June 20, 2013
Radical rapper Ben Iota stands out in Australian Hip-Hop like a refugee boat in an empty ocean. Green Left's Mat Ward spoke to him about his new EP "Born Free".
You say your new record was inspired "by studying and living in a developing country" - Indonesia. Most Australians tend to see Indonesia through the lens of the Bali bombings and terrorism, despite declassified documents showing Australia nurtured that extremism. Tell us how your experiences of the country contrast with that widely-held image.
It is such an unfair and unwarranted stereotype, which prevails thanks to the mass-media and people’s ignorance. My experiences with Indonesian people are as far removed from that stereotype as could be imagined. Indonesia is a huge country with over 220 million people and is incredibly diverse in many ways. It has many different cultures that derived from many different tribes that were only brought together as a nation in recent times; therefore it is difficult to generalise about people. In my experience travelling around, though, the main thing that stands out is the heart of the people and how laid back they are. By and large the community and religion are still social glues in Indonesia, and people are so happy to meet you and invite you into their houses. You can feel right there how it contrasts with Western individualism. It renews your faith in humanity. Fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment exists, but it is right on the fringes and rare as could be. People are generally super-gentle and warm-hearted. Just living there you notice a change in yourself and that imprint can’t be outlived. There is a lot that the world could learn from Indonesia, and I know I’ll always have great friends there that I can go back to when I have the chance. There is much beauty to be found in Indonesia and I encourage everyone to go visit the “neighbours”, past Kuta. Ha ha.
What were you doing in Indonesia?
I’ve lived in Indonesia a couple of times. Once I was studying language and working in a rural refugee village in Jogjakarta. The people were environmental refugees, rebuilding their lives after having everything obliterated by a volcano eruption. It was an awesome, life-changing experience. The second time I was working in education, but this time in remote Sulawesi. I was only one of 10 outsiders who lived in this city, which was a very isolated and conservative place to live. The existence of my Australian friends and I was half-way between that of celebrities and that of circus animals. We were freaks of nature to the locals, some of whom had never seen a Westerner except on TV. It was out of this world, every hour of every day, being the focus of their curiosities. The poverty in our city was also staggering. A lot of people just had nothing and there were very few industries except for mining - exploitative as you could imagine - fishing, retail and a bloated, crooked civil service. But people were happy. It was an interesting year of steep learning curves and was very rewarding. Plus I know I will have some friends for life from the experience.
CNN notes: "When average citizens in a country start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived. It signifies that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they've also come under the influence of Western marketing." It's also been said that paper makes up almost a third of the material that goes into landfills and chlorinated toilet paper contains the highest amount of furans - dioxins - out of all cosmetic tissues. Indonesians still use water. Did you revert to using toilet paper on your return?
Unfortunately, yes. I am a big fan of the squirt and mandi though. Especially in light of the amount of chilli I eat.
On “You Can Feel It”, you rap:
Regrets dwarfed by recognition of my privileged position
Relative to my neighbours but they stay grinning
I’d be lying to say I didn’t notice the stinging
Of existential angst, but it’s only the beginning
Tell us about that.
By neighbours I literally mean Australia’s neighbours, that being Indonesia. While living in Indonesia I have always been struck by the infectious happiness of the Indonesian people. Usually the less they have, the more vibrant and welcoming they are. It really puts the modern-day whingeing Aussie under some serious scrutiny. I try to reconcile my own existential angst, that comes from living in and engaging with this crazy world, and be at peace, because change within compels change outside.
Tell us about the unusual artwork with the mechanical horse and what you were trying to portray.
It relates to the endeavour to attain personal freedom - mentally, geographically and spiritually. The unplugged cord represents a breakdown, the personal limitations to achieving the goal, as well as the societal pressures: the magnets that pull you towards being a passive consumer. The artwork, different as it is from your average hip-hop release, has worked really well for us and people have loved it. We are glad that we did something different, and it is great to see people thinking about what the cover means and interpreting in their own way.
Did you learn about the necessities in life through travelling light?
Definitely. When I lived in Indonesia in the last time I just went there with a suitcase and came back with a suitcase full of stuff. We didn’t need much. Just shelter, clothing, medication, a scooter, food and a few creature comforts. We did have an internet connection to stay in touch with our families and friends, but didn’t have a TV and didn’t have the usual gluttonous social life that prevails in Australia - that is, a boozy nightlife. It was great! Because most people didn’t drink in our neighbourhood, my friends and I were very conservative with booze, and we learnt how to appreciate human company again without the social lubricant that is booze. Indonesians hold the title for sitting around chatting with friends and forgetting about time, so it was great to strip back social interactions to the basic goodness of really engaging with people, which we seem to have forgotten in western culture.
