Zamaera: “When I first started out, there were so few of us that I felt a pressure to be ‘the best female rapper’”
Written by ABR on 24/01/2022
“I’m OK. You’re OK, Zamaera. You’re OK. It’s fine.” The very first thing we hear on Zamaera’s new mixtape ‘Heart Break To Heal’ hits different from what we’ve come to expect of the fiery Malaysian rapper. She’s leaning into the liberating joy that comes with baring her soul on record: “It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I do,” she tells NME at a bar in the Bukit Ceylon neighbourhood. “I don’t care because I care – and I care about myself so much that I don’t care about what other people do and say.”
Released in December, ‘Heart Break To Heal’ unpacks, most overtly, Zamaera’s healing through heartbreak (‘heartbreak’ spelled as two words, because her ‘heart had to take a break to heal’ too, as press materials put it). On first listen, it’s an autopsy of a broken heart (hers) and a study of doomed romance (theirs). But really, it’s a project that celebrates self-love above all other loves, an expression of just how arduous it is to arrive at who you are. “I didn’t know any better. I love love, y’know?” she says of the relationship the project is about. “I feel different now. There’s still the same childlike energy, but I feel different – I feel very unafraid of failure and judgement and rejection.”
At 26 going on 27, Subang Jaya-born Zamaera is one of her generation’s most lauded rappers. For all the markers of superstardom – the bevy of brand deals; the high-fashion Fendi and Gucci photoshoots; the national acting debut on Sitik Tok – she hasn’t had the easiest journey getting to where she is.
In 2016, Zamaera announced her arrival by emerging runner-up in the rap cypher competition Red Bull Blend against 49 other competitors, all of them male. “For maybe six or seven months after, I rapped my winning verse in my head, thinking ‘I should’ve done it this way, that way’. I couldn’t get over it,” she says, a free admission of her competitive and perfectionist spirit.
At that point, Zamaera hadn’t truly known she could rap. “All I knew was that I loved rhythm, poetry, storytelling.” Her love of all three began at a young age, she says. “At school, we would play this game, like, do you know it? ‘Apple on a stick makes me sick / Makes my heart beat two-forty-six / Not because you’re dirty, not because you’re clean / Just because you kissed a boy behind a magazine.’ That’s rapping!”
“There’s still the same childlike energy, but I feel different – I feel very unafraid of failure and judgement and rejection”
In 2017, she released her breakout single ‘Helly Kelly’ and followed up with ‘Wanita’. Within the year, she signed with Lakefront Records – the same label she eventually reached a settlement with in 2021 after an 18-month tussle during which she could not release new music. It was referenced in her Instagram post announcing her status as a “100% indie and self-managed” artist, but she laces her lyrics with juicy specifics on ‘Anxious’, the final track on the mixtape: “I’m independent ain’t no label can control me / They wanted me to pay a milli to leave / So I pulled my middle finger out from my sleeve.”
Lakefront Records was “a very expensive lesson,” she tells NME, but one that was “much needed”. As an independent artist, “it’s far from me doing it all on my own. I have the opportunity now to choose who I want to work with, and I chose people who also chose me.”
Zamaera is finding herself in real time on ‘Heart Break To Heal’. The story begins on ‘You Say’, a diaristic, intimate mapping of red flags: “I like the feeling that you gave me / And all that you said made me believe you wouldn’t play me,” she sings, harmonies shimmering and swelling.
On ‘Jaga Diri’, she nails the precise language for navigating the blurred lines in the aftermath of a breakup: “Waktu kau susah / Baru nak cari aku / Kini semua dah berbeza / Maaf ku tidak boleh bantu.” It’s a delightfully snarky kiss-off to an ex-lover who rings her up at 3am after one too many drinks: “Only when times are tough / You would want to find me / And now everything’s different / Sorry I can’t help you.”
On ‘Glow’, she asks: “I ain’t never been alone / Does that make me needy?” She arrives at clarity, if not catharsis, on ‘I Need’, as she rebuilds her relationship with the self and not the other: “My life is a one-man show.” She’s alone, never lonely. “2021 was my first year of being independent in every sense of the word. I had been in relationships from 17 until 25, no breaks,” she says. “It makes you question yourself, like, who are you without this other person?”
Zamaera was looking back – but moving forward, as well. She moved out of her family home into a new place, furnished with only an IKEA cabinet mirror (the same one pictured on the cover of the tape) that she spent a lot of time staring into, talking to herself and performing to an audience of one. In true girlboss style, she manifested the mixtape in speech first: “Girl, if you want something, think it in your head, say it out loud, write it down, draw it out.”
“2021 was my first year of being independent in every sense of the word”
“Seeing that we were in the middle of a pandemic,” she bought her beats for ‘Heart Break To Heal’ on Beatstars, a digital music marketplace where artists and producers can collaborate without ever getting into a studio together. (Lil Nas X, for instance, bought the trap beat on his hit single ‘Old Town Road’ on Beatstars for US$30.) Nine out of 11 songs on the mixtape used beats produced by Lou Xtwo (Bad Bunny, Chris Brown).
The emphasis of ‘Heart Break To Heal’ is immersion: cloudy, moody grooves pulse and sway, rather than build and drop. She credits Mingaling of Mass Music Studios with recording, mixing and mastering, saying “he played such an integral role” for how she sounds on ‘Heart Break To Heal’, rapping self-assured, unapologetic verses before switching it up with sweetened choruses. It has a defiantly feminine point of view, from ‘Glow’ (“Happiness won’t come from any man, money or booze”) to ‘Gelek’ (“My girls boleh gelek / Pintar badan cilik / Ada duit dalam bank / Keep your money I don’t need it”).
“Two songs in, it clicked that this was going to be more R&B,” Zamaera says. “Making this mixtape was a form of therapy, and I sang a lot to soothe myself. I was trying to comfort myself with my own voice – and even the hip hop, rapping bit, it’s not as braggadocious or hard-hitting.
“When I first started out, there were so few of us that I felt a pressure to be the ‘best female rapper’, y’know?” It’s a false, suffocating narrative familiar to any minority striving in a homogenous space: there can only be one spot. “I’m a competitive person in general, even with guys – because there were a lot of insecurities – and so when someone else fills up that spot, I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, I need to be better’,” Zamaera recalls.
“There’s really no need for that. I’m at this point in my life where every woman in hip hop that I meet, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, go girl’, y’know? She’s a confidant. She’s someone I can resonate with. It’s a great feeling.”
‘Heart Break To Heal’ is a time capsule, the result of a year spent meditating on the nature of love and loss. Having released the mixtape in a physical format, Zamaera is excited for people to experience it in the form of a live performance. “This is the touring set,” she confirms, smiling. “I’d like it to be a curation of emotions, feelings, from beginning through the end. It’s a story, you know?” Here’s to a happy ending.
Zamaera’s ‘Heart Break To Heal’ is available for purchase here
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