NIKI, Rich Brian, and the Chinese-Indonesian’s American Dream

Indonesian singer NIKI on beach with round, long sunglasses for Oceans and Engines music video

When the video for “Oceans & Engines,” the second single from NIKI’s sophomore full-length, Nicole, came out, I sat (laid, really) down and listened attentively in a way I had never done with any of the singer-songwriter’s preceding output.

The track’s over five-minute run time, its lush, slow-burn pace and above all, sheer lyrical prowess caught me off guard. I had never quite heard an Indonesian artist lay out something so soul-baring, endlessly poetic and – here’s the catch – in English.

Indonesian artists, even those who hail from an upper-middle class background or have lived in an English-speaking country, are usually not good at songwriting in English. Nine times out of ten, it’s either simplistic and uninspired or clunky and abysmal, no matter if it delivers vocally, sonically or visually.

Somehow, at least to my ears and eyes, everything about “Oceans & Engines” just clicked. Not only was the video tastefully done, you could also genuinely feel NIKI’s sorrow in the throes of this colossal, intercontinental breakup. The whole thing was exquisitely executed and truly painted a gripping picture of the end of an affair.

Then “High School in Jakarta” came along.

I was initially sold on its title alone. “Wow, she really went ahead and wrote a song with that title?” I thought to myself amused. I gave it a spin and it turned out to be … an absolute cringefest.

“I’m sorry, but the whole thing reeks of trust-fund baby culture,” texted a fellow pop aficionado/acquaintance to me as soon as they heard the song and saw the video. I could not agree more.

While NIKI’s songwriting remains sharp throughout, its lyricism, by contrast, replete with mentions of friends with typically Western names (Amanda, Zoe, Kendra, et al) and their globetrotting to Colorado, New York and Singapore, falls flat in its twee, sing-songy inflection and quickly veers into a rather tone-deaf territory taken in the context of its music video.

First of all, the archetypal Indonesian high schoolers look like this, no preppy bowtie or plaid skirt in sight … certainly no subject-based classrooms and lockered hallways either:

A quick Google search would in fact reveal that NIKI went to Sekolah Pelita Harapan, located in the Greater Jakarta Area of Tangerang (therefore not precisely in Jakarta) and conveniently one of the most prestigious, and exorbitantly expensive, private schools in Indonesia. Did I mention that the school is rife with discriminatory conduct and its co-founder was indicted by the US government for bankrolling the Clinton-era Democratic Party?

NIKI has spoken at great length about Nicole being inspired by Taylor Swift’s re-recordings of her past albums, further stretching the Swiftian narrative that essentially kickstarted her career: the Indonesian public first met her as an ice cream brand’s contest winner who got to open for Swift’s Red Tour during its Jakarta stop in 2014, long before she was signed to the Asian-focused juggernaut 88rising

Sure enough, the bulk of songs that make up Nicole are songs that she used to post on YouTube under her old moniker/birth name Nicole Zefanya: diaristic, narrative-heavy, acoustic guitar-driven songs endlessly preoccupied with matters of the heart, a far cry from her initial dabbling with R&B.

Upon listening to Nicole, it became glaringly clear to me how equally preoccupied NIKI was, or still is, with American-ness, specifically White American-ness: album opener “Before” makes references to a Carolina autumn, the Mason-Dixon line and New York (naturally), while deep cuts “Backburner” and “On the Drive Home” namecheck Goo Goo Dolls and Snow Patrol, two alt-rock luminaries of the 1990s and 2000s, respectively, whose heart-rending strummers no doubt must have left a deep impression on her. 

Then there’s “Anaheim,” which, as of 2017, was her final official release as Nicole Zefanya: building on the original’s nearly bareboned foundation, a smattering of strings and electronic synths now underscore the Nicole version, as do NIKI’s more restrained vocals, in place of her younger, wobblier, more earnest (and Ellie Goulding-esque) rendition. 

If NIKI guns for being crowned as the Indonesian Taylor Swift (or at least Olivia Rodrigo, a fellow contemporary Swift disciple of Asian descent), by all accounts, Nicole has the goods to back it up. It’s certainly a more sonically cohesive and lyrically sophisticated (and dense) record compared to Rodrigo’s overly earnest, juvenile, and one-track mind Sour

In reality, is Nicole blowing up the US charts and NIKI making major moves in the American music industry? Well, not exactly

Granted, NIKI doesn’t have a Disney background like Rodrigo (never mind highly calculated, government-backed marketing strategies à la K-Pop acts), but 88rising also includes the likes of Joji and fellow Indonesian Rich Brian in its roster, both of whom have racked up a slew of gold and platinum-selling releases between them. 

Is she not pulling numbers like the boys because she’s a female artist? Is her label not supporting her music enough? Why hasn’t her supposed marketability (first she was Ariana-esque, now she’s Taylor-lite) translated to genuine impact in the American market and media? (On that note, Taylor Swift really should add NIKI to the list of opening acts for her next tour.)