Australians with brown skin are often asked: "Where are you from?" White Australians do not get asked it so much, so we'll ask you - what are your roots?
My family background is a muddle. So many mixes that I can't define as such, but I guess my closest root is Danish. My great grandfather was a Danish immigrant in the early 20th century.
Your EP starts with you trying to make up your mind about where to fly to. It's a great contrast with the limited choices faced by asylum seekers. Tell us about "Born Free", the EP's title track that follows that introduction, and in particular the line: "If knowledge is power then education is liberation."
This is something that I believe strongly in, and know from personal experience living on both sides. Education is a way for people to think deeply about their place on this planet and think critically about the decisions that are made on their behalf by the government and private interests. Noam Chomsky said it well when he said: “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defence to protect themselves from manipulation and control.” Observing the hysteria and fear-mongering regarding asylum seekers that the Australian public has lapped up, you can see how a good dose of critical thinking could help everyone see a little clearer, and critique the propaganda of the Liberal Party and the sheepish complicity of the Labor Party. For me, going back to university as a mature aged student was an incredibly liberating experience. I thought I’d lived through experience, but reading the thoughts of some of the greatest minds really helps to put things into perspective. You define yourself as a person and learn where you really stand. Education is a constant pursuit, though, and I don’t think anyone should ever feel too old or too smart to learn something new.
On “Iota” you rap:
Iota, just a component of something bigger
Big picture, we're interconnected, no limits
No divisions in the living ecosystem
Ancient wisdom outlives the ego-driven human condition
Can you talk about that?
This is recognition of the interconnectivity of all human beings, all living things, the planet and the universe that we inhabit. Everything that we do affects the next one and we all need to find a balance both socially and environmentally. Before European invasion, many Australian Indigenous groups had a balance that saw that they weren’t living above their means, and ensured they maintained the Australian landscape relatively impeccably for 60,000 years. There is a lot that the rest of the “modern” world could learn from this “ancient” wisdom.
Who is sampled at the start of "Iota"?
That would be Bruce Lipton, whose big argument is that a person’s genes and DNA can be defined and changed by their thoughts, as well being an all-round champion. He was sampled from the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which has some great guests. I actually tried to get in touch with them to let them know I’d paid tribute to them. So if you are reading this fellas, I love your work.
You also name-check Rogan, among others, in "Born Free". Tell us about those lines:
Long live Sagan, Noam, Pilger, Zinn and Carlin
Darwin, Marx and even Rogan, who took these pieces and rearranged 'em
Paving roads so we can take 'em
They are some people who have influenced me over the years and provided a bit of guidance while I have formed the framework for my understanding of the world; primarily the western world. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are some people who I seem to always draw back to. Rogan is probably the exception because he is no intellectual, but - god damn it - I have listened to about a month's worth of his podcasts over the last couple of years, so he gets the nod. Also [George] Carlin for just being an all-round badass. I think comedy is so effective as a medium for a message.
Tell us about the line in "Iota": "We're so progressive, so clever, we're polluting our kids."
Western culture has always been so smug in its “modernisation” efforts, colonising traditional cultures. But it is our western infinite growth paradigm that is destroying what is beautiful about this planet, not to mention the rampant individualism that has undermined the connection in the human community. We need to reflect on our place on this planet.
You have some great lines about nationalism in there:
We’ve been punked by the powers that be
The owners broke our spirit now we no longer believe
They capitalise on our fears, turn us against one another
Keep us distracted and cash-in while we fight with our peers
Raising a flag, misdirected hatred - it’s mad
Rupert pulling the strings, minorities get the axe
Clearly you’re whipped, that border you protect with a fist
Is an elaborate hoax - it doesn’t really exist
Tell us more.
This is a shot towards the mass media and the various culture brokers who still use divide-and-conquer tactics on the general public to further their own cause, sell units and push their own political agendas (see the “boat people”, Islamophobic currents). The unthinking Australian populous fall right into their little trap, latching onto the flag-waving radical nationalism that the Liberal party and the Murdoch media push with a view to exploit the emotions of a populous who are still unwittingly half-seated in White Australia Policy-era Australia. I argue that humanity is not defined by national borders. Human beings have more fundamental connections to each other, regardless of which patch of dirt we were born on.
