It’s lunchtime and a small crowd has gathered outside the interview room at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya, Selangor where hip-hop artiste SonaOne is fielding questions from Star2.
A member of the crowd waves at the 26-year-old star through the glass wall to which he responds with a warm smile and friendly wave.
“I’ve never been an attention-seeker. I’d rather my music be loud and colourful and have people look at that than at me,” he says, sporting a simple white tee, dark pants and a bucket hat.
We chat for another 45 minutes and as we get up to leave — to my surprise — the crowd has stuck around. They must be really big fans of the rapper. Either that or they’re not hungry.
Upon closer inspection, what’s even more surprising is the group does not comprise the fresh-out-of-college type inclined to hip-hop music, but blushing makciks eager for a chat and a snap with him.
SonaOne’s broad appeal may have something to do with his win at the Anugerah Industri Muzik last December. His single, No More, became the first English track to win Best Song in the award show’s two-decade long history. (Check out: 5 things you need to know about ‘No More’)
A month later, his collaborative effort with Joe Flizzow on Apa Khabar (which he helped compose), placed first at the Anugerah Juara Lagu, marking another first for a hip-hop track.
Despite these back-to-back, high-profile wins, SonaOne is far from an overnight success.
How SonaOne stands out among the rest
Mikael Adam Lozach, or better known by his stage name as SonaOne, was born in Kuantan, Pahang to a French father and Malaysian mother. At barely a month old, he was whisked off to Spain as his parents were at the time employed by the international resorts chain, Club Med.
SonaOne moved often – shuttling between Spain, Japan, France and Malaysia – till the age of 10 when he settled in Malaysia for good.
SonaOne got his first taste of the world of hip-hop and entertainment at a young age, watching his mother put together performances at Club Med.
“My mum was a big fan of hip-hop. I was very exposed to the culture. I was decked out in nice kicks. I had my shades on, my hats … I was dressed like a rapper even before I knew what a rapper was,” he says, citing Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby as one of the first songs he had ever heard.
SonaOne’s interest in hip-hop was also sparked around the time he hit a rough patch at school.
“When you’re in a French school, even in Malaysia, you’re either white or not. The fact that I was not fully like them made me an outcast,” remembers SonaOne of his French schooling experience. He stayed at the school on till he was 16.
“When you’re growing up, you need to find your identity and your place in society. I discovered graffiti and the hip-hop culture. That’s how I knew I could stand out from everybody else.”
At 14, he started a graffiti crew with a few older friends outside of school and made money from commissioned pieces.
After finishing his O-Levels at 16, he left school and took 10 months off to work before putting himself through college where he majored in graphic design and multimedia. However, SonaOne did not complete the course.
“I was so involved in doing designs on my own that I felt like I knew all this already and was wasting time and money. I felt completely demotivated,” he explains.
He then went on to join his father’s travel agency and became a tour guide for three years.
“I didn’t have anything else anyway. All I have is my music as a hobby. My design dreams just got shattered. I was kind of lost as an 18-year-old,” he shares candidly.
While leading tours, SonaOne became more involved with hip-hop, writing songs and performing in the underground scene where he met Too Phat’s Joe Flizzow.
During his time off as a tour guide, he interned as a graffiti writer under Joe’s music label, Kartel Records.
He fondly recalls Joe’s reaction when he first heard him rap on a friend’s track. “He told me, ‘Keep on rapping and one day you might get on a song with me’, and that was all the motivation I needed.”
SonaOne was also inspired by Joe’s career development. “After Joe and Malique (the other half of Too Phat) parted ways, he was building Kartel from the ground up. I saw a side of him that I’ve never seen before. I saw him becoming a struggling rapper all over again. I saw him in the studio and how he worked,” SonaOne reveals.
He continued creating designs for Kartel until 2010 when he signed on as an artiste.
From then on until 2013, SonaOne was in an “incubation period” where he “recorded the most songs I’ve ever done in my life” as Joe showed him the ropes.
One of them was, of course, No More, released in December 2013.
“It was very surreal. Growing up in two cultures, I thought I wouldn’t be accepted. I felt like I didn’t fit in. Even with the music I was making, people said it’s too international or it’s too far ahead for Malaysia. This opens a brand new door for people doing English music in Malaysia,” he says, reliving No More’s historic AIM win.
SonaOne, who considers English and French as his mother tongue, says he is keen on making music in Bahasa Malaysia, too, but is working on sharpening his command of the language first, which he never formally studied.
“It’s not that I don’t want to rap in Bahasa Malaysia, I just wish I spoke better BM so I could write better BM lyrics. Hakeleh (his current single) is written in the BM I know and am comfortable with, but I also want to do more poetic and metaphorical stuff,” explains the rapper.
Appealing to the masses with his music and SonaOne charm
SonaOne’s upcoming debut album, Growing Up Sucks, will be mostly in English, Manglish and two songs in BM.
“If I spoke Tamil, Cantonese or Hokkien, I’d throw them in too. If I’m in Malaysia, I want to be appealing to Malaysians, as long as my music can reach as many people as possible,” he says.
SonaOne reveals the album, which captures his personal coming-of-age experiences, has been reworked since clinching the awards.
Four songs from the original batch are kept but he wrote another 20 in just two months, which was then whittled down to make the final 13-song line-up.
“I don’t think I can release an album that is not up to the standards of an AIM and AJL winner. I could release what I did last year but I feel like I would have disappointed my fans,” he confesses.
Next, SonaOne will be fronting the second season of 8TV’s travel show, Hip-Hoppin’ Asia, discovering hip-hop communities in places like Lebanon, Turkey, Mongolia, China and India, besides producing and writing for other Kartel artistes.
“There are no off days for me this year,” he says, letting out a chuckle.
As for harbouring dreams of an international career, SonaOne, who has received positive responses from overseas music executives for No More, says he has considered exploring the United States for a year but that won’t be anytime soon.
Asked if hip-hop is making a comeback, he asserts: “Hip-hop never left. People are just interested in it again.”