"The great thing about life is that you can always evolve and be born every day to become a better person," the artist says as he reveals a modest smile under his dark ebony hair. Afgan might describe himself as shy and introverted, but naturally takes the stage of this feature's euphoric narrative, shot in the bewitching Indonesian landscape.
Afgan's sound is an embodiment of his Indonesian heritage and 90s nostalgic rhythm, with lyrical play touching both the distress and purity of one's mind. Previously known as - by his own words - "the guy that sings sad songs", Afgan’s new album Wallflower introduces a new introspective side of him: a side he never had the courage to show before, but now does with hope to break stigmas of speaking up about one's struggles.
Photographer Nicoline Patricia Malina captures the chords of serenity in each of Afgan's steps. Outfitted in musky tones by stylist Ivan Teguh Santoso, he stretches his arms in tailored shirts with colour pops that recall blossom in Spring.
Today we are far from the coruscating stage lights, in complete calmness. Without the days of dusk, branches wouldn’t have the strength to hold the morning dew. And without the courage of letting go, leaves wouldn’t have the bravery to move in a brand new tempo in the wind, just as Afgan has.
You have had quite an impressive career so far, from sold-out stadiums to multiple awards under your belt, and with over 17 million followers on socials. On top of that, you have just released your debut English album Wallflower! But under the surface of all this success, who really is Afgan?
That’s a good question I have never really thought about! I think Afgan is a guy who likes to sing, loves music, and has dreamed of doing what he does right now since he was a kid. I'm someone that is genuine and I try to be so in everything that I do, especially with my work.
You're born and raised in Indonesia, the land of thousands of islands. What does it mean for you to be Indonesian?
Coming from a place that has richness in culture, varying from each different area - with their own languages, cuisines, dress sense - has really influenced me and my music. I am proud that I'm Indonesian, and I bring that flavour into my work. Indonesia is so beautiful, if you've never been you should go once you have the chance.
Hopefully things open up again soon, we have been quite still for a while. With all the time and immobility last year, what was something that you learned about yourself?
Last year was rough, but I learned to get to know myself better. I was so busy before the pandemic - like we all were - with our own things. When the lockdown started, I got in touch with myself and tried to solve the issues that I have: traumas, negativity, self-doubts, and insecurities. Even though they are not fully healed, I'm in the process now and I don't think that would have happened without lockdown. It gave me a lot of time to think about what I want to do in the future and I think we all needed that.
Tell me about your new album Wallflower - is it true that the name describes you as a person?
I've always been introverted and shy, but now I want to own that part of myself and put it out there with the album. On stage you have to be someone that is totally different: when you're performing, you have to be confident and no one knows about the fear and insecurities you have inside. And that you are just like everybody else. I want to show that vulnerable side - a side of me I've never shared before - and put it out there with the album title.
How do you balance your private persona with the persona that you have on stage?
I've never really officially put a label on it, I just know that I have to shift gears when I'm on stage. When I go back home, I want to leave my singer-celebrity life behind and just live a normal life with my friends and family. I try to compartmentalise my world and I don't want to bring all of that back to my home, otherwise, it would be unhealthy.
Your song 'Hurt Me Like You' touches on topics about battling depression and anxiety, and it can be a lonely journey for many because they are afraid of speaking up. How would you advise someone who is afraid of showing this side of themselves?
I used to be that person until I wrote this song. I said to the producers that I want to be honest on this one because I've never had the courage to do that but I felt it was my time. It was a part of healing and therapeutic for me. Letting that out helps me to heal. I want to encourage people to speak whatever they're feeling inside, speak to somebody, anybody. You don't have to speak to a professional, it can be your best friend, but you should express why you are feeling a certain way. I want to break the stigma around it and I think for a lot of people, especially in Asia, speaking up is still considered taboo or unusual. I just want to change that because mental health is something that is real and it's a crisis. We should really share the awareness about it.
How did you feel when you started to write about your inner emotions? Was it daunting?
I felt like at that point I had to open up because when I was recording Hurt Me Like You, I was struggling. Luckily, now I'm in a better place but it was a form of self-expression. I can’t write any more songs about love or flirting with somebody, it doesn't seem honest to me. I just wanted to let everyone know that I am going through this and that they are not alone.
How has the response been from your fans?
They said that they loved this song and that they respect that I decided to open up about this. They feel like they're not alone, that we're in this together. It's like a big giant hug and that's very rewarding.
The tone in the album is actually also something new – it is more R&B than the love-song ballads you are known for. How did this come about?
Indonesian pop is heavily influenced by the 90s and I try to bring that flavour to the album. I've always wanted to do an album which is from head to toe R&B. I've grown up listening to a lot of artists like Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston and I love everyone from that era. I want to bring back that nostalgic feeling when I fell in love with music in the first place. That's actually one of my goals on this album because, for me, the 90s and early 2000s were the best eras for music. It was a simpler time.
Your single 'M.I.A' was released in mid-March and is a collaboration with the K-pop legend Jackson Wang. What did you learn from the experience?
