Fans of Aboriginal rapper Caper may see his failure to secure a record deal as a mystery.
After all, he has made global news headlines, got his promo videos on national television, become a daytime radio favourite and even had an award-winning documentary made about him.
But Caper, also known as Colin Darcy, sees plenty of reasons.
"Man, it’s hard to make it as a rapper and it’s harder to make it if you’re a rapper who is Aboriginal," he tells Green Left Weekly.
"I think sometimes we have to prove ourselves more to be taken seriously, which annoys the hell out of me. Hip hop came from Black American culture but it’s dominated by white rappers here in Australia.
"There are a lot of talented rappers who are Aboriginal, but don’t get given the chance. Why?
"I even got my video for 'How Would You Like To Be Me?' on national TV last year all by myself without a deal, plus gaining commercial airplay, so how much more dues do I gotta pay to be given the chance?”
Caper hit headlines worldwide last year when that video, which confronts anti-Aboriginal racism head on, was banned by Facebook after a few complaints.
Caper saw it as just another example of prejudice that has dogged his fledgling career.
"But it’s also like this: Record labels won’t sign a rapper like me because they believe my sound is too American,” he says.
"I roll my R’s and that sometimes can be mistaken for an American accent. I talk different than a lot of other people and that’s how us Narungga people do in South Australia.
"I mean, really, it’s young, narrow-minded thinking. It’s like primary school shit, like a cool kid saying to a outsider, 'Oh, you can’t hang out with us ’cause you look different and talk like a retard.' Now, to me, that’s discrimination.
"What I’m bringing to the table lyrically is so different and it’s reality ― real-life shit. I believe the corporate world and today’s listeners don’t find it fun and the industry don’t find it marketable and they turn their back on it."
It certainly can't be that the music is non-commercial. Caper's productions are pure, polished pop and catchier than the clap. He attributes his radio-friendly feel to the engineering skills of prolific producer Darren Mullan.
"Darren mixes everything I do once the tracks are recorded and that’s where I get my clean sound from," he says.
"I try to have melodies as much as possible ’cause you want your sound and feel to be catchy ― I think it separates me from a lot of other rappers.
"I produce a lot of my own beats. Doing it yourself means you’ll find your own style and sound ― it’s actually made me a better rapper."
Caper’s rapping is grittier than his sound. The 31-year-old's life of hard knocks is reflected in his lyrics.
His song “Scarred Memories” charts the slow breaking of his heart, from never meeting his father and growing up on welfare, to losing his mother to heart disease when he was just 15. He lost his brother the same way seven years later.
The song moved Adelaide filmmaker Shalom Almond so deeply she decided to make a documentary about Caper and his former band, S.H.A.D.O.W.S.
“I first met Shalom through her husband, Osker Linde, who I work with,” says Caper, who has worked as a native title field officer for the past 10 years.
“Osker played her ‘Scarred Memories’ and she said it touched her and made her shed tears. That’s when she approached me. Since then, Shalom and I have been like a brother and sister.”
Chasing Shadows, broadcast by the ABC, went on to win Best Documentary at the South Australian Screen Awards last year.
In it, Caper’s sole surviving sibling watches him perform for the first time as he lays down “Scarred Memories” in the studio. The raw emotion, as he raps about her falling pregnant at 16 to a “bastard” that left her, makes for intense viewing.
Caper is the film’s clear star, with a footballer’s physique honed by an AFL career cut short by injury. The tenderest takes are of him playing father figure, sports coach and musical mentor to his young nephew.
The film is made all the more compelling by Almond urging Caper to track down and meet his own father for the first time.
“Not having a father around meant I never had much confidence as a kid,” he tells GLW. “I didn’t have that role model to show me the way a man should carry himself.
“Unlike middle-class kids who can rely on financial support from their parents before becoming self-reliant, I couldn’t even have that ’cause my mother passed away when I was 15, so there was no foundation left. My brother passed away with nothing to show also.
“Both I found really hard to deal with and it affected me in a huge way. Having to deal with those losses at a young age changed me. If I wanted a better life, I knew I had to go out and get it myself.
