Jimblah grasps Australia's burning issues

Jimblah in "Fireproof". Director: Melvin J Montalban

Elefant Traks

Most people fear fire, but Jimblah embraces it. The element flares up again and again in the rapper's searingly original work - from his first album, Face The Fire, to the one that just rose from its ashes, Phoenix.

"It's just a mad metaphor for me," the proud Larrakia man tells Green Left Weekly. "With Face The Fire it was all about facing the struggle. The fire is that fierce thing and people are usually like, 'Oh, it's really hot' - and they turn away from it.

"Phoenix was coming up out of the flames, out of the ashes, out of the turmoil, out of the hardship and struggle, coming back. It's like, they can throw a lot of stuff at me - I'm not going to give up, I'm going to keep going."

Jimblah is going strong. We are sitting in the office of Elefant Traks - the leading independent hip-hop label that recently signed him - on a scorching Sydney Saturday afternoon. We've come out of the burning hot courtyard where his label-mates continue to meet and greet fans at a birthday barbecue to mark Elefant Traks' 15th year. The various musicians are sizzling snags and scribbling signatures under a broiling sun that could peel paint.

The previous night, Jimblah beckoned a blazing cake on stage at a sold-out Metro Theatre and got the audience of 1500 to sing happy birthday. The crowd, rocking every style from high-tops to hijabs, gamely played along, high on five hours of relentless entertainment that included