ONE OF INDONESIA’S MOST POPULAR BANDS IS OUTSPOKEN IN CRITICIZING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE PRABOWO SUBIANTO – CHALLENGING HIM IS METAL HEAD REFORMIST JOKO WIDODO. WILL ROCK SWEEP THE ELECTION?
Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo) and Niall Macaulay (Twitter @niallmacaulay)
Wearing his signature checkered long-sleeved shirt, Presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo addressed a 100,000-strong crowd this Saturday in central Jakarta. Once a poor furniture maker, Jokowi is up against a tainted former military general, Probowo Subianto. In this nearly 10 million strong megacity, the social media networks were buzzing — Jakarta ranks as the world’s number one city on Twitter. More than half of the population are under 20 here, and these young people hope candidate Jokowi can be their champion. A good portion of this demographic are tattooed, wearing t-shirts with graphic, gory artwork, their faces half hidden by strands of long, dark hair. Rock music helps the young people feel connected, empowered, feeding their sense of rebellion — and one of the most politically vocal rock bands inspiring them here is Jakarta’s Seringai.
Although Seringai often play metal gigs, they don’t consider themselves strictly a metal band. Music scenes have blurred lines with punk, emo and hardcore kids going to metal gigs and vice versa. “We play anywhere, maybe because our music is a mix between rock and metal,” Edy, the band’s drummer clarifies. “That is why we apply to different kinds of stages. You can play in a more populist event, but we can also play in a metal, subculture kind of event.” Ricky, Seringai’s guitarist expands, “maybe we often play in metal festivals because when people listen to our music, it’s kind of a similar sensation, when you listen to a metal band, the mosh-pit friendly vibe, the sing-along, maybe that is the reason.” Sammy, the band’s bassist, finally sums it up, to laughter from the rest of the band — “we’ve been playing together for 12 years without being able to define our genre.”
Whatever their exact musical flavor, Seringai, (meaning “grin”), are one of Indonesia’s most popular bands. With a Facebook following of 670,000, Seringai’s fan base represents a substantial slice of Indonesia’s youth, and music has a pivotal influence in shaping opinion here. On Wednesday, July 9th, Indonesians will go to the polls to vote for their next president. Seringai are keen to make sure people know their history as they pick their candidate.
Enter Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi.” The presidential candidate is a known metal fan, and he has the young progressive thinkers on his side. Biting at his heels in the polls is candidate Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo has been accused of a number of human rights abuses. Once a military commander in the brutal era of the Suharto regime, which fell amid bloodshed in 1998, he is relying on a collective amnesia to avoid questions over his past. Probowo can be seen dodging questions about these allegations on TV news but, in a country where corruption is seen by most as just a way of doing business, it doesn’t seem to affect his rising popularity. The members of Seringai are pushing for the youthful reform represented by Jokowi, using the stage and the internet to make their position very clear.
“The younger generation doesn’t know what happened during the riots of 1998. It is the same with our generation with 1965 coup, the communists versus Suharto, “Arian, the lead singer of Seringai, explains how history is often distorted in schools in Indonesia. “When I was in high school, you don’t talk about communism. You know nothing. If you want to criticize Suharto, you cannot do that. Not like on social media now, back then, you would get picked up and disappear.”
The four members of Seringai have been friends for over a decade, joking that they were an “office band” since most of them once worked in the same building. They originally met in the turbulent 1990s. They were student activists, embroiled in the uprising that brought down the authoritarian regime of then President Suharto. Arian13, the vocalist, Ricky Siahaan, the guitarist, Edy Khemod, the drummer and Sammy Bramantyo, the bassist, were there on the streets and saw the crimes committed by the regime firsthand. “I wouldn’t gamble my life with someone who should be in court and has so many questions,” says Edy. “‘Alleged ‘human rights violator’ and ‘presidential candidate’ should not be in the same sentence. I don’t know if it is just me,” Ricky wryly interjects.
Seringai is a hardworking live act, they warmed up the 60,000 strong audience for Metallica’s Jakarta appearance in 2013. But the fans, known as serigala seringai (or Seringai’s wolf pack) are not at the gigs just for political reasons. They also expect to be entertained with songs like “Alcohol,” a beer-drinking, sing-along song: Yeah! / My age is not getting any younger / But my attitude rejects the old / High octane energy / Burning passion alive, still young / Alcohol, yeah. Seringai has one album and two EPs out. High Octane Rock, their first album released on their own label in 2004, was financed with a job they scored, writing a TV jingle for a soda company. Their rise to fame kicked off in a time when metal in Indonesia was transitioning from serious and technical to a more carefree, stoner rock sensibility that hadn’t previously existed.
