On The Rise

Rich Brian on His Growth, Dreams, and Asian Identity

In an exclusive interview with VICE, Brian Imanuel talks about his new album ‘The Sailor,’ his career trajectory, his collaboration with Spotify, and meeting the President of Indonesia.

by Yudhistira Agato
15 August 2019, 8:06am

Photo courtesy of Spotify Indonesia.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Rich Brian dives deep into his identities and growth as an artist on his new album, The Sailor. Born as Brian Imanuel, the 19-year-old rapper has shown immense growth and the ability to churn out songs that are more serious, inspirational, and deeply personal since releasing his debut single “Dat $tick” under the controversial name Rich Chigga in 2016.

This approach is quite different from his work from the early stages of his career. “Dat $tick” became a hit mostly because of its ridiculous music video where Brian dabs and struts in the middle of an empty road with a guy carrying a gun. It was controversial and was called out for using the n-word and cultural appropriation.

Brian has since apologised for the racial slurs in his lyrics and changed his name but of course, the irony is that it’s that very song that catapulted him into the mainstream.

With its hard, bouncy beats and flows, the song is definitely catchy. “Dat $tick” made it into our list of best singles three years ago. At the time, we called the single “a meteoric entrance” and said that it “would be a great shame if Brian wasn’t able to harness his talent further.” He did. Under the label 88 Rising, Brian has found his own niche and voice as an artist.

Brian moved to the United States early in his career and mostly raps in English. The same goes for his interviews and social media posts, which is why it’s hard to figure out which culture he relates to the most.

Is he an Indonesian musician who has “gone international?” Or has he always positioned himself as a global artist who just happens to be from Indonesia?

Whatever your opinion is on Rich Brian, his talent and success are undeniable. On Spotify, he is the second most streamed rapper in Indonesia, just behind Post Malone. His popularity on the music streaming platform even led to a collaboration in promoting his latest album The Sailor, which dropped in July.

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Photo courtesy of Spotify Indonesia.

Right before the opening of The Sailor Experience (an interactive exhibition about the rapper’s life) in Jakarta last week, VICE sat down with Rich Brian and Spotify Label and Artist Director for Asia Pacific Chee Meng Tan. We talked about the music scene in Asia and Southeast Asia, the pressure that comes with representing Indonesia, and his identity as a rapper.

VICE: On The Sailor, you talked more about being Asian and, more specifically, Indonesian—why is that and why now?

Rich Brian: Right. So, it all started when I was working on “Yellow,” one of the first songs I worked on for this album. I remember hearing the instrumentals for the first time and when I heard it, it was during a weird time in my life where I was going through a 4-month writer’s block and I couldn’t make anything.

I felt like I hit a wall, almost. I was like “Okay, what now?” When I heard the instrumental, I was so inspired by it and was motivated to write about exactly how I felt at that moment, and just to be as vulnerable as I can [be].

When I was writing that, I wasn't even thinking about the whole concept of The Sailor, or the Asian identity thing. I realised that that song felt like a movie with three acts and it felt like the beginning part was me talking about my struggles and how suffocated I was feeling. The second part goes into...mood changes and it becomes this hopeful, this positive but emotional thing. That’s when I had the realisation, “Oh, I’ve never talked about this topic before in my music.

I realised the platform that I had and [that] this is the perfect time to do it, that was when the whole concept of The Sailor struck out to me and Sean. This is something that’s really important to talk about because my experience as a 17-year-old going to America by myself is pretty crazy.

Looking back on it now, it’s kinda like “How did I do that by myself?” When I think back on it, I don't remember feeling scared, but I remember feeling really determined. I was so determined because I had such a big dream, I had no time to be scared. And as crazy as it was, I know I'm not the only kid that feels that way and that there are kids out there that either want to feel that way or have gone through them before, and I want them to be able to relate to it when they listen to the song.

Why the collaboration between Rich Brian and Spotify?

Rich Brian: I think it's because Spotify has been really supportive even from the beginning of my career. You know, I've had a few conversations with Spotify in New York about my album and I was telling them about my vision for it and I remember they were just really supportive about it and they told me they wanted to do this whole exhibit and this whole album experience in Jakarta. And I've never done anything like this and especially in my home country, it’s like it’s really cool and having people actually being able to go to a place and experience the album in a physical way and seeing it in front of you is something I have never done before.

Yeah, even just coming here this morning is kinda trippy, seeing this whole building, and this whole art gallery for the album. I think the reason I want to do this with Spotify is because I know how supportive they've been and how passionate they are about this project

Chee Meng Tan: We’ve been fans of Brian from day one. You know, seeing him grow and evolve as an artist and looking at Brian’s adventure out of his comfort zone, out of the home country [and] into a grown man. And you know, sort of carrying this torch for musicians from our part of the world has been very inspiring.

When we first heard of the album and the whole concept of it and how emotional and how authentic it was, we just wanted to help tell that story, how Brian connects with his fan base, not just in the U.S., but also here in Indonesia and Southeast Asia as well. That's when we really wanted to help tell that story because it's an incredible journey. And for someone so young to take that step forward and [carry] everyone forward with him, we have to share that story to the rest of the world.

You started out tweeting funny shit even before turning to music. When did you realise you were funny and how did you figure out the internet so early?

