(W)rapped up in Southeast Asia’s Hip-Hop Scene: How a Globalised Music Genre is Exporting Young ASEAN Voices

The explosive rise of hip-hop stars and rappers throughout Southeast Asia is putting young people’s voices on show; their messages, wrapped in verse, are becoming increasingly influential on the global stage.

By Serena Ford

With more than half of its population under the age of 30, ASEAN is young, and its youth are increasingly globalised. You only have to look towards Jakarta-born Rich Brian and his phenomenal success in the notoriously difficult-to-crack United States hip-hop scene, to see that the talent coming from Southeast Asia is starting to be internationally recognised.

Rich Brian in 2016

But where does this story start? 

A genre that is deeply tied to its original culture—formed in New York neighbourhoods by marginalised African American youth as a means of expression—has today reached almost every country on Earth and is the number one musical genre listened to in the United States.

Hip-hop’s massive international effect, particularly in countries that are culturally and linguistically diverse to the United States, can be explained through the rise of the internet.

The Internet and Urbanisation: Hip-Hop’s Rise in ASEAN

In a documentary produced by Red Bull and American production company 88rising—focused on Asian American and hip-hop artists from Asia—Rich Brian says that, not only did he learn English from the internet, he also learned how to rap and was exposed to American rappers for the first time on outlets like Youtube.

Screen grab from Asia Rising documentary

Southeast Asian economies are rapidly accelerating and more people are moving to cities. The changes brought by urbanisation in the region have brought ASEAN many positive things, but the cost for many youth is a feeling of “displacement and disconnectedness”, leaving people the task of finding their own place in society and facing the challenges that they may encounter in that process. 

In cities where young people now reside and through the fact that the region has the fastest growing Internet market in the world, ASEAN’s youth can listen to hip-hop music online and for many, it is a lifestyle and culture that resonates with them. It gives them a chance to explore their identity and connect with a global subculture in the midst of uncertainties that stem from both moving to big cities, and the economic developments that have called for urbanised living.

Academic Tony Mitchell said it nicely when he claimed that the genre has become a “vehicle for global youth afflictions”, giving ASEAN youth too, a medium through which to voice their own trials and tribulations with a changing society. 

Authenticity in Southeast Asian Rap

The authenticity of rappers—and those producing hip-hop music who fall outside the confines of the original demographic of artists—is highly contested, with many arguing that hip-hop music cannot be authentic if it’s outside the domains of marginalised African American youth experience. 

Others argue that hip-hop’s tendency to localise, such as the use of the traditional Indonesian instrument, gamelan—used in Jogja Hip Hop Foundation’s music—transcends appropriation and becomes a hybrid manifestation of the same genre. 

Either way, it’s impossible to ignore hip-hop’s influence on Southeast Asian youth and the resonance it has with communities across the region.

Commenting on Society Through Rap

Rappers in Southeast Asia focus on a huge variety of themes, but a strong message of social consciousness, young people’s identity and their role in the world, and the political ideas of youth, come through rap.

Screen grab from Rap Against Dictatorship © Believe Music

Turn your eyes to the fiery verses in Thai of Which Is My Country by hip hop group, Rap Against Dictatorship. The video shows a group of young men protesting against the elite in Thailand and it was the most downloaded song on Thailand’s iTunes chart for a long time. No matter your stance on the subject, you can’t ignore rap’s instrumental role as a medium of expression for this group’s political voice.

Outside the realm of politics, artists have dealt with social issues and commentary on society, including Vietnamese rap queen, Suboi whose song Đời—sung in Vietnamese—was inspired by her experience of gender-based violence.

Screen grab from Đời © 2016 Suboi Entertainment

She explains her intention in using the medium of rap to inspire young women to embrace life, in light of its unpredictability. The song deals with sensitive topics that Suboi can talk about through her artistry, where traditional media platforms in Vietnam might refuse to.

There are cases where hip-hop and rap are a force of narration for local stories, rather than an outlet for contemporary issues facing youth. Indonesian group, Jogja Hip Hop Foundation—which uses hip-hop beats underneath verses sung in Javanese—raps about folk tales.  This is a nice hybrid given that the alliteration coming from Javanese poems can rhythmically sync in, as though it were built for the genre.  

Jogja Hip Hop Foundation by Yesy Belajar Memotrek

International Impact of ASEAN Hip-Hop

The success of ASEAN rappers outside of the region is testament to the value this cultural export has in showcasing young Southeast Asian voices to the rest of the world; artists are appreciated worldwide, with Rich Brian selling out his first-ever tour in Australia.

This mode of expression through rap and hip-hop music creates a connection between young people across the globe.

Despite not sharing the language, Suboi, Rap Against Dictatorship and Jogja Hip Hop Foundation share many English comments—amongst others—spotted throughout their channels, confirming viewers’ liking for the musical style and a feeling of connection to the messages in their verses.

This powerhouse of hip-hop music and culture means that people outside ASEAN can have their view of the region reshaped from past impressions to a new vision of the vibrancy, youthfulness and creativity that makes up contemporary Southeast Asia.

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