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Ucok and music's radical potential

Zacharias Szumer

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, November 4, 2016  /  03:41 pm
Ucok and music's radical potential

Hands in the air: Herry Sutresna, lyricist and MC of Bandung-based leftist hip-hop collective Homicide, raises a closed fist while performing at a clandestine gig organized by Ultimus Bookshop in late 2008. (JP/File)

A private tour of an artist’s archives reveals the musical forces that shaped him and his creations.

If Walter Benjamin was alive today he would probably have a lot to say about Kanye West and Jay Z’s 2011 hit No Church in the Wild

Throughout his writings in the 1930s and 1940s, the German critical theorist struggled with the question of whether the behemoth that is modern popular culture could convey radical political content or whether any subversive power it had would be crushed under the mainstream’s inevitable slide to the middle. 

What would he make of the aforementioned chart-topping hit, with its lyrics fusing anarchism and pimp swagger — condemning religious morality, monogamy and hierarchy while celebrating hedonism and ostentatiously flaunted wealth — and film clip replete with keffiyeh-clad protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at riot police? Just de-contextualized, #revolution riot porn neatly packaged for iTunes? Or justified braggadocio from two black artists who have risen above urban poverty and racism to become international superstars. Or both those things at once? 

After reading Herry “Ucok” Sutresna’s short essay, Suara Rakyat Bukan Suara Tuhan (The Voice of the People is not the Voice of God), there’s less ambiguity about what the musician and writer thinks about it: out-of-touch soulless trash comparable to listening to businessman-turned-politician Aburizal Bakrie boasting about his riches in the middle of an economic recession. 

Such questions about the interplay of music and politics are the nucleus of Setelah Boombox Usai Menyalak (After the Boombox Stops Blasting), written by the man mostly known as an MC for Bandung’s fierce, experimental hip-hop outfit Homicide.

But rather than being a collection of dry utilitarian polemics about how art can be used to forward certain political agendas, the book more often feels like a heartfelt requiem for a forgotten past and lost future. 

(Read also: Book Review: A memoir of the time music was a-changing)

The pieces gathered here are wide-ranging: from a loving recollection of his father’s musical influence on him as a child to a diatribe about the “disappointing” factions of the Indonesian punk scene. As editor Taufiq Rahman mentions in the introduction, the book’s disparate themes are only held together by the common thread of music. 

In terms of genre, the majority of the pieces are about hip-hop or punk, with serious fanboy paeans to Public Enemy, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Against Me! and Refused, as well as a review of Run DMC’s show in Bandung in the 1990s. 

However, Ucok’s references also spill over into post-rock (a personal travelogue about his pilgrimage to Kuala Lumpur to see the instrumental post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor), experimental (a philosophical exploration of John Cage’s controversial silent piece “4’33”) and postpunk (a lament over Scritti Politti’s abandonment of radical politics for mainstream synthpop).

There are occasional passages in which he does little but reel off factoids, i.e. this band formed here, played here, was on this record label, but most of the time, these Wikipedia-esque sections are intertwined with nostalgic personal vignettes: how certain records became the esprit de corps of activist friends in difficult times, or how he got into Guns ‘n’ Roses during his university years to hit on the girl who would later become his wife. It is through these sections that readers really get a feel for how deeply evocative music is for Ucok, how it has provided the soundtrack to the peak experiences of his life. 

In other essays, he unwinds the double helix of his favorite albums or artists, tracing the genealogy of how they came to be. In many of these, such as the one on experimental rap group Dalek’s DJ Still, he uses a meandering narrative style, starting on a tangent before winding his way to the main subject of the essay. This proves to be an effective method of laying out the myriad and often unexpected determinants of timeless records. When he is on form, his writing is like the old-school hip-hop he venerates throughout the book: cerebral and volatile.

He also often uses the ideas of his favorite theorists to dissect his favorite musicians, with varying levels of success. The essay called Melihat ‘Kekuasaan’ Marx dan Nietzsche Lewat Company Flow dan Patriotism (Looking at the Power of Marx and Nietzsche through Company Flow and Patriotism), for example, feels roughly cobbled together with the glue of ineffectively deployed critical theory concepts. The ideas are interesting, but the essay tends to jump between critical theory and music with a lack of powerful synthesis. Or perhaps I’m just too shallow to appreciate it. 

On the other hand, in Marx, Sartre dan Downset, he engagingly draws together the French philosopher’s critique of orthodox Marxism and the rejection of scientific positivism found in the lyrics of the 1990s rap-metal group. This is the best kind of pop-culture theorizing: using philosophy to deepen and color a reader’s understanding of popular music and vice versa. Ucok wants to shake the two out of the traditional molds that make philosophy seem lofty and inaccessible and popular music appear facile, or at least anti-intellectual. 

Other philosophy-of-music writers such as Alex Ross, Hilton Als, Hua Hsu, Ellen Willis, Lester Bangs — and perhaps most relevantly Simon Reynolds because of his tendency to use Marxist concepts and talk about hip-hop and punk in the same breath — might be considered more intellectually illuminating, but that may only be because their essays are generally many times longer than the pieces of Ucok’s compiled here. I would look forward to Ucok putting aside the modesty that he so profusely professes in his introduction and giving some of his ideas 10,000-plus words to breathe.

Read as a whole, Setelah Boombox Usai Menyalak provides readers with the same insight into the author that he gives them about his many subjects. It is a private tour of an artist’s archives that reveals the forces that shaped him and his creations. A must-read for Indonesian hip-hop heads, pop-culture pundits, punks and especially Homicide fans.

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