I tried to surprise people with this album. In Indonesia, I was known as the guy who sings sad songs, but I think I've done that enough and I wanted to shift gears. On top of that, I asked Jackson Wang to join in the song, which I don't think that anybody expected! It was a lovely surprise for everyone, especially the K-pop fans in Indonesia. It happened organically because we started out as friends and suddenly the collaboration just happened - very casually. Even though we were not able to shoot it together due to the pandemic, we did it based on mutual trust. He trusted me creatively and I trusted him creatively, so when he was at the studio, I said: 'you can do whatever you want with the song, I trust you!'. And when I shot the video, he said: "Alright, you can do whatever you want. I'm going to shoot it in Korea, and you're just going to have to edit the whole thing together." I'm just so grateful for how it all blended together.
Before this, you have mainly done music alone: as a solo artist have you ever felt lonely?
Loneliness is really real. I saw a documentary about Lady Gaga and she said when you're on stage, everybody is screaming your name and people keep touching you, wanting a piece of you. They're very obsessed and excited to see you but when you're done with the show and you go back to your room, all you have is silence - you're alone. There's a huge shift and it happens every day. So of course, there can be loneliness but I put those feelings and emotions into my songs and my vocals, using that as fuel.
With this musical shift in the album, how did it feel to step out of your comfort zone, and did it teach you something about yourself?
It taught me courage. I have wanted to do this since way back, but I haven't had the courage. When I finally did it everybody was pleasantly surprised, and so was I. It proves that sometimes our mindset is the one that limits us and when you have the courage to step out of your comfort zone, you can actually achieve anything you want.
You recently signed with American record label EMPIRE, how have things changed since?
Musically, it has changed drastically. I have acquired new listeners from new parts of the world. Empire really opened a lot of doors for me and helped me reach my fullest potential. Musically it has been a dream, this is what I've always dreamed of. But personally, in my life, I'm still the same.
How was it to record in the USA, did you feel a big difference to the industry in Indonesia?
It was really intimidating at first because it was a whole new environment. The way they do music there is very fast and the way they come up with ideas is very rapid, and at first, I couldn't keep up with that. But I just said to myself: 'it's a do or die, I'm here. I'm going to learn. And if I feel I'm left behind, it's okay, I can learn.' I learned throughout the process, and I gained the courage to throw in some of my ideas. The process was different but so was the culture. In the studio in the USA, you could have a strong argument and even openly fight. One of my producers and co-writers were fighting and it was awkward but then after a few minutes, they hugged it out! It's very different here in Indonesia, we tend to keep it to ourselves because we don't like any confrontation. The difference in communication was surprising for me, but it was so much fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat, especially Atlanta. They really put me in for an immersive experience. They actually really wanted me to experience the culture so they showed me the nightlife. It just brings out that other side of me and it really shows in the music.
What would you like people to feel from your music?
I hope that the messages that I'm trying to say in the songs connect with people. I think that is what every artist hopes for in their music. The most important thing is to help others feel better about themselves. That's the most rewarding thing that you can have as a musician.
What do you think the pain can teach us about ourselves?
Even the worst thing in life can be a great teacher. I speak about it in my song Say I'm Sorry. Regrets can be a great teacher and enable you to grow. Let me put it this way: you can't really recognise yourself a year ago, because you were probably a completely different person. The great thing about life is you can always evolve and be born every day to become a better person.
If you met yourself a year ago, what would you say to that guy?
Why are you so scared? What are you so afraid of? That's what I would say: chill. I used to torture myself every day and it was crazy. I feel like the best part of getting older is that you become wiser and braver.
Do you remember the moment when it clicked and you decided to stop being afraid?
During the lockdown, I started to get to know myself and seek therapy. In therapy they ask why you feel a certain way and I couldn't answer that. I had been creating a belief system that was not doing me any good so I tried to rewire my thoughts. Here in Indonesia, I think taking the first step to go to therapy is even more difficult than in the UK - I guess we are more silent about this stuff. I want to break that stigma because a lot of people are suffering and keeping it to themselves, not knowing what to do. I know, because I used to be that person. I reached out to a friend and she introduced me to a therapist which became the change of my healing. We should do that more often.
There is a lot of introspection and finding inner peace in your lyrics. But what does the place of peace look like for you?
Wow, I've never been asked that. I think one day my goal is to be a dad. Just imagining myself being a dad is peaceful. I have three nieces and every time they're with me it just feels soothing, Hopefully, that is one thing that will happen for me.
I heard that you will be releasing a single in June, what can we expect from it?
It's still a discussion but I definitely want to release more videos from Wallflower. Last year was rough and not productive at all and this year, I'm going to change all that. A lot of people want to see me dance so that's what I want to do. Explore that side that I've never done before.
Are we going to have some Justin Timberlake moves there?
I love this, yes! He was my biggest inspiration when I was a teenager and I like all the Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake vibes. The way they move with their music is so interesting to watch.
My last question is the big one... You have accomplished a lot already but do you still have a big goal you're working towards?
A lot actually! I want to go and tour the album and to see my friends from all around the world. Even if it's just a small theatre tour, it would be amazing. I want to keep collaborating with artists from other parts of the world, especially with artists from the UK because I love the UK garage scene. But in the end, I just want to keep making music and live a happy life. Simple as that.