Published:  12:48 AM, 12 September 2017

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim girls fight for their right to play heavy metal

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim girls fight for their right to play heavy metal Firdda Kurnia, 17, the guitarist and lead singer of the heavy metal band Voice of Baceprot, during a dress rehearsal in Jakarta, Indonesia, last month.

The three teenage girls - shy and even seeming slightly embarrassed as they peer out from their Islamic head scarves - do not look much like a heavy metal band. But a dramatic change occurs when they take the stage. All pretense of shyness or awkwardness evaporates as the group - two 17-year-olds and one 15-year-old - begin hammering away at bass, guitar and drums to create a joyous, youthful racket.

They are Voice of Baceprot, a rising band in Indonesia, a country where heavy metal is popular enough that the president is an avowed fan of bands like Metallica and Megadeth. But beyond blowing away local audiences with their banging music, the three girls are also challenging entrenched stereotypes about gender and religious norms in the world's most-populous Muslim-majority nation.

"Baceprot" (pronounced bachey-PROT) means "noise" in a common dialect in the West Java region, where the girls live and attend high school in a rural town, Singajaya. They say they want to prove that they can be observant Muslims while also playing loud music and being independent.

"A hijab and metal music are different," said Firdda Kurnia, 17, the guitarist and lead singer, referring to the traditional Muslim head scarf she and her bandmates wear. "A hijab is my identity, and metal is my music genre." In finding their voices and becoming a band, they say they have endured criticism from their families, friends and neighbors, and have received hundreds of online death threats for supposedly blaspheming Islam and not acting like proper Muslim girls - in other words, submissive, they said.

One night, while riding motorcycles home from a recording studio, they were pelted with rocks wrapped in paper inscribed with profane messages. But they have fought back, through songs about intolerance, gender equality and the rights of young people in a country where issues like forced underage marriage are still prevalent, especially in rural areas like West Java.

Their tenacity is paying off. Last month, they performed before a crowd of 2,000 senior government officials, business leaders and student groups in the capital, Jakarta, as part of a celebration of the country's 72nd independence anniversary. Ms. Firdda and her bandmates - the drummer, Eusi Siti Aisyah, 17, and the bassist, Widi Rahmawati, 15 - have been friends since childhood.

The daughters of rural farmers, they had never played instruments before taking a music class in middle school in 2014. They formed the band that same year. Their music teacher, Cep Ersa Eka Susila Satia, sensed their potential and offered to manage them, saying that he "saw three rebellious students and I channeled it" into music.

Initially, the girls said their parents forbade them from performing. But they ignored the order, playing in secret, and they soon developed a local following through live shows. Videos of their performances posted to Facebook quickly went viral, expanding their fan base.

However, that exposure on social media also opened them up to death threats, which the girls said were made by Muslim hard-liners. "They said that if we produce an album, they would burn it, and some people threatened to decapitate us," Ms. Eusi said.

Beyond the death threats, they also dealt with a more prosaic form of disapproval: "Our school principal is a conservative Muslim, and he says music is 'haram,'" or forbidden under Islam, Ms. Eusi added. Indonesia is a secular country of about 260 million, with influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, but there has been a growing conservatism among some of its more than 200 million Muslims, as well as the continued presence of violent, hard-line Islamic groups.

The country has also been hit by multiple terrorist attacks during the past 15 years by homegrown cells that have pledged allegiance to either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. While initially rattled, the girls said they were no longer afraid of the threats. Nor were they worried about their parents, who relented, the girls said, after Voice of Baceprot began appearing on national television and earning bigger paychecks performing for larger audiences. They play about five shows a month.

The band, which has four original songs that mix English and the Indonesian language, is recording its first album. During live shows, they also cover songs by musical influences like System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slipknot and Rage against the Machine.

For their performance here in Jakarta last month, Voice of Baceprot performed their popular song "The Enemy of Earth Is You," which spotlights hate speech and intolerance in Indonesia. They were accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra ensemble at the suggestion of event organizers. Jay Subyakto, the event's creative director, said he booked Voice of Baceprot to give them a national stage to prove a point to their detractors.

"It's like saying art is un-Islamic," he said. "I, and I think many other Indonesians, want to see lesser-known bands who are young, have a good ideology and have amazing lyrics in their songs." Despite conservative norms, the country has a vibrant music scene, including one of the largest punk rock movements in Asia, according to music industry analysts.

Heavy metal is also widely popular among younger Indonesians, and internationally famous acts like Metallica, Megadeth and the Scorpions have played large concerts here over the decades. Indonesia's metal-loving president, Joko Widodo, was supposed to attend the event last month, but canceled at the last minute.

Rudolf Dethu, an Indonesian music columnist and band manager, said that he compared Voice of Baceprot's music with the defiant sounds of riot grrrl, an underground feminist punk movement that arose in Washington State in the 1990s.

"In a way, this is great public relations for Indonesia, that Indonesia isn't as radical and 'scary' as lots of people outside of Indonesia think," he said. "Plus, those three teenagers are smart and have progressive minds." For their part, the girls say they are still trying to win over some students and teachers at their school who disapprove of their band. "Achievement at school should not always be studying, but it can be music," Ms. Firdda said. "But some say music will give us nothing. That's not true."



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