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Fighting Music Oppression in Indonesia

A coalition of artists fights 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.

Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Culture

A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus

The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.

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In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:

“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.

There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.

While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.

Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.

Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.

Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”

Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.

The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.

In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.

Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.

I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.  

If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.

To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.

Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22         September 2019.

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