Real Talk: Aboriginal Rappers Talk About Their Music & Country
By Mat Ward
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Australian hip-hop pioneer Urthboy told The Music Network last year: “I was asked to write about the state of hip-hop in Australia. I’d prefer to shine a light on what may be the future of it: Indigenous Hip-Hop.
“Indigenous artists carry a profoundly engrossing and intriguing story for international audiences, yet it’s barely understood by many Australians.”
Green Left Weekly music writer Mat Ward used these remarks as a jumping off point to write Real Talk, an in-depth book that gives a voice to Aboriginal Australia’s emerging hip-hop talent.
Ward told GLW: “I got into this music when I started listening to Munk's Indigenous Hip-Hop Radio Show on Koori Radio a few years ago. I was astounded by the quality of the music and the knowledge in the lyrics. It was essentially raw protest music — and world class.
“I started interviewing the Indigenous hip-hop artists because I was already doing voluntary work for Green Left, which prides itself on printing what the mainstream media won't. The artists were basically being ignored elsewhere, yet they had so much to say, so it was a natural fit.”
Ward’s book is broad in scope, showcasing the diverse voices of Aboriginal hip-hop. It travels both the vast geography, from Redfern to the Western Desert to the Top End, and the vast panoply of influences that create the music — religious, political and social.
Take Jimblah, who is an energetic electronic virtuoso and who I had the privilege of seeing perform a stunning tribute to the iconic Yothu Yindi at the National Indigenous Music Awards this year.
Jimblah tells Real Talk that the high rates of suicide among Aboriginal people was one of the things that motivated him to get into music. His track “Face the fire” was directly inspired by a friend of his who took his own life.
At a concert, he was asked by a fan if he was a member of the mythical “Gang of 49” — a “gang” invented by the Adelaide Advertiser after it got hold of a police list of 49 unrelated Aboriginal alleged offenders. Jimblah says it is an example of the poor way that the media portrays Aboriginal people.
“Things like [government employment and training program] Generation One are doing more damage than good,” says Jimblah.
“They might have good intentions, but when I turn on the TV it’s telling me I won’t live until 50, that I’ll drop out of school by 15, statistics telling me I’m three times more likely to be unemployed.
“What are young, impressionable minds supposed to think when they get bombarded with this every day? When this kind of nonsense is everywhere they turn, they start believing it and giving up hope, because, apparently, that’s just the way it is.
“Don’t get me wrong though, they are doing great stuff within the community, it’s just some aspects of their campaign I don’t agree with.”
Media production companies also get a look-in, like Desert Pea Media which has helped produce many of the Western Desert acts that have wowed the rest of the country.
Desert Pea’s director, Toby Finlayson, explains what motivates many of the acts they produce.
“I think if you are born Aboriginal, you are born political,” Finlayson says. “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.
“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.”
Darah from Shepparton, Victoria argues that this is why many Aboriginal acts are inspired by US artists, not Australian ones. He says: “For me, the Australian dialect, much like the Australian flag, serves as a constant reminder that my people have been dispossessed, displaced and forced to follow the culture of our invaders.
“If I could rap in my native language I would.”
Big Luke was motivated by correcting the European view of history, shoved down his throat in high school. In “This is a message”, he sings: “Look at these convicts selling our land, making it bank/We should roll over parliament in a motherfucking tank/I’m sick of seeing our people getting treated like shit/So you punks that are racist just get back on the ship.”
A young female rapper from Brisbane, Kayemtee, campaigns for equal marriage rights in song. She’s sampled Cold Chisel’s “Forever Now” to condemn homophobia.
Kayemtee says: “I have been blessed with an open-minded, accepting, loving and supportive family who made it possible for me to not have to ‘come out’...
“I had a boyfriend for a while. Then I had a girlfriend for a while. It wasn’t an issue for any of them.
“Of course there have been some people along the way who’ve had something to say, but those who matter, don’t care and those who care, don’t matter.”
The book runs the gamut of popularity, from relative unknowns like bodybuilder Jpoint, to more famous artists like The Last Kinection and Sky’High, with interesting observations by all.
For example, Sky’High cites Bobbi Sykes as an influence: “I don’t need to explain why,” she says dismissively.
Aboriginal poet, author and land rights activist Sykes started out as a striptease dancer in Sydney’s King’s Cross, the same line of work as Sky’High’s grandmother and mother.