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[Indonesian Icons] Inul Daratista – Part II: Living the ‘Indonesian dream’

Raka Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Sat, March 27, 2021  /  08:00 am
[Indonesian Icons] Inul Daratista – Part II: Living the ‘Indonesian dream’

Inul Daratista, the 'dangdut' upstart from the kampung has realized her (Inul Daratista's Instagram/

Perhaps out of respect, Inul Daratista initiated a meeting in 2003 to seek reconciliation with Rhoma Irama, at the notoriously haughty dangdut legend’s studio.

What came after was a blur of rumors, allegations and counter allegations. Some sources said that Rhoma immediately lambasted Inul over the alleged rape, after which Inul wept and kissed his hand in atonement.

Nearly two decades later, Inul suggests that the meeting was infinitely more unpleasant than was reported at the time.

According to Inul, she said Rhoma had accused her of “dragging dangdut into the gutter”. He then proceeded to throw water at her, ordered her to prostrate herself before him and then finally told her to leave the city and go back to her kampung.

Rhoma and his family deny her account of that long-ago meeting and accuses Inul of fabricating events to play up her image as the supposed victim in the feud.

Their conflict, though, speaks volumes of the fundamental differences between the “king” and the former upstart. Rhoma is the educated son of a noted military officer, while Inul is a small-town nobody from East Java.

Rhoma is a modern Islamist, while Inul’s “drilling” recalls the frenetic style of Java’s tayuban, a traditional dance that often drew the ire of Muslim clerics. The former is an industry mogul who spent years building his power and reputation; the latter, an overnight sensation who achieved fame on her talents alone (read: without the reigning king’s help).

Musically, Inul cut her teeth on small stages in rural villages, where a more raw, less polished form of dangdut persisted. As Weintraub wrote, Inul’s vocalization was notable for its “sexualized screams, grimaces, gasps and yelps” with “a powerful rock backbeat and screaming guitar parts”. It was the sound of rural passion, unapologetic and uninterested in cleaning up to fit urban sensibilities.

Simply put, it was precisely kind of dangdut that Rhoma had spent his entire life trying to bury.

In all fairness to Inul, she remained defiant for a long time. “Write this down,” she told a TIME Magazine reporter in 2003: "The MUI should realize that Indonesia is not a Muslim country, it's a democratic country," she said, referring to the Indonesian Ulema Council.

Anyone interested in stoking moral panic should turn their attention to the glut of pornographic VCDs and sex workers in the streets, she said, going on to suggest that she had received the brunt of negative attention simply because she was “an easy target”.

She had a point. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the furor surrounding the dangdut star from the kampung conveniently diverted public attention from the current events of the time: corruption scandals involving political and religious leaders, the ongoing bloody military action in Aceh and Papua, and the soaring poverty.

As the attacks against her continued, Inul’s reputation actually grew instead of diminishing. In a poll conducted by media stalwart Tempo Magazine, 78 percent of Indonesians believed that Inul had a right to free artistic expression. Her growing legion of fans, most of them women, also began mounting a fierce defense of their newfound idol.

Religious leaders, women’s rights activists and even other dangdut artists spoke out in Inul’s defense. Former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, a widely respected Muslim scholar and cleric, declared that Inul should be allowed to express herself. The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) stated that Inul had “suffered psychological trauma in the name of religion”, while dangdut legend Elvy Sukaesih advised Rhoma, her former vocal duet partner, to “let the flame die out” and bury the hatchet.

The debate surrounding Inul had far-reaching consequences beyond moral values and the music scene, crossing over into politics and business. Writing for The Manila Times in 2003, journalist William Pesek Jr. noted that the furor reflected “the workings of democracy and free expression taking place”. The controversy, Pesek wrote, was a test for Indonesia as a mature democracy and “an opportunity for investors to gauge the extent to which religious fervor is spreading or retreating”.

Inul Daratista, the 'dangdut' upstart from the kampung has realized her Inul Daratista, the 'dangdut' upstart from the kampung has realized her (Inul Daratista's Instagram/

By the end of 2003, the drama had mostly died down. Inul’s rise to the top was unstoppable, in spite of Rhoma. She raked in accolades from prestigious music awards, was featured in respected middle-class magazines and starred in a soap opera loosely based on her early years as a struggling artist. While she might not have sparked “the Inulization of dangdut” that Rhoma warned about, like it or not, she had become part of the dangdut establishment.

Inul and Rhoma represented the two faces of Indonesia: one exuberant, sexually charged and provocative, the other religious, upstanding and fueled by moral justice.

At a 2005 Tempo photo shoot, Inul paid tribute to the controversy surrounding her early career by posing in her characteristic gyrating posture, gazing intently at the camera while carrying a card bearing the word “Censor”. She had embraced her status as an unwitting icon of freedom of expression with her characteristic gusto.

In 2006, the two behemoths squared off again. The House of Representatives (DPR) was discussing a controversial new bill on pornography and pornographic acts, and wanted the two stars’ opinion on the matter. At the House hearing, Inul suggested diplomatically that Indonesia did need restrictions to prevent the proliferation of pornography while noting astutely that “pornographic acts” had not been clearly defined.

When Rhoma took the floor at the legislature, however, he decided to take the opportunity to renew their feud.

In his speech, Rhoma made repeated references to Inul’s “drilling” dance style as an example of a pornographic act that should be banned, because it “causes public disturbance and stokes lust among the audience”. His digression was so wide that a House lawmaker intervened to remind Rhoma that the hearing was “not a platform for condemning others”. All the while, Inul sat off to one side, suppressing her embarrassment.

The Pornography Law was of course passed, despite the public outrage and controversy. Along with the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law passed earlier in 2008, the Pornography Law was another landmark moment in the gradual curtailing of freedom of expression in Indonesia.

Naturally, Inul still found a way to shine in spite of the situation. Aware that her “drilling” dance wouldn’t sustain her for long, she transitioned into a successful entrepreneur, lending her name to a chain of family-oriented karaoke venues with more than 100 nationwide branches.

Her rags-to-riches story has inspired contemporary dangdut superstars like Ayu Ting Ting and Via Vallen, landed her a cushy gig as a judge and commentator on the hugely popular D’Academy, a TV singing competition to find the next dangdut talent that was broadcast nationally from 2014 to 2017.

Her social media posts on her idyllic home life and banter with husband Adam Suseno has garnered millions of followers. Inul still returns to the stage from time to time, commanding an astronomical fee and attracting a loyal legion of thousands of fans.

If ever there was an “Indonesian dream”, perhaps Inul embodies it. She’s the kampung girl who moved to the capital city and took the nation by storm, overcoming adversity through street smarts and her sheer force of will. Inul Daratista had jousted with a king and won, carving out her own place at the top as the "Queen of Dangdut".

And through it all, she has remained, and still remains, defiantly and unapologetically true to herself.

Read also: Heading

This is part 2 of a two-part story.


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