All singing and dancing – Islamic pop music in Indonesia

First published on The State

Pop singers like Vidi Aldiano are nothing like the nasyid* groups, the more conventional all-male singers of Islamic ditties. Young, fresh-faced and nary a skullcap in sight, he dresses like any other young man in urban Indonesia in ubiquitous t-shirt and slim-fitting jeans. The music is like any other unoriginal minor hit song cryogenically preserved since the 1990s, the only dissonance being his lyrics. He sings about Keagungan Tuhan (The Greatness of God), urging his fellow young Muslims to pray and praise God while a group of young women and men stop a game of basketball to start dancing cheerfully to an unmistakeably teeny-bopper choreography.

The song was released during Ramadan of 2009; following the tradition in the Muslim world, people and consumables become more ‘Islamic’ during this period. Among other things, female media personalities would don the headscarf, television stations broadcast religious dramas and documentaries, and the latest Islamic film would be released to coincide with a period of penance and reflection. There has been some commentary on the rise of Islamic pop singers who combine aspects of hip hop, gospel, and generic pop to produce updated versions of nasyid. Yet recently a secularised image of Islamic pop culture has been gaining a foothold in mainstream Indonesian culture, one that is stripped of its obvious Islamic symbolisms—headscarves, skull caps, Quranic inscriptions in Arabic, and even the colour green.

Alongside their more conventional Islamic musical contemporaries, there are rock bands who, on the surface and musically, are like any other ‘secular’ rock band but sing about strengthening the Islamic faith. Similar to Christian rock bands, an Islamic rock band replaces the song’s object of love and desire from ‘you’ to ‘God’. For example Gigi, an influential mainstream Indonesian rock band, looks like any other pop and rock ensemble. Broody, long-haired, and sometimes menacing, the singer belts out a tune about the gates of Heaven and how one enters it come the Day of Reckoning. In another particularly upbeat song, set incongruously against a dark chamber lit only by floating lightbulbs, the lead singer calls upon the listener to worship. Gigi’s electric guitars and pulsating drums recall inoffensive and edgeless mainstream North American rock bands such as Nickleback and 3 Doors Down. And the song itself? It is catchy.

Some may wonder whether bands like Gigi follow a similar aesthetic and politics as Islamic punk and heavy metal groups like The Kominas and al-Thawra. There are immediate commonalities: both are unconventional musical expressions that foreground the Islamic image of its performers and appeal to a youthful audience disenchanted with values incompatible with Islam encased in Western music. But following the crackdown on punk subculture in Indonesia, other anarchic and culturally subversive groups may be not looked upon too kindly.

The mainstreaming of Islamic popular culture is further evidenced by shifts in its temporality. Previously, Islamic television programming, music, and films were only released during Ramadan. Islamic popular culture prior to the 1990s was considered a commercially risky venture and unprofitable in Indonesia. If people needed ‘religion,’ they turned to religious leaders, prayer and Quranic recitation groups, and their local mosques. Today, however, they are found throughout the year. There are now questions of whether Indonesia is becoming more Islamic, or whether Islam has become more secularised.

Rather than receding from the public sphere, religion in an increasingly secularised world has been experiencing waves of revivalism. One unintended byproduct of secularisation of society is that religion became decentralised rather than being a power wielded solely by a central religious authority. Shifting increasingly towards the peripheries of power, religion has entered the marketplace en masse. These trends and the merging of images of modernity and Islam that were once considered contradictory have created what many describe as ‘Islamic modernities’ in a landscape of multiple modernities. The Islamic modernity seen in Indonesia is a political and cultural sensibility whereby a commitment to Islam is embraced alongside approximations of western notions of modernity.

Indonesia may not be globally known outside Southeast Asia for its pop culture or a key figure of the Islamic world, but it offers interesting clues to the way the biggest population of Muslims in the world engage with the geopolitics of post-9/11. The explosion of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia parallels the development of Christian popular culture in the US, simply because it has similar basic ingredients: the liberalisation and mass marketisation of religion. For decades since the mid-1960s, Indonesia was regarded as a beacon of Islamic moderation. With communism held firmly under the lid (with the help of the US government, no less), the Suharto regime also ensured that Islam remained unpoliticised and ‘non-extreme.’ Unpolitical Islam was (and still is) a good thing for secular politicos and commentators who were wary of revivalist Islam’s power to inspire Muslims to rise, in myriad and often unpredictable ways, against western hegemonic dominance. But following the resignation of Suharto, public and political manifestations of Islam gained momentum and reclaimed the mediascape.

The big question is, then, who listens to Islamic pop music? Are they anything like the followers of Christian rock music? Do they belong to a parallel universe sequestered from mainstream culture? The 1990s witnessed the bourgeoisification of the Muslim middle classes who equated the Veblenian display of public piety with social status. Since then, the steady march of mass consumerism finds itself face to face with an increasingly conscientious set of consumers keen on making spiritual meaning of their consumption. Conditions were then ripe for the proliferation of all things Islamic: fashion, comic books, make-up, and even toothpaste could become Shari’a compliant and reassuringly halal.

For some, it is frustratingly difficult to equate Islamic consumption with actual piety. Consumption of media has become widespread rather than specialised (and sacralised) to particular space and time, and too convenient. Spiritual respite is only a click or button away, rather than being a ritualised series of practices. Savvy marketers of Islamic pop culture sell their wares not only for Muslims but for everybody, as the products are imbued with good universal values rather than those exclusive to Muslims.

Although there have been plenty of debates decrying the commercialisation of Islam, one can never really draw a clear line distinguishing between what is sacred and profane, religious and secular, worship and entertainment. It is not seen as good enough to assume that consumers of Islamic popular culture are passive recipients of God’s message, pure and transparent. The answer may lie in the media theories of Katz and McQuail who propose that consumers of media are better understood through examining why they consume certain media products, and how they gratify certain desires and pleasures. Thus the need to appear pious may be too straightforward for the huge swaths of discerning and increasingly sophisticated Muslim consumer of media in Indonesia.

The growth of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia matters a great deal when we think about the global impact of hegemonic media representations of Muslims. Since the attacks on 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the release of Islamophobic films Submission in 2004 and Fitna in 2008 by Dutch filmmaker and far-right politician Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders respectively, producers of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia have become emboldened by a new kind of urgency, one that is characterised by the need to produce new, progressive, and thoroughly modern images of Muslims and their cherished values. The rise of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia joins the ranks of successful nasyid groups in neighbouring Malaysia and to a lesser extent, the Arabic-singing rock bands of Thailand, who are embraced by a subset of the Muslim middle-class and working class.

The production of Islamic music and other forms of popular culture such as Muslim youth-oriented novels and cinema can be seen as a concerted effort of ‘writing back’ against dangerous Muslim stereotypes, and are probably directed to an imagined West itself. But Islamic media is as much an internal circuit of representations for producers and consumer who engage with issues related to cleavages within Islam, gender and sexuality, and capitalism as it is a dialogue with the West.

*Nasyid is derived from the Arabic nashid (plural: anashid) for ‘song’ or ‘hymn.’

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