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Fighting Music Oppression in Indonesia

A coalition of artists fight back against RUU Permusikan, a bill aimed at curtailing artistic freedoms as art and culture continue to clash with Indonesia’s religious state. But this clash is nothing new.

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Music oppression is nothing new in Indonesia. As the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia is constantly grappling with Western ideology as it navigates what it means to be a religious state in the 21st century. Whether it is local artists mired in censorship, or international acts missing the freedoms of home, state vs art in Indonesia is something that I have long been familiar with. It is also something that the Indonesian music community is fighting once again as it comes together to stomp dead recent legislation aimed at curtailing basic artistic freedoms.

Growing up under a military dictatorship, you listened to what was “acceptable”. During my youth in the 1980s, music on the radio and on television was limited to state-run television and radio. Indonesia didn’t get a second television channel (the first private one) until 1989. MTV did not arrive for years and commercial radio and Top 40 kept it simple- Casey Kasem was the most offensive thing on the air. Searching for the musical underground was not an option for me as a kid and I do not remember hearing or seeing international acts touring during my early years. Only in the 1990s did things seem to change, but progressive acts did not have an easy time infiltrating Indonesia.

When I saw Green Day on their Insomniac tour in 1996, one of my most vivid memories of the show was the sight of police caning punks who were “rioting” outside the venue. I believe it is one of the reasons why Green Day have never been back to Jakarta, the sight of police caning concert goers is not something Billie Joe and company were interested in returning to.

For me, it was vivid, but not out of the ordinary. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of behavior in a world where music, art, and people hungry for it had to fight against the confines of the state and law.

In 1993, Metallica visited Indonesia on their Nowhere Else to Roam tour (their fifth tour to support the Black Album) and played a stadium not far from my house. It didn’t end well, with paying ticket goers clashing with those crashing the event, rioting ensued, cars were overturned and lit on fire (including my assistant headmaster’s- which at the time, we found hilarious). And as I remember it, there was also a long stretch (over years) where international acts boycotted touring in Indonesia during the 90s in response to many of the government’s policies. It just felt like an absolute barren spell of music-less years.

In the decades that followed there has been a continued clash between state and entertainment. Despite this, the current generation has had opportunities within the arts that mine did not. There has been a greater sense of freedom to create art, and music in particular has flourished as social media and the popularity of digital mediums has given new avenues for young artists to share their work. However, this doesn’t mean they haven’t run afoul of the religious fundamentalists.

Back in 2003, Indonesian folk artist Inul Daratista was publicly persecuted for her dance moves. She danced to traditional folk music but gyrated her hips like Shakira on Red Bull and this was deemed “pornographic” by the Indonesian Muslim Council. The ensuing backlash was on par to when Justin Timberlake got handsy with Janet Jackson at Super Bowl 38, except it wasn’t uptight suburban moms and dads writing letters to a television station, it was crazed religious fundamentalists demanding Inul’s public shaming and apology. How bad did it get? A national anti-pornography bill was introduced during the height of this controversy, one that would become law in 2008 where “a sexually suggestive performance could attract a 12-year prison sentence”. Imagine a world where Shakira’s hips are a nation’s moral outrage, and you have the type of hysteria that engulfed the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Late last year, a bill titled ‘RUU Permusikaan’ was drafted that many Indonesian musicians believed would suppress their freedom of expression. The bill would prohibit “bringing negative influences from foreign cultures” on top of creating rules against music that was “blasphemous”. It included such articles stating; “everyone is prohibited from […] bringing negative influences from foreign cultures or demeaning a human being’s dignity“. Draconian and prehistoric, with ambiguity as its strength.

In response, a coalition of over 263 artists was formed to fight the bill, stating that the laws were ambiguous, discriminative, and hindered independence.

Said one hardcore punk musician,

“Music is supposed to be universal and I think stating our opinions should not be controlled by a law.”

Following a campaign to raise funds and awareness, the coalition, along with noted rock band Slank (Slank are Indonesia’s Rolling Stones) met with legislator Anang Hermansyah from the House of Representatives of Indonesia back in February and successfully convinced him and the House to drop the bill. It is a win for artists and musicians in Indonesia and proof that you can still chip away and tear down the most ironclad of barriers.

I asked music reporter Wening Gitomartoyo whether this was the end of it but according to her although things had died down a little the problem [of state vs art] hasn’t gone away. In the face of the recent national elections in Indonesia, this matter seems to have quietly dissolved into the backdrop of national politics. However, the coalition continues to raise awareness and isn’t resting on any laurels. Instead, they are remaining steadfast in making sure this bill is well and truly buried.

It is and has been the rallying cry for musicians the world over- their music and art are extensions of their selves, the bullhorn for their opinions and beliefs and no state, especially in 2019, should be able to control it. It is this clash between traditional state control and progressive ideology that has been at the heart of this conflict.

This past decade has seen growth and change, with greater artistic freedom for creative Indonesians and less interference by government. However, artists, musicians, and fans must continue to stand up to fundamentalist oppression to ensure that progress continues to be made, and Indonesia doesn’t go backwards. It will take the united efforts of both the younger and older generations to fight against the kind of state legislated tyranny exemplified by this bill.

