AKA Muhammad: Jogja Hiphop Foundation (JHF) and Javanese Hip Hop

I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Unlike Javanese reggae, I’m in no position to review this one musically (I def. can’t sit through the 60 min self-documentary). But in other respects, it sounds like JHF founder Muhammad Marzuki — who goes by Mo Zuki and Kill the DJ — is doing the right thing.

JHF — dubbed “Indonesia’s foremost hip hop group” — made its U.S. debut at the Asia Society in New York in May.  You might joke that’s risky in terms of street cred; yet it’s much in line with former New Yorker Ras Muhamad’s own self-styled reggae diplomacy work which has him playing DJ, producer, ethnomusicologist and public diplomat on my favorite radio show every Tuesday. Similarly, JHF is using available channels to communicate where they’re coming from — in this case the princely administrative district of Jogyakarta.

JHF’s 2011 documentary Hip Hop Diningrat received some quantum of international recognition, as well as support from Intel.

Educating the grassroots on the transpacific roots of Javanese hip hop makes sense. First, ’cause hip hop’s pretty much always educating someone on something. Next, there are so many questions to answer, starting with the “dumb” ones:

“Why do you have only one name? Why is your name Mohmmad (spellings vary, no one seems to cares)?”

What else can we ask? What was it like playing out in NYC?  Whether Chinese Indonesian  kids go to hip hop shows in Indonesia?  What aspects of American hip hop are the most relevant in Jogja (a classy-yet-sassy large city in the mountains of Central Java known for its volcanoes, regal heritage, college culture, relaxed tourism and —  as much as anything — the arts).

One answer that Kill the DJ’s got already queued up responds to the question:

“Why do you sing in Javanese?”

Do you have any idea how easy it is to rap in Javanese? His answer is along those lines. Which is pretty heavy, because I bet it’s true. Rapping in Indonesian can be a game changer, too. Too much rhyme — in fact — doesn’t sound good. As far as them syncopated, salsa-fied, make-love-to-the-drum percussive traditions, I’d say the West Indies have nothing over us here in the East. So Mo’s answer satisfies and opens up the possibility of the most exciting Indonesian hip hop we’ve never heard.

The downside is that most Indonesians — even most people in Jakarta — can’t understand Javanese. That probably says something about how complex the market is; and maybe about how you have to find your own roots first, before you can connect with others.

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