In 2017, we said Ramengvrl “might be the next big thing in Indonesian rap.” Fast forward five years later, she’s now been featured on a giant billboard in New York’s Times Square, promoting her single “WHO DIS?” as part of Spotify’s EQUAL program, which highlights talented women in music, from around the world. The single was released under Asiatic Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music that focuses on hip-hop artists from Asia. So, clearly, our prediction was right.
Last week, Ramengvrl released her latest single “FACTS,” a fun “let-me-flex-my-success” track that showcases her smooth flow. The single is part of the EP compilation series asiatic.wav Vol 1, which also features Mongolian hip-hop artist Mrs M, Thailand’s Phum Viphurit, and more.
But how did Jakarta-born Putri Estiani, who was raised in a conservative, Catholic home and was working 9-to-5 corporate jobs just a few years ago, end up becoming Ramengvrl, one of the hottest artists in Asia?
She admits that she doesn’t even know how to play any instrument, despite growing up in a musically-inclined family.
“My dad tried to put me in piano lessons during preschool, but yeah… I kinda regret [not learning] now. My extended family, a lot of them were pretty musical, and some of them sang in church. I don’t know why I ended up like this,” she said, laughing.
Ramengvrl did sing in her school choir for a bit, but after classes, she preferred jamming to her favorite pop songs, which gave her confidence.
“When I was little, I’d play pop music on tapes, read the lyrics, and sing them top to bottom. I always knew I can kinda follow everything, even when the song is fast and quite rappy,” Ramengvrl said. “I wasn’t the most musical person, but I have a sense of rhythm.”
In high school, an ex-boyfriend introduced her to Kanye West, an artist who would change her mind completely about rap, and eventually become one of her biggest musical influences.
“Kanye made me realize you could talk about anything [in rap], despite your background. That’s the initial point where I started diving into rap,” she said.
Even though hip-hop has been around in Indonesia since the ‘90s, there’s not a big market for the genre, bar a few MCs who crossover into the mainstream like Iwa K, Saykoji, and Yacko.
“Generally, people in Indonesia don’t listen to hip-hop unless it’s a viral TikTok song,” Ramengvrl said.
The emergence of Indonesian rapper Rich Brian—who went viral on YouTube and other social media platforms in 2016—prompted many young Indonesian rappers to put out their music and aspire to achieve the same level of success, helping grow the industry and turn more heads to Indonesian hip-hop.
In 2016, Ramengvrl quit her corporate job and released her breakthrough single with local label Underground Bizniz Club. Titled “I’m Da Man,” it’s a trap number full of swagger and bravado, about being “the man” and killing it in the rap game despite being the new kid on the block.
“I might just be the best and I’ll kill all the rest / I’m so tired of these bitches, I needed a rest / Rappers who can’t keep their mouth should go under arrest / Boy, you talk too much you should be arrested / Killin’ since day one, I finally dropped the bomb / Just ‘cause they keep tellin’ me that I can be nun.”
It’s clear that Ramengvrl means business. And while talking a big game is a popular trope of the genre, it was not that common to see a woman MC doing it in the male-dominated Indonesian hip-hop scene.
Talking about the issue, Ramengvrl said that today, there’s less gender bias compared to when she started out, but it’s still far from ideal.
“Things definitely have progressed. Now, when there’s a new female rapper coming into the room, people don’t go, ‘What can she do? Does she even have bars?’” Ramengvrl said. “But we’re not there yet, because the number of females who rap, you can still count them with one hand, probably.”
Ramengvrl. Photo: Ejja Pahlevi
Young Indonesians are attracted to Ramengvrl’s unapologetic confidence. It’s reflected in her music, provocative music videos, and quirky sense of style. But beyond all the bravado and explicit references, it’s the themes of women empowerment and self-acceptance that stand out in her music. Picked as one of the songs in the video game Need For Speed Heat, “I AM ME” is an anthem about staying true to yourself, no matter how that may look to other people.
“I do just what I wanna do, end of story / And I always get what I want, call me bossy / If you really hate my guts then why you all on my pussy? / Don’t ever try to change me, ‘cause bitch, I am me.”
Ramengvrl said she’s always spoken her mind, even if no one else in her family is as vocal about their convictions as she is.
“It’s funny because some of my friends that met my family for the first time went, ‘OMG, whose kid are you?’” she said, laughing.
“I don’t know where I got it from, but it’s always been there, even though I didn’t show it in school, because you try to fit in,” she continued. “My mother has told me, many times, that I’m too extreme, but for me, it’s just regular talk.”
“Things definitely have progressed. Now, when there’s a new female rapper coming into the room, people don’t go, ‘What can she do? Does she even have bars?’”
In late 2020, Ramengvrl released her first full-length album Can’t Speak English via EMPIRE, a label where many big names like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Lil Uzi Vert, and, of course, her fellow Indonesian, Rich Brian, got their big break.
The album highlights Ramengvrl’s musical diversity, in that she does much more than just churn out bangers, although there are plenty of those in there. There are chill tracks such as “Foreign” (feat. Thai rapper Pyra), probably the closest she gets to a love song; and “The Emo Song” (feat. Sihk), an honest, heartbreaking number that shows a different side of her.
Ramengvrl said the album title refers to her own inferiority complex about not speaking perfect English, and how that often is perceived as lack of intelligence or class, at least in Indonesia.
“I didn’t have the privilege of being exposed to an English-speaking environment. Nobody really spoke English in my school, even the teachers’ English wasn’t that good,” Ramengvrl recalled.
“But I learned English by myself, since kindergarten, because I had two cousins attending an international school, and they made me feel inferior, in a way, for not speaking English. Growing up, I found that’s how Indonesian society thinks.”
She hopes that more Indonesians would appreciate their local language—and talents—more, rather than only support things that are deemed “international.”
And that’s why, as much as she wants to bring her music to the world, she’s also in no rush.
“Indonesia? Done. What’s next? Of course I want to go to the U.S. like any other Asian artist, but I don’t wanna push it. I want it to be organic, so the strategy is to expand to Asia first,” Ramengvrl said.
After a few years of grinding it out, earning millions of music streams, and winning awards, Ramengvrl said she’s happy with what she’s achieved.
“When I started out, there’s a lot of things I thought about. ‘Will these bars impress these people?’ ‘If I don’t rap fast, will I be taken seriously?,’” she said, adding that the pressure is even worse for women.
“There’s that double standard when it comes to physical appearance. ‘Do I look ugly wearing this lip color? Wait a minute, I haven’t shaved my armpit.”
“Now, I don’t care,” she said.
But make no mistake, she’s nowhere close to where she ultimately wants to be.
“I never chill. Success is a very fluid word. I’ve achieved the goals that I wanted to achieve,” she said, before adding: “There’s a lot of milestones that I’ve passed through—now I’m ready for the next ones.”
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