When adversity won’t let up, the only thing to do is double down and transcend higher.
Recently, Viddsee, lifted the veil on its Keep The Music Going series, a platform that gives a voice to individuals who are powering through to make music in the face of Herculean odds.
The first episode featured Singaporean rapper Wheelsmith, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and director Saravanan Sam, an associate lecturer with Republic Polytechnic, where he teaches modules related to media production.
In the interview below, both go about sharing their stories.
Take us through why you started this, and how this whole thing came about.
Saravanan Sam: "The whole thing started sometime in April. Viddsee approached me to do a series on music. That's all the information I had. They had seen my earlier documentaries, Wild Dogs, and they asked if I could come up with something on music. There was no form of direction, or other inclination of what they wanted.
They let me control the entire narrative, they gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted, as long as it was related to music. It didn't even have to be about local music. I had five days to come up with a couple of concepts after that initial meeting. I already had a couple of ideas floating around for awhile. Bits and pieces here and there. I just had to narrow down what it was I really wanted to focus on."
How did you go about selecting whom to profile? What was your thought process like for the selection?
Saravanan Sam: "Firstly, I had to ask myself what the series was about. Conventionally, every episode is different, but I had to unify everything under a single theme, which later turned out to be Keep The Music Going.
I knew I couldn't do something that was entirely about singer-songwriters. It couldn't entirely be about buskers as well. The whole point of it was, I wanted to do something that did not focus on one specific type of musician. I wanted it to be a wide spectrum. So, I started looking at what could fit into that range. That's how I came across Wheelsmith.
A friend of mine had interviewed him before, so that's how we got linked up. I knew Shak'thiya was an old friend, and he knew I've always wanted to work with him. I came across the Jazz Jogets long ago, because their drummer was my primary school classmate, and I would see the videos of their practice sessions on Facebook once in awhile. I thought it would be an interesting angle for them as well, so I reached out to them from there.
For the other two episodes, I wanted to focus on non-performers. I wanted someone in the backend. I went to speak to Wind Works, and the Colbern Drums workshop happened to be in the same building. Once I had all of these people to work around, I had to look back and everything and look at the common thread that linked all of them, apart from music. Quite generically, it was how more of how they kept the process going; wether it was from a performer standpoint, or the behind-the-scenes work."
What made you want to work with Wheelsmith?
Saravanan Sam: "I saw an interview that he did with someone else. She did a short documentary with him, and he came off as a really interesting character. He wasn't saying the regular PR stuff, he was honest, and he had a sense of humour that I could relate to."
How do you feel about being a part of this story?
Wheelsmith: "Actually, I didn't want to do any form of interviews, or filming, or any other obligations for awhile because I wanted to lay low and work on my music, which is the most important thing. Since a good friend of mine connected Sam and I together, I thought why not give this a try. I figured I could squeeze out some time for this, because the truth is, I have a lot of things to say that people in my shoes don't tend to say."
Where does the courage to say those things come from?
Wheelsmith: "I wouldn't call it courage. It's definitely not some sort of activist anger. I say those things because it is the truth, and I will speak the truth. That's how I was raised, and that's how I will continue to be. When I write songs, they're real. I don't fabricate anything to please other peoples' fantasies. That mindset resonates just not within me, but with my entire identity.
I think it's about time someone challenged the mindset of the disabled community. When it comes to disability and the disabled, everyone is a yes man. They'll shine a spotlight on you for one day and be nice for a day, and then the next day, they revert to their old ways. I am not a yes man. This is how you separate yourself from being disabled and able-bodied. It's all in the mind.
If you associate yourself with organisations for disabilities, then you're going to be treated like you're disabled. That's just how it works. They're just built that way. If you want to be out there, on a stage, with people who are actually doing things, then you have to surround yourself with those people. That's how you teach the audience that it's not about pity. It's about being given an equal opportunity."
How do you keep the music going?
Wheelsmith: "You just have to go through life. The reason why I say my struggle is a privilege is because if it wasn't for those struggles, I don't think I would be who I am today. I don't think I would've been able to be the performer and musician I am today. I draw my inspiration directly from what I have been through, and I have turned it into something positive. Everyone wants to be different, but I'm already different by default."
What part of his story connects with you the most?
Saravanan Sam: "The first thing that struck me was that he's not trying to prove a point. He isn't doing what he's doing to say "Hey, if I can do it, so can you." In fact, when I first wanted to feature him, the fact that he's wheelchair-bound was irrelevant to me. It was solely about him as a person. The first time I got in touch with him, it wasn't in person. So we exchanged texts and all of that, so I got to see who he was on the inside, first and foremost.
I'm glad he had the same mindset as well. During my research interview, he mentioned that we have to break the conventional mindsets that the world has about disability, even in 2019. If he's in a wheelchair, he's in a wheelchair. It is what it is. That isn't the focus of the narrative we're trying to push out.
What is the outcome you hope to achieve with this documentary series?
Saravanan Sam: "There isn't a grand outcome that I'm hoping to achieve, actually. I just want to shed a little bit of light on the different stories that I am able to tell. Wheelsmith's story isn't something that I consciously set out to do to raise awareness. It happened very naturally. I just wanted to tell these five stories in the way I felt they should be told. Most, if not all, of the five people that I'm featuring, have already been featured somewhere else. The only real difference is, this is their story told from my perspective, from my direction."
Since the year's ending, how do you want people in 2020 to approach the topic of disability?
Wheelsmith: "We're supposed to be done with all the talking. We have to move forward to the next level of interaction. Interaction is key. The goal has always been to be included. There have been countless talks on how we should be included and stuff like that. Now is the time to act on it. People with disabilities are an untapped market, honestly. A lot of people I know who are in wheelchairs, aren't being given the same opportunities as everyone else, even though they have the minds of geniuses. We wrote the book on life hacks. We invented life hacks.
How many ways can you think of to open a bottle? Take it from me, I know ten ways to open up a bottle without using fingers. We are the pioneers of life hacks. I'm not saying the way the world is running now isn't good, but we can make it more efficient, because we know hacks and tricks to get things done easily.
I hope we see more of people actually making an effort to include us in their ecosystem, instead of just talking about it. It's not about awareness anymore.
Actually, I feel like my community should be doing a lot more. Instead of seeking help and asking for handouts, we should go out there, and earn them. If you want opportunities, take it, don't wait around for it. It's not just about the general population trying to include us, it's also about us showing that this is why we should be included. Create your own opportunities."