“I didn’t want to struggle my whole life like my mother did and I know if I work hard enough hopefully I can build my strong foundation.”
Caper has already helped build a strong foundation for others. Last year, he was approached by eye doctor James Muecke to write a song for his Sight For All Foundation, which tackles blindness brought on by diabetes in Aboriginal people.
The medic was clearly bowled over by the resulting song, “Eyes”, saying Caper had done a “fantastic job”.
Health and diet are subjects close to the rapper’s heart.
“Heart disease has been hereditary in my family,” he says. “My mother’s father also passed away from a heart condition and so did one of my uncles. So now, I do what I can to avoid this by living a healthy lifestyle, exercising and eating right as much as possible.”
It’s just one more degree of separation that distinguishes Caper from many regular rappers.
His recent song “Super Sarcastic” took a humorous swipe at such empty emcees. The accompanying video, featuring award-winning Aboriginal comedian Kevin Kropinyeri, showed Caper could lighten up at the same time as making biting commentary.
“I’m just sick of hearing the old ‘shake they ass’ — type of watered down hip hop music that’s on the radio these days,” says Caper.
“Man, hip hop came from the struggle and was about telling stories and I think it should be more about that. I remember when it was cool to rap about being poor, but now it’s only cool to talk about having girls, money and partying.”
It’s a sentiment he laments on his debut EP, “Believe”: “Sent my demo out to every damn label/They passed up, weren’t willing and able/To ride with the Black stallion out of the stable/so they mustn’t have believed.”
Along with a swag of other free songs, it makes up an incredible introduction to an artist that puts most signed singers to shame. Just don’t call it an album.
“I won’t release an album ’til I have a platform to do it on cause I want it done the right way,” he says.
“I actually have a lot of material just sitting ready to put out. I’ve got, like, 40 tracks recorded and even more to do.
“But I believe my music deserves more justice than to just put it out and nobody even knows about it or doesn’t even want to buy it 'cause I’m not famous enough with a deal or whatever.
“It’s funny how people will only embrace your shit once you get on bigger platforms. So until that day comes, if at all, I’ll just keep releasing singles and videos to those singles to work up my fan base online. My best work is yet to come.”
Let’s hope he gets a proper platform.
WHAT THEY TOLD GREEN LEFT ABOUT CAPER…
“He's a strong, proud Aboriginal who says it the way he sees it. This doesn’t add up to big dollars for the music labels. In fact, it probably scares them off. Caper is hungry for success and I’m sure he will get there. I have no doubt that Caper can easily become a star. But is he willing to censor his views, sing a pop song with an Australian Idol or record nice little happy songs about being in love? I personally hope not. Caper is an awesome talent who has an important message for all.
- DJ Rudeboy, Fresh Air show, Fresh 927, Adelaide
"Not only is Caper a talented songwriter and artist, he is also a wonderful humanitarian. He wrote and helped produce the Aboriginal eye health awareness song 'Eyes' completely pro bono for Sight For All's health promotion work in the Aboriginal communities of South Australia. He deserves to be signed up."
- Dr James Muecke, director, Sight For All Foundation
“I've been producing Caper for a few years now and I know real raw talent when I see it. He has a rare focus and professionalism in the studio because he takes his art very seriously. His music and video releases have shown - to the world - that he is a unique and honest character with an important message of hope and drive. It's just a matter of time before he 'gets up'.”
- Music producer Darren Mullan
"To be honest I'm not sure why Colin hasn't been signed to a label as yet. It seems in Australia that hip hop music is a currently a very competitive genre, but with limited recording contract opportunities. Caper has done incredibly well in terms of having his music played and publicised, but like any creative pursuit it takes time, often years of hard work, to establish oneself - I have my fingers crossed that Colin's big break is just around the corner."
- Award-winning film director Shalom Almond
[GLW has bought a copy of Chasing Shadows, Shalom Almond’s award-winning documentary about Caper, to give away. Email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org before the next issue of Green Left Weekly comes out on June 20. Winner picked at random. For more details about Caper, visit www.caper.net.au.]
"How Would You Like To Be Me?", Caper's video that was banned by Facebook.