meet alextbh, malaysia's first queer pop star
Listen to his latest single 'walls,' premiering exclusively on i-D.
Photo by Wanjie.
It was easily the worst day of his life, says alextbh of being denied a tourist visa to come to the United States. The 22-year-old Malaysian musician, has dreamed of visiting the US since he was little, not to mention he hoped to finally meet his manager, who lives in LA. “That was the golden ticket for me,” Alex explains. “I didn’t get that.” He remembers walking out in anger and staring at the “huge slab of gray wall” symbolic of the obstacles he has faced, including the legal ones like Trump’s travel ban, given Malaysia’s official religion is Islam. “I was so pissed off. I remember just walking out of the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and just staring at this wall and I just told myself, ‘Okay you know what? Fuck this place,’ he says.
Alex penned his frustrations (and pent up feelings about a certain someone in his life) into his latest single, “walls,” exclusively premiering on i-D today. It was produced by Maths Time Joy, and while it channels the emotive pop of his previous singles, it also represents a turn towards more R&B infused music. Alex says he’s influenced by Majid Jordan and James Blake. While he’s opened for the likes of Khalid, Clean Bandit, and Sevdaliza, all the while quickly amassing millions of Spotify plays, this Malaysian pop star is still relatively unknown in this hemisphere — for now.
Alex studied engineering in school and notes that he definitely felt pressure to pursue an ambitious career. Being a doctor or a lawyer were other options he considered to gain his parent’s approval, but Alex was always “a tech nerd.” He got his start in music by experimenting with GarageBand as a teenager. As his skills improved and he gained confidence, Alex began uploading his tracks to Soundcloud. “The whole like, inception of alextbh is me trying to throw everything on the wall and see what sticks,” he says. It’s only in the last two years that Alex’s music career has taken off and he’s been able to leave engineering behind. ”Next thing I know, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to open for Khalid,’” Alex says. “Like, crazy shit happens like that.”
Initially, Alex’s parents were hesitant about his interest in music. However, considering his early successes, they’ve since been really supportive. He’s faced plenty of other hardships, like that of being an openly gay musician in Malaysia. The LGBTQ+ community is incredibly tight-knit and supportive of each other, but sodomy is still considered a crime — a law that remains from British colonial rule. Last year, the country celebrated 60 years of independence, but the government has made multiple attempts to erase LGBTQ+ culture from that narrative from removing portraits of transgender activist Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik, editor of online forum Queer Lapis, from a commemorative exhibit, to brutal assaults on members of the community, somewhat condoned by an Islamic affairs minister that has spoken out against gay people.
Music serves as an outlet for resistance and a platform for Alex to incite change. He’s become a queer, pop icon, performing on stages throughout Southeast Asia. It also helps him process his emotions and make sense of complicated feelings. ”Music is such a great cathartic experience for me. I’m actually not really good at communicating with people,” he says. “I just for some reason, I just resort to writing songs to tell them how I feel.”
i-D spoke with alextbh over the phone, where he was calling from Kuala Lumpur, to discuss his new single “walls” and the what’s it’s like living as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Malaysia.
Tell me about the song “walls,” what does it mean to you and what do you hope to express through it?
“walls,” is a continuation of my previous single “still mine.” I actually have very vivid imagery of the exact moment I started writing that song. I was kneeling in front of my coffee table. I wasn’t even sitting on my sofa. I was on the floor — sobbing, writing it. I’m very proud of this song because I didn’t try to structure or rhyme it, as opposed to other songs. My mind works in a really pop structured way. But that song, I just spoke my mind... That was the day I was denied my US tourist visa. I just told myself, ‘Okay you know what? Fuck this place. I’m going to write a song about you.’ But I also wanted to write about this guy that’s been on my mind for so long, so I’ll use both of those visuals together.
Tell me a little bit about what it’s like living as an openly gay musician in Malaysia.
Um, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. It’s probably because I was surrounded by queer people. I was living inside this bubble, but once I stepped outside, the reality of being LGBTQ+ in Malaysia — especially when I’m alone, like on the train — I get people looking at me. I don’t get physically assaulted a lot, but it’s a wake up call. Like, maybe it’s not as safe as I think it is. Right now it feels really natural to just be openly gay because I know who my listeners are and I know they’re highly supportive and at the end of the day that’s super encouraging. I don’t have to hold anything back.
What are some of the hardships faced by the LGBTQ+ community? I know you had a big election and it seems like things might’ve been moving in a progressive direction, but they haven’t.
Yeah, things have remained the same and if not, worsened in the first couple months after our new government was elected. We’ve had multiple closures of queer, LGBTQ venues and still no resolution on previous, high profile cases on homophobic attacks, physical attacks, murders. They’ve still never been brought to light. And yeah, I feel like right now we are the punching bag of the government, really. Anything that happens to the government, we’re used as their punching bag. All I want is to live a nice, normal, serene life, like any other person and it sucks when you’re government is not letting you and it’s in fact, using you.
And you want to just live freely and be yourself.
Yeah, there are so many things that we need to do to change the country, from society to the law itself. Section 3778 criminalizes sodomy, still.
What’s the spirit of the LGBTQ+ community like there?
There’s always activism happening in this country. It’s very minute, but it’s happening and I’m really proud of that. We’re a very small, tight knit community and we see each other a lot at like, small little queer events. I mean, it’s flourishing right now. There are more people that are slowly partaking and fighting for our community, people being on our side. That’s definitely encouraging because on an individualistic level you get discouraged pretty easily, but the moment I go to queer events and get in my makeup, see my friends, and go to parties, we see other people that are just like us and you do get that sense of wanting to protect the community.
And you sing often about your personal relationships and experiences. While legally there’s freedom of expression, are you ever afraid to release your music?
I guess from the very beginning, I felt like if I’m afraid of fully expressing myself or holding anything back, I feel like the message should not be there in the first place. People will never need it to resonate as much as they do now. That’s the whole point of me just being an open book to everybody. At least when I put my music out, people will say things like, ‘You spoke my mind exactly in this hour of this day, of this moment.’ And it feels great to know that.
You’re helping people realize that they’re not alone.
Yeah, and they’re helping me realize that I’m not alone in my struggles as well.