By Jocelle Koh
Photos by Alex Kleis
Indonesian-German Soul-pop/Reggae artist Tóke is one of a kind. Spending his childhood in the hustle and bustle of Jakarta city before moving to a small village in Germany at nine, from a young age the Berlin-based artist has already become accustomed to a variety of eclectic perspectives and experiences.
As a result, the topics he explores and the worldly, generous attitude he puts forth comes particularly naturally as he daringly embarks on a quest to put positive change into motion and tell his story in a way that only he can.
“My art is an expression, an honest imprint of my specific set of emotions in a specific moment in time. Of course this expression is informed by a unique set of experiences, growing up in two completely different cultures with completely different mindsets, completely different worlds.”
Moving swiftly from explorations of the Reggae genre in his earlier works to slowly incorporating fusions of Soul, R&B, and Pop into his music, Tóke states that be it in terms of his ideologies or his musical influences, pioneering new territory and reading between the lines just comes naturally to him.
“It’s hard to really distinguish what is what sometimes. There is soulful reggae, R&B with a reggae-touch, pop songs in reggae formats… I just love to go in between these lines and utilise all the creative resources I have as an artist, do whatever serves the song best. I was heavily drawn into Reggae Music a couple of years ago, spent a lot of time in Jamaica and connected strongly with the culture and music. Reggae is a very powerful entity, an energetic force. I get a lot of strength, focus and clarity through the messages that are conveyed in Reggae. Artists like Charles Bradley, Al Greene made me fall in love with soul music. Artists like Daniel Caesar, SiR etc. made me want to sing love songs, RnB style.”
Deriving his artist name from the bahasa word ‘Tokeh’ which is a type of gecko found in Indonesia, the energetic artist shares how the name links him back to his childhood and family.
“Tóke is derived from “Tokeh“ and is a type of gecko that I grew up with living in Indonesia. Usually around dusk it would make sounds, actually „singing“ it’s own name. My grandma used to call me that all the time because I was loud and very energetic, crawling around the place the whole time. Happy I stuck with the name as it also represents my roots.”
Now the name seems to have taken on another deeper meaning with the outspoken artist’s latest EP “The Art of Letting Go“. Filled with bouncy reggae tones and vibin’ R&B beats, Tóke sings about racial conflicts (on ‘Brown Face’), the refugee experience (on ‘The Sun Has Died’) and personal growth (on ‘Own Lane’) in a non-confrontational way; and always with a well-meaning energy that keeps you listening til the end.
One can tell that these issues are deeply personal for Tóke from the way that he presents them in this EP. The artist himself spoke about the responsibility he feels to enact change in whatever way he can as a public figure and musician.
“As artists we have the privilege to start discourses around certain topics and get conversations going that on the long run have the potential to evoke actual change. That privilege comes with responsibility. As much as I love easy party songs (All of this is part of our reality), I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I didn’t contribute somehow to the betterment of peoples life situation, including mine.”
On “Brown Face”, a low-key anthem highlighting race issues Tóke sings: “we uproar ‘cus we’re outraged/They want us gone but we’re still here“; a powerful line that succinctly toes the line between addressing these issues and empowering fellow people of colour.
“I had been to Germany before I moved there so I knew the language, had an idea of the vibe. For me as a 9 year old it didn’t feel too much like a transplant as I was just happy I could run around, play ball and ride my bike. I was privileged that I didn’t experience the type of harsh racism that other brothers & sisters have to endure. It was more as I grew older that I experienced moments of not fully being accepted, being looked at differently. looked at from an “outsiders“ perspective, like a transplant. That’s what I sing about in my song “Brown Face“.”
Yet overall, the message of his EP is not just centred on any one contemporary issue, but on the common thread that links all these experiences and revelations throughout Tóke’s journey so far. Borne in the midst of the 2020 lockdown in Europe, the album is a release in many senses; musically, creatively, thematically and also personally for the bold artist.
“This EP is me letting go of certain fears, expectations and ideas surrounding who I can and cannot be as an artist. I just freed up and tried new things, was completely open during the creative process so it’s a true reflection of a very inspiring period of time in my life – 2020’s first lockdown. The message is that letting go is something we have to re-learn and practice over and over again, because these challenges keep coming up.”
To the self aware artist, the concept of letting go is not only important because it frees the mind in the present. For him, it is an art to be mastered in order to make the best of all challenges that life throws at you. Throughout all his experiences, the singer-songwriter saw the common thread of change appear; and it is what we do to combat the change and make the most of every moment that becomes key.
“I was confronted with this notion from pretty early on because of a major life change when I was nine – moving from Indonesia to Germany. I left my Dad, my grandparents and the life I knew behind and learned to adapt in a new world, with new values and rules. During the course of my life this topic kept coming up, in further moves, relationships, friendships. It’s something I have to practice to this day. Not letting go is like carrying a heavy backpack around with you full of things you actually don’t need right now. The weight distracts you from what is around you in the present moment and whatever is in the backpack has no value for the current moment. On the other hand letting go is like a rebirth, the beginning feels scary, like going through fire. But on the other side you come out fresh, rejuvenated and in a way reborn. Sometimes we’re afraid of letting go because we’re afraid of that heat and can hardly imagine what a beautifully life-changing experience it can be.”
In a way describing the experience of letting go as baptism by fire; in a world where consumerism is rampant and excess is encouraged, it is rare to see individuals look within and come to such revelations so early on their artistic journey. Striking us as a person who has lived (and continues to live) a life rich with diversity and experience, we are honoured to have a musical glimpse into Tóke’s journey as he drills down to what truly matters in life: the moments that we are truly present for.