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Home » Cultural Geography, Elections, Geopolitics, Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election and the Geography of Heavy Metal Music

Submitted by on December 4, 2014 – 12:09 pm 19 Comments |  
Jokowi Napalm DeathWhen lecturing in my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events, I always begin by showing an enigmatic map or other image and asking if anyone can make sense of it. This week the topic was Indonesia, focusing on the country’s 2014 presidential election (which is admittedly rather old news). I began the class with the image posted to the left, as I wanted to see if anyone could draw a connection between the heavy-metal band Napalm Death and His Excellency Joko Jokowi Napalm Death 2Widodo, the seventh president of Indonesia. No one supplied the answer, which is provided in the next image: Jokowi (as he in called in Indonesia) is a huge fan. He also follows other Metalhead Presidentmetal bands, and he has helped promote metal concerts in his native city, Surakarta (also known as Solo).

Heavy metal music comes in a variety of sub-genres, as I learned in preparing the lecture. That of Napalm Death (“grindcore”) is particularly harsh, at least to my untutored ear, and I must admit to feeling rather astonished that its appeal would extend much beyond angst-ridden teenagers, and especially that it would reach a powerful middle-aged politician such as Joko Widodo. But Jokowi is no ordinary political figure, as he is very much a “man of the people.” More important, metal bands have played a significant role in recent Indonesian history. As Madeleine King explains in a blog post entitled “Live for Satan,” “It may surprise some to learn that heavy metal—a sub-genre of rock music that emerged largely from America and England in the 1970s—was at the heart of Indonesia’s late 1990s pro-democracy movement.” Jokowi was, of course, a much younger man at that time, and it is thus perhaps not so surprising that he would still favor a musical genre associated with the downfall of Indonesia’s authoritarian government.

With all of that in mind, I tried to listen to Napalm Death with a more open mind, but hearing their songs still seemed more like an assault on my ears than a genuine musical experience. (Here I am perhaps merely showing my age, but my 15-year-old daughter agreed.) The growled and grunted vocals were especially off-putting. But the actual lyrics (see the end of the post for one example) are not unintelligent, and here I can begin to see the attraction.

Metal Hand SignsBut the fact that a major fan of Napalm Death could win a presidential election, and do so in predominantly Muslim country, still strikes me as remarkable. I doubt very much that such a candidate could triumph in the United States, as accusations of “Satanism” would fly thick and would likely stick. And indeed, satanic imagery is common across much of the metal world. Some would even say that the hand gesture made by Jokowi in the image posted above indicates the horns of Satan, although here I remain skeptical – and I find the satirical poster of “satanic hand signs” posted here to be quite amusing.

Certainly many Muslim critics, both in Indonesia and elsewhere, have accused metal music of encouraging Satanism. As the abstract to Mark Levine’s “Doing the Devil’s Work: Heavy Metal and the Threat to Public Order in the Muslim World” puts it, his article shows “the largely negative reaction to the music by Muslim governments and societies, and how, in a certain sense, today’s Muslim metalheads are fulfilling a historic function of Satan in Islamic theology.” But as Levine also shows in his book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, the genre is highly popular among certain youth segments in many Muslim countries, and it often incorporates pro-Islamic overtones. As the author of a recent blog-post frames it, “Today, metal and Islam play a more synergistic role.” The same post also notes that the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land is one of the few institutions in the region able to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims.

In Indonesia, it would seem that hardline Sunni Muslim stalwarts are currently more interested in countering Shia and Ahmadiyya Islam than they are in taking on heavy metal music, although I would have to do more research here to make any conclusive statements.

Metal Bands MapAlthough heavy metal music may be widespread in the Muslim realm, it is even more popular elsewhere. As the map posted to the left indicates, metal bands are far more numerous in Europe and the Americas. In regard to Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia does occupy a prominent position, although it is surpassed by neighboring Malaysia. According to this somewhat dated map, sub-Saharan Africa is the only major region of the world to have been largely bypassed by the metal phenomenon. It would be interesting to see an updated version, as I would be especially curious to find out if the genre has reached Afghanistan.

