From Localities to TikTok: Hip-Hop Dance in Indonesia
Translated by Fitri Indra Harjanti
Indonesian teenagers who were around in the 80’s will be familiar with the movie Gejolak Kawula Muda (Youth Rumbling); released in 1984 it served as a portrait of Hip Hop’s influence across Indonesia. It followed a group of teenagers who got into breaking before a police officer charged them with public disturbances and to make matters worse, one of the main characters’ parents forbade their child to get involved in the breaking community. The movie was an accurate depiction of the era.
Many people were against this trend of breaking back then - which was named seizure dance (tari kejang) - and it was publicly regarded as having no educational value. In the daily newspaper KOMPAS on 10th February 1985 in the “Asal-Usul” column (Husein Abdulsalam, 2019), Arswendo Atmowiloto (an Indonesian senior journalist) stated that Kakanwil Depdikbud Promal (the Head of Regional Biro of Department of Education and Culture) Ambon banned breaking in schools. Whereas outside of schools, there was a need for a permit for such activity; for them breaking was in opposition to the Pancasila (Nation Foundation of Republic of Indonesia) and UUD 1945 (The 1945 Constitution of Republic of Indonesia).
Poster of 1984 film Gejolak Kawula Muda,
Credit Rapi Films
Indonesia in the 80’s under the New Order regime was obsessed with order and stability, however, due to the repressive implementation of the regime it led only to civil unrest. There are several examples of the repressive nature of the era including: The Petrus Killings (Penembak Misterius) or Mystery Shooter which took place from 1983 – 1985. Thousands of people suspected of crimes were shot to death without undergoing any trial in a court of law; their bodies were placed in highly public spaces to act as a deterrent and encourage obedience. There was also the tragedy of Tanjung Priok in North Jakarta (a Special Capital Region of Jakarta) which involved a group massacre of people of Islamic faith in 1984. Both these events were triggered by a repressive policy that regarded Pancasila as the absolute epitome of law. Pancasila is the philosophical base of the Indonesian Republic, but it became the tool of the New Order to corner those who didn’t fall in line with their political view.
All these events happened in parallel to the emergence of breaking in Indonesia and with hindsight we can look at why breaking was considered an opposition to Pancasila.
The obsession with stability and tranquillity meant anything that disrupted, caused a commotion or opposed the ideal condition was regarded as a disturbance and needed to disappear. Sardono W. Kusumo (an Indonesian dance maestro) wrote in the daily Kompas 18th December 1984 (Husein Abdulsalam, 2019) explaining the issue; he said the words “break dance” in itself had become a psychological burden. “All things that are related to seizure or intensity and being wild were not acceptable in this developmental atmosphere, which requires peace, harmony, order and serenity.”
I spoke with Hamdi Fabas, one of the founders of BBoy Indo (a breaking organization established in 2003 which became a governmental partner in 2011 and helps to navigate the breaking scene in Indonesia) and what is written here - as well as Hamdi’s words - are only a small amount of breaking history that has been recorded, due to the fact that most of the history in this piece took place in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. The unwritten history of other places still needs to be recorded, and there has not yet been any comprehensive research in this area. In an interview via Zoom (18th July 2021) Hamdi stated that the prominent names in the first breaking era of the 80’s were Voltus, Septian Dwi Cahyo, and Adam Jackson with his Wild Zombie Crew (1983 – 1984). There was a group in the second generation of breaking called Midi Circus.
Septian Dwi Cahyo and Adam Jackson are probably the most prominent names amongst millennials, due to their appearance on Indonesian TV, despite their output no longer being completely breaking. Today Septian Dwi Cahyo is more into acting and pantomime, whereas Adam Jackson is focused on impersonating Michael Jackson. The other name is Voltus, and whilst we recognise the name as a legend, we unfortunately don’t know much about this mysterious character. Rumour has it that he’s still around in South Jakarta.
