Former pop star moonwalks for missions

Gavin Susantio was a pop star in Indonesia before turning to Biola to pursue apologetics.


Andres Ramirez // THE CHIMES

Susantio won first place at Punk ‘n’ Pie with his spot-on Jackson impression.

Brittany Ung, News Editor

(This story was originally published in print on Oct. 31, 2019).

Junior philosophy major Gavin Susantio won hearts at this year’s Punk ‘n’ Pie, where he moonwalked his way through a smattering of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, from “Thriller” to “Billie Jean.” Before taking the stage at Punk ‘n’ Pie, Susantio danced for a small talent show by Global Student Programs & Development last Valentine’s Day. And for an audience of thousands on New Year’s Eve in Indonesia. Only a few years ago, Susantio was a pop sensation in Indonesia, touring the country as a singer and dancer.

What viewers saw at Punk ‘n’ Pie was 10 years in the making, as Susantio’s music career was sparked by a young Susantio’s admiration for Michael Jackson’s trailblazing dance moves. Jackson’s death in 2009 prompted widespread media coverage of the singer in Indonesia. Susantio was 10-years-old when he watched a video of Jackson’s first moonwalk.

“It was just three little steps, one, two, three and then he stopped. But I was like, ‘That’s magic and I want to do that,’” he recalled. 

Susantio became obsessed with learning to dance like Jackson, copying YouTube videos and television coverage. Eventually, his parents hired him a dance teacher, who taught him to replicate Michael Jackson’s choreography. That’s why his performance at Punk ‘n’ Pie came so naturally—Susantio knows all of Jackson’s iconic moves by heart. 

“I wasn’t trained to be professional, I was trained to memorize Michael Jackson’s iconic moves,” he said.

In December of that year, Susantio asked for a stage for his birthday, where he could showcase his newfound talent. His mother, a fashion designer, brought some of her friends in the entertainment industry to her son’s party. They saw Susantio performing and only a few weeks later he made his first TV appearance. 

From there, Gavin Susantio became Gavin Jackson and then Gavin MJ, Indonesia’s mini Michael Jackson impersonator. He picked up Twitter followers and Facebook fans as he toured the country, capitalizing on the K-Pop and Justin Bieber craze of the early 2010s. As part of that image, he learned to sing and expanded his dance repertoire beyond a reproduction of Jackson’s choreography, picking up other dance styles like hip-hop, L.A. style and pop-and-lock.

Susantio lived the typical pop sensation life. He went to meet and greets, signed autographs and came home from school to find reporters at his house, asking him for an exclusive look at his wardrobe. 

During that time, an average week for Susantio consisted of school, performances and meet-and-greets. During weekends, he danced on either of Indonesia’s two largest morning shows—all before the age of 15. 

“It’s fun. It’s exhausting too, very exhausting. It’s exhausting not because it’s pressuring me, it’s more exhausting because it’s a lot of work,” he said. “Literally, I was just a kid. I was a kid in the studio [until] 3 a.m.” 

And then he quit to focus on his education. He saw friends in the music or acting industry getting caught up in their careers and neglecting their schooling. Upon starting high school, he started questioning the life of hedonism and stardom, seeking answers that his schooling couldn’t supply. This prompted him to read books on philosophy and epistemology—what is the truth and how do we find it? 

By touring different islands he was exposed to a diversity of religious beliefs: Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism. 

“I was struggling with my own faith like, ‘Which one is the true religion?’And, of course, people in the music industry don’t have answers to that,” he said. “They just say, ‘Oh I’m a Muslim because my parents are Muslim.’” 

After about five years of searching, Susantio became a Christian, won over from a Muslim upbringing by the faith that satisfied his desire for biblical Christianity over a hedonistic lifestyle.

It’s been about five years since Susantio left the music industry. He says he misses the opportunities that lifestyle brought to inspire others. When he was still in the industry, Susantio went island-hopping to teach and play music for children.

“‘God, you’ve given me all this wealth and all these opportunities to help others, and I’ll do it. I’ll do it for you.” he said. “So that’s what I miss, getting the chance to help others.” 

Susantio wasn’t only inspired by Michael Jackson’s music or choreography. He recognized the singer’s desire to reach out to the broken and needy parts of the world.

“He’s one of the most charitable artists literally in the history of music,” Susantio said. “He would do a world tour and then give it all away.”

At Biola, Susantio isn’t known for being a pop sensation. He doesn’t see his name on motorcycles or get swamped by paparazzi—before Friday night, few even knew he could dance. And he likes it that way. It means he can be known as a brother in Christ before all else.

“That’s why nobody knows that I even do a little bit of dancing,” he said. “They know me as this Biola student who loves Muslims, who loves apologetics and that’s it.”

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