Xaqhala describes a stroll he and a companion take through the environs of the East Jakarta Matraman neighbourhood. They stop to buy cigarettes and become embroiled in a tussle with a gang of pickpockets. Other men in the vicinity rush to their aid and beat the thieves to a bloody pulp. The thieves are hauled off to the nearest police station, while Xaqhala and companion continue on to Matraman City shopping area to meet with other friends.
This song is typical of today’s rap and hip-hop music in Indonesia. Rappers like Xaqhala or the Yogyakarta-based group, G-Tribe, create rap songs full of details of the everyday experiences and feelings of Indonesia’s middle and lower-middle class urban youth. In the last few years, such songs have also begun to construct a catchy and compelling critique of Indonesian society.
G-Tribe, for instance, in its song Hari Berlalu (The Days Slip By), tells of the frustration that many young people experience in their daily lives. Alienated at home, bored at schools that seem to offer little stimulation, and without clear goals in life, they watch in disbelief as their elders seem unable to work together to make things better.
Xaqhala’s song, Kaumku (My Peers), addresses the dismal prospects facing young middle and lower-middle class men. Here, Xaqhala records the activities of his circle of unemployed youth as they try to forget their lack of money and work. Xaqhala notes the difficulty of retaining one’s ideals when there is no way to put one’s education to use. Still, he resolves not to give in to despair despite the fact that his small-scale money-making ventures can’t keep his debts from piling up.
For many young urban Indonesians today, these songs reflect the frustrations they encounter in their own lives. The Indonesian economy is still struggling to recover from the 1997-98 monetary crisis. In spite of this, conspicuous consumption by the rich continues unabated. This makes ever more glaring the gap in wealth between rich and poor. In such conditions, rap gives voice to the anxieties of a young, middle-class generation whose futures are nowhere near as secure as they seemed in the late 1990s.
One reason for the modest commercial success of rap in Indonesia is its use of fresh, intimate rhyming language full of youth slang, smatterings of English, and words from regional languages. This type of language is worlds away from the formal, rigid kind of Indonesian young people learn in school. Yogyakarta groups like Jahanam and G-Tribe have even gone so far as to release albums in which half the songs are in the local Javanese language rather than the national language, Indonesian. This creates even more intimacy for local, regional audiences, and downplays the centrality of the Jakarta-dominated national culture.
On the other hand, rap’s clever wordplay is similar to older linguistic traditions common across the archipelago: the rhyming jousts such as pantun which allowed youth to exhibit a quick wit and verbal dexterity in courtship and other playful situations.
Yet there is more to the story of hip-hop in contemporary Indonesia than just catchy lyrics. Hip-hop and the raps that go with it are only one, possibly the most commercially mainstream, of a number of underground musics, including punk, metal, and techno, that have arisen in Indonesia since the late 1980s. These musics, and the clothing and attitudes that go with them, can be seen as a series of related sub-cultural rebellions against the social norms and tastes of the older generation: those who achieved some measure of prosperity during Suharto’s New Order (1966-98). These new musics and their affiliated sub-cultures are less orderly, less harmonious, and less polite than the preferred musical styles of the older generation and the New Order regime itself.
The threat rap seemingly posed to the conservative establishment was evident in the reaction of its most vocal critic, former President BJ Habibie. Rap’s emergence into the mainstream market with the commercial success of Iwa-K and the Rap Party albums in the early 1990s caused a minor debate involving the then Minister of Research and Technology (and later president). In early 1995, Habibie, hearing of plans for a national rap music festival, expressed his opinion that rap music was a genre without artistry. He felt rap used disgusting and vulgar language without literary value. He warned the public that not all foreign cultural products were of high value.
Habibie’s comments were poorly timed. ‘Openness’ was in the air and rappers and music critics quickly moved to defend their style of music in the media. They argued that Indonesian rap music was rhythmically dynamic, offered new possibilities for Indonesian pop music, and was ‘more polite’ than the North American variety.
Eventually, Habibie retreated from his position of outright condemnation and rap continued to attract attention through rappers such as Iwa-K, and Denada. One of the reasons for its popularity was that rappers often took up social issues important to maûy middle-class university and secondary-school students: the environment, the hypocrisy of the middle class itself, the inhumanity of New Order society, and the dangers of illicit drugs. Another key theme in the 1990s was the fate of the urban poor.
Both the rappers as well as many of the middle and lower-middle class university students who listened to the music, were aware of rap’s historical connection with minority protest and social criticism elsewhere in the world. They stressed that one of the reasons they liked rap music was the freedom with which it expressed thoughts and raised constructive social criticism.
After Suharto: changes in rap
Rap music seemed to go into a temporary hiatus soon after the fall of Suharto from power in May 1998. One reason may have been that Iwa-K, rap’s best-known performer, left the music world for a career in television soon after his fourth album, Mesin Imajinasi (Imagination Machine, 1997), was panned by critics. Similarly, another rap star, Denada, left Indonesia to attend university in Australia. Socially critical rappers may have also experienced a sudden loss of direction and paused in their creative activity, waiting to see what would become of the reform movement.
However, around 2000-2001, hip-metal, a fusion between hip-hop and heavy metal long present in Indonesian underground music culture, emerged in the mainstream recording industry with releases by the groups Red, 7 Kurchachi, and the Smas-Hip compilation album. While taking up many of the same socially critical themes as previous rap performers, hip-metal was distinctly more angry and discordant.
In the past three years, rap proper has reemerged with the release of albums by Xaqhala, Jahanam and G-Tribe. Though these albums take up many of the same themes as earlier rap and hip-metal releases, there has been an interesting shift in one key area. Instead of speaking of the plight of the urban and rural poor, these songs are much more concerned with the ways in which Indonesia’s current economic malaise is affecting the lives of the middle and lower-middle class peers of the performers themselves.
As the lyrics of Xaqhala and G-üribe’s songs demonstrate, in the last three years, rap’s social critique has narrowed. The new focus is more on middle-class economic and social uncertainty — unemployment, lack of goals among the young, and the threat of street crime — than on broad-ýased calls for political reform or bemoaning the fate of those less well off in the social hierarchy. The older themes still appear, but not as often. Amid complaints about the way Indonesian society seems unable to resolve its deepest problems, calls =or social justice occasionally come through loud and clear.
Rap’s intimate connection with social critique continues to make it attractive to other ‘underground’ music groups. For instance, one of the most politically passionate rap songs of recent years, Sisi Gelap (Dark Side), was created by the now disbanded Yogyakarta Techno group, Teknoshit, on their self-titled album of 2003. In Dark Side, Teknoshit warns that the poor and marginalised of society will one day explode in anger and rise up to fight against those who oppress and mock them. They urge those who care about social justice to speak out and struggle for change:
Even human rights will end up trashed and thrown away
If we just stay quiet and dream of a better day
Nothing here will ever be solved
To be a true member of humanity
Requires a conscience free of vanity
For those who speak, for those who believe
It’s not something that mere words can relieve
They’ll never keep quiet, they’ll keep up the fight.
Michael Bodden (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate professor of Indonesian language and Southeast Asian literature and culture at the University of Victoria, Canada.