Hamdi related a story that was passed to him that in the 80s, breaking was so infectious throughout Indonesia that people spread their lino and played their boombox in alleyways and started breaking wherever they could. Breaking was such an oasis, a space of liberation amid the repression conducted by the state. Nevertheless, as Sardono said, the necessity of serenity was urgent in that era. However, any decisions made by the breakers to break from that era - whether or not they were being actively political and breaking for their own enjoyment - was intertwined with political tension of the time and is important to note.
Hamdi is a member of the second generation of the Jakarta breaking community, has an educational background in IT and has a more structured and digital vision in mapping Hip-Hop subculture. To begin with he established a community called Jakarta Breaking prior to his founding of BBoy Indo which would go on to become an institution that could shelter as well as advocate for breaking in Indonesia. BBoy Indo is connected to the government through KOMRI (Committee of Indonesian Peoples Recreational Sport) and he saw that Hip-Hop has been able to flourish as a multibillion dollar business without any licences in other countries, so he wanted to do something in Indonesia.
Hamdi related, “Before we eventually cooperated with and had our existence acknowledged by the government, BBoy Indonesia was founded as a means to establish our industry, to generate income, to hold events and create an ecosystem for breaking; it wasn’t easy and founding this organisation took a long time.” It was established in 2003 from humble beginnings as a website, a forum for communication, learning and information exchange about breaking; after years of organising events and sending breakers to Taiwan, Japan, and around the world, eventually this organisation was recognized as part of the creative industry and partnered with the government. One of the next priorities for Hamdi, with the entry of breaking to the Olympics, is the development of an academic knowledge base and structured training that needs to compete an international level
One of Hamdi’s early influences was Michael Jackson; he was always interested in Black music and idolised him. Although Jackson doesn’t always stick to pure Hip-Hop culture there are always bits of breaking, robotics and a touch of pop within his choreography.
With music programmes and dance competitions on TV it meant that Hip Hop dance was rapidly accepted by Indonesian audiences since Global TV held a breaking competition called Let’s Dance from 2004 – 2009. At that time Global TV was broadcasting MTV, so Let’s Dance became more contextual and Hamdi was one of the judges on the show as well as working behind the scenes on concepts.
Seeing the development of a Hip-Hop subculture in Indonesia – as it massively expanded from narrow alleys to television - a question emerges for me. How did the first generation in the 80’s learn breaking? The media that was available was only VHS and movies in the theatre, so they had to come to the theatre or watch the VHS many times to watch and learn the moves.
In that period, they named the moves in Indonesian. People who were able to understand the original language, like Voltus, put the new names in a context such as kaki gila (crazy leg). Even that example when translated has a similarity to the original tari kejang (seizure dance). Our particular context ensured BBoys and BGirls in Indonesia at that time had a distinctive character. We were used to a slower pace of life and had a lot of time so we could practice and embody and master all these vocabularies and moves from VHS and movies. It developed in their bodies according to their own anatomical habits and daily routines.
Hamdi says, “Breaking has its own conventions which makes it breaking and its vocabulary of movement is clear; so if we are to discuss the acculturation of breaking, it will only be on the character of the individual bodies. However, it would be different if breaking was seen as a media to be developed into other formats or adding to other cultures. Can it still be regarded as breaking then? Or has it transformed itself into another identity? Just like what Jecko Siompo has done with his animal pop, it has become another distinctive genre, it’s no longer breaking.”
Jeck Kurniawan Siompo Pui or Jecko Siompo grew up in Wamena and Jayapura, Papua; he moved to Jakarta in 1984 and experienced the first breaking generation which is still connected to the other generations. From my conversation with him an interesting set of questions started to emerge.