Whether it is a military presence at a NOFX show or Lady Gaga getting her show canceled, Indonesia’s firm religious bedrock means it’ll be a long time, and a long fight, before the so-called blasphemy of art and music are able to thrive and flourish on a grand scale.

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If U.S. presidential candidates were rock bands they’d be…

Here’s where we think the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates stack up if they were a band headlining a 2020 music fest

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Dem candidates

We still have a long, long, long way to go until the 2020 U.S. presidential election — and the list of candidates seems to get a bit longer every day. So, how do you actually keep track of who’s who? Let’s try turning it into a soundtrack.

Admittedly, the list runs too long to actually break down all of those candidates (there are 20+ actually running in the Democratic primary, though several are polling close to zero percent), so we’ve focused in on the folks who are actually showing a bit of buzz in the polls. Plus, of course, the incumbent who is currently president. From hip-hop to corporate rock and everything else in-between, here’s where we think the current crop of would-be presidents stack up if they were a band headlining a 2020 music fest.

Joe Biden: The Rolling Stones

Uncle Joe has been a fixture of American politics for decades, and he’s launched failed bids for president over the past few decades. But with 2020 in sight, Biden is — by far — the most popular Democratic candidate on the ballot. He’s leading most polls by a mile, thanks in large part to the good will he accumulated as President Obama’s vice-president and a solid legislative record (though it does have some troublesome bits in there, too). But, pretty much everyone sees him as likable, solid and — keyword here — “electable.” Translating that to music, Biden feels like The Rolling Stones of this election cycle. Most everybody likes The Stones, from your granddaddy to your aunts and uncles. They also run pretty high on a bunch of those lists of the best band ever. They’re a solid bet, and pop in just about any Stones record, and you’re bound to get something pretty darn good. Sure, it can get a bit worn at times, but even after all these decades, it’s still good stuff.

Bernie Sanders: Big Star

Bernie has been around the scene for decades, much like Biden, but despite the name recognition he’s still not polling as well as Biden. He was huge in the last primary running against Hillary Clinton, and briefly hailed as the Next Big Thing for a while there. He also introduced some forward-thinking policy ideas, many of which have been adopted by a bevy of candidates now running against him this time around. Take that resume to the music world, and Bernie feels a whole lot like Big Star. The Memphis-based rock band burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, and sadly flamed out not long after. Much like Bernie, it took a while for folks to really latch onto just how great Big Star was at the time. They found a cult following a few years later in the 1980s, and went on to influence pretty much every decent band that’s formed ever since. That said, there are still plenty of people who still love and appreciate Big Star to this day. But, they’ll never be as big as bands like the Stones, or The Beatles.

Elizabeth Warren: Radiohead

Elizabeth Warren is a smart, smart candidate. Of the folks vying for the Democratic candidacy, she arguably has the best ideas and platform concepts laid out in detail. Oddly enough, she’s also polling well below folks like Biden and Sanders. Turning to music, she feels like the Radiohead of this election. She’s smart, probably one of the smartest if not the smartest candidate out there. That feels a lot like Radiohead, an indie band that puts out some clever music and has developed a strong, loyal fanbase with their excellent output (a lot like Warren has these past few years).

Kamala Harris: Tupac

This may seem a bit obvious, considering Harris has spoken publicly about her affinity for Tupac’s music, but hear us out. Much like Tupac, Harris has some OG bona fides. Before running for the senate she served as a district attorney and attorney general in California, leading an up-tick in the conviction rate for homicides and overall felonies. She also took on hate crimes during that time. As a senator, she’s taken full advantage of her DA roots to ask the smart, hard questions — without backing down. She has guts, much like Tupac did. Tupac also has a ton of name recognition, something Harris is quickly working to acquire as the campaign heats up.

Pete Buttigieg: Conor Oberst

As a city mayor in Indiana, Buttigieg has exploded onto the scene as a bit of a wunderkind candidate over the past few months. He’s young, smart, energetic and almost always knows the right thing to say when the moment comes. He comes off as accessible and fresh, much like the Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst has during his career. Sure, Oberst’s output has always been a bit niche, but if it’s your flavor it’s fantastic stuff. Buttigieg has had much the same kind of run in the lead-up to the primary. In certain circles, he’s quickly becoming a buzzy, respected voice. But, ask random folks on the street, and odds are they have no idea about Mayor Pete. That said, Oberst has always had the potential to blow out the Top 40 with a chart-topper — and Buttigieg is in the hunt to do much the same in the presidential race.