As well as lampooning themselves and being able to see the funny side of life, the members of Seringai are intellectuals, and above all determined to use their celebrity to make an impact. “Yeah, we’ve been telling that before, but we are going to push more about what happened in 1998. So our younger fans know what happened in 1998. I wont say anything long, you know. The fans will say ‘play the music!’ if I talk too much but I will say don’t vote for a human rights violator. Learn your history,” Arian explains. “We have Twitter and Facebook accounts and we put links about news.”
Increased censorship is a huge concern for the band and there will likely be more if Probowo wins the presidential election.“They see restrictions as the way to improve the morals of the Indonesian people.” Ricky espouses. “If you want to improve the morals you must ban this, this, this and this, no. Pornography, no. I think it is the wrong way of doing things.” Edy continues, “we believe the education of the young people is more important than the blocking of all information. It’s about making a program for them (the establishment) that’s easy for them to make money. Block this, but this is how much it cost, block this, this is how much it costs.” “If you try to click on a site considered ‘pornographic’ then you will get to be directed to this one that webpage which is called internet sehat, or ‘healthy Internet,’ and they are selling advertising space on it,” Sammy adds.
The more you hear from the members of Seringai, the more impressed one becomes with their bravery. Their artwork depicting baton-wielding zombie police officers got them taken in by the police for questioning, and threatened with jail sentences. They have also openly challenged the politics of Islamic extremists and the politicians they support. In one case on, Arian came out on YouTube criticizing censorship. Arian explains: “I was like talking shit about their minister (Minister of Information Tifatul Sembiring) it was a total ‘fuck you’ speech. And it was cut and twisted and they (FPI, the Islamic Defenders Front) said that me and my band were anti-Islam. I didn’t say anything about Islam. They wrote it, like ‘Seringai is anti Islam’.” Seringai are putting police corruption and social injustice front and center, in a country where it’s far easier to keep your head down and say nothing.
These guys also have very influential day jobs. Arian, Seringai’s lead singer and lyricist, is the former editor of Playboy Indonesia — after protests from Islamist groups, the magazine eventually folded. Arian is also a highly skilled graphic artist. Bassist, Ricky Siahaan is the managing editor of Rolling Stone Indonesia. Guitarist, Edy Khemod, is a movie director and drummer, Sammy Bramantyo is a well-known radio host.“We are weekend warriors,” jokes Arian, but despite this modesty, he knows they have a huge influence on opinion among the youth here.
In a country with a generally chaotic application of censorship, live music still offers a wide open highway for expression. The youth movement is strong, and the momentum for change is reaching across a population of 240 million. Metal festivals such as Hammersonic in Jakarta or Hellprint in neighboring Bandung, have 40,000 or more concertgoers attending. But not everyone is on the same page. A very recent case in point was a music video adaptation of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,”made for the political campaign of Prabowo Subianto by popular musician Ahmad Dhani. Dhani was wearing a uniform, similar to that worn by SS commander Heinrich Himmler, one of the war criminals of Nazi Germany. The fascistic overtones meant the video was condemned worldwide by the press and was taken down from YouTube after Queen’s Brian May interjected. Arian comments “I know Ahmad Dhani loves being exposed, doing something like wearing Nazi uniform in his Prabowo campaign video did not surprise me. There is ignorance about fascism symbols here, there are a lot of fashion outlets that sells t-shirts with Nazi swastika and it is not banned here. Ahmad Dhani should have known better, but for money he would do anything I guess. It seems the video backlashed against Prabowo’s popularity internationally but, unfortunately, not much nationally.”
Indonesia is a country of extremes, with one of the fastest growing divides between hedonistic wealth and desperate poverty found anywhere, and its natural resources plainly exploited to profit a corrupt elite. If Jokowi wins the July 9th election, it would mean a huge generational shift in political influence. If Probowo wins, twenty years of reforms could be undone. Seringai’s Arian sums up the current state of affairs: “The good thing is all the cool, great bands, musicians that I know and respect are either with Jokowi, or simply against Prabowo.” Whether the Indonesian voters on Wednesday declare support for the old guard or the new wave, it’s going to be an explosive result.