Also, tell us about your line: "The land of plenty where the natives were forced to sacrifice so you could have everything."
This is me talking to the knuckleheads you may observe spewing their racist vitriol towards “boat people” and Indigenous Australians. The blaring irony where the descendants of the first generation of “boat people” (Europeans) can be so judgmental and dehumanising towards the second generation of “boat people” (the current arrivals), in the name of border “protection”, is perplexing. These representatives of the first generation ought to check their sense of managerial entitlement and remember whose land was taken so they could have a nice existence, insulated from the real problems of the world.
You also rap: "People really are the same in a roundabout way and if you step out of your backyard you'll see this at play." Can you talk about that?
It’s amazing, the more I travel and learn, the less I feel foreign from the “other” . Travel has taught me a lot about humanity and the human spirit, and that at the end of the day, the broad majority of people just want to be happy, raise a family and feel connected. It truly restores your faith in humanity when a total stranger welcomes you into their house with open arms, puts aside your obvious skin colour or religious or nationality differences, and sits down for a drink and story-share. I think travel would be a great remedy for anyone with “racial” hang-ups, as most of them could be quelled simply by engaging with people who don’t look like them and live “over there”. This goes for travel within Australia to Indigenous communities too.
On your song “Guerilla Journalist”, you say: "You're preoccupied with tragedy and urban polarity." Tell us who that was aimed at in particular.
That was aimed at the mass media and the complicit readers. Everyone knows that the mass media transmits doom and gloom, but it is also divisive of humanity. Since John Howard got into office in the late 1990s, the social atmosphere in Australia got ugly in regards to minority groups. Then when One Nation imploded and the Howard government dog-whistled to their voters, shit really hit the fan and Australia’s racist demons came to the surface, culminating in the disgrace that was the Cronulla riot. And the mass media were there every step of the way to fan the flames. Hearing the way that the average person spoke after that happened, it really was an embarrassing time for Australia.
On “Guerilla Journalist” you also rap: "The whole Western world is stuck in a mass media daydream." Talk a little about that.
People [are always] regurgitating the latest Liberal Party alarmist claims about asylum seekers, talking about the royal baby like it is their own, claiming “‘we’ did well on the weekend” (in reference to their favourite AFL team) as if they actually have a stake in the matter. Meanwhile, the sordid secrets of the way our countries operate are being laid out in front of the world, the messengers and whistleblowers of this information are being clearly kyboshed, and the masses just gloss over it like it is some sort of fantasy. Talk about the opium of the people. I might add that my experiences in non-Western countries have been not too dissimilar, but at least I can zone out a bit more when people are talking fast in a language that is not my first. Ha ha.
You also sample award-winning journalist John Pilger on there.
Pilger has been a great hero of mine. What a guy. Dedicates his life to documenting “the other side of the story”. He has inspired me and many others that I know, to do our own form of “Guerilla Journalism”.
Tell us about the "sailing in darkness” sample at the end of “Guerilla Journalist”.
That is a vocal grab from a Julian Assange interview with 60 Minutes. Awesome interview. They throw everything at him in one of the most biased pieces you will ever see, but Assange stays cool and composed throughout the whole thing, to get his message across succinctly. Forget the Australian cricket team, the two guys that we have just mentioned, plus Eddie Mabo are true Australian heroes.
Am I right in thinking you read Green Left?
I do. I first got onto it by chance. One of the benefits of being at uni is the Green Left publication presence around campus. I used to go to Uni of Adelaide and now I am at a uni in NSW and Green Left is always handy and right there. I read Green Left because it provides an alternative voice to the fuckery that is the mass media. It gives light to social issues and a voice to groups that are generally marginalised in Australian society. It is a noble pursuit and an important voice. Green Left is often my starting point to learning more about important goings-on as it is always on the pulse. Big thanks to Green Left for being an avenue for alternative views. In the current climate where news is suppressed and the mass media is more concerned with making idiots into celebrities, it is good to see news that is concerned with humanity prevails. It is inspiring! Thanks!
What other media do you follow?
I like to read around a bit. I’ll read anything from the Adelaide Advertiser, (AKA toilet paper) and The Australian, to Crikey and New Matilda, to Green Left and New Internationalist. I’ll also read things as they pop up on the internet randomly, The New York Times, the Economist, Chomsky, Pilger, RT, Al-Jazeera, etc.
