Interview by: Rehana Paul
Bernice Nikki is the frontwoman of the Indonesian metal band Blodwen.
1. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
As an educator, being able to share my knowledge with my students and supporting them in what they are passionate about. Especially since I’m working in an education sector that’s not super popular in Indonesia — music and theatre. I have quite a few of voice students who came to me not to be a professional singer but to use the class as a medium to de-stress. I achieve small little goals whenever I can help them ease their weekly stress through music. As a musician, I’d say my biggest accomplishment is releasing our debut album in Japan and Europe. There are a lot of metal musicians in Indonesia, but not all of us could say that we debuted in Japan! (Laughs)
2. What is the most positive comment you’ve ever gotten?
When my students finally graduate and mention me as a source of support and inspiration. They always make me feel that everything that I did was well worth it. I am the happiest when I see them gain success and able to do what they want. I have a lot of students whose parents are concerned about the well being of these youngsters future; especially because artistic endeavors are not common in a developing country like Indonesia. So it’s very gratifying for me when I see these students proving to their parents — and society in general — that you could make a career out of your passion.
3. What’s the most negative comment you’ve ever gotten?
I wouldn’t say that the negative comments come from a hateful place, really just from concern; but I got comments from people close to me that what I was doing as a metal singer was just a phase, and even dangerous. Chinese Indonesian in the local metal scene is quite rare, a woman, on top of that is even rarer. I understand the concern of a minority woman jumping into the testosterone-filled community like metal — but I enjoy the music and love the feeling on stage with all those distortion and headbanging. I try my best to knock down the stigma of “female-fronted band” in the local scene, since the image has a negative connotation where the woman is treated as an accessory and a gimmick. I had countless experience on events where I was disrespected by the male-dominated audience, but that made me stronger than ever. In Blodwen, I write all the songs and lyrics and have full control on the artistic direction of the band — just because I hate to be considered less a musician than my male members. Luckily, the scene has changed and progressed for the better. I am now recognized as a musician first, then as a woman second. I’m lucky to have found band mates who are tremendously supportive and understanding in what I’ve got to say. Especially my co-composer and guitarist, who is also my partner-in-crime. We fight as equals in music with no consideration on genders, it’s great.
4. A lot of Western people say feminists in first world countries need to put things in perspective, when one considers what women in third world countries go through. As a woman who has lived in both, what are your thoughts on this?
I think conversation is important and key for a better world. There are some instances where I find articles that tell me what I should feel offended about, but in reality I just don’t. I think it’s just as important to listen to what feminists living outside these first world countries got to say about our own experiences and values; and not tell us how to feel nor think. My experiences are uniquely mine. My views and set of values are based on these unique experiences living in my country. They don’t necessarily apply to everybody else. And that’s okay. I think acceptance to this simple fact is really the key.
5. What advice would you give to Asian women looking to pursue a career in music?
Just go for it. If it’s what your heart tells you to do, you’d go back to it even if you try something else. So it’s better just go straight to it and dedicate yourself. By the end of the day, you will be the one living your life — not your spouse, not your family, not your friends. So listen to what they’ve got to say about your decisions, consider them, but do not let them decide your life for you. And make sure that you are good at what you do. Don’t just pursue your passion with no ammunition to back you up. Practice it, nurture it, be passionate about it. With practice comes self confidence. And with self confidence, you truly can do anything you want.
6. Do you think there is a cultural stigma in the Asian community against pursuing music- particularly against women becoming musicians?
Yes. We are a community who put a lot of happiness values in financial stability; and to be fair, I don’t think this kind of mindset is only limited to Asians alone. But yes, because we are told to aim for that financially-targeted goals, of course careers like musicians or artists are not stable-looking enough for a lot of people. I am not going to sugar coat my own experience facing hardships as a freelance voice coach and a musician; there were times that things were really hard and I had to rely on other people to help me pay the bills. But because I didn’t give up and truly love what I do, I slowly built a following of students. The more I teach, the better I become. I am actually a much better vocalist now after I started teaching; so it was a win-win solution. And then slowly, opportunities came knocking on my door. I am thankful that I can finally say that I’m now at a point where I can support myself and my family doing what I love. I believe that financial stability will come if you are truly passionate at what you do — no matter how segmented your field is. The truth is, artistic careers like musicians are really not for everybody. But like I said, if it is what you truly want to do, you will keep at it no matter how difficult it is. And through perseverance, your path will open for you.
7. How would you describe your band’s sound?
Heavy and beautiful. I love the contrast of orchestration commonly associated with classical music with the distortion of heavy metal. I use a lot of semi-operatic vocal technique in how I sing Blodwen songs, and I really enjoy the dramatic, story-telling lines in our music.
8. What is one common misconception about Indonesia?
That we are not modern. People usually only think of Bali, beaches and mountains when it comes to Indonesia; but I live in the capital city of Jakarta which is basically an urban melting pot of cultures, races, and social backgrounds. Just because we are the most populated Muslim country in the world, does not mean that all of us practice Shariah law. You will find hijab women riding motorbikes everyday in Jakarta. It is a very common sight in our country. We are more modern than what you think.
9. What do you think can be done to remedy the lack of Asian representation in the arts?
I think just stop waiting for a change to happen, and just be the change you want to see in the world. Asians tend to be passive about everything, but we are in an era where you can literally find any kind of information and knowledge you need at the touch of your finger tips. You could record, edit, do a lot of creative things from your phone. The era of needing a lot of expensive tools to start creating something is over. You could promote and market your work without any third party — this century is all about bypassing that route and going straight to your audience. You don’t see a lot of English speaking romantic movie with Asian leads? Make one. You don’t see Asian women talking about “taboo” things like sex positivity and LGBTQ+ ? Talk about it. Open a discussion. Create an event. Write online. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Be the person you were waiting for. I didn’t see a lot of Asian women singing English in metal, so I started Blodwen. When I released my album, I was told by white men that our music didn’t sound “exotic” enough and that we were “too European”. For me, that was the moment that I realized that this has to change. I don’t see why do I have to cash on my “exotic-ness” just to be considered a liable metal band in the international platform. I believe that change starts from within. We might think that we are not capable of changing the world, but through small changes that start from our own, I truly believe we could do it.
10. What do you consider the biggest problem facing Asian women today to be?
Believing society when it tells you that you cannot do it. There’s a preconceived image of what a good Asian woman look, talk, and sound like. And that’s something that we might not able to change in this century since it’s been ingrained to us since hundreds of years ago; but I think the biggest problem lies within ourselves when we choose to believe that image. We cannot stop society from telling us what we should or should not do, but we can choose our actions accordingly. I think all of us could learn to rely on ourselves more, listen to ourselves more, and believe in ourselves more. When we are confident in ourselves, we are unstoppable. And I have every faith that we will get there.
Looking forward; Bernice’s goals, in her own words: