Copywriter and poet
Rich Brian poses beside one of the photos displayed at 'The Sailor Exhibition'. The event was held until Aug. 10, at Gudang Gambar in South Jakarta. (Spotify/File)
Rising Indonesian rapper Rich Brian recently released his second album The Sailor. At the age of 19, the young man from Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta, has gone from home-schooled kid to one of the game-changers in the national and international hip-hop music scene.
I first came across Rich Brian in 2016 when he released ‘Dat $tick’ on Youtube.
The rapper, then named Rich Chigga, performed a somewhat satirical yet bold music video, with lyrics that sounded familiar—but there was something in-between his lyrics and beats that rippled. It was not long until they swept west, as he was signed to the record label company 88rising. As the waves hit the shore, Brian released his debut album, Amen (2017) and performed from nationwide tours to late-night shows. His audience expanded nationally and internationally, through songs in which he speaks of his youth and his roots.
Growing up being home-schooled, Brian admitted that he learned various types of pop culture and practiced his English language skills through YouTube. In a generation where social media plays a part in growing up and understanding one’s self-identity, online platforms connected him from learning about new cultures to finding his voice in communicating to the public—that is his music.
Since its release, The Sailor has received great praise for how it reflects Brian’s experiences in growing up, particularly in the last three years. One theme that circulates in between the tracks is his far-from-home journey is that The Sailor refers to Brian himself.
In an interview with Dazed, Brian stated that one of the main factors that inspired him to write this album was his travels between Jakarta, New York and Los Angeles. As The Sailor, he said, the journey to the United States to follow his dream as a 17-year-old immigrant was “such a crazy experience”.
Characterizing himself as The Sailor foretells the journey of his success, which it seems is rising to its peak. With the first track named after the album itself, the fast-paced song reflects Brian as a young rapper succeeding in the industry and it transitions to a slow ballad ending with questions about how his life will unfold. This element of curiosity is also visualized on the album cover, where Brian poses looking into a telescope in a map room.
Along with the album, Brian has collaborated with film director Sing J. Lee and created the short film entitled Rich Brian is The Sailor, compiling four songs within the 15-minute film that depicts Brian in his hometown. His curiosity element is further enhanced at the beginning (and at the end) as Brian looks into, again, a telescope. With this sense of curiosity, it is apparent that as the young Indonesian embraces the role of The Sailor abroad, his journey has got his voice heard through the comprehensive art of diplomacy.
Rich Brian (JuniRecords.com/-)
Brian’s expression of art may not be intended to be so, yet it has surfaced as an art of conducting diplomacy. Essentially, diplomacy aims to form international relations through various platforms, with culture-sharing being one way of communication.
In a concept where a language barrier could be an obstacle, and translating traditions and cultures is challenging, Brian has shown that through a genre of music, this intricate communication can be done by him as well: through conveying his own culture, his home and his character in a particular language of music.
This communication approach sounds simple but one could fall into the trap of only creating art that pleases the targeted market while neglecting the relatability of its origins, such as Agnez Mo’s ‘Coke Bottle’. By collaborating with a globally renowned rapper, visualized in a style that's familiar to the genre, the song fails to relate to the Indonesian market as 'Coke bottle' is a foreign concept to their ears. Slipping in a traditional outfit is not convincing either, but rather seems forced and shallow in bridging her identity in the music, creating yet another pop song without any depth.
On the contrary, Brian’s music goes beyond just the ears and the feelings, as we hear of his career journey from Jakarta to New York in his single entitled ‘Kids’. The second single from the sophomore album is a rhythmical story about how the dream of the once lonesome kid in Jakarta rose to the occasion with his career in the Big Apple. Line by line, not only do the lyrics speak of his experiences in such raw expressions, but he shares his genuineness in his music, which does not detach himself from his roots, his personality or his culture.
His success, however, has not come without any obstacles. Even though Brian is just at the beginning of his emerging success, he has already received a lot of criticism. After the controversy of his initial stage name was resolved, he met another one, which he handled with his art.
Not long after Brian was invited by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to meet at the Presidential Palace in Bogor last July, former Indonesian ambassador to the US Dino Patti Djalal tweeted his point of view stating that despite his achievements, Brian was not a good role model for Indonesian youth.
Brian did not respond directly to Djalal’s tweet nor the responses it engendered, but he simply shared the release of his ‘Kids’ music video worldwide the day after — a song that expressively reflected his rising success, complemented in a music video with raw scenes of an urban, youthful and dynamic Jakarta cityscape and its people, while explicitly referring to those against him through the lines: “You hatin' on me, but you know I got it / You big in your city, I'm the king of a continent”.
Although the notion of being famous abroad may not have been initially planned by Brian, he has successfully done so through writing songs in a musical language understood by a large audience across the pond. Through this form of art, he has delivered diplomatic communication that forms a balance, providing genuineness to both local and international audiences, while still representing himself without the filtered aspects that answer “what the market is looking for”.
In August 2019 alone, Brian celebrated The Sailor album in Jakarta with an interactive exhibition with Spotify, released his latest music video for ‘100 Degrees’ globally, announced his campaign collaboration with Gojek as well as headlined in 88rising’s ‘Head in the Clouds’ festival in Los Angeles.
In just over a month, not only has Brian seen his new album succeed, but he has fully embraced the role of The Sailor. As he has cruised through the journey, he has set his feet on international ground while still dropping his anchor at home—all while presenting himself as the North Jakartan who sailed over the waves toward the west.
This creative approach of modern diplomacy is one to keep an eye on. As Brian has captured the attention of a market that consists of current and future leaders, as well as fellow game-changers in the creative industry, his success is one we could all learn from in bridging relations through understanding each other’s cultures, without having to stretch too far from oneself.
For now, it seems that Brian will continue to sail through his career between continents, and his name will be imprinted as the art of diplomacy progresses.
As a copywriter and poet, Yanti Sastrawan illustrates with words, enhancing visual language in branding and enticing curiosity word by word. Aside from her passion for poetry and picture books, she tends to use her spare time observing mediated media IRL.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.