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Cardi B and Bruno Mars perform ‘Finesse’. A song by the pair, ‘Please Me’, has attracted the displeasure of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission. Photo: AP

Censoring ‘immoral’ songs by Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande is futile, Indonesian musicians say

  • The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has taken exception to 42 songs by Western artists – including hits by Justin Bieber, Rita Ora and Ariana Grande – accusing them of ‘immoral’ lyrics
  • While the country has a long history of censorship, dating back to President Sukarno in the 1960s, critics say the latest measures are at best a token measure in the internet age of streaming and VPNs
The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission’s decision to censor 42 songs by Western artists including Nicki Minaj and Bruno Mars on the grounds their lyrics are “immoral” has raised eyebrows among critics who say the action is futile in the age of the internet.

The commission, also known as the KPI, ruled recently that the songs would be completely banned on the radio in West Java before 10pm, though after that time, versions with censored lyrics would be allowed to air.

While Indonesia has a long history of censoring songs, critics have attacked the latest move as being behind the times, saying that widespread access to streaming services like Spotify and the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) make it a token move at best.

In Indonesia, LGBT communities are viewed as a moral threat

Announcing the decision, Adiyana Slamet, head of the West Java branch of the KPI, said the songs – which include Justin Bieber’s Lonely, Rita Ora’s How We Do, Ariana Grande’s Positions and Maroon 5’s Beautiful Mistakes – had been banned under Law 32 of the Indonesian Broadcasting Code for numerous reasons, but many contained “words of violence and obscenity or allude to sexuality”.

Adiyana added that the purpose of Law 32 was to ensure Indonesian broadcasting “upheld integrity”, “fostered character” and protected the national identity as “faithful and pious”.

Also among the offending songs are Eminem’s Lose Yourself, Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind and the Bruno Mars/Cardi B collaboration Please Me.

While the move has surprised many Indonesians and been ridiculed by some musicians, this is far from the first time the KPI has censored either foreign or local artists.

“Actually, there have long been bans on songs that were considered contrary to social norms,” said Irna Minauli, a clinical psychologist in the city of Medan.

“When I was a child growing up in the 1960s, the song Je t’aime … moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin was banned because it contained sighs that were thought to arouse the passions of those who heard it.

“Banning songs has existed since the time of [Indonesia’s first] President Sukarno in the 1960s. He even forbade local singers from singing or imitating Western singers. Then during the Suharto era [from 1967 to 1998], songs associated with Indonesia’s Communist Party were banned.”

Hikmawan ‘Indra’ Saefullah, who played guitar in the Indonesian indie band Alone at Last from 2002 to 2013. Photo: Handout

More recently the KPI, which was founded in 2002, has continued to censor songs deemed offensive to social norms.

In 2019, it took issue with the local classics Aku Ingin Dilubangi (‘I want to be penetrated’) and Mobil Goyang (‘Rocking car’) as well as Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You and songs by Bruno Mars. Hearing the news, Mars at the time jokingly branded Sheeran a “sexual deviant”. In the West, Sheeran’s songs are more often described as romantic – the sort of ballads that are played at weddings.

However, Minauli said that content deemed to trouble “cultural and religious norms” could mean anything from showing transgender people on television to images of people smoking, kissing or women showing cleavage. Adverts for condoms and cigarettes were allowed only after 10pm as were television shows featuring demons or spirits, said Minauli, who added that such measures had become far less effective in the internet age.

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“These prohibitions only affect communities, such as extremely rural communities, which have no access to the internet. But in cities people, especially teenagers, no longer watch television and instead surf the internet without such limits and censorship,” she said.

The musician Hikmawan ‘Indra’ Saefullah, who played guitar in the Indonesian indie band Alone at Last from 2002 to 2013, said that local artists did not take the KPI seriously. Instead, it was widely seen as wasting its time on token gestures – such as banning pop songs – while ignoring the poor quality of Indonesian broadcasting in general. Its latest actions were also misguided, Indra said.

“Apart from demonstrating a moral panic, such censorship will never be effective. Especially when the state wants to shape the image of Indonesia as a nation with upstanding morals but goes about it in such a strange way.”

Mikail ‘Mike’ Israfil, the lead singer of Indonesian punk band Marjinal. Photo: Ian Wilson

Indra said it was futile to censor songs on the radio in 2021, as most listeners in Indonesia now accessed music and other forms of entertainment through streaming services like Spotify.

While the internet is censored in Indonesia – with both pornography and gambling websites officially banned – it is not as strictly monitored as television and radio and many users find the measures easy to skirt with the use of technology such as VPNs.

According to research by in 2021, Indonesia’s use of VPNs is the highest in the world, with 55 per cent of internet users in the country making use of the services.

Still, Mikail ‘Mike’ Israfil, the lead singer of Indonesian punk band Marjinal, said that censorship – even if it was easy to get around – “should always be considered a setback in today’s open world. It betrays the principles of democracy that are supposed to be implemented in Indonesia”.

“As a musician, I feel like these acts of oppression against freedom of expression are usually carried out by spiteful losers who have no principles in life,” he said.

“I have never been accused of being immoral as a result of my music, if anything people appreciate a fresh influence. Moral crises in society are created by a culture of hypocrisy and ignorance. Not because of the music.”

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes perform ‘Senorita’ at the American Music Awards on November 24, 2019. Photo: AP

The 42 censored songs

1. Bruno Mars - 24K Magic

2. Ariana Grande - 34+35

3. Masked Wolf - Astronaut in the Ocean

4. M.I.A. - Bucky Done Gun

5. Maroon 5 - Beautiful Mistakes

6. Max Ft Suga - Blueberry Eyes

7. Lil Nas X - MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)

8. Pia Mia ft Chris Brown - Do It Again

9. Snoop Dogg - Drop It Like It’s Hot

10. Jay-Z - Empire State of Mind

11. Maroon 5 ft Cardi B - Girls Like You

12. Timbaland - Give It to Me

13. 24kGoldn Ft Iaan Dior - Mood

14. Chynna Phillips - Naked and Sacred

15. Bruno Mars ft Cardi B - Please Me

16. Ariana Grande - Positions

17. Post Malone ft Ty Dolla $ign - Psycho

18. Camila Cabello ft Shawn Mendes - Senorita

19. Nicki Minaj - Starships

20. Doja Cat - Streets

21. DJ Snake ft Selena Gomez - Taki Taki

22. Jason Derulo ft 2 Chainz - Talk Dirty

23. Bruno Mars - That’s What I Like

24. Cardi B - Up

25. OneRepublic - Good Life

26. Gym Class Heroes ft Estelle - Guilty As Charged

27. Rita Ora - How We Do

28. Busta Rhymes ft Maria Carey - I Know What You Want

29. Icona Pop - I Love It

30. DJ Khaled - I’m the One

31. Jay-Z - Izzo

32. Bruno Mars - Lazy Song

33. Dua Lipa ft DaBaby - Levitating

34. Justin Bieber ft Benny Blanco - Lonely

35. Eminem - Lose Yourself

36. Ariana Grande ft The Weeknd - Love Me Harder

37. Bruno Mars - Versace on the Floor

38. Avril Lavigne - Wish You Were Here

39. The Kid Laroi - Without You

40. Vedo - You Got It

41. Dua Lipa ft Missy Elliot - Levitating

42. Bruno Mars - Locked Out of Heaven

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Critics blast ‘futile’ censoring of performers in internet age