“Mama, I'm a grown-ass man already /
I got problems I can't even tell you already /
20s lookin' crazy, I can't wait for 21 /
Promise you'll be happy for as long as I'm around.”
–‘Sins’ by Rich Brian
Four days before our interview, Brian Imanuel Soewarno aka Rich Brian would celebrate his 21st birthday alone in his room. He ordered three Heinekens and nursed them as he posted to his Twitter, informing his followers that he’s 21. ‘Sins’, the final track from his latest album 1999, plays in the background as he celebrates this milestone and in, what would be uncharacteristically hip-hop, Brian will later fall asleep.
He is in China as a judge for the televised competition called Rap for Youth. This is the second rap talent contest since The Rap of China first aired three years ago. With its protest roots, rap has not rooted deeply into China’s music psyche. While rap has relatability with China’s youth, the genre has attracted its share of detractors, mainly the Chinese government. But the genre persisted, with three rap-centric variety programmes airing in the summer.
“I'm judging along with Higher Brothers’ KnowKnow and Masiwei [peers from the 88rising label],” Brian says. “I’m the only one on the show that doesn’t speak Chinese.”
This isn't his first time in China but it is the longest he’d spent there. The lengthy sojourn allows Brian to explore more of the country. With the Higher Brothers as his guides, he had been off the beaten path, living it up like a local.
Despite not having seen his family since he left Indonesia at the tail-end of 2019, Brian is holding up rather well during the pandemic. “I’ve FaceTime. That’s helpful, but at the same time, I'm happy that I’ve all this time to myself. There's been a lot of self-reflecting, I’m making a lot of music, I’ve had conversations with people who gave me some perspective on life.”
While he’s in China, Brian has been filming music videos for 1999. Named after the year he was born and if his last album, The Sailor, was about venturing into the unknown, taking chances, 1999 is a retrospective of his 21 revolutions around the sun. “It’s the most personal project that I've done, even though it's short, like seven songs.”
“I got out of this headspace where I used to overthink every song that I made. ‘What are people gonna think about it’, y’know?”
Descriptions for 1999 are as follows: “easy listening”; “less conceptual than the average album”; “experimental”. The EP is a deviation from his earlier works: the trap-heavy Amen and orchestra-laden The Sailor. But underneath 1999’s pop composition are the lyrics that plumbs the depths of his being; stories that are needle pointed into the tapestry of his life.
“I got out of this headspace where I used to overthink every song that I made. ‘What are people gonna think about it’, y’know?” 1999 is about Brian following his instincts. It is an exercise in letting go and peeling back to let his fans take a closer look into Brian.
He doesn't find it hard to open up when he's writing his music. Sometimes, he’ll wonder if he's oversharing or if his parents would understand what he's putting out there. “It's not that if I find it hard to open up at first, but the logic behind that is that the more I reveal of myself, is the more I can be honest.” Honesty leads to a vulnerability that leads to trust from his listeners.
But the Brian you see online is the same Brian that is offline. When you’re a personality that’s shaped by the Internet Age, is there anything more to be discovered? Like Diana, fully formed from Zeus’s headache, Brian was already a presence online back in 2015. He was just an Indonesian kid who was homeschooled in West Jakarta, but his education lies in YouTube and meme culture. At 11, he posted videos of himself solving a Rubik’s Cube as quick as he can. He’d move on to filming short comedy sketches on Twitter, then onto Vine.
He learned English from rap videos, which shaped the way he speaks—that low, drawl of someone who has seen much and is unsurprised by whatever the dark corners of the Internet throw at him. Contrary to popular belief, Brian produced ‘Living the dream’, which was the first music video he had done. ‘Dat $tick’ was his follow-up almost a year later. ‘Dat $tick’ blew up and, to date, sits at 166 million views. It also attracted the eyes of the music industry. Sean Miyashiro, the founder of 88rising, saw something in Brian and signed him to his label.
“Being at peace is the mission /
Don't get near me when I'm pissed off /
Man, you got too much ambition /
Plottin' on me, I don't think so /
Man, I got too much to waste /
I've been investing and I'm doin' great /
I got no worries of being replaced /
I just been cruisin' the roads that I paved.”