Jecko’s work is regarded as controversial, but on the other hand it could be seen as an opening towards new knowledge. In 1997, Jecko won a dance competition held in Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (the Jakarta Art Building) which led him to learning more about Hip-Hop after being invited to Portland, Maine, USA and conversations with a curator out there. But when he got home he found there was a dichotomy between dance ideas in the east and west; he wanted to engage critically and bring his Indonesian and Papua cultural knowledge into being and so created a single format - Animal Pop.
Jecko said, “If we look at traditional dances across Indonesia, we find dances from different places that have an idea and they came from an animal attitude.” The Peacock Dance from West Java takes its inspiration from peacock, the Reog Dance from East Java with its tiger mask and ornamental peacock feather, then there’s the dances of the Dayak tribe from Kalimantan who take inspiration from the Enggang (hornbill) bird. All of those examples indicate how our ancestors were close to nature and this was how Jecko created the animal elements in Animal Pop. According to Jecko, it doesn't matter how many times he went to study western dance cultures, when he came back home it only made him see how rich Indonesian cultures were. He doesn’t deny that Animal Pop was initially inspired by Hip-Hop subcultures, but when it transforms to Animal Pop, patterns have already changed and it is a distinct genre.
Putting the word “pop” after animal opened the door for an interesting dialogue; the meaning of pop here is to flow with time, it is a flexible space where cultures change. It is also a sign of openness when Animal Pop meets other cultures. Jecko gave an example through his project (part 1 and part 2) in late 2020 in Labuhan Bajo, Komodo Sub-District; he explored a work with local people and the idea of Animal Pop coming into and adapting into that locality which already has a culture was critical for him. Locality acts as a material and a formation for Jecko so that the work will belong to the people. For him there is a greater purpose than Animal Pop ownership, it is Animal Pop as a bridge and entry point for greater knowledge; it becomes the basis of thought when it is facing a community, both local and international.
Jecko tries to ask questions through animal pop, such as why are primitive and ancient moves considered exotic and valued relatively lower than the moves in modern dance? Where does this stance come from?
There are interviews cited by various media such as artshub.com.au and The Jakarta Post, where Jecko stated that Hip-Hop comes from Papua. He tried to collect evidence of this that he later presented in his work In Front of Papua. Even though it feels controversial, Jecko tried to explain his hypothesis (by phone on 29th July 2021): “For sure we need help from the expertise of history and anthropology to prove all these findings, but my initial hypothesis started from the research of the migrational traces of peoples of Papua to America in the 1930’s, which included my ancestors.” This type of migration can be seen as the first sign of a cultural exchange, but the long road for this particular research is still to be done.
According to the HUGO-pan Asia Consortium as quoted by Risa Herdahita Putri (2017) the first wave of people out of Africa is the origin for all populations in East Asia and SouthEast Asia. Within the same work, Herawati Supolo-Sudoyo, a researcher in the Eijkman Molecular Biology Institution, stated that in the formation of Indonesian people, genetically there are four waves of contribution. The waves of immigration could show why one generation of a culture can have similarities to another culture in another country.
One of pieces that Jecko has been working on since 2008 is called History of New York, where he is on a mission to trace the notion that he uttered earlier about the origin of Hip-Hop culture in Papua. For him it’s not an issue of historical claim, it’s critical to see history and our position in the world constellation. Who writes history is very influential, therefore history is highly questionable. Even though he’s working on another piece, the research into History of New York will continue.
When discussing history, it is interesting to ask questions about the present, because it eventually leads us to how Covid-19 and the pandemic changed the perspective of performers and artists in utilising social media. Pythos Haris, one of the younger generation in the community (as well as a trainer in Animal Pop, who has gained the trust of Jecko) was born in Jayapura in 1988. He is one of the millennial factions who once had ambitions to be a football player and played for Persipura, Jayapura (one of the big football clubs in Jayapura and were established in 1963) when he was 15. He moved to Makassar before eventually heading to Jakarta to join Let’s Dance on Global TV, which he won and was sent to a competition in Japan to represent the country. It was from Let’s Dance that was his starting point to get to know Jecko.
