Some hip hop rappers in Yogyakarta, or ‘Jogja’, have expressed a strong motivation to articulate their Javanese ethnic background in their hip hop music. Not all do this, but for those that do, including members of the Jogja Hiphop Foundation (JHF), the urgent priority has been to give their rap an unmistakably Javanese character.
The JHF is probably been the most successful hip hop group in Yogyakarta. It has gained recognition locally and internationally. One of the keys to JHF’s success is its ability to incorporate Javanese culture into the music. They have done this successfully, notwithstanding that Javanese values of politeness and refinement would not appear to be well-matched with hip hop, which is often understood as an expression of rebelliousness.
Javanese linguistic creativity is in fact part of JHF’s success. It provides acceptable ways for expressing the ‘unspeakable’ without breaking the ‘rules of conduct’. These were combined with visual symbols and body language. By employing these strategies, JHF was accepted by people from all walks of life, from common people to the Sultan himself.
JHF was founded in 2003 by Juki (Marjuki), a multi-talented artist with experience in visual and graphic arts, as well as theatre and music. Juki knew how to create and organise events. He had done graphic designing, published newsletters, joined theatre companies and bands. All of this would help to shape JHF into a powerful group.
At first, JHF was an ‘open’ institution. Members of any hip hop group in Yogyakarta could become followers. But five figures emerged as the substantive members of JHF: Juki, Anto, Lukman, Balance, and Mamox. These were the artists who produced the hit song ‘Jogja Istimewa’ (Special Yogya, which refers indirectly to Yogya’s then disputed administrative status). This song attained such popularity that virtually everybody in Yogyakarta knows it. The song’s release was timely, taking place at the time of the struggle between the Indonesian central government, which wanted to change the status of the Yogyakarta Special Region so that it conformed with national norms, and those Yogyakarta people who wanted to preserve it.
Although JHF is no longer as active as before, its success between 2009 and 2014 deserves special attention. Juki, the group's leader, and Anto, a senior hip hop artist in Yogyakarta, do not rap for JHF anymore. However, they are still ‘members' of JHF, albeit with limited roles. Their contribution has defined JHF’s success in engaging Javanese culture and music with rap. Their music has also combined the local sounds of Javanese music, such as terbang (tambourine-like drum), bende (small gong), kenong (large kettle gong) and flute, with hip hop beats.
‘Well, me and Anto have always believed in the importance of ‘unggah-ungguh’ (rules of politeness),’ Lukman told me one day at his house, while explaining the meaning of being a Javanese for him. These core values mean ‘following the guidelines of conduct’ or ‘doing things in the right way’. The values of being Javanese have united and preserved the five key rappers from JHF, who originally agreed to take the path of Javanese hip hop 13 years ago.
These artists showed their 'Javanese-ness' explicitly on the DVD cover of ‘Hiphopdiningrat’, a documentary film produced by JHF. As the photo shows, all are wearing Javanese traditional outfits: the blangkon headscarf, the beskap jacket and a special kind of sarong called jarik. Their body language is called ‘ngapurancang’ (standing, hands clasped together). This gesture shows the person relaxed, showing respect for others, and ready to follow instructions.
The word ‘ningrat’ is from Jogjakarta Hadiningrat, which means something good and beautiful on earth. Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat is the full name of the Jogjakarta ‘kingdom’. The graphic design of the DVD cover represents the social ‘boundaries’ imposed upon a Javanese. The clothing and the gestures indicate how a Javanese should follow unggah-ungguh. While the word ‘diningrat’ encompasses the cultural power of the state in the realm of a Javanese, ‘ningrat’ also refers to the Javanese elite, the aristocracy, or the rich people.
With such strong respect for decorum, nobility, aristocracy and even feudalism, how could these men be rappers?
Bend, don’t break
Juki, then the leader of JHF, always said that his determination to produce Javanese hip hop was a matter of practicality. He and his friends were used to using Javanese language. For them, rapping in Javanese was easier than using Indonesian or English.
Why is it easier to rap in Javanese than Indonesian? As a language, some characteristics of Javanese make rapping easy to do. The succinct, informal expression and short words of ngoko (low Javanese), fit well with rap.
