There’s a place where 18th-century spells and mantras slip organically into glittering breakbeats. Where the gamelan flutes and roundly resonant percussion swirl around a crisp rap flow. Where time-honored literature is bumpin’ and where the musically inclined intonation and punctuated rhythm of poetry turns tradition inside out.
Welcome to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and the unique realms of possibility carved out by the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation, a vibrant young arts collective that makes Javanese rap and has a true knack for fostering unanticipated personal connections between ethnically diverse Indonesians, between different generations, and between Americans and Indonesia’s creative youth, in person-to-person diplomacy you can dance to.
“We just love to stand on the roots and traditions where we were born and grew up, but we are also part of global society. We want to give; not just receive,” exclaims Mohamad “Zuki” Marzuki, one of Jogja’s MCs, who is also a visual artist and electronic musician. “We can take poetry, traditional literature, or a spell or mantras—it could be from three hundred years ago—and we reimagine it, giving it contemporary context. We bring it into our generation and to the world. We want Americans to know about Javanese culture and our rap, to hear their reactions.”
Embraced by older intellectuals, initially skeptical elders, and young music fans alike back home, the Foundation will bring its tradition-inflected beats and sonically engaging Javanese poetry to the U.S. in November and December 2012, as part of Center StageSM (www.centerstageUS.org).
An initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Center Stage brings compelling contemporary artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States to engage the American people in cultural diplomacy as a way to create opportunities for greater understanding. Administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from the Asian Cultural Council, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, this public-private partnership is the largest public diplomacy effort to bring foreign artists to American stages in recent history.
“Hip hop has changed in America,” Zuki reflects. “Too much bling this, bling that, and sexy girls. Our songs are very different. They’ve become a soundtrack of everyday life in Yogyakarta now, and that feels really good.”
The day-to-day in Indonesia’s vivacious cultural center encourages the kind of creativity Zuki and his crew exhibit. With a large community of university students, the city has become home to a whole scene of active young artists and intellectuals, eager to recast and rethink Java’s artistic heritage. Not a weekend goes by without dozens of events, happenings, art openings, and concerts at Yogyakarta’s many galleries and venues. Young and old—“even those people who don’t like hip hop,” Zuki laughs—will often turn out for a Jogja show, if only to sing the Yogyakarta anthem with the crew.
“Yogyakarta is a special territory within the imperial or kingdom system in Indonesia; however, Yogyakarta is the cleanest government from corruption and is also called the city of pluralism,” explains Zuki. “In cultural issues, this is where you can find modernity mixed with tradition in a natural way. It is really energetic and inspiring.”
Zuki and his fellow artists created the Foundation as an open-ended frame that captured their many musical and artistic activities, a collective of like-minded individuals working together to shape and share what they love. Hip hop was nothing new to Zuki; he first discovered the joys of rap in the mid-’90s, listening to his friends rapping in traditional Javanese.
“I was a visual artist and electronic musician at the moment. Then I wanted to get to know this genre more, and I found Afrika Bambaata, Run DMC, Public Enemy, and so on,” Zuki recounts. “Then, with my rapper friends, we decided to start the Foundation. A big name for what’s really a collective.”
The group got its start in 2003 and soon recorded an album that drew on racy texts from an 18th-century collection of Javanese literature gathered by a local prince, and on more recent, sometimes off-color poems by a Javanese Catholic priest. They have continued to dive into local poetry and oral literature, weaving texts both ancient and newly minted, both socially conscious and simply catchy, into their tracks.
Zuki—often in crazy shades reminiscent of Flava Flav’s quirky persona—and the high-energy Jogja crew rock the mics, trading lines with a young traditional female singer (pesindhèn), whose vocal stylings are more frequently encountered at a gamelan evening than on a club stage. The mix of local tradition and right-now global pop appeal makes Jogja’s sound instantly accessible, even to audiences in Indonesia or abroad who speak no Javanese.
“I often tell audiences when we play in places like Bali that it’s their problem, not ours if they don’t understand our lyrics. This usually makes people laugh and gets the dance floor going,” Zuki says. “I have always believed that art and culture are able to build bridges of understanding and more mutual communication. It’s great to see that in action.”
Center StageSM will bring 10 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. for month-long tours from June-December 2012, connecting artists with diverse communities across the country. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage by liking the program on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage) and following us on Twitter (@centerstageus).
Center StageSM is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. General management for Center StageSM is provided by Lisa Booth Management.