He was born in Jakarta, learned English from YouTube, and, in a country where the government has cracked down on the Internet, crafted himself as a viral online comedian and hip-hop icon. TIME spent a day with him
If you’re under the age of, say, 30, and have the sort of Facebook friends who post ironic viral content instead of pious screeds on the presidential election, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a video to a hip-hop track called “Dat $tick,” by a maverick artist named Rich Chigga. The song is rather good, actually, but as far as the motifs of hip-hop go, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about it: the lyrics concern popping caps and gang affiliation; the actors in the video wield pistols and bottles of rum and groove around in the self-consciously exaggerated way that calls to mind Drake in the video for “Hotline Bling.”
The video, which went live on YouTube on Feb. 22, has more than 20 million views. Those who have shared it on social media seem to sincerely like the music but mostly get a kick out of the artist: the guy rapping about “killing pigs” and driving Maseratis is a 17-year-old Indonesian boy who wears a polo shirt and a Reebok fanny pack and doesn’t look old enough to shave. “This is the hardest n-gga of all time,” the rapper Tory Lanez enthused in a reaction video released in July, where he and other distinguished hip-hop artists — among them Ghostface Killah and Cam’ron — basically all echoed the same sentiment, with praise. “I see the comedic side of all this, but what he’s spitting is dope,” Cam’ron said. “His flow was tough.” (The reaction video now has 4.5 million views.)
Meanwhile, the artist in question was 9,000 miles away in Jakarta, the muggy, perennially hazy capital of Indonesia, where, being 17, he still lives with his parents. This was not his first viral video. His real name is Brian Imanuel, and in an era when the Internet gets a bad rap — as the domain of trolls and narcissists and cowards — he is the strongest evidence of its potential as a tool of reinvention for good. It was here in Jakarta that a skinny homeschooled boy, who spoke only Bahasa Indonesia, discovered YouTube, taught himself the vernacular English of the American suburbs, and fashioned himself as an online celebrity — first as a comedian, with a preternatural grasp of the darkly ironic tenor of the humor of Twitter and Vine, and then, most implausibly, as a rapper. A good rapper. He has a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, nearly 100,000 on SoundCloud, and managers in Los Angeles. Last week, Ghostface Killah — the elder statesman of hip-hop formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan — remixed “Dat $tick.”
Imanuel seems wryly amused by his climb to American Internet stardom from half a world away. “I just realized I preferred speaking English, because you can say a lot more in English than you can in Indonesian,” he explains. “I was doing stupid, goofy sh-t, but it was fun. And in my YouTube comments, people would be like, ‘Why is he speaking English?’”
This was the Friday afternoon before Ghostface Killah’s remix dropped. He and I were in the backseat of his sister Sonia Eryka’s car, on our way to Bandung, a city three hours to the southwest of the capital. A rapper he knew had a gig there later in the evening, and we were hitting the road early to escape the snarls of greater Jakarta’s notoriously wretched traffic.
Imanuel’s crew, insofar as he has one: his sister Eryka, who’s 23 and is herself a YouTube personality in Indonesia, and a portly 21-year-old guy named Ricky — he asks me not to use his last name — who produces the music Imanuel makes as Rich Chigga and appears in the “Dat $tick” video. The truth is that Imanuel, an Internet celebrity whose shtick is one of glib adolescent bravado, is in fact something of a loner. The truth is that this is true of many Internet celebrities. Despite the motifs that recur in both his rap and comedy videos — bottles of liquor, consistent references to “kush” — Imanuel doesn’t smoke weed and rarely drinks. Indonesia is a country of cigarette smokers — half of all adults smoke, and a shocking number of children too, as seen in a 2014 Vice documentary on the nation’s tobacco addiction — but Imanuel instead puffs occasionally on a vaporizer.
“I went through a clubbing phase — then, I dunno, dude. The club scene in Jakarta sucks,” he says. “It’s rich kids and kids who are trying to look rich. It’s not about partying — it’s about showing people on Instagram that you went to the club.”
Warning: Video contains profanities
With his suburban accent and decidedly Californian wardrobe, one could responsibly mistake him for a student at an international school, the son of a diplomat or maybe a Philip Morris executive, but he’s quick to distance himself from this scene. He recently went to one of their parties and was mobbed for selfies; he was wholly unimpressed. He spends his days at Ricky’s house, working on new material. In person, he is more serious than you’d expect, with the aloof awareness you associate with suburban American boys perhaps a bit too intelligent for their own good.
Imanuel was born in 1999, a year after the fall of Suharto, the dictator who presided over Indonesia for three decades. Like many postcolonial 20th-century Asian autocrats, Suharto’s legacy is ambivalent: he oversaw the country’s economic growth and modernization but ruled its 250 million people with an unabashed iron fist. There was no free press. When the popular dissent that would unseat him began to boil, Suharto publicly denounced the Internet as a weapon of sedition, claiming in an April 1997 speech that “global information” enabled Indonesians to “receive foreign values that can erode their sense of nationalism.” Still, by the year he fell, only 100,000 Indonesians were online — roughly 0.04% of the population. Today, that figure hovers at around 22%, according to the World Bank, but recent laws, evidential of a creeping Islamist conservatism in the country, have banned certain websites deemed prurient, ranging from pornography outlets like Pornhub to social-media platforms like Tumblr.
