Get to know the boy behind the Internet craze.
Pick any teenager off the street, ask them what the biggest conversation topic of the moment is, and you would probably only get one answer: Sheng the Rapper.
In the span of a few weeks, the 17-year-old, whose real name is Ong Sheng Hong, has seen his Instagram following grow from a mere few hundred to over 13,000 and counting. Even the platform’s most notable names are getting in on the action: Pop singer Benjamin Kheng mentioned him on an Instagram Story, former Real Talk host Saffron Sharpe consistently comments on his posts, and among his followers are rapper Shigga Shay and singer Gentle Bones.
According to Sheng, over 290,000 people visited his profile over a week (a statistic he can access through Instagram’s Insights function). Throngs of people turned up for the impromptu meet-and-greets he held on various school campuses across the island (well-documented in the many social media posts generated with each school visit). His inbox is flooded with hundreds of direct messages that it is “impossible to reply to every single one,” he laments.
The conversation surrounding Sheng has grown so large, so complicated and so layered that there now exist several camps: there are those who mock his rapping style, those who ironically cheer him on, those who are upset at the former two on his behalf, who see this phenomenon as a form of online bullying but on a larger, nationwide scale, and lastly, those who genuinely support him (Sheng calls this group his “true fans”).
But how is the boy behind the craze actually taking it?
I am sitting opposite Sheng Hong at a casual fast-food restaurant. Dressed in a simple soccer jersey and jeans, and hair unkempt — not unlike the way he usually wears it in his videos — Sheng is an unassuming figure who does not stand out from the crowd at first glance.
Yet within five minutes of settling down, passers-by are already taking a second look and whipping out their phones. Two teenage boys sitting next to us try to sneakily take pictures with their smartphones, but aren’t very good at being discreet.
Joining our table is Sheng’s mother. Prior to this interview, he had requested that his mom join in — a request that I was more than willing to accept. After all, Sheng is still a minor. From their demeanour and the way they speak to each other, it does not take long for one to notice that the two share a strong bond, or how much he respects and admires her.
We begin our interview and he starts talking about why and how he started rapping in the first place.
“I started rapping because I faced some difficulties [in my life] and rapping motivated me to get over my troubles,” he says. “I hope that my raps will inspire people, just like how other rappers inspired me.”
The first rap video Sheng had made was also the first to go viral. It featured him rhyming words that began with all 26 letters in the alphabet — though he admits that he made up some of the words, which he felt was “funny”.
Following that first video, he continued making more, including the infamous and best-performing “Mantou” rap, which has garnered over 90,000 views to date. The rap is dedicated to a fictional girl called Candy, whom he is pining over in the rap.
Perhaps it was the randomness of the rap lyrics, or the simple set up of the videos, or the delivery of his raps (or all three combined), but with his videos, Sheng the Rapper had lit a spark, and within a matter of days, the Internet was set ablaze.
He received an unprecedented wave of attention, on a scale like never before. The comments started pouring in, and thousands of people shared his content on their Instagram Stories.
Initially, most were ridiculing him, but as more people started to take notice, and as the chatter around “Sheng the Rapper” grew, various schools of thought started to develop as well. It was a captivating thing to watch — a conversation evolving in real-time.
Here, a group (probably made up of the same people who appreciate the concept of shitposting) is “ironic stanning”, and there, another group that actually, genuinely finds his content appealing, and his persona loveable.
And in true 2019 fashion, there is a group made up of the “woke” ones — who started calling out everyone else for their patronising or enabling behaviour, or their outright bullying. This last group does have a point, though. Imagine having to deal with a bully as a teenager, be it microaggressions, taunts or mockery. Now imagine having to deal with thousands of them.
But the situation Sheng is in is also a grey one (aside from the bullying, which is never acceptable). If Sheng himself is in on the joke, does that make the ironic stanning fine? (Is he in on the joke in the first place?) If people genuinely support him, and he appreciates it, do they still deserve to be called out for “enabling” him, and by extension, the bullies? See what I mean by this being a complicated and layered conversation?
When I bring up the topic of the negativity and online bullying he’s facing, he refers me to his Instagram bio: Turn haters into motivators — a mantra he firmly stands behind.
“People can be your stepping stone, but only you are the creator of your destiny. What matters is what you do. I don’t really care about the haters. To be truthful, I only care about true fans. I receive support from them very frequently, and sometimes I will be touched, lah. I will be really touched. I have never felt this before.”
“Going down this path, I knew that it would be turbulent. I already expected it to be like this, that there will be haters. What keeps me going is the true support from the fans,” he explained.
At this point, I pause the interview to tell Sheng that in this industry, everyone has people hating on them, even the most popular celebrities. For a 17-year-old to be this mature in handling a situation that would overwhelm many others was, well, commendable.
“I’m not famous, but even if I become famous, I will remain humble. If [people] want a photo, I’ll gladly accept it. I don’t shun from people, I just go with the flow. I treat people well, and I’m approachable. That’s the real me,” he says without missing a beat.
So, now that he has gotten this much attention, what’s next? The thing with Internet fads is that they can fade into obscurity as fast as they exploded onto the scene. Can Sheng the Rapper be the next Lil Nas X, who similarly had roots in Internet virality, then went on to build a sustainable career? Or will he be another Rebecca Black?
“I will want to learn singing properly,” he says with sincerity. I raise an eyebrow. After all, he had mentioned that he was doing all of this “just for fun”.
“I’m not sure if my singing is the correct way of singing. You need to use your diaphragm and the lungs, but I don’t think I use that,” he explains.
He goes on to explain how he was exposed to Hokkien songs growing up, which has influenced his singing style. Now, he wants to learn to sing mainstream pop songs to appeal to more people.
We start talking about SHINE NOW, an upcoming event in December that aims to inspire youths to be future-driven and start acting on their passions now. He was given a pair of tickets to learn from the pros in the industry, and is most excited to hear from some of his idols, including K-pop singer Park Ji-min and Singaporean rapper Yung Raja.
“I want to do more singing, but I’m known as Sheng the Rapper, so I will try to do both [rapping and singing],” he says.
“I’ll try to buck up on my rapping skills. I only have [had a few weeks] of experience in rapping. Some people say that my rapping is not so good, that I need to practise, but to that, I say, please give me more time. I’ll try to improve.”
As our interview comes to an end, one thing becomes clear: Sheng the Rapper, or rather, Sheng Hong, is really just an ordinary boy who was thrust into an extraordinary situation. All this kid wanted to do was to make some rap videos. Thank goodness that despite the cruelty of the Internet, he is able to focus on the positive and see the good in his situation.
Knowing what he wants to do next, I’m personally excited to see him grow and improve (as he so passionately and earnestly wants to). Who knows, maybe we do have Singapore’s answer to Lil Nas X on our hands here — we just have to give him a chance.
Photography & Article: Joel Lim
Videography: Ng Yi Yang
Set Assistant: Jerold Lim