For many aspiring rappers spitting rhymes in Indonesia, Rich Brian is their guiding light. When he was just a home-schooled 17-year-old in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, Brian maintained a humble following on Vine and Twitter, where he posted skits and dark comedy. His first rap video, Living the Dream, was uploaded in 2015 and did little to catapult his aspirations as an artist. That’s why, when the view count on Dat $tick kept blowing up, it amazed Brian – perhaps more than anybody else. His success has opened a world of hope and new possibilities for Southeast Asia’s lyrical talent, many of whom wouldn’t have dreamed their work could capture an international audience.
And it’s a totally justifiable wish, considering Brian’s covetable collaborations with the likes of Ghostface Killah, Skrillex, and Diplo, the millions of downloads, the international sell-out tours, and his $250,000 net worth – despite just starting his international career in 2016.
Indonesia’s rap music history
Impressive as he is, Brian is not Indonesia’s first rapper. Looking back in the 1970s, some credit Benyamin S as the nation’s ‘Father of Rap’. Benyamin would rap parts of his songs accompanied by the unique Gambang Kromong (traditional orchestra from Betawi with Chinese influences), all the while unaware that there were people half way across the world doing similar things with hip hop music.
It’s not until artist Iwa K came along in the 1990s and brought rap into the spotlight, that the general public came to be acquainted with rap as a standalone genre. Even then, his music was not what many would call full-blown rap, as there are real hints of rock and certain grooves in the arrangement.
There was a time in the 1990s when rap music in Indonesia stayed underground as it came face to face with negative stereotypes and disapproval. Many leaders, national and religious, raised objections against cultivating rap for fear of losing cultural identity and, of course, they weren’t fond of the bold, brash connotations of sex and drugs associated with U.S rap of the time.
Come the 2000s the genre still maintained its low profile, lurking under the surface of mainstream music. However, there was the occasional emergence from contemporary rhymers like Saykoji, Fade 2 Black, and JFlow, who absorbed a lot more of hip hop’s influences than their predecessors.
Rap in Indonesia today
Today, Indonesian rap is having its moment. The 2010s saw a spur of national musicians embracing more hip hop and RnB in their arrangements. Young newcomers like Young Lex, Ramengvrl and Laze are contributing to a vibrantly developing rap scene and connecting with a younger generation through the use of English lyrics, hip hop beats, and high-concept music videos.
This is just the beginning of a rap renaissance – a cultural movement with the power of the internet and social media on its side.
Another Indonesian talent, Ramengvrl, has already become a public figure since releasing her 2017 debut video and performing on national television. Rapper Young Lex has over 40 million views and counting for his YouTube music videos and has nearly one million followers on Instagram. These two artists alone pocket almost as much money and popularity as Indonesian artists featured on national charts.
It may be a while before Indonesia’s mainstream music industry starts playing hip hop on the radio – yet as is fitting for this musical counterculture, success is measured from the fans, not from ‘the man’.
‘Indonesian’ rap: a distinct musical flavour
In the early days of Indonesian hip hop, rap wasn’t really identified as rap. Artists like Benyamin S spat rhymes over traditional Indonesian sounds such as Betawi, whilst others experimented with rock and groove – disassociating themselves with the USA’s emerging hip hop scene.
As time went by, younger generations of aspiring talent paid more attention to US rap, embodying what they saw on MTV in their own work. While many music enthusiasts consider rap’s multimedia prevalence as a loss for local Indonesian influence, it enabled people like Brian to penetrate through to the international market and jumpstart collaborations with established international hip hop artists.
However, even with thickly American-flavoured music arrangements, many Indonesian rappers are still bound to respect local customs and norms. There are far fewer references to sex, alcohol, and drugs in their lyrics than you would see stateside. To compensate, many rappers fill their flow with the substance of social critique and cultural observation – a very Indonesian form of resistance.
Just as there’s a distinction between the Indonesian hip hop of today and that of yesteryear, there’s also a distinction in content. Indonesian rap culture is moving away from conservatism, with the younger generation heavily influenced by liberal Western values. Despite what the imams tell them to do, references to profanity, sex and alcohol are on the rise. Interestingly, drugs are still off-limits, with young rappers explicitly saying they don’t do drugs despite their ‘bad image’.
So when these ‘repressed’ contents found their way out, it had to be from social media platforms like YouTube. The music industry in Indonesia, at least for now, will not nod to these contents and send them to the international stage — rappers have to do it on their own. Those who seek a name in mainstream Indonesian charts have to maintain their conservative image, and those who don’t mind staying popular on social media or aiming for international stardom and skip mainstream local approval can afford to be more expressive, just like Brian.
As with everything else in culture and entertainment, the unique process of assimilation and negotiation between local and international influences (often represented by the internet) is still happening – determining the face of rap and hip hop music in Indonesia. For now, the loyal devotees of the genre are enjoying the collision of these influences, excited to see where it local rap goes from here.