Per capita Metal Nands MapIn per capita terms, a different map emerges. Here we can see that the Nordic countries form the core region of metal music, with Finland occupying the top spot. A 2013 BuzzFeed post attempts to explain this intriguing fact through climatic determinism—“The dark winter surely plays a major role in this attachment to suicidal lyrics, double bass drum, and the color black”—but such an explanation does not work for sunnier metal-loving countries, such as Greece. The same BuzzFeed post notes that Finland leads the world in a number of additional categories, most of which seem quite distant from the realm of heavy metal, including education, lack of corruption, and the borrowing of books from libraries. Finland is also the world’s top coffee-consuming country. Perhaps if I had enough caffeine in my system I would be able to appreciate the music of Napalm Death.

 

Judicial Slime

(by Napalm Death)

 

Taste me,

You made me what I am,

Mind polluting worthless fuck.

 

Am I the mental feast,

Bruised and scarred,

The underdog.

 

A pawn within a losers game,

My strength will grow upon your fear.

 

Slime,

In time you’ll face your end line.

Judge me not before yourself.

Breed,

Take my pride – that’s all you can.

Hatred surges burning me.

 

Feed,

For what atonement do you seek,

Your dying grasp of loyalty breaks like brittle bones.

 

Forgotten past,

I stand condemned,

For I am more powerful than you’d imagine.

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  • James Mayfield

    Interesting article. Grindcore is pretty much child’s play when compared with Black Metal, which was mostly pioneered in Norway. It is obvious that the environment and isolation in Norway helped give Black Metal the geography it does today. I would like to know why you think National Socialist Black Metal is so popular in Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Ukraine? I think the failure of socialism and frustration with Westernization has pushed people towards radicalism in many such places. Black Metal is also popular in Greece, so I don’t know if the sunny geography explains it all. IMO many people are drawn to those extremes because the economy is so broken and resentment is created, usually against the establishment (Christianity, democracy, etc.). Golden Dawn meetings sometimes sell Black Metal albums, such as by Rotting Christ. But then again, Black Metal isn’t popular in bankrupt Spain!

    • Thanks, James — I was hoping that someone with more knowledge about metal music would respond. Your observations make a lot of sense, and the contrast between Greece and Spain is intriguing.

      • rising

        metal in greece is synonymous with the anarchy subculture. a lot of the grind stuff grew from the punk of the 70s and 80s. it’s a continuation. good grind is MINDblowingly good. i won’t namedrop but there is some seriously good stuff out there.

        also, napalm death is/was the genesis of grind. what’s grown from that is even more grotesque (sewergrind, goregrind, porngrind etc). it can get quite ridiculous, and it can be hard to take it seriously, but it is certainly a valid art form and not arrhythmic or anything as such. having said that, i don’t care for it much, but it is all in good fun, i would say. a lot of the band have a humorous element to them.

        • Here again we see the amazing proliferation of sub-genres. Is this particular to metal, or is it found in other popular musical genres as well? I agree that metal music is a valid art form, even if it is not to my taste. I can also honestly say that I would rather listen to Napalm Death than anything by Arnold Schoenberg, which is of course not merely art but high art. I also agree that a “humorous element” is extremely helpful. Not much of that in modern atonal music — or am I missing something?

          • Xezlec

            Late to the party, but: I can tell you that in modern electronic music there is also a ridiculous proliferation of ever-finer disctinctions between subgenres. I’d imagine it’s far worse than is the case for metal. It’s actually gotten to the point that some artists give up trying to classify their own music appropriately because they can’t keep up with the byzantine, constantly-evolving, fractal geometry of the electronic music landscape. Instead, some just make up a new “genre” name for each song to describe how it sounds. This, of course, only exacerbates the problem.

            There was a time when I could keep track of at least the first few layers of taxonomic classification but that was well over a decade ago and I’m clueless now. I think there are more named flavors of dubstep at this point than there were electronic genres in the 90s. And dubstep isn’t even cool anymore… uh, except maybe “glitch hop”. Or, wait, am I thinking of “future bass”?

          • I have been amazed at how fine these distinctions can be be, and evidently they keep being subdivided. I imagine that it has to do with the search for relatively intimate communities of interest. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • Very interesting article. Recently I made a similar choropleth map for punk bands per country.

    https://courteduree.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/punk-bands-per-country/

    • Wonderful! Interesting that the Nordic countries again figure prominently. No punk bands in Indonesia, however. A few years ago, stories appeared about the Sharia police in Aceh, an autonomous part of Indonesia under Muslim law, forcibly cutting the hair of “punks” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2011/dec/14/police-arrest-punks-indonesia). I suspect that the young men were in actuality metalheads rather than “punks” per se.