Beto O’Rourke: Foss (just kidding, Weezer)

The handsome, punk rock candidate from Texas became a national sensation when he gave Ted Cruz a scare — but ultimately lost. So, he used that buzz to launch a presidential bid. He’s had some missteps, but there’s no doubt O’Rourke is a tall, charismatic dude. He was also literally in the little-known punk band called Foss back in the day, but we won’t go with that one. Instead, O’Rourke feels more like the Weezer of this election. He’s the dude bro, and is largely popular in a broad, thoughtless, “Oh It’s On The Radio So Just Listen To It And Idly Tap Your Toe” kind of way. Weezer is sometimes the butt of jokes (like that run SNL skit), but they’re still huge — and Beto has much that same kind of potential

Donald Trump: Kid Rock

Time for the big, loud Commander-in-Chief himself. Trump isn’t refined, he’s not all that bright, and he typically just beats you over the head with whatever he’s saying. Kind of like one of his biggest supporters and golf buddies, Kid Rock. He appeals to a certain conservative type of redneck, which is where most of his popularity lies (that applies to both of ‘em, to be clear). There’s also the fact that, if you actually listen to what he says, it’s typically really stupid and nonsensical. We’re just waiting for the presidential radio edit.

Editor’s Note: To be clear, this is all meant in good fun. The presidential race in 2020 looks to be one of the most contentious and important in the modern history of the United States. It’s a big deal, and everyone should take it very, very seriously. But, between all that seriousness, there should be a bit of space to have some fun musing about the folks who want to lead the free world.

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Make Dodgeball Great Again

Dodgeball is not an ‘unethical tool of oppression’ and to label it so is both ludicrous and dangerous. Have we lost our minds?

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I remember it as if it was yesterday. The recently completed gym floor was crisp, clean, and squeaked with almost every step of the overpriced sneakers that graced it. Battle lines had been drawn and there I was, locked and loaded in the far right corner of the gym. I had scanned the battlefield ahead, and saw that the opposition numbers were dwindling- falling like the cannon fodder they were. My fellow combatants were more than capable, some in fact, excelled like this game was art, like it was real battle.

Then I saw my target, arms to her side, nervously looking across from her side of diminishing numbers. Her eyes screamed ‘fear’ (or maybe indifference, but in my mind, it was fear) and I knew that there was only one thing to do. I gripped the foam of the ball with a vengeful firmness, loaded my arm with the fury of a Nolan Ryan fastball and let loose. My memory says the sound of the noisy gym was broken, and that all the fellow combatants and fallen brethren fell silent, stopped and followed this one moment as the ball left my hand to its intended destination. It was a glorious moment. Glorious because unlike most times, the ball flew through the air with unmatched grace. Unlike most times I threw the ball, there was no deviation, no broken flight plan. And unlike most times, where I’d luckily hit my target on the leg, or on the arm, it zeroed in with laser-like precision and exploded itself right in Annie’s* face. Bullseye. Like a bird exploding from a Randy Johnson fastball.

Did I revel in the glory of that standstill moment? Was the brazen destruction of a fellow combatant as cinematically award-winning as a Spielberg movie? The truth is, that wasn’t the case. Amongst the fleeting chaos of the game, no one saw. No one stopped and watched my moment, and that in reality, it was a split second that remains animated only in mind. I recoiled in shock, partly because it was not my intention to hit someone in the face, no matter how unintentionally glorious it was. But partly because my gut instinct was to slink away into the back of the pack to hide unseen- like a cowardly saboteur responsible for the wreckage, eager to hide from the blame. I didn’t even look back at what I had done.

I don’t remember who won this particular game (safe to say it wasn’t Annie), but it was all part and parcel to the wonderful school-time game of dodgeball.

One that has come under scrutiny, and under the threat, by the researchers discussed in this National Post article, who have labeled it an “unethical tool of oppression”. With such hyperbole, you’d think they were talking about a population who lived under a military dictatorship, or a segment of that population threatened during mass rioting. Not surprisingly, I lived through both of the latter, and no, dodgeball is nothing like either. They are talking about dodgeball- a mostly harmless game (unless you are Annie) played by children during recess and PE class.

The article goes on to say how dodgeball, along with other forms of games played during PE class are sports of “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation” and that dodgeball in particular, is “not just unhelpful to the development of kind and gentle children who will become decent citizens of a liberal democracy. It is actively harmful to this process.” Sounds like it was written by someone picked last in gym class.

We can argue endlessly about the participation-trophy culture that has permeated the discourse of children’s sports (they couldn’t even settle on a winner at the Spelling Bee). But the truth is, I fear greatly for the future of democracy if we equate the game of dodgeball to actual, real oppression. Sure, Annie probably doesn’t like dodgeball all that much, but I too was hit plenty on the dodgeball court. Like I was on the basketball court. But it’s all part of growing some thick skin in this very real world where people don’t throw soft, red balls at you. The truth is, most kids would probably benefit from getting hit in the face with a dodgeball a few times, it’ll be good for them in the long run. This I’m certain of.

I had a lot of fun playing dodgeball as a kid. It’s an absolute shame that there are “scholars” and “researchers” who equate it to very real life issues this world faces. Teaching kids that life isn’t fair from a young age is a good thing. Participation-trophy culture is not. I don’t need a Ph.D. to know so.

Dodgeball teaches you a great deal in a simple game. And if dodgeball supposedly teaches children lessons of democracy, then I sure as hell would want the future leaders of whatever world we venture towards to be able to dodge a wrench when someone throws one at their heads.

*Annie is not her real name. C’mon, how much of an asshole do you think I am?

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