Indonesia’s greatest musical export this decade may be a teenaged comedian
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Indonesia’s greatest musical export this decade may be a teenaged comedian

ASIA has a knack for producing viral songs – equal parts hilarious, annoying and infectious – that spread on the Internet like wildfire. 2012 saw Gangnam Style, a ridiculous tune by South Korea’s Psy, become the first video to hit one billion views on YouTube.

The number of views now doubles that and Gangnam Style remains the most watched YouTube video on the planet. Meanwhile, this year saw Japanese comedian Kosaka Daimaou produce the even more bizarre Pen Pineapple Apple Pen.

Indonesian music doesn’t feature too prominently on the world stage. Gamelan is famed by tourists for being synonymous with Balinese and Javanese culture, yet can hardly be said to be popular outside of the country. Strongly flavoured by Indian and Arabic music, ubiquitous Dangdut can be heard blasted out of someone’s stereo almost anywhere across the archipelago. But similarly, it doesn’t have an audience abroad except in Malaysia. Indonesian music (like many things Indonesian, except perhaps Indomie) has never truly penetrated the international market.

That may be set to change. Enter Brian Imanuel aka Rich Chigga – a then 16-year-old from Indonesia who uploaded his video “Dat $tick” in February and became a cult Internet sensation. Whilst he is a comedian, Imanuel’s track has since surpassed 27 million views and he has signed to the American-based music collective CXSHXNLY. Imanuel also boasts some 240,000 followers on Twitter and 280,000 likes on Facebook where he posts exclusively in English.

This week he released a new video for his track “Who That Be”. Scenes transition between Chigga rapping on the phone in a smoke-filled room, homies in the background and with a bottle of Havana Club; and a frame where he pats sports a black turtleneck and pats a small dog in a living room that looks like it’s his grandma’s. “I’ll call the cops on myself, if I can,” Imanuel quips with a straight face.

Coconuts Jakarta deemed Chigga the “godfather of suburbia” in response to the new video.

A month after its release, “Dat $tick” was already attracting the attention from major publications like Hypebeast, and he has since been featured in all the most iconic hip hop publications in the world from Complex to The Fader, High Snobriety and XXL magazine. Given the inward-looking nature of American popular culture, particularly within hip-hop, this is nothing to be sneezed at.

By July, the video had attracted the attention of a bunch of prominent American rappers – a “response” video posted on 88rising’s YouTube channel featured Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, Kanye West-protégé Desiigner, Dipset icon Cam’ron and RNB crooner Tory Lanez – most of whom seemed overwhelmed by the Indonesian teen. Watching with gaping Lanez declared “this is the hardest n*gga of all time…he’s killing like 70 percent of Americans!” A clearly shocked Ghostface repeated “that’s dope, I like that, that’s dope.”

He thus joins an exclusive, motley cohort of foreign rappers who have registered on the American hip-hop consciousness that includes Die Antwoord, Iggy Azalea and Skepta. These rappers share nothing in common except holding foreign passports. With the exception of British grimer Skepta, humour plays a role in (some of) their appeal, with American audiences either laughing with or at them. It’s hard to say which category Imanuel falls into – although given he was heaped with genuine praise by several rap icons and half a dozen contemporary rappers, it might well be the former.

In fact, so impressed with Rich Chigga’s flow was Ghostface Killah that he lent a verse for a remix of this track. In August, Imanuel performed onstage with superstar Macklemore at “we.the.fest” in Jakarta. “Dat $tick” has received recognition in other parts of the world, being awarded “Most Popular Video in Indonesia” at the WebTVAsia Awards held this month in South Korea, Seoul.

The appeal of Imanuel lies in his astute understanding of American culture and hip-hop motifs, perfectly and self-deprecatingly recreated in a leafy, affluent suburb of Jakarta. While Indonesian, he epitomises western millennial culture with its dark, nihilistic sense of humour. In the era of ‘dank memes’, he rarely stumbles in producing on-point comedic videos that simultaneously lampoon and pay tribute to contemporary rap culture.

The home-schooled, upper middle class Rich Chigga stands in direct contrast with another viral rapper Young Lex – whose music is deadly serious, entirely in Bahasa Indonesia and Jakartan slang except for some broken English choruses, and seems unlikely to ever garner broader appeal outside of Indonesia. Lex’s tribute to the working-class city of Bekasi couldn’t be further – both geographically and figuratively – from the life of Brian Imanuel.

In less than a year, Rich Chigga has gone from Internet obscurity to being profiled by almost all major outlets in Indonesia as well as some of the worlds most respected publications – TIME magazine, The Guardian, and the Observer who declared ‘Dat $tick one of the best songs of 2016.

Recently on his 17th birthday, a drunk Rich Chigga uploaded a video of hanging out with his pals, bragging that “in Indonesia there is no age limit [for drinking alcohol].”  The stupid jokes and antics of these kids betray Imanuel’s true age, in contrast with the deep-voiced flow that Cam’ron had praised as being beyond his years. Even then, almost a million people have bothered to watch it.

Rich Chigga may yet actually break the mainstream of western popular music. After all, it’s 2016 and far weirder things have happened.