I always find it amusing whenever a non-American artist — no matter if they’re better or no better or worse than your average American pop star — attempts to break the American market (and their art is specifically inspired by or caters to the ‘American taste’ to boot), it’s typically met with a lukewarm reception, as if Americans are saying, “Great job at trying to be like us, but we’ll stick with homegrown products, thanks!” Your best bet is really to just go artsyfartsy (or be a prodigy), exist in that niche and forget playing the big game. 

Let’s do a hypothesis: If “Oceans & Engines” were an actual Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo song, wouldn’t it very likely be bestowed with Pitchfork’s Best New Music or shoot up to the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 its first week out

Unfortunately, since it’s by a much less heralded artist from Indonesia (which Americans couldn’t seem to find on the map), the writers or powers that be at these publications, and the American public in general, might already have preconceived notions about NIKI and her background well before giving her music time out of their day. 

Emulation and assimilation

When a lifelong ingraining of your existence being lesser than persists, you naturally strive for the ultimate heights — mastery of the oppressor’s language — at all costs … It’s survival instinct.

The culture of emulation, particularly emulating anything American and especially its White populace, has been ubiquitous for generations in Indonesia, even more so from Generation X onwards. 

I might have been born in the early 1990s, but I also have an older sister who was born in the late 1970s and came of age in 1990s Jakarta, a period when the internet and cable TV became omnipresent in upper-middle class households, MTV was syndicated by a national station and quickly emerged as the beacon and zenith of Gen X coolness, and cinemas only screened American movies after the collapse of the national film industry; it’s telling that the late 1990s rebirth of Indonesian cinema is widely credited to the Pulp Fiction-inspired Kuldesak.

Naturally, I grew up with the belief that anything in English or Western, but even more so American, is definitely always superior to anything from my backyard, so to speak. Yes, this inferiority complex can be traced all the way back to the colonization era, but it did worsen in the 1990s and carry over to subsequent generations seemingly unchecked and unquestioned.

As Indonesia morphed into a democracy, instead of being examined, contested, or dispensed with, the inferiority complex turned even more pronounced and entrenched in the collective psyche, in tandem with the insidious extolling and exalting of globalization. When a lifelong ingraining of your existence being lesser than persists, you naturally strive for the ultimate heights — mastery of the oppressor’s language — at all costs to ensure that you stay a cut above the rest. It’s survival instinct.

Both NIKI and Rich Brian (neé Brian Imanuel Soewarno) were born in 1999, not long after the Reformasi era kicked off and shortly before the turn of the millennium, meaning that their formative years must have been informed by an onslaught of American media and entertainment via the internet, cable TV and social media. Brian himself has admitted that YouTube and the likes of 2 Chainz and Tyler, the Creator greatly helped him in learning English.

It’s a no-brainer, then, that Brian’s “Dat $tick” became an instant viral sensation upon its arrival. By 2016, social media had become the go-to source of media and slowly upended the chokehold of traditional media in most people’s day-to-day. There he was, a short, skinny, baritone-voiced, fanny pack-toting, Chinese-looking teenager (lest we forget Brian was first known as Rich Chigga) slightly making fun of yet also gamely participating in quintessential hip-hop sound and imagery … and actually pulling it off. The novelty of it was refreshing, groundbreaking and most importantly subversive, all the right ingredients for guaranteed virality. In short: Brian understood the assignment. 

However, despite a succession of one-off singles, albums and EPs of varying but mostly superior quality, Brian has yet to score another “hit” in the vein of “Dat $tick,” not even with this year’s superb “Getcho Mans,” which features his 2.0 version, Warren Hue, a fellow Jakarta native obviously cut from the same socio-cultural-economic cloth as him and Nicole. (Notice how all three have typically Western given names?)

It’s worth underlining that despite the shared Asian-ness and proclivity for assimilation, the Asian-American experience and the Asian expatriate experience are two virtually different entities. 

The average Asian-American might have immigrated to the US as a young child or was born and raised in the US by immigrant parents. The American transplant from an Asian country, on the other hand, most likely gets sent off to the US by their well-off, America-centric parents or immigrates on their own accord — often to build a US-based career, artistic or otherwise — all because they want to and can. 

Chances are the vision of America that the latter harbors and eventually embodies is one that they were exposed to by way of films, TV shows and music videos, not quite taking into account or understanding the cultural divide and racial tension that punctuate the delicate fabrics of American society. Why should they when they’re economically equipped to exist in their bubble, simply get on with their agenda (perhaps while co-opting the identity politics-based zeitgeist in the process), and jet off to their country of origin when things get uncomfortable where they will still enjoy similar conveniences? Their mental view might suggest that money, and skin color, can buy proximity.

