Hip hop keeps Mulrunji’s memory alive
Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee died in custody at Palm Island police station on November 19, 2004. His liver had been cleaved almost in two.
Nearly three years later, senior police sergeant Chris Hurley told Townsville Supreme Court he had come to terms with the fact that he caused the death.
But more than six years after it happened, no one has been convicted of Doomadgee's death.
The story has dropped out of the headlines, but it is being kept in the nation's conscience another, more innovative way.
Week after week, right across the country, an infectious slice of tropical hip hop is played on radio stations that keeps Doomadgee’s name alive. The name of the record is “Aboriginal Justice” by the PI Boyz.
“This is for my brother that was taken away / From his family, I wish he was alive today / We’re looking for justice Aboriginal way / Not just locking up my mob for starting a fray / Yeah it starts today, no more of this / Listen to the rap scratched on this disc.”
The record, which hit the No. 1 spot in Triple J’s Unearthed Chart last year, is a collaboration between three young Bwgcolman men from Palm Island and a remarkable arts workshop by an organisation called Desert Pea Media.
“‘Aboriginal Justice’ was massive,” Desert Pea’s director, Toby Finlayson, tells Green Left Weekly.
“Not only for the community on Palm Island and the PI Boyz who recorded the track, but all of Australia. The song helped bring an incredible injustice to light, and we like to think that it helped the community with their grieving process.
“To have the opportunity to honour Mulrunji Doomadgee and his family was a humbling experience.”
Finlayson helped form Desert Pea Media after completing a BA in Communications, Theatre and Media in Bathurst, about 200 kilometres west of Sydney, and working with disadvantaged and remote communities in Asia.
“My time in Thailand and Sri Lanka was really the foundation for my work with Desert Pea Media,” he says.
“I lived and worked with an amazing organisation called The Makhampom Foundation, who have a long history of running sustainable community theatre programs in remote Thai villages, child prostitution-drawing areas, HIV-affected areas and Burmese refugees, among others.
“They use a process where participants create a dialogue through image and theatre around social and cultural issues, looking at finding possible solutions to real problems and advocating awareness through contemporary media.
“It is this model that inspired me to work with disadvantaged communities back home. I figured it makes more sense for me to be a part of effecting change in my own country.”
Desert Pea Media has spent the past nine years travelling to remote communities across Australia. It holds workshops lasting up to three weeks in which locals learn to express themselves through circus skills, theatre, music and film.
“We’ve been to so many places and met so many amazing people,” says Finlayson. “Every community we have been to has been awesome in its own right. Palm Island, Collarenebri, Boggabilla, Dubbo, Bathurst, Moree — these are where some of our closest friendships and relationships with community are, and of course we love working out there, but the list is growing every month.”
Quite a leap for a non-Aboriginal kid who grew up in the suburbs.
“My childhood was a normal sort of childhood,” says Finlayson. “My parents are both psychologists and I grew up in Sydney and moved out to Bathurst when I was 15. I went to a public high school in a housing commission area.
“I think my relationship with Aboriginal communities comes from a strong sense of family. My family is incredibly close, and it’s the friendships and relationships I have made out there that built a foundation for Desert Pea Media’s work.
“When I got back from Thailand, I started volunteering with a few community and cultural development organisations.
“I was working with BigHart on a project in Sydney when I met the principal artist, Matthew Priestly, a Gamileraay man from Boggabilla, New South Wales. We got on really well and Desert Pea Media ran our first program out in his community.
“We are now as close as you can get to family without being related. We are brothers and we have a shared vision for Australian cultural sustainability that informs our work to this day.
“Sustainability is always a challenge in this kind of work. We don’t have infrastructural funding and work on a project-specific basis. We emphasise maintaining grassroots, ongoing relationships with young people and communities based on the principles of friendship and brotherhood.
“Social media and mobile phones keep us in contact with our young brothers and sisters where possible. Desert Pea Media is an organisation founded on family. Proper way.”
Since “Aboriginal Justice”, the Desert Pea family has gone from strength to strength.
Its work with Collarenebri Central School in far north-west NSW has spawned “The Colli Crew”, a diminutive bunch of razor-sharp rappers who boast a level of political maturity that puts far older city-dwellers to shame.
“I think if you are born Aboriginal, you are born political,” says Finlayson. “Kids in communities live and breathe politics, poverty, trauma and the list goes on. They have an acute level of awareness and capacity for critical thought and observation that isn’t found in most adults.”
Their skills have not gone unnoticed. The Colli Crew soon found themselves being played on the radio, winning awards, performing at the Schools Spectacular and spitting out their conscious lyrics from the steps of Sydney Opera House to a crowd of 10,000 people at the Aria Awards.
It’s obvious that hip hop is the aspect of Desert Pea’s work that garners the most attention. But Finlayson, who cites Australian crews TZU, Mantra, Muphin, Pegz, and The Herd among his favourite artists, shows little concern that the rapping might overshadow the rest of the work.
“We focus on multimedia performance,” he says. “Live performance, circus and puppetry combined with hip hop and film frames a story — we create holistic community events.
“Theatre and performance is more relevant to younger participants and, to some extent older community members. It’s about catering for all age groups.
“For us, hip hop, film, circus and theatre are all just tools to engage young people in dialogue and critical thought. Hip hop is an incredibly relevant storytelling form, and enables stories to be presented in a language that is understood by young people. It’'s about talking to people in their own language.
“Historically, hip hop comes from African American culture in a low socioeconomic context, and I think First Australian communities relate to the struggles that are addressed in the rap and hip hop genre.
“Tupac, Biggy and many other artists talk about some of the same struggles that face Aboriginal people, and I think young people respond to that.
“I do love hip hop. I love story, and Australian hip hop is my language. It's my native tongue and it’s an interesting and vibrant social commentary in Australia. I don’t like the arrogance and belligerence in hip hop culture, but I love our Aussie flavour.”
Desert Pea’s work is up there with the best Aussie flavours. But the song writing is not as painful or time-consuming as the quality of the end product might suggest.
“The whole process takes only a few hours,” says Finlayson. “We have a unique ‘peer to peer’ mentoring process. It’s about creating dialogue around local social and cultural issues.
“The young people or the communities identify an issue and together we explore the impact of this issue on young people and community. Our artists then help the group craft this into a story, workshop rhyme structure and poetry, then put it down.”
But it is perhaps Finlayson who has learnt the most.
“Where do I begin?” he says. “Working and living in communities, sitting around fires, listening, learning — I can’t even begin to explain the lessons I have learnt about myself, our country, respect, relationships and responsibility.
“The gifts I have been given are immeasurable and I am eternally grateful.”
It’s an education few Australians could ever hope to get.
“I think there are a whole range of gaps in the way Australian people are educated about culture,” says Finlayson. “From language to spirituality and even basic history. In my opinion, the misinformation and ignorance that plagues our country is unforgivable.”
The PI Boyz' “Aboriginal Justice”.
The Colli Crew's “Change The Game”.