“I think the thing that I’m looking forward to the most is simple: just sharing my music with a different audience,” Filipino hip hop artist Young Cocoa tells us what he was looking forward to the most at ASEAN Music Showcase Festival (AMS). Like almost all his contemporaries in the lineup, Young Cocoa is performing outside of his home country for the first time.

There was palpable excitement during our conversation, as both visitors and similarly taking the hip hop route—I as editor of HipHopDX Asia and him as an artist—of the electric atmosphere during the AMS festival weekend in Singapore. “Seeing how things are like here in terms of the music scene and I guess seeing how my music impacts people here as well, which is different from the Philippines,” he continues.

This isn’t the first time Young Cocoa—or plainly Cocoa—has worked with international artists. His 2021 track, “Zesto” (named after a popular fruit juice brand in the Philippines) was produced by up-and-coming South Korean producer Lazy Wanderlust, who’s known for his pop-house style.

Since last year, Young Cocoa has been receiving tremendous co-signs from K-pop superstars, including BTS leader, rapper, singer-songwriter, and record producer RM, after the latter included Cocoa’s “Manila” single in one of his playlists online, and again earlier this year after it was added by K-pop act ENHYPHEN to their ‘Ami Paris XVI – Curated by Enhypen’ playlist on Spotify. The track was also recommended by various K-pop acts, such as Yeri of Red Velvet, Eric of THE BOYZ, OMEGA X, and Dawon of SF9—further boosting the track’s popularity not just in the Philippines but also in South Korea.

“I think the interactions that I’ve had with BTS pretty much changed my life, in terms of the trajectory of things. I think seeing or having international recognition on that scale allowed me to a) take music more seriously, and b) find that there are opportunities within music as well for I guess people like me, bedroom rappers,” he tells us of the strides his music has made in the last two years due to those valuable endorsements.

A love letter to the Philippine capital, “Manila” serves not just as a setting for Young Cocoa’s coming-of-age quest, but offers astute, but a sincere commentary on cultural and societal conditions, such as “I don’t fuck with Joyrides ‘cause they don’t respect the worker” (referring to JoyRide, a local motorcycle hailing platform, which has been embroiled in several labor-related issues in the past). In one of his other songs, he referenced RuPaul’s iconic send-off line on RuPaul’s Drag Race: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” You don’t hear this often in rap songs.

For his AMS set, Young Cocoa shared with us that aside from rehearsing “a lot” in preparation for his performance, he mentioned he didn’t really think about how the Filipino element of it will connect with a foreign audience. “I feel like since this is a showcase, there’s a lot of diversity and variety and I feel like everyone’s diversity is already becoming like a sound in Southeast Asia. So we’re all kind of mix-and-matching together to create whatever our sound is becoming.”

At the festival, he told us he already met with Singapore’s BGourd (who also performed at AMS) and ABANGSAPAU. “I really enjoyed talking to [them] and I find them super cool.” Young Cocoa shared the stage with Malay Singaporean artist Sezairi, one of the most prominent names in the city-state.

Young Cocoa beamed when we spoke about his experience at the show so far. The regional experience AMS offered something that was obviously close to his own upbringing. After all, he grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia (which he referenced to in “Manila”)—and greeted the crowd in Bahasa. Off stage, he admitted his Bahasa became rusty since moving to the Philippines. He, however, told me he’d love to have an opportunity to work with Indonesian artists in the future.

Asked what he hopes the audience would appreciate about Pinoy hip hop, he said, “I think Filipino hip hop is very authentic. Part of it is gritty, and part of it is very soft and mellow. I think overall, it’s very honest.” But more than that, he just wanted to take in the whole thing. “I’m really excited to see how people perform, I wanna see how people from Thailand, from Singapore, engage with their audience. Something that I’m also looking forward to, especially within the hip hop scene, [is] how diverse people are, where they take their kind of hip hop.”

Watch the full interview below:

With additional transcription from Kara Angan