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Is the president of Indonesia really listening to Napalm Death?

  • Opinion

Jake Leyland, MSc Globalisation and Development

What is the connection between the president of Indonesia and a grindcore band? Jake Leyland explains all.

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, AKA Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’, is a refreshing figure in the political history of Indonesia. He is the first successful presidential candidate from outside the tight-knit political and military establishment. A smiling, small-town ex-furniture salesman, he is occasionally seen wandering the streets of Jakarta alone in search of local music, and his appeal is widespread. He recently dropped his nominee for national police chief after allegations of corruption and a shady financial history emerged; he handed out nearly 5 million healthcare cards to the nation’s poorest as governor of Jakarta; he published his monthly salary for all to see.

Yet for all his populist compassion and unorthodox style, Widodo remains a staunch defender of the death penalty, a stance that has caused international controversy in recent months. Five of the last six executed in Indonesia have been foreigners, and of those currently awaiting death by firing squad on drug related charges, there are two Australians and one Brit.

What you should also know, however, is that Widodo is also a great fan of the grindcore band, Napalm Death. Napalm Death is a band with song titles like “You Suffer”, “Plague Rages”, “Enslavement to Obliteration”, and “Greed Killing”. Napalm is a chemical that can create temperatures of over 1000 degrees celsius, and has historically been used by big states with big agendas to destroy smaller, less threatening states with smaller agendas. Death is, well, death, and its causes are many – including napalm.

Now, you’d be forgiven for avoiding listening to any of Napalm Death’s music. It is fairly impenetrable to the unschooled ear, and still for me, at times, requires fortitude (I like Napalm Death). The lyrics are often incomprehensible, the beats are chaotic gunfire into glass, and the riffs are like speed-scraping rust from a chalkboard.

However, even if the music isn’t to your taste, it’s hard not to like the band itself. Barney Greenway, Napalm Death’s frontman, has penned two separate letters to Widodo asking him to overturn the death sentences in the hope that his influence would bring about more favour with the president than governmental appeals.

This is testament to the band’s ethos: with fifteen albums under their belt, the band is as heavy as it’s ever been, which means they are as challenging as they’ve ever been. The peaking and troughing of the industry doesn’t tend to affect or mitigate the creativity of extreme grindcore outfits, of which Napalm Death is commonly regarded as the progenitor. This is good, because it is indicative of the fact that the twin towering orders of musical banality and systematic oppression (not altogether unrelated in themselves) still have confrontational challengers.

In his letters, Greenway has alluded to the unequivocal importance of mercy in ensuring humanity’s progression against the ‘unbroken cycles of violence’ that state brutality perpetuates. Napalm Death is preaching their long-standing humanitarian philosophy at an international level from media platforms, whilst simultaneously screaming it into dark, sweaty dive bars all over the world – a holistic commitment to social justice if ever I heard one. In light of this, if for no other reason than pure adventurousness, try to listen to Napalm Death’s newest release “Apex Predator: Easy Meat”, and look out for their name in the coming weeks. You may be exhilaratingly surprised.

Their albums seek to match, and therefore challenge the ferocity and mindlessness of unending, state-sponsored catastrophes of the grotesque, whilst getting critical acclaim for it. We are reminded that musical expression still has a human soul, and still has a purpose beyond the confines of socially mediated narcissism; the hope here being that the influence will be great enough to save the lives of those currently on death row in Indonesia.

Widodo has, thus far, made no response to Greenway’s letters, and whether the fates of the accused will change remains to be seen.

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