Brian’s introduction to the music industry was rather swift. He’d first listened to hip-hop when he was 12 and it’d never occur to him that he’d be rapping professionally at 16; he formed friendships with the people that he grew up listening to. “The hip-hop community was a welcoming environment. People are nice.” But some had destroyed Brian’s perception of them. ‘Never meet your heroes’ goes the adage.
Since 2017, his first few years in America alone were a steep learning process. “I'm just lucky that I came from a simple background,” Brian says. "I try not to get carried away by the parties and the glamorous sh*t. All I want to do is work on my music.”
When he embarked on his music career, there were so many different artists that he idolised, people that he took inspiration from. The more he was a rising name in the industry, the more he’s inflicted by imposter syndrome. He never knew if he was there because he was just a flash in the pan or if it was earned.
“The only way to get over that is to give yourself more credit as an artist.” It is only recently that Brian can stave off the bite of imposter syndrome. He feels it recently though, bits of it eating back into his life. He suspects that it’s the environment he’s in, not being around a lot of people at all for the past two months.
In the making of 1999, one of the themes on the EP was accepting that ultimately, mistakes would be made. “There will be a moment, where it feels like it’s the worst thing to have ever happened,” Brian says. “But with that time to reflect on things, you start to see the bigger picture. That is what progress looks like.”
“For the first time, I'm not beating myself up for every little thing that I do. It's easy to feel like sh*t from the mistakes, especially if you're an artist who is trying to do right.”
It was never brought up in our conversation but one of those missteps could allude to his previous rap moniker, ‘Rich Chigga’. A portmanteau of ‘Chinese' and a racial slur, the appellation might garner a juvenile giggle but it was a lightning rod of controversy. At the time when he chose the name, he didn't know the millstone that comes with it. He had no context other than the songs he grew up listening to. He would later cop to this lapse in judgement and adopt ‘Rich Brian’ as his new stage name.
With errors comes learning; these two traits come hand-in-hand. It is part of the bedrock of 1999. “Looking at it, I'm proud of myself,” Brian adds. “For the first time, I'm not beating myself up for every little thing that I do. It's easy to feel like sh*t from the mistakes, especially if you're an artist who is trying to do right.”
“There's no way to say how much time it takes /
To move on and forget, and keep it movin’.”
–‘Love in my pocket’
‘Love in my pocket’ is a music video that Brian has been trying to make, ever since Miyashiro, Daniel Campos, the director, and he got together. They talked about that video treatment, where there are clones of Rich Brian and there’s a dance choreography involved.
“Daniel did a lot of the heavy lifting in this video because he did so much research on me, like he understood the little details about my life that’s seen in the video. One of the many particulars is the yo-yo [“people know me for the Rubik’s Cube but the yo-yo was something that I always wanted to learn but I wasn’t able to”]. The other is the appearance of Indonesia’s signature noodle brand, Indomie. Given his love for Indomie, he should be its spokesperson.
“Honestly… I don't have a problem with that. I have been eating Indomie so much as a kid. And when they hit us up with that idea of making a music video together, it was perfect. The added budget didn’t hurt and I love Indomie, so it benefited both of us.”
His parents supported him from the get-go and that backing really mattered to him. “I wasn't surprised by that,but all of a sudden, as the youngest kid in the family, who had to stay in America on my own for work, they’re always worried that no one's taking care of me and stuff like that.” But they pushed those concerns aside, instead became his biggest cheerleaders. They were ecstatic when Brian’s videos hit a million views; his dad, Heru, always sends videos of him in the car as Brian’s song comes on the radio.
Suppose if he didn’t get their blessings to embark on his rap calling? Brian would have still forged ahead. “I've always been the type of kid that cared a lot about how my parents perceived me. I wanna be this perfect child so that I wouldn't want to put any undue stress on them. If they weren’t supportive, I would have continued with this but it would be the hardest thing for me to do.”
The cover image for the EP was by @kanashikitsune on Instagram. “That person drew a random picture of me and tagged me. I like the drawing style so I DM her, whether I can commission her to draw a selfie that I’m about to send her. I’d always wanted my cover art to be a painting or a drawing and given the personal nature of this project, it sort of fit.” Brian would involve his fanbase again, this time to remix a secondary music video for ‘Love in my pocket’: an unfinished video of Rich Brian moving about against a green screen.
