Karina Utomo is breaking barriers in Indonesia’s heavy metal scene

Words by Maeve Kerr-Crowley

Sonic shift.

Heavy metal vocalist, Karina Utomo is no stranger to adversity. Growing up between Canberra and a Jakarta in the midst of political turmoil, she was made to regularly adapt to ensure she fit in. Within this shifting context, Karina developed a resilience that has seen her named as an ambassador for Dr. Martens’ Tough As You campaign.

“I think there’s a strong correlation with places in the world that have a dark or bloody history and a thriving metal scene,” says Karina.

Moving to Canberra at the age of eight then back to Jakarta, her formative years coincided with a corrupt and tumultuous political regime. Her adolescence was coloured by the kind of tension and crisis that most of her Australian peers would never experience.

“When I grew up, it was under the Suharto regime [and] artists were creating music to break free from not having any freedom of speech,” she explains. “Like punk, a lot of people rely on having a metal scene to rebel, especially in a place like Indonesia.”

Perhaps it’s this that ignited her love for heavy metal, or perhaps it was her need to find a community.

As she was made to move back and forth across countries during her childhood, Karina was forced also to adapt across cultures. Growing up in this state of flux wasn’t helpful in laying down roots, but it did help her learn resilience from an early age. “I had to assimilate really quickly to stop the teasing, and I had to be very aware of my environment […] to blend in,” she says.

Maybe the rebellion was there right from the beginning, but we all know that trying to fit in can make you stand out more. Karina joined a punk band when she was 16 and started writing songs, productively working out her inevitable teen angst. It wasn’t until she went to her first heavy metal show that she became devoted to the genre. “I was blown away [and] felt compelled to do more with my own voice, and learn how to sing in an abrasive way,” she recalls.

While a glimpse of the hardcore scene lit a fire within her, many people told her she should give up singing altogether. “Perhaps they were trying to give me constructive criticism and, in retrospect, I was probably a pretty shit singer,” she says. “[But] no one’s going to try something for the first time and be a virtuoso. There has to be room to be shit, to then get better.”

At the time she didn’t take any of it on board, instead letting the criticism spur her on further and with more determination.

Maybe that’s what she means when says, “Setbacks are basically giving you more time to prepare, they’re a good thing.”

She goes on to cite a fierce lineage of trailblazing women who each chipped at the music industry’s glass ceiling. It’s these who Karina credits as inspiration, pointing particularly to legendary female, trans and non-binary artists who have made space for themselves in the metal scene. “There have always been women in music, and they did all the hard work so I could do what I do right now and not have the same issues they faced,” she says.

Karina’s vision for the future sees these kinds of diverse voices – the ones who have had to fight the hardest to get to where they are now – taking over the industry and making themselves heard.

“I’m really hoping for an extreme sonic shift so that more diverse voices and narratives can truly be embraced. It’s time to step aside and let different voices take over.”

Karina joins Dr. Martens’ Tough As You campaign, celebrating those who have pushed back, dug their heels in or made a change in the face of adversity. Alongside her is South African actor Nakhane Touré, Vietnamese tattoo artist Sarah Lu, UK indie-rock frontman Blaine Harrison and podcast collective Sistren.


This article was originally published in Fashion Journal 192 in partnership with Dr. Martens. You can read it here.

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