One modality is to be creative in language use, as can be seen in the word game described as ‘walikan’ (reversal). Walikan language exploits the Javanese alphabet, which is commonly written in four clusters (see table below). Javanese children memorise these clusters as couplets, each with their own rhymed meaning. The alphabet is also well known because of the stories in which it plays a role, such as those of the mythic first king of Java, Aji Saka, who, according to legend, was supposed to have brought the language to Java.
ha-na-ca-ra-ka (first cluster),
da-ta-sa-wa-la (second cluster)
pa-da-ja-ya-nya (third cluster),
ma-ga-ba-tha-nga (fourth cluster)
Walikan involves the creation of new words by exchanging letters in corresponding places in this table of clusters.
Walikan words are created by exchanging letters located in similar places in the sequences of the horizontal axes, as indicated by the arrows. Letters are only exchanged within the vertical axes. Thus, for example, the rap group Rotra, one of the oldest Javanese hip hop groups, chose its name by transliterating the word Yogya by using ‘ra’ (line 1, column 4) in place of ‘ya’ (line 3, column 4) and ‘t’ or ‘ta’ (line 2, column 2) in place of ‘g’ or ’ga’ (line 4 column 2)). Another example is gapi, which means tahi (faeces): ‘ga’ (4:2) replaces ‘ta’ (2:2) and ‘pi’ (3:1) replaces ‘hi’ (1:1).
Here are some more examples of this walikan language: pabu, which means asu (dog) as in ‘Jagal Pabu’ (Dog Butcher), a title of a song by Rotra; and Sacilad, which means bajingan (bastard) also a song. Tahi, asu, and bajingan are obscene words and should not be spoken, especially in public, but walikan language provides a way to express those words in forms that make them acceptable in public, which as Javanese they are expected to do.
These rappers also enjoy ‘plesetan’, a widespread form of language creativity in Indonesia using puns or plays on words. Neologisms are very common, such as Damasta from the Master (Anto’s previous aka) and Dakilla from the Killer (Lukman’s previous aka). The music performance known as Laskar Dagelan was called Musikal Plesetan because of its heavy reliance on plesetan.
These examples may look superficial. They may look like just playing with words. But deeper than that, this creativity resolves two contradictory realities: the underground ethic of rap and the need for public expression. Walikan language and plesetan give ways for those forbidden expressions to appear in public space as long as they are reversed or twisted. Thus, rebelling is permitted with certain conditions. They don’t break the rules of conduct, they just bend them. Probably, this was where JHF as a rap group was located.
The visual appearances of JHF on stage employed many different kinds of Javanese symbols, starting in the early 2000s, including with their clothes. At that time, batik was still perceived as exclusively formal wear. It was worn only for certain events, such as wedding receptions and government ceremonies. JHF provided a new ‘text’ by deconstructing how batik should be worn. On stage JHF artists often matched batik with jeans, sneakers and baseball caps. Other symbols can be seen on the caps, which are often embroidered with the Yogya palace logo or Javanese characters. JHF continue to perform wearing these visual symbols.
Although JHF is still active, its membership has changed. Juki is still part of the organisation, but no longer wants to perform the songs which made the group famous. He is searching for success in new projects. Anto has retired from performance to work in his parents’ stationery shop. But their legacy as pioneers of Javanese hip hop survives.
From a superficial viewpoint, Javanese values seem to be at odds with hip hop. The success of JHF is the result of the capacity to navigate between the limits of unggah-ungguh, and the potential offered by bending the Javanese language using walikan. There is also an element of fun or humorous juxtaposition to what they are doing. JHF knew how to incorporate Javanese cultural elements into hip hop in a playful way. JHF has incorporated Javaneseness in their hip hop performances to become Java hip hop.
For some glimpses of JHF’s performances and comments by others on their work see the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfKKAcYu0no The full CD album Hiphopdiningrat is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpOpohJ3frM,
Edi Dwi Riyanto (email@example.com), a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Airlangga University, is currently a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. Over the last five years his research has been focused on hip hop in Yogyakarta.