“I believe that if you're an artist, you’re nothing without your fan base. I'm always trying to engage with them.” Given how quickly Brian’s career took off, there was a moment that he didn’t fully understand the situation he was in. Whatever support or praise from his fans that came his way, he readily accepts it; but at the same time, he wondered if he was worthy of their love. These nagging doubts would sometimes nip at his heels. “But I’ve worked so hard to get to this point and I felt that I've earned this. And I'm just thankful for the people that have like stuck around for this long.”
Remixes for ‘Love in my pocket’ poured in. You have Brian in the role of Rick Astley in the ‘Never gonna give you up’ music video. There's another where he blasts off like a rocket at launch. And another where he replaces Araminta Lee walking down the aisle of her wedding in Crazy Rich Asians. His favourite green screen effect though? “This guy put me in a Minecraft setting, where even the vocals and instrumentals are in the style of the video game. That was really funny. That's my favourite one.”
“Without the back pain, stress and the problems in bed /
Just the achievements, wisdom and a couple of friends /
Until then, I'll be like movies with no plot, yeah, the bad ones /
I skip the drama and get right to the action.”
Originally, his interest lies in filmmaking. It was one of the reasons why he wanted to travel to Los Angeles. After ‘Dat $tick’, music derailed that trajectory. “But as a musician, I still get to shoot music videos. That helped with experiencing the movie side of things.” He got to watch how the crew work and learn to fine-tune his video edits. He may not be enrolled in film full-time but it is still a huge make–up of his personality. He’d love to return to it one day.
“There are a lot of movies that I love, but there is just one that I don't watch often but I save it [for special occasions] because I know how impactful it is.” That film is Interstellar. Brian points to the visuals (“breathtaking”) or the direction (“genius”). He adds that Interstellar taught him so much that by the time the film ends, he felt like he has just attended two years’ worth of film school.
“Even though my whole career does not depend on winning accolades, it would be cool to represent Indonesia at the Grammys.”
He formed a band with his older siblings, Sonia Eryka and Roy Leonard. He was on drums, Roy was on keyboard and Sonia sang and played bass. They were a Christian band that does covers for Christian songs and performed at church and shopping malls. “We were called Roasted Peanuts. It was terrible.”
To his recollection, there was no specific reason why the band is named as such. When we were brainstorming a name, they were also sketching out the band’s logos. Their father was helping them out and drew a peanut. It would be the only image that stood out from the rest of the drawings.
He wants to work with Sonia and Roy but it’d have to be done organically. Given the timing and the state of the world, none of them can get together. And besides, each of them is pursuing their own career paths: Roy is a DJ and Sonia is a fashion blogger and photographer. “I’d love to do something with them in the future. We'll see what happens. Maybe it will be the return of Roasted Peanuts.”
At the end of ‘Sins’ is an audio from a video that Brian’s best friend, Natalie, sent over. Her voice cracking and the wail of her baby in the background, Natalie gushes on about how proud she was of Brian's achievements. “As soon as she sent me that, I told her I was gonna sample it one day,” Brian says. “A few weeks go by and I couldn't find the right song that made sense to fit the audio in.”
Eventually, Brian was able to put Natalie’s audio at the outro of ‘Sins’. During the recording, Brian just played the audio from his phone.
When pressed for his plans for the future, Brian states that he hoped he’ll win a Grammy. “Even though my whole career does not depend on winning accolades, it would be cool to represent Indonesia at the Grammys.” He plans to do more things that make him happy. He’ll work on more music, a lot of new art. He’s even contemplating on acting.
He used to be the sort of person who hates looking back on the interviews that he had done. The scrutiny will dredge up thoughts like, “he shouldn’t have made that face” or “he should have smiled at that exact timeframe”. Remember when Rich Brian said he had to disregard what other people think of him? Brian needed to also not give a shit about himself.
“It made sense that I’m judgemental because I spend the most time with myself. It took a while to realise that no one gives a sh*t as much as how you look at yourself. Now when I look at myself in past videos, it feels like I'm looking at someone else.”
His younger self, the 16-year-old, won’t be able to recognise the man he is today. And maybe that’s the point with growth; that your past sloughs off your body because it wasn’t enough to contain your ambitions. That years down the line, that metamorphosis continues so that when Rich Brian of now looks at his future self, that too is unrecognisable.
Photographs by Xiuyu Chang
Styling by Sam Li
Grooming by Jiajia Zhang
Hair by Kim
Production by Oolong