Rich Brian: [Laughs] I was figuring out the whole comedy stuff when I was about 12 years old and that was the same time I was learning how to speak English and I was making new friends on Twitter, friends from America and stuff like that. And you know, the sense of humour in America and Indonesia are very different, so that was something that I [had] to learn, and that definitely took me a while. It took me following a bunch of other comedy pages on Twitter and seeing what people respond to the most and, you know, trying to make my own version of it and definitely failing a lot because I remember tweeting a lot of stuff that weren’t funny or I just tried the whole English sense of humour but didn’t really get it. But after a while, the more I did it, the more people were like “Oh this kid is funny.”

I guess the answer to when I figured out I was funny was when I started to get a lot of followers on Twitter [laughs], and how did I figure out the internet so early? It was because I was homeschooled and I just had a lot of time on my hands, and I was on [my] computer every single day [laughs].

Most of your followers are young people, do you feel the pressure to become some sort of a role model?

Rich Brian: It’s definitely a lot of pressure. It’s something i don't think about very much. Because I think if you think about it so much...[it gets] to your head. My main thing that I push to people, my biggest message, is you should be as much of yourself as you can be and I think that's a really important thing I’m pushing out and I understand that there are a lot of kids that follow me and I guess I’m a role model in that way. But at the same time, I'm not putting on [a] fake image or anything like that. I’m trying to be myself and I'm also still young, so I’m still trying to figure it out.

You had Indonesian President Jokowi listening to your song “Kids,” be honest, do you think he was into it?

Rich Brian: I have no idea [laughs]. To this day, I still don’t [laughs]. Yeah...he was mildly bobbing his head, he didn't say anything. You know [laughs], he didn’t say anything. And you know, I'll never find out, and that’s totally fine.

There aren’t that many well-known Southeast Asian rappers in the mainstream music world, what is it you think that you bring to hip-hop?

Rich Brian: The thing I always aim to do with my music, especially with The Sailor, [is] I always want to try to bring something new to the table. I’m not sure in what specific way it is, but I think when you have that mindset, it really shows in the art you make.

Whenever I was writing something, I always think about how I should separate myself from other people and why should people listen to me. Every time I make new songs, it’s always been about finding little unique things that I can put in my music or my videos or just my personality, I guess, [like] how I talk to people online. Little things like that.

Do you think we will see more Southeast Asian artists breaking through the boundaries and gaining more popularity on the global scale? And is there any musician from the region that you vibe with at the moment?

Rich Brian: Yeah, I definitely think there will be more artists from Asia, from Southeast Asia that will cross over to America and to the mainstream world. That’s what I always try to do with my art. With the stuff that I make, my main goal is to inspire people to do the same thing as me, to follow their dreams, whether it’s music, performance art, or just about anything.

That’s also what [my label] 88 Rising strived to do since day one. It has been influencing a lot of people, I think. I can see a lot of other artists—even smaller ones—I can see, kind of a lot of people that are not afraid to express themselves, and that’s a cool thing to see. And I think we will see a lot more of that in the future.

Artist that I like from Asia? I would say...damn…I’m gonna pick one that’s super biased, I really like NIKI [laughs].

Chee Meng Tan: Without a shadow of a doubt. This continent is just a hotbed for incredible, talented artists. And also this new-found confidence, the richness, and diversity. I’m always struck by the music that comes out of here.

Spotify democratises the entire process, so everyone can find their own audience. That barrier, geographical boundaries that exist, music has a way to transcends borders. We recently worked with another artist from Indonesia, Tashoora from Jogja. Amazing band. From their live set, the stories that they are telling is just mind-boggling. So no doubt, talents from Southeast Asia will be heard more. It’s an exciting time that we are in.

From microwaving bread to cooking steak with Sean Evans, it’s obvious you like to cook. If you had your own cooking program, what would it be like and what would you call it?

Rich Brian: My favourite thing is cooking food out of bad ingredients, like limited ingredients. Like I find that stuff really interesting. I love eating canned sardines and stuff like that [laughs], just make it with rice and stuff like that. So I would have every episode with someone [telling] me to cook with three...ingredients. I’d call it “Bad Food With Rich Brian” [laughs].

As an artist who constantly grows, how do you feel about your previous work that some people perceive as comedic and not serious?

Rich Brian: I think the biggest difference between the stuff I used to make and I make now, on this album specifically, I realise that you can talk about anything in a song. At the time when I was making my older stuff, I was still trying to find my writing style and I still didn't know what it was yet. I felt like as a rapper, a lot of times you’re only allowed to talk about certain things and that's it. I mean you can literally talk about a funny picture that you saw, as long as you word [it] in a clever and interesting way to listen [to], it's going to be good. But the stuff that I was doing back then, I focused more on how it sounds sonically, I think. And I wasn’t focused as much [on] the actual words I was saying, now [I do that] more.

On this album, you could tell, like, there are a lot [of] songs where you can hear, like, “OK, this is what this song is about.” It’s a lot more vivid. Some of the songs sound like I was talking almost, and that's what I aim to do on this album. So yeah, the biggest thing is back then, I didn’t focus on the message I was saying.

In “Kids,” you mention how Indonesia is full of proud people, do you feel the pressure to represent the country to the world?

Rich Brian: I think, I don't really feel any more pressure than before. It's always been the same. The only thing that I have to do to represent Indonesia is continuing what I love to do. You know, making art and making music that I feel like is something fresh and new, and just continue what I'm doing. And I think that's a good representation. It would be as simple as seeing someone that looks like you, somebody that reminds you of yourself, doing just want they want to do, and kinda succeed getting that. And I think that is a representation of me as an Indonesian person.