My first listen of Nicole, for instance, was immediately ridden with the thought of, “Wow, girlfriend really was living her American suburb dream (concurrently also mine at one point) and giving Everwood realness!” The same goes for my initial impression of the “Getcho Mans” video. These kids really went ahead and did, and are still doing, that in ways that would have been unthinkable, or flat-out impossible, in my formative years.   

Emulating American culture is of course not a phenomenon unique to Indonesians or Chinese-Indonesians — it’s a practice shared by most of modern humanity, even more so by the impressionable youth. What’s uniquely Chinese-Indonesian about it, however, is the underlying identity crisis that prompts it, inevitably born out of the sociocultural alienation from the “native” Indonesians’ end since time immemorial, which took a turn for the worse in the wake of Reformasi.

The Chinese-Indonesian writer Jessaline Tanjung argues that the concept of “enoughness” permeating the psyche of many Chinese-Indonesians is another key point that drives them to seek a new way of existing. “I tend to feel more “isolated” in the mainstream Indonesian community and culture when I am back home in Indonesia. It is not as bad as feeling “deviant”, […] but the presence of an unbridgeable gap between native Indonesians and Chinese Indonesians feels quite prominent to me as an individual,” she observes. 

Nonetheless, her opinion took a different turn after her move to the Netherlands and her sense of nationalism towards Indonesia grew unexpectedly, “not only through food and language but especially through a feeling of overprotectiveness towards my home country. 

“It is not possible to ever identify Chinese Indonesians as either “Chinese” or “Indonesian”, because we simply are not either. No matter how much we try and conform [in]to either community, the level of enoughness we possess will not be sufficient to both,” she continues. “It is important to stress that the Chinese and Indonesian communities are both our communities, instead of believing that we (must) belong to only one of them, or even neither.”

Stuck in a cultural limbo

What I find interesting about the current crop of Chinese-Indonesian acts making waves in the US, whether by aping White American or Black American values, aesthetics, or tropes, is that they almost always entered the same way: by skipping the ladder. 

Sure, Nicole, Brian and Warren had humble beginnings in Jakarta as independent acts, but they never established a presence in the Indonesian music industry per se. Instead, they moved to the US right off the bat, built their careers there and then established said presence simply because they had the opportunity and the means to pull it off. 

Contrast them with the likes of Anggun and Agnez Mo (interestingly a Chinese-Indonesian herself), who had cut their teeth for years as child stars and teen sensations before crossing over to Western music markets as adults, and therein lies the stark difference. 

Here’s the thing: I do not mind the skipping of ladders and definitely do not wish to knock down anyone’s hustle. I do believe that every artist has their own trajectory, that what works for one artist might not work for another, and that I better not be an old millennial fart, times are changing and now it is possible to build a music career based on social media presence and online correspondence. Don’t blame the players, blame the game.

What I find ironic, however, is the fact that all this emulating and assimilating hasn’t necessarily resulted in any unquestionably major critical — let alone commercial — breakthrough for these artists. I will not chalk it up solely to the artists themselves, though; they are also part of a bigger system whose mechanism is by and large beyond their control. 

Here we go again: Despite modern-day American media — and by extension, the public — touting itself for being all about inclusivity and representation, it most definitely still has biases towards artists with certain looks or from certain cultural backgrounds, more so when they read as “foreign” to the average American. What else could explain the scant radio airplay for K-Pop acts (yes, even the otherwise globe-conquering BTS) or why UK rappers hardly make a dent in the US despite being major cultural cachet in their home country? 

Sure, the past decade or so has seen more Asian-American artists and performers than ever gain traction in mainstream American media, although this hasn’t made Emmy, Oscar and Grammy winners out of Sandra Oh, Awkwafina and Mitski either … or at least not yet. So where does that leave Asian performers that are just working in the US, lusting over and grinding for that delectable American Dream, a seat at the American pop culture table?

In a perpetual state of cultural limbo, that’s where.

Not fully accepted, much less celebrated, in their chosen destination (where the talking points around them strictly revolve around their ethnicity and identity instead of their actual art), not quite standing the chance to be the most revered in their place of origin (in a way, they might be perceived as ‘too Westernized’ or ‘too Americanized’ by their compatriots), and yet the prestige of having the public reputation as an Asian person ‘making it in the West’ (or to use most Indonesians’ preferred parlance: ‘going international’) will always give them the upper hand on their home turf at the end of the day. 

This is presumably why, despite their US-driven ways and actual ability to do so, the likes of Agnez Mo, NIKI, Rich Brian and Warren Hue have yet to, or will not, relinquish their Indonesian citizenship. True, Chinese-Indonesians have been subjected to many unfair, or straight-up brutal, treatments throughout Indonesian history. In the same breath, it’s also true that many of them do indeed possess the kind of socio-economic clout that would allow them to settle somewhere Western and still thrive, or give the illusion of thriving to ‘people back home’, before returning to the ‘home’ that deeply mistrusts or makes them feel othered anyway, long as they get paid. It’s just in their DNA.


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