As a generation that is massively influenced by social media, Pythos makes use of it as a tool for the public communication of his works. He is now the member of the Papua Top Team (an organisation that unites Papua youngsters in the field of sport and art in Jakarta) and is active on Instagram and TikTok. He has 10,900 followers on Instagram (@pythosharrris) and 19,900 followers on TikTok (@pythosharris) and studies the character of each social media platform carefully before distributing his content. He’s aware that there are really high streams in TikTok, and dance as a format is followed by the majority of TikTok users. However, Pythos is also aware of his professional dance experience and considers the dances that he wants to be performed on TikTok. He often utilises the live feature on Instagram and TikTok to organise dance workshops that are free of charge during this pandemic moment.
Having experienced the power and influence of social media, he talks about TikTok as a collaborative tool: “I can collaborate with artists from Papua via TikTok. For example, I have a friend in Papua who wrote a song and then I promoted his song with my dance.” For him the people as users are clear, therefore the advantage of social media can be utilised. “It’s different when we organize a piece in real life, we have to find the place to perform, and find audiences, but on social media everything is clearer.”
However, he realises that those platforms are not without their flaws, one being the limitation of the algorithm: “It’s totally different to performing on stage, but at least people are starting to identify and recognise that dance is sometimes hard to access due to ticketing or distance of the venue from their home.” Pythos became one of the collaborators of Dance Dance Asia after getting sent to Japan after winning the Let’s Dance competition and he’s also received endorsements from Instagram and jobs from corporations through TikTok.
Hence, we see that there is a negotiation being done by Pythos in relation to the idealism in his dance and the public communication of it. He doesn’t mix it because there is an awareness of different goals and both are worth doing. Despite the mainstream appearances of Hip-Hop dance across social media there’s a fight back from the mainstream. Breaking and other Indonesian dances that are currently unpopular on TikTok could be used in the future as a bridge to dialogue with the public.
Having conversations with Pythos, Jecko and Hamdi has left me with a question. What is the position of breaking in Indonesia now? At a quick glance, we see it growing because it is no longer only practiced in the street, but in the dance studios as well. There are Hip-Hop dance classes for children and adults spread across the big cities of Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya. Social media feels like the most desired platform for BBoys and BGirls to express themselves publicly; on Instagram there are more than 70,000 uploads on #bboyindo hashtag and over 500 uploads using #indobgirl hashtag.
However, the government no longer see BBoys and BGirls as a group that needs to be disciplined like they were back in the 80’s. On the contrary, they are now perceived as an asset, belonging to the state and presented at festivals, competitions and the Olympics. This situation is possible not only because of the changing conditions of the state but because of the roles of initiators and pioneers in the community which made it all possible. People like Hamdi, Jecko and Pythos.
Husein Abdulsalam. 2019. Breakdance 1980-an: Digandrungi Pemuda, Dituduh Tidak Pancasilais. https://tirto.id/dnfZ (Accessed on 29th July 2021)
Risa Herdahita Putri. 2017. Manusia Indonesia adalah Campuran Beragam Genetika. https://historia.id/kuno/articles/manusia-indonesia-adalah-campuran-beragam-genetika-6mmWr (Accessed on 21th August 2021)
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Nia Agustina, born in 1989. Based in Yogyakarta. Got a master’s in Mathematics Education in 2015 from Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta State University). Engaged in nurturing young practitioner in the Indonesia’s dance field since established Paradance Platform in 2015. Co-curator of Indonesian Dance Festival (2016-2020). Co-founded the performance arts and performing arts critique and review website gelaran.id with her husband Ahmad Jalidu in 2017.
From February to March 2020, she visited Japan through the Asia Fellowship Program of the Japan Foundation Asia Centre to research a platform for young people in the dance scene. Working on gender equality and inclusivity issue since 2015 through several institutions which affected her perspective and approach on working at performing arts scene.