In Conversation With Indonesian Rapper And Singer Rich Brian

Lawrence Teo

In an age when everything you say and do can live on the internet forever, it’s a rare thing indeed for anyone, let alone a social media star turned hip-hop sensation, to speak candidly about himself and his ambition. But this uncanny candour and disarming personality is exactly what’s made Indonesian rapper and singer Brian Imanuel Soewarno, better known by his online moniker Rich Brian, the star he is today.

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In the span of about a decade, Brian has gone from being a teenager posting funny videos on Vine and Twitter (now X) to YouTuber to catching the eye of Asian music platform 88Rising. Now, he’s a bonafide superstar rapper with his single “Run It,” featured in Marvel’s Asian-led epic Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), along with a host of other accolades.

The Los Angeles-based 24-year-old credits his success to being homeschooled while growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia. “If I wasn’t homeschooled, I probably would not be able to speak English. It has also allowed me to learn all the things I was passionate about. By 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be a director,” he shares. 

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Then, at the age of 15, the young aspiring filmmaker made the conscious decision to leverage his social media fame into an audience base for music he would start releasing. “It started out as fun. I just tweeted funny stuff back then for fun,” he recalls. “Then at one point, I realised that I wanted to build an audience for when I put out music or short films. And I became a lot more serious about social media, it was kind of like a job at that point,” he shares. 

These days, Brian is focused on making music with an album in the works. But this doesn’t mean that he’s no longer interested in being a filmmaker. He just channels this passion in other ways. Last week, we caught up with Brian, who was in Singapore to perform at the Singapore Grand Prix as part of 88rising’s ensemble cast. Ahead, he speaks on his future ambitions, music and more.

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Working on the soundtrack was one of the most fun projects we’ve done as a collective. It started around when COVID-19 was still going on, and we would just go into the studio everyday to work on a song for this one specific scene. At that point, we saw maybe one or two very rough clips. All we knew was that there’s a fight scene that needs a song. 

And it was a really interesting process and a different approach to how we usually make music. The song really needed to fit the scene and possess a certain energy that would fit the movie. The most beautiful thing about this whole experience was watching the trailer and the movie and seeing it all coming together after working on it in the studio, not even knowing what the movie was going to look like.

What was it like trying to come up with lyrics for “Run It” without even seeing the scene it was meant for?

For “Run It” specifically, I was just thinking about the movie and asked myself what are some lyrics that would be cool, inspiring and fit the beat which was the more important thing—finding words to fit the beat. And I think musicians are pretty good at imagining certain scenarios in their heads. They make it up and pretend that they’re in that situation. So that’s kind of what I was doing.

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How does this process differ from your usual style of making music?

My creative process these days usually starts with me making beats, and then I would write the lyrics. But sometimes, when I make my own beats, I have this thing where I just overthink the lyrics because I’ve spent too much time on the beats. So as a sort of exercise, I would go on YouTube and look for the right beats or whatever, and listen to other people’s beats, and then write on that instead of overthinking. It helps streamline my thoughts. I’m not going to come up with a masterpiece everyday. I just do it so that one day when I get inspired, I’ll have that muscle that I’ve been training everyday.

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You briefly mentioned your filmmaking aspirations, and your music videos tend to have a cinematic appeal to them. To what extent are you involved in the creative process of your music videos?

For the music videos, it’s been on a case-by-case basis. For a lot of the older music videos, I was very involved with it: from writing the treatments to making storyboards and even specifying lighting requirements. I would tell the director how I want the music video to look like, or at the very least, editing it with them. 

When I was in Hawaii, filming my movie, I was getting all the footage and editing myself. There was VFX footage of gunshots that I just did myself because it’s fun to me. So it really depends on how much time I have at the time. If I’m too busy, I would let the director do his thing.

In previous interviews, you did mention that a lot of your songs are derived from personal experiences. How has it been going from being homeschooled in Indonesia to living and making music in L.A. been like for you? Has any of this influenced your music?

This is interesting because I feel like my homeschool days were all the super interesting part of my life growing up. That’s where all the magic was brewing, and that’s when it was all happening. But at the same time, I didn’t possess the right vocabulary or vernacular to write it all in my lyrics then. 

But now, living in L.A. for the most part, I see myself maturing and how I’m now able to express what I’m going through and write about it. I would even look back at when I was 13 or 15 years old and write about it because I truly think you can write about anything—it’s all about how you package it. Now I’m just figuring out what stories and experiences are interesting enough to tell a story about.

Although you evidently have great passion for what you do, I can’t imagine it being easy. So what keeps you motivated?

You’re right, doing all of this is tough, but I think what keeps me motivated is being around other musicians. I’m a homebody, and I have a home studio. So if I work on my music at home by myself with no other perspectives or opinions, things can get pretty stale pretty quick. I overthink about whether what I’m making is good enough or not. 

So when I go out of the studio and meet with other artists, I get this boost of energy and motivation and inspiration because I’m listening to the music they’re making, and they’re listening to mine. There are a lot of times when stuff I make that I don’t think is that good gets really good feedback from them. They’d say: “Dude, this is really good.” And that gives me a new perspective on what I’m making, and it’s very motivating.

Lastly, what can you tell us about your upcoming ventures?

The thing that I’m working on that I can share, but can’t say much about, is my album. A lot of people have been asking about it all the time on my Instagram comments, but I’m still working on it. It’s coming, but I can’t say when or who’s going to be on it either. All I can say is I’m a lot more involved with the production on this one. 

Another thing is my movie, Jamojaya, which is very loosely based on my life. I play this character named James who is a musician from Indonesia. But the film focuses on my relationship with my dad and how we’re fighting all the time, which is the fictional part because in real life my dad and I are really close. The movie isn’t really focused on music, it’s more of a drama and the story between father and son.