It feels strange to think that eight years ago, somebody else could have been in the 27-year-old Indonesian singer’s shoes. It all began in Jakarta when Afgan and two friends decided to spend the day recording covers at a studio.
“I was going to have fun with my friends. I love singing, but I’m a shy guy. I can’t sing when there’s a lot of people looking at me. So I went there because it’s a closed space where I can sing,” he says.
There, his rendition of John Legend’s neo soul piano number Ordinary People caught the attention of a music producer at the studio, who offered Afgan a recording contract. However, being a university student at the time, he didn’t give it much thought, and left the premises without leaving his contact details.
“No, I was still in school and I don’t have any time to think about a singing career!” he recalled.
Afgan must have made quite the impression at the time. He shares that the producer and his team searched for him in several education centres in the area, and some opportunists tried to exploit the search party.
“Some kids actually claimed to be me. Yes, someone else could have taken up the offer. But when the producer heard those guys sing, it was different, so it didn’t work out for anyone,” he explains with a laugh.
Three months later, Afgan returned to the studio with friends to “have a good time”. He sang and a studio operator recognised him. “That day, the producer offered me a record deal and pretty much changed my life.”
It was a Cinderella story set in a modern day Jakarta music studio, as Afgan went from a self-confessed shy guy to one of Indonesia’s top artistes. His debut album Terima Kasih Cinta (2008), which featured songs composed by award-winning producers like Bebi Romeo and Deddy Dhukun, sold about 75,000 copies and was certified platinum in Indonesia. Subsequent efforts like The One and L1ve To Love, Love to L1ve made him an award show staple, winning him Best Artist of the Year at MTV Indonesia Awards in 2008, Best Album at Anugerah Planet Musik in 2009, and Best Asian Artist at the South Korea-based Asian Song Festival in 2014.
He also ventured into acting, making his debut in romantic comedy Bukan Cinta Biasa. In the 2010 release, Cinta 2 Hati, Afgan starred as a singer struggling with newfound fame.
In real life, Afgan says he has no problems with the media wanting to know about his personal life or romantic endeavours. His rumoured current squeeze is 37-year-old Indonesian superstar Rossa, though he maintains in various reports that they are close friends, duet partners, and nothing more.
“I know what to say when they ask me that. I try not to be bothered by it. I don’t want to have that mentality where I have to be scared of what people are going to ask. If the media wants to know what is going on in my personal life, oh well…”
Despite his achievements, Agfan, who grew up listening to records by Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, says he was still holding back. He shares that he had no creative control with his previous albums. “I didn’t get to express what I really wanted to say. I didn’t have the confidence at that time to write my own songs and present it to the label.”
After the release of L1ve To Love, Love to L1ve, he took a three-year break to complete his economics degree at Monash University in Subang Jaya, Selangor. He also had time to reflect on his public persona.
“People assumed that I’m predictable. I have heard people describe me as ‘a mellow, cool guy who doesn’t say much’. They think I’m going to stick to the same old songs and look a certain way.”
The soft-spoken Afgan is no wallflower when it comes to live performances. He looks up to Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars (“They are like my gods in music.”). On stage, Afgan has Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce in him and assumes the persona of a confident, well-rounded performer.
“When I hear the fans screaming before I get on stage, I sort of split my personality and become someone else. Most people don’t know that when I perform, I go all out,” he says, making the most assuring statement about himself so far.
During his hiatus, Afgan was anxious to release new material that will reflect his growth as an artiste. He wanted listeners to know that he is evolving as an artiste. He penned a number of songs and kept it for three years, until it was time to show it to his label.
“Some of them said they didn’t get what I was trying to say with the songs. Someone went ‘huh?’ (laughs). At that moment, I felt very vulnerable…” he lamens.
Fortunately, Afgan eventually overcamce his self-doubt and gained the assurance of his label. Sides features nine songs written by him and three more by composer friends. The album also includes collaborations with Welsh producer Mark Hill (who has worked with Ed Sheeran and Craig David). Though he retains his signature ballads while singing about love, life and spirituality, there are new elements like blues, urban 90s R&B, and even hip hop, courtesy of our very own Malaysian star, SonaOne.
“I fell in love with his song No More. Joe Flizzow introduced me to him. He flew to Jakarta and we wrote like two songs in three days. We had a good time in the studio and you can tell from the songs,” he says.
He is so excited and proud of Sides that it has inspired him to not hold back anymore. “It’s now or never,” he proclaims, recalling another incident where he practically ran away from a chance to showcase his talent (yes, there was another one!).
“One year before I was discovered at the recording studio, I actually auditioned for Indonesian Idol. As I was about to enter the room to perform for the judges, I stopped. I decided that I couldn’t do it and ran away,” he says sheepishly.
Looking back, he realises that it was all meant to be. “I was so afraid of performing in front of people at that time. Then when I was offered the record deal. I told myself that everything will be fine, as people seem to love it when I sing.”
Afgan “Sides” Live In Malaysia will be held on Sept 3 at Dewan Merdeka, Putra World Trade Centr, KL. Tickets are priced between RM188 anf RM788. For more information, visit ticketcharge.com.my or call 03-9222 8811.