On your song “1, 2, 1, 2” you come out with the interesting line: "Don't associate with dogmas, right or left." Tell us about that.
I try not to, and try to exercise critical thinking no matter who the news is coming from. I try to see things as objectively as I can and not fall victim to my own confirmation bias. I have lived a life that has led me to identify with a traditionally left-wing point of view, but that doesn’t mean I won’t question what I am told, because there are agendas everywhere. Conspiracy theorists, for example, who are generally left-wing, still have bills to pay and emotional people to capitalise on. So they will often bullshit the viewer/reader and leave them paralysed with fear and feeling helpless to do anything, which ironically is the same trick as the far right-wing media use. For a reader, a nuanced point of view is hard-earned.
“More Than Just Words” features the line: "Separate the real from the fake, progressives from the rednecks." Do you want to talk about that?
Like Australian society in general, there are some rednecks/bigots/racists in hip-hop in Australia. They latched onto the “Aussie Hip-Hop” mantra around the time that hip-hop in Australia was defining itself as aside from its American forefather. I can’t think of an actual artist of credibility that fits this profile in hip-hop in Australia, but there are pockets of fans who mainly go to the bigger gigs that are. This is highly ironic considering hip-hop’s origin as a voice for the marginalised. It’s been a big talking point on forums and social media of late. I think it is time for a line to be drawn in the sand and for some of the bigger artists to risk their fan bases and speak out, as some already have. Hip-hop really can be used as a weapon against racism and discrimination in Australia, as it has already been proven as a platform for capturing the attention of the youth.
Tell us about the track “From the Middle of the Cosmic Soup”.
This was recorded in my neighbourhood in Indonesia. I was sitting outside of a mosque recording as local people walked by and thought: “What is this crazy bule [Westerner] doing?!” It was a miracle that I got a single take where no one went by and yelled, “HAI BEN” [Hey, Ben!]. About 10 takes later it happened.
I like the way K21’s remix of “Iota” brings clarity to your lyrics. Tell us what you like about it.
His incredible talent for starters. He is a wizard and it is clear to see why the Hilltop Hoods recently signed him to their Golden Era record label. The remix brings a different slant to the sentiment of the lyrics, which is what a good remix should do. I hear the lyrics as more frank over the remix, in contrast to the original, which is quite emotive. I am very happy with the result.
You were living in Indonesia, yet the EP has a heavy bent towards Indian music. Tell us about that.
Matchless Gift, who was my collaborator in the Born Free EP and made all the beats, is the mastermind behind that. He has an affinity with the culture and spirituality that derives from India, as well as being married into an Indian family. Shout outs to Akshya and Jiya. I feel the Indian samples, as well as the Middle Eastern samples, allow the EP to widen its lens, and strike some different chords with the listener. We feel that the body of work that we have created, both lyrically and beat-wise, reflects themes that are universal, and that we are also products of the wider world, universe, multiverse and beyond.
You have called your label Butterthief Records "a bunch of lefties".
Everyone in the Butterthief camp is on a similar wavelength and I’d probably put the crew in the “progressive” category, although most of them would not self-identify as political. I guess the things that unite us are the idea of people before profits, a DIY ethic, a general distrust towards the current establishment, and the desire to seek consciousness amid the nonsense - whether that be through eastern spirituality, academic inquiry, political engagement, travelling around the place being the nomad, or working for a good cause. All of this comes out in our music. I feel fortunate to be around creative, positive, like-minded people! It’s a pretty rare thing.
Which other politically conscious Australian music artists do you rate and why?
I listen to a lot of Australian music, but as far as politically conscious artists go I have to mention the hip-hop genre. There is a whole batch of passionate and politically savvy people who are making music with a real message right now. Jimblah is fucking phenomenal! His album on Elefant Tracks will make big waves. The whole Elefant Tracks roster is incredible. The poet Luka Lesson. The whole Butterthief roster, especially Matchless Gift and Social Change for their politics and spirituality. Mantra is the sharpest and most artistically skilled artist going. He is a big inspiration. And last but not least, my bro Caper who is always pushing a message and inspiring. Vote for him in the Deadly Awards!
What are your future musical plans?
Just to keep writing and using my study and work as an inspiration. I love the craft of songwriting and the craft is what keeps me going. I look to keep building with the Butterthief family to leave an imprint on the musical and social landscape of Australia. Also now that I am living in Sydney I’m looking to build with artists here.