True to the title of his latest single, Honest, the Malaysian artist and producer gets real and raw about his music career, mental health battle, and men's issues.
*Trigger warning: Domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide
Shirt: MSGM
Ten years ago, Airliftz, whose real name is Alif Aolani, was just like many other aspiring singers of his age: he recorded song covers and posted them on YouTube for fun. "It was around Justin Bieber's Baby era," he laughs at the memory. Today, the 24-year-old Kajang native is all grown up with an EP and a major record deal to his name.

Since signing with RedRecords, a joint venture between AirAsia and Universal Music Group, earlier this year, the self-taught artist and producer has released two singles—Not Today and Honest. He has also collaborated with big brands like Adidas, and performed at several venues from KL to Sarawak, with an upcoming show at Sunbear Festival to cap off an illustrious 2022.

The morning after his flight down to KL from Penang, where he is now based, Airliftz graces us at a familiar recording studio for our November cover shoot. "Life in Penang has been good," he lets on with a gracious smile. "I found my community there—a group of people that I can really work with."

He tells us more about his move out of the big city later on in the interview—including how his life flashed before his eyes at one point—but not before looking back on his decade-long music journey.
Hat and shirt: Coach
Breaking onto the scene
"Alif's a dork. He spent most of his time at home, playing games. He didn't like to go out that much," Airliftz describes life before venturing into what would become his career, "but Alif has always been making music way before Airliftz. And he's always been close to friends and family."

Prompted by the same childhood friend he recorded YouTube covers with, he began picking up music software skills from the video streaming platform and writing his own songs. Cue his stage name: "I wanted something close to my real name and I thought of 'airlift'. Of course, I Google searched the word first and I found out that it means an airplane dropping supplies, so I imagined myself as an airplane dropping my songs to the people."

Not long after debuting as an indie artist, he earned his first big break when local hip-hop elder, Jin Hackman (who now goes by Old Head Jin), spotted him at an open-mic show in 2014. From there, he went on to perform onstage with industry veterans at Good Vibes Festival; release his self-produced Bagel EP in 2017; and embark on an Asian tour with fellow up-and-comers Zamaera and Alextbh—during which he opened for Anderson Paak, KYLE, and Sik-K.
When asked about who he looks up to in the industry, he's quick to remember his roots: "I grew up listening to a lot of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Big Sean. But locally, I would have to say Jin Hackman. He's the one who got me into this music game and found me when nobody wanted to sign me.

"I look up to him a lot as a person and artist because he actually cares about the community and bringing everyone up together. That's what I want to be able to do too—if my music ain't popping, somebody has to get music popping and I want to help them get there," he asserts.
Jacket, shirt and shorts: Moschino; Shoes: Alif's own
Finding his forte
A lot can change in a decade and Airliftz's music style is no exception. "When I started, I was actually a trapper. I was just having fun writing trap music and wanting to sound like Meek Mill, J. Cole, K-Dogg," he divulges. He has since experimented with all kinds of genres—from R&B to soul (his Bagel era), pop, pop-punk (Not Today), rock, and metal. "If you ask me what type of sound I'm doing now, I would say everything!"

"I don't really see myself as just a rapper or a singer," he continues, "I see myself more as a producer. If I decide to stop rapping or singing, I'm still going to produce my beats because that's how I started."

His latest single, however, sees a fresh return to his hip-hop beginnings. Originally written for South Korean artist Kim Ye-Ji, Honest is about a complicated, push-and-pull relationship between two people. When the song didn't make the cut, he decided to turn it into his own—and rightfully so, given his personal connection to the lyrics.

"The label I used to work with wanted me to write a song about heartbreak, feeling betrayed, and being lied to. It was the perfect time because I was going through a rough time too in my relationship," he says sheepishly.
While he's reserved about that rocky romantic chapter, Airliftz is unafraid to voice out about a different precarious topic: the challenges of being an artist in Malaysia. Throughout his years, he has observed that gatekeeping is an unfortunate reality in the local music scene: "I think the biggest issue is having the same faces all the time when there's a lot of newer talents out there who are trying to get their music out but they don't get the opportunity to."

"There's a lot of bias in the industry—you need to have the numbers, you need to have a certain status. I really hate that," he adds. "Music should always be about the art first—that's how I see it. Music is about giving back to the community and showing love to each other, not to show that you're the flyest person and everyone else ain't it."
Shirt: MSGM
Battling inner demons
On a personal note, Airliftz confesses that he's struggled as an artist because of the way he looks. As someone who is born without a nose cartilage, he often feels like he's either portrayed as throwing a pity party or not good enough for society's standards. Self-esteem isn't his only mental health challenge; he reveals that he's spent his whole life battling inner demons because of a strained relationship with his father.

"Growing up, I saw my mum get beaten up and my brothers having to quit school to find a job because he was a deadbeat dad. I remember once fighting with my dad to the point where he pulled out a samurai sword and put it on my neck," he recounts solemnly. All those "dark moments" added up to his breaking point circa 2019 or 2020.

"I felt very alone, like the world was against me up to the point where I didn't even talk to my family or friends. I just pushed everyone away," he shares. "All I could remember was waking up next to my mum in the hospital because I swallowed 24 pills to end myself. It changed my life because that was the nearest death experience I've ever had—that morning was the first time I ever woke up grateful to live."
That sobering ordeal was what sparked his decision to relocate to Penang and be with his girlfriend. Despite having built close connections in KL, especially with his Kajang community, he needed to get away from the familiar to find himself again.

"The songs that you hear like my Bagel EP and Call Me When It's Over—all of that was just a way of me masking whatever I was feeling. But now I've reached an age where I'm finally okay to let up and feel," he confesses on how the change of environment has influenced his character. "I'm trying to find a different perspective and understand myself better. Even with the support of my family, I know that I need to support myself."
Jumper, knitwear, belt and chinos: MSGM
Making a man of himself
Of course, maturing doesn't mean that he's no longer susceptible to self-doubt. "To be honest, I still get insecure sometimes about my music and how I look. But it's normal, you know, some days you will just feel like sh*t," he puts it simply.

However, he's glad to see the current generation challenging the notions of toxic masculinity: "Nowadays, a lot of men are realising that it's fine to not be 'macho' sometimes. It's fine to just cry."

When asked for advice to those who may be struggling with their own self-worth, Airliftz believes that everyone should move at their own pace. Nevertheless, he offers: "If you're able to do what I did, try to get away and see things from a different perspective. Ask questions about why you feel a certain way and what you can do about it."
Shirt: Coach
As he takes on a journey of growth and self-discovery ahead, he hopes that people will learn to look beyond the surface: "Yes, I'm different and I really hate that because I want to be seen as an artist, not just a guy with a 'defect in manufacturing' face, and only then an artist. I totally understand, it's a blessing and a curse because if I can help people out there, then that's great. But I would appreciate it if people asked me more about my music."

With that said, what's next for Airliftz musically? "I'm just trying to find the next single, and then hopefully I can put out a project. I actually have four to five projects just laying there, so I'm waiting to see what the label says," he hints with a good-natured chuckle.
Watch: Airliftz plays a game
of Song Association
EDITOR / sarah hani jamil
Styling and creative direction / Redzhanna Jazmin
Photography / Kaizerine | Assisted by Dear Nessy
Videography / Dennis Kho
Hair and makeup / Ling Chong
Location / Goldensound Studios and Poppy Records
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