger-than-life characters, little Maysian made the two obvious choices – one of those cassettes was Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. That purchase sparked off the chain of events that transformed Maysian Lim to Canadian independent artist Masia One.
"I just saw the Public Enemy tape, I flipped it to the back and saw some dude with a clock around his neck," Masia laughs at her first memory of PE's Flavor Flav. "He looked like a cartoon character to me so I'm like cool – these are like cartoon guys."
Although at the time Masia thought PE were cartoon characters and was too young to understand the political implications of their lyrics, she was entranced by their music and started seeking out hip hop. She moved to Vancouver a little while later and became more involved with the hip hop scene there.
Masia started off tagging and breakdancing, she confessed, "I was never very good coz I never practiced enough and I liked my skull too much." The breakdancing led to her getting the name Masia One as a combination of her name and that of Californian b-girl Asia One.
Later on, Masia moved to Toronto and studied architecture at the University of Toronto. While she was there, a series of events occurred that resulted in her falling out with her best friend at the time. With all the strife going on, she wrote down the experience in rhymes as she was apt to do, and ended up performing at The CyberKrib's "I Used To Love H.E.R.", an all-female emcee showcase.
"It was something I've always wanted to do but never had the balls to do – I wanted to get in front of a crowd and spit coz I've always been writing rhymes but I just never had the confidence to be able to like get up in front of people and do it," she says. "I was just gonna do it as a one-off thing to prove to myself that I could do it. (I ended up getting) a VIBE commercial out of my first performance – the response was amazing and it's just been mad ever since."
Mad, indeed. With two music videos (for "Halfway Through the City" and "Split-Second Time") on Much Music and Much vibe, as well as an album called Mississauga – named in tribute to the geographical origins of the musicians she works with, Masia One has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in the Toronto hip hop scene.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been all fun and games. We all hear about how hard it is to be a female emcee in a man's hip hop world. But Masia One has to deal with being an ethnic minority as well, and part of her role as a hip hop artist has been to defiantly smash the stereotypes that she refuses to cater to. That's the concept behind her video for Split-Second Time – just ripping apart all the clich»s that swath Asian culture like an obi wrapped around a geisha's kimono.
"I've never commodified the fact that I'm female and I'm Asian and I rap. There are lots of female Asian emcees in California and Vancouver," Masia proclaims. "There aren't many to be seen in the mainstream. I don't get why Asian women are commodified as exotic; like China's got the most people in the world – there are a lot of Chinese people. There's nothing exotic about it. I don't understand why."
There's two sides to a coin, and on the flipside, Masia One's ethnicity positions her as a role model to other young Asian girls.
"I've gotten a lot of emails from young Asian girls saying, 'We never in our wildest dreams knew that it was possible for an Asian female to be in the mainstream spotlight like that'," says Masia. "And that's amazing to me because I'm apparently opening their eyes like Lady Pink and Asia One opened my eyes back in the day". It makes me feel like I'm doing something good by virtue of what I'm doing and not by what I'm preaching necessarily."
That young Asian girl in the market buying music tapes is now a distant memory of the event that begun Masia One's career. Going back to that day, it's important to note that the other cassette she picked up at the time along with Public Enemy was a Bananarama record. Had she been guided by that album instead, her story would have had a different outcome, although equally as interesting. I guess we can all be grateful that, given her attraction to cartoon-like characters, she didn't pick up The Chipmunks' Chipmunk Punk instead.
Masia One's company, The M1 Group will be hosting the first of the M1 Academy series at El Mocambo on September 17th. For more information on Masia One and the M1 Group, check out www.masiaone.com.