Cheering crowds, thumping bass, and glimmering lights before a stage make a typical scenery that fills a musician's days. Even though those days are pretty much gone after the COVID-19 pandemic, some musicians continue to work and connect with their fans. One of them is Indonesian-born rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer Brian Imanuel Soewarno (21), well-known for his stage name Rich Brian. Brian released his latest extended play (EP) 1999 in August, consisting of seven songs and dubbed as his most personal project yet.
"I worked a lot on it during quarantine, talking a lot about not overthinking and being free, that's kind of the whole concept of the EP. I think it's my first time making music and not really worrying too much about the outcome, and kind of enjoying the process more," Brian explains the album.
Brian says that he worked on most of the songs while staying inside his hotel room in Shanghai—where he had been residing for a few months due to his shoot as a judge for China's rap competition Rap for Youth. He would record and mix the song from his hotel room, send it to his friend, and go on Facetime to have another mixing session to get it done. By mid-October, the EP had garnered nearly 25 million streams on Spotify alone.
A few months before releasing 1999, Brian, who was stuck at his home in Los Angeles, released a couple of songs. At the beginning of lockdown in March, he published a homemade music video of his freestyle rap to Tokyo Drift (Fast and Furious) originally sung by Japanese hip hop group Teriyaki Boyz for the movie franchise. In April, he released another song titled BALI, featuring American rapper Guapdad 4000. In the music video, Brian is seen flying drones to deliver gifts to his friends in exchange for cash to help healthcare workers, small businesses and families in LA. Two months later, an Indonesian version of the video was released, where Brian collaborated with Gojek drivers to deliver donations to the people in Bali.
Brian is one of few young Indonesian musicians who began his career and established his name overseas. He's not the first one to do so. Still, it is safe to say that he is one of the most impactful by proving himself as the beacon for Asian hip hop artists in the highly competitive American music industry and an icon for the young generation pursuing their dreams.
Brian first went viral on the internet for dropping a self-directed music video titled Dat $tick under his former stage name "Rich Chigga" in February 2016—he rebranded to Rich Brian in 2018. He rapped about going against the police in an extraordinarily deep voice and iconically dressed in a pink polo, shorts, and a fanny pack. The video went popular beyond expectation and was even praised by other rappers such as Desiigner, Ghostface Killah, Tory Lanez, and more—some later collaborated with Brian. The song was certified gold by the RIAA in August 2017 for achieving 500,000 digital downloads, and today the video has surpassed 162 million views on Youtube.
Before his music debut though, Brian had been a star on social media platforms such as Vine, YouTube, and Twitter for his comedy content. His popularity on the internet led him to meet Sean Miyashiro, the founder, and CEO of 88rising, the entertainment company that later officially debuted him. One of Brian's followers on Twitter, Dumbfoundead, was one of the first artists at 88rising, and he introduced Brian to Sean. They began talking on the phone, and Brian was attracted by Sean's vision to build 88rising as a place to represent Asian talents, as well as by artists that had been working with the company at the time, such as Dumbfoundead and Keith Ape. Not long after Dat $tick was released, Brian, who was 17, flew to LA to officially join 88rising.
"The thing with 88rising that's so special to me … In a label full of people, not just the artists but also the people that work behind the scenes and in the office, I feel like we all share the same vision and the same idea. We want to represent people that look like us and even just kids in general that have wild dreams and inspirations. I think that's always been the idea that we're always trying to push—just letting people know that everything is possible. Whatever it is that you do, if you're motivated enough, you can get there," says Brian.
Being in 88rising itself is another thing that supports his working process. While Sean would sit with the labelmates to schedule their song or album release dates, they aren't subjected to a certain target in a year, for example. "It's super chill, and that's the great thing. If you want good art, then you can't really come from a place of pressure. It has to come organically. I think that's what makes 88rising's stuff unorthodox compared to other companies and labels," Brian says.
In three years, Brian has served more than 40 songs that have surpassed one billion streams on Spotify alone. His debut album Amen, launched in 2018, was a successful hit that made him the first Asian artist to top the iTunes' hip hop chart. In the same year, Brian posed for the cover of Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 2018, for the dreams and inspirations he promoted. His sophomore album The Sailor followed suit in 2019, and finally the latest 1999 EP this year. In between each album, he performed on his sold-out solo tours and 88rising tours in America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
Most of Brian's works are self-produced, which started since he learned it five years ago. Over time, they keep on developing—composition and lyrics-wise. Brian shares that he was still trying to learn writing and finding his style in the beginning, but today he has become a lot freer in his work. He has been broadening his skills into singing and from just producing mostly trap beats to a more sweet-sounding chord. Another major transformation is his way of writing lyrics. Brian says that initially he cared a lot about flow and making his music sound cool until he switched his approach to write something that can be impactful to the audience.
"At some point, I went into this headspace of 'Alright, I actually want to write things that if people hear it, it's going to move them.' So I started studying a lot more of the lyrics side of rapping and singing, going into a more poetic, metaphorical kind of route, and telling my stories," Brian says.
For his goal as a musician, Brian says that he wants to produce more music in the future. "I would love to do movie soundtracks, I think that'd be really cool," adding that Joko Anwar is one of the Indonesian directors that he would love to work with one day.