      • I remember those stories. I checked the images and by their t-shirts they are definitively punk kids. I was in a hardcore-punk band in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Brazil, and we would always receive emails from people from Jakarta asking us to play there (we toured Europe and South America a couple of times). And I had friends from the U.S. who toured there with their punk bands. So there was definitely a hardcore punk scene in Indonesia at that time.

        The Map I made with bands from the 1970s and 1980s, the first and second waves of punk. At that time they didn’t have punk bands there.

  • Ross Payant

    Yes, but the real question is is Widodo a fan of the classic Napalm death or the sell out death metal Napalm Death? But seriously, I find it interesting that a place such as Indonesia would be interested in such things but I doubt the reasons are the same as in the West. “Heavy metal” isn’t such a useful term here because it’s too inclusive and includes sub-genres which are universally mainstream. If we’re specifically speaking of two extreme sub-genres (Black metal and Grindcore) there is more to say. Grindcore is essentially punk in aesthetic be it ideological or nihilistic. When it is nihilistic it’s nihilistic. When it is ideological then it uses the aesthetic of nihilism (see Black Flag, not as Grindcore but as an ideological punk band which pretends to be nihilistic, see satire). Black Metal is nothing more than the modern incarnation of the European Romantic tradition (don’t fall for the Black Metal = Satanism thing). As such NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal) can be understood as Romanticism leading to nationalism leading to fascism. Earlier men would have blamed Rousseau, now they blame Celtic Frost. In any case I suppose the popularity of extreme metal in Indonesia is diffusionairy. Keep in mind that no genre of music is inherently “alternative”. In the west there was a time when Jazz, Rock and Roll and the Blues were all scandalous. Each endured a period of scandal before they became normalized. BUT if a genre of something is transplanted to another society it need only overcome one hurdle of scandal before losing its taboo.

    • Fascinating comments — many thanks. In looking into this issue, I have been astounded by the proliferation of sub-genres. Black Metal alone comes in many different forms, including “Unblack Metal,” which is also known as Christian Black Metal. One song in this genre is “Invert the Inverted Cross” by Horde. As someone who loves complexity, I find that all quite fascinating.

      • Ross Payant

        Unblack metal is just one of those things that has to happen because technology has made it easy for any Joe Shmoe to release their own album. Myself, I like to stay classy and what has more class than Marxist Black Metal? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Awz4XE7S49E)

  • Yiannis Theodoropoulos

    There are enough reasons for frustration and radicalism to explain the prominence of hevy metal in sunny Greece, I guarantee you 🙂

  • Mohamed Mahmoud

    It isn’t uncommon that political
    leaders go with the latest trends of visual media in order to promote their own
    work, but to do to the opposite really shocked me when I read this article with
    heavy metal no less especially in the country where most of the majority was Muslims.
    I am thinking this maybe the reason that it was one of the factors that Jokowi
    won. But was Jokowi interested in heavy metal just to promote himself to make
    it seem he understand the younger generation.

  • Iago González
  • Iago González

    Interesting article about the relationship between intelligence and adherence to heavy metal.
    http://www.deathmetal.org/news/the-strong-link-between-heavy-metal-and-high-intelligence/

  • Rhys Stevenson

    Indeed Heavy Metal has reached Afghanistan, check out the band District Unknown. Also follow Global Metal Apocalypse as we are dedicated to unearthing metal and rock bands from places unbeknownst to the wider music communities.

  • resist the ANWO.

    It’s quite simply pathetic and is the latest attempt of asian imperialism. First we buy your homes, farms, land companies, and now your music. Asia was not apart of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd waves of heavy metal.. they have come into it late, and now they make out that they had the biggest scene from the beginning. Most asians live and act like chinese hip hop gangsters, they are bringing their Chinese hip hop triad culture wherever they go.

    There are plenty of Indonesians/asians where I am – they are not into metal.

  • Trevor Thompson

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and all of these comments. I don’t have much to say other than in the ever evolving world of metal sub-genres it’s really hard to listen to Napalm Death and capture even a snapshot of what metal is. It can be disgusting and grotesque, but it can also be beautiful, moving, and melodic. Sometimes within the span of only a minute! I will leave you with just one song that encompasses this, from beginning to end a very different song.

    https://youtu.be/19UZd_DKs2Q