Imanuel is the youngest of four children; his parents (who he says are incredibly supportive) spent most of their time at the café they ran. “I had a lot of alone time,” he says. He says he was homeschooled, and as we head southward to Bandung, I ask him why. Dusk is falling; the air is thick with the yellow patina of haze. “I have no idea,” he tells me.
“There are two answers,” Ricky chimes in from the front seat. “Brian’s version is that his parents were too busy to drive him to school. The version Sonia told me is that apparently Brian was, like, an antisocial freak at school.”
“You were!” Eryka says. “You cried every day.”
In any event, he was lonely. He’d gotten his hands on a Rubik’s Cube, and realized he could log onto his parents’ computer to find strategies for solving it faster. This is how he discovered YouTube. He also found and joined Twitter, in August 2010, when he was just under 11 years old.
At this point, he did not speak English. But, with Rubik’s Cube tutorials and YouTube videos on cinematography (another interest of his) as his aural guides, he realized he was quick at learning it. What happened next is the story of what happens to everyone who finds their home on the Internet: he happily got lost in it. He can’t remember the exact genealogy of things, but he eventually fell into a community of like-minded young people on Twitter — Americans, mostly, 13 hours ahead; he’d wake up early in the morning to interface with them. By his own account, these were his only friends. He had an uncannily quick fluency in the deeply nuanced surrealist humor that is associated with a loose confederation of comically ironic nihilists often referred to as Weird Twitter.
In July 2015, Slate published an article titled “Bin Laden Walks Into a Bar,” with a more to-the-point subhead: “Why teenagers love making jokes about 9/11.” “Fourteen years after 9/11, teenagers too young to remember the tragedy in the first place are now mining it for comedy,” the author, Amanda Hess, wrote. “Constructing the joke is often as simple as fishing a conspiratorial slogan out from the Internet’s past and releasing it on the modern Web.” One such slogan? “Bush Did 9/11.” To the unacquainted, it sounds like an absurd comedic premise, but the absurdity is the premise. Thus Weird Twitter.
Adding to the delicious absurdity of things is that one of the self-professed originators of this joke format was a teenager from Indonesia who was 2 years old and half a world away when the towers fell. You see the same current of absurdity in his work on other platforms, such as Vine or YouTube, where in January he released a video parodying TLC’s melodramatic series “My Strange Addiction.” In it, he professes an addiction to kush. The video has a million views. He is acutely aware of the irony that he does not actually do drugs.
One of his closest friends on Twitter is Nick Colletti, who belongs to the same comedic camp and has more than 260,000 followers.
“Weird Twitter is jus like the internet’s evil step child that is lovked [sic] away in the attic and u feed it old potatoes like a sloth from the goonies,” Colletti told TIME via Twitter direct message. “Brian is so different cuz he isn’t from America but he gets everything we say n all the references n sh-t. He’s so in the zone it’s dope.”
Imanuel’s friends online introduced him to hip-hop in 2012. It was hardly deep cuts: 2 Chainz and Macklemore, whose track “Thrift Shop” was the first to which Imanuel tried rapping. “My English was so bad,” he laughs. “Learning how to rap actually improved my English, because it forced me to talk fast, and I used to suck at that.”
In a way, his hip-hop is a lot like his comedy: flavored with irony — because an Indonesian teenager rapping about gang warfare is ironic — but ultimately driven by a passion born of talent. “I don’t want to be all corny and call myself a f-cking artist, but at the same time I don’t want to say I’m exclusively a comedian,” he says. These days, though, he’s devoting his energies to music.
“‘Dat $tick’ was the first song I tried to be serious on,” he says. “Then I thought, Wow, what if I really did this seriously? How dope would that be?”
Bandung is up in the hills, and when we get there, it’s after dark and there’s a cool mist in the air. Though he’s a big fan of the artist performing tonight, 22-year-old Ariel Nayaka, who was educated in the U.S. but has since returned to Jakarta, Imanuel is generally lukewarm on the Indonesian rap scene. Like Holden Caulfield, his favorite adjective is corny. He’s also wary of being pigeonholed as an “Asian rapper,” words he says with a whiff of disdain. But his viral success has precipitated a boom in English-language hip-hop in Jakarta, giving other young Indonesians the hope that they too could make it big. Alongside Joey Alexander, the 13-year-old piano prodigy from Bali, Imanuel is now probably the Indonesian most recognized overseas. The country’s cultural ambassadors are a couple of teens.
“Ever since Brian blew up, people have been, like, ‘Oh, shit, this is a thing.’ It really paved the lane for English-speaking rappers,” Nayaka tells me before his gig. “But honestly, at first, I didn’t even realize he was Indonesian.”
As he tells me this, Imanuel is being hounded for photos by fans, as he has been for most of the evening. He’s good about obliging them, too, mugging for the camera and whatnot. But he’s most himself when he’s left alone — like on the drive back to Jakarta through the wet night of Java. The car is quiet: Ricky’s driving, Eryka’s asleep, and Imanuel’s face is cast in the white light of the screen of his cell phone, which is where his world is.