Singaporean artistes Mawar Berduri’s and Qis Maraj’s feminist sisterhood

By Leyasheena Panicker

The moment the Zoom call connected, we were greeted by the bright and unapologetic personalities of Mawar Berduri and Qis Maraj. They animatedly chatted away while waiting for the interview to begin, clearly showing a strong bond and shared fondness for each other.

The two Singaporean acts had recently dropped a collaboration single titled “KakakAdik” — Malay for “Older Sister, Younger Sister”. The catchy hip-hop track, produced by SarangTeekus, is laced with traditional Malay influences and wordplay, and has been garnering attention across South East Asia.

The interview was mostly led by the kakak (older sister) of the duo, Norhidayati Yusop, more commonly known as Mawar Berduri. Still standing strong after more than 20 years in the entertainment industry, Mawar has dipped her toes in 90’s alternative rock, and all sorts of genres in between. Previously associated with the Malay rap group Ahli Fiqir, Mawar carries her words with a bite, much like her stage name, bringing a sense of bravado and confidence that comes from experience (her name translates to “thorny roses”).

A screenshot of the music video to their hit “KakakAdik” which has gained fame across Southeast Asia.

Nurbalqis Mohamed Muzamil, who goes by the monicker Qis Maraj, was rather timid in comparison during the interview. Perhaps it was shyness that got to her, though she relayed genuine answers whenever asked. Her work, however, proves that she is anything but shy, with songs such as “no bad vibes” and “BLAH” — letting people know she isn’t one to be messed with.

Both women seem like an unlikely pair when you first think about it: after all, they come from different generations, and were raised on different types of music.

Mawar grew up on grunge, punk, and ska — naming No Doubt as some of her earlier musical interests. In comparison, Qis was exposed to the pop phenomenon of the late 2010s such as Justin Bieber and Adam Levine of Maroon 5.

Despite their different backgrounds, the universal language of music unites them. The two have developed a sister-like relationship, each woman learning and supporting the other.

“Even though we aren’t related, we still care for each other,” Mawar said. Currently, she is looking towards coaching Qis into becoming a more polished musician with hopes of her revolutionising the Singaporean Malay rap music scene.

Combatting sexism and ageism in the music industry

“KakakAdik” is a marriage between the old school and the new voice in the scene. Both women struggle with their own set of challenges: one deemed as “lacking in experience” — the other, as “yesterday’s news.”

But the duo is not backing down.

According to Qis, “KakakAdik” has a strong message: to inspire more female musicians to come together. “In Singapore, we haven’t seen two female rappers together and we wanted to change that,” she said. “We gotta step up in this male-dominated industry!”

She added that a few of her fellow musicians often spoke of being nervous or fearful when it comes to collaborating and being in the public eye.

Even though not biologically related, both women are soul sisters to each other.

Meanwhile, Mawar spoke about how the track is proof that women are not disposable after a certain age. She cited the pride of being a mother, and yet being a menace when she is with a microphone. “Don’t underestimate me!” she said, chuckling.

All that said, rap is a new adventure for the duo. Neither of them had foreseen a career in the genre. Qis started her career singing soulful and R&B covers. Over time, she became inspired by rappers, most notably Nicki Minaj.

On cultural appropriation

Qis wears hair in braids — both in the “KakakAdik” video and in real life. When asked about cultural appropriation, the duo smiled and chuckled nervously. Qis said the current generation is quick to label every small thing as cultural appropriation. According to her interpretation, sporting braids is simply like wearing a cheongsam on Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day —- more of a token of affection, rather than something problematic. Mawar agreed, citing Japanese B-Stylers — which many have deemed as a different red flag of its own —- and insisted that it was simply about expressing appreciation.

Being female Muslim rappers

Both women said they are grateful that they have not received any particular hate for being Muslim women in the hip-hop scene. However, Qis mentioned that she did receive some backlash when their video reached Malaysia’s Tiktok For You Page (known as the FYP). Some Malaysian men were criticising the rapper for her choice of facial piercings.

Qis dismissed such criticisms. She laughed as she recalled the comments that were posted, such as “Eh, lembu boleh rap!” (“Look, a cow can rap!”). “It’s fine. For every one hateful comment, there are about three fans.” she said.

With their feet planted firmly in both modernity and tradition, and having a sporting attitude coupled with strong feminist principles, Mawar Berduri and Qis Maraj are inspiring the next generation of talented Malay female rappers in Singapore, and beyond.

About the author

Leyasheena Panicker is a writer who has slain many monsters during their voyage across The Great Penisular. Constantly looking for more maidens (or more commonly referred to as clients) to rescue, reach out to her for heroic services on LinkedIn.