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Tea Leaves

Muslim girls rock, but not about religion

Indonesian band Voice of Baceprot has a different story to tell

The three teenage rockers that make up Voice of Baceprot are influenced by Western bands like Rage Against The Machine and Muse. (Courtesy of Voice of Baceprot)

As a music fanatic who grew up before the internet boom I devoured articles and listened intently to anecdotes about musicians, often before hearing them play. As fans, my friends and I embraced rock star mythologies that simultaneously provided identification, deification and wish fulfillment. But what happens when the story ends up going another direction?

In Indonesia, it is not difficult to see how public figures, including musicians, have been used as representations of different sociopolitical and religious groups. Some embrace the role, while others shy away from it.

Voice of Baceprot (the last word means "noisy sound" in Sundanese) is in the latter camp. VoB has moved rapidly from its origins as an all-girl, high-school band in Bandung, West Java, to internet sensation through a story that many people found compelling. But it was not the story its members wanted to tell.

The three hijab-wearing teenage girls who make up VoB play heavy metal rock music and have been widely praised in the local and international media for confounding expectations about young Indonesian Muslims. The media focused on their Muslim apparel and perceived conflicts with religious leaders who might view the band's musical endeavors as unbecoming.

That response to their music was mostly based on a narrative of religious progressiveness that did not overly concern the three young women. Yet, their supposed sociopolitical statement became an international story, presenting the band as teen-rockers who were challenging religious stigmas and setting out to prove that -- surprise, surprise -- girls with hijab can rock too. Few publications wrote about their actual music.

It was a compelling story, but fell far short of reality. If there is anything the VoB members -- Firda Kurnia (vocals, guitars), Euis Siti Aisyah (drums), and Widi Rahmawati (bass) -- want to challenge, it is the portrayal of their musical efforts as showbiz schtick.

"We can't really control the way people see us," Kurnia says with resignation, while acknowledging that the media hype made many people notice the band. Nevertheless, she adds, many of those who initially praised it had probably never listened to the music.

The truth is that the girls in VoB do not really sing about their religious beliefs; indeed they argue that they are just like other musicians trying to pour out their hearts through music. They are only "religious" in that they "seek out truths about humanity and social conditions," says Kurnia. Their key issues concern the Indonesian education system, governmental hypocrisy, and the role of big business in causing pollution -- important issues, but not ones related to religious stigmas.

For VoB the presentation is the story, not the content. It is easy to assume that fans will talk about the music if it is compelling. But the good intentions of fans who praise VoB as "Muslim girls rocking" limit the band's artistry, focusing on their apparent differences from expectations rather than their creative music. When people are too eager to project their own ideals onto artists' work, the creators can be blocked from feedback, drive, and ultimately growth.

There is irony here, because another reason that VoB's existence gets more attention than its music is that the band has released only one official single. New songs have been announced and played, but as yet remain officially unreleased, while the only official video so far is for "School Revolution," an aggressive-yet-melodic rocker with funky grooves and chugging guitars.

The media's distorted portrayal of VoB's music has lumbered them with the responsibility of representing not only young female rock musicians but also an entire religion. Bands, especially young ones, don't just want to inspire; they want (and need) to be inspired.

The girls, who have all recently graduated from high school, spend most of their time helping their parents and attending daily band rehearsals. As a teen still finding her way through the world, the last thing Kurnia wants to talk about is religion. She wants to talk about the music, which she refers to as "a need."

"Music is like eating," Kurnia says. "We don't even have to 'make time' for it, it's a part of our everyday existence."

The message here is that it is time to give this narrative back to the artists. That might result in something the world no longer adores, but it would be a purer expression of who they are.

"What we want to get across is the courage to do something new," says Kurnia. The narrative her band has been given is not hers, but like other struggling artists, she uses the opportunity to show what she is really all about.

"This country doesn't have a draught of talented, smart young people. What we lack is young people who are brave enough to showcase their voice and potential."

The question is whether people will ultimately see these young Muslim rockers as brave and talented young musicians rather than iconoclastic Muslim girls.

Marcel Thee is a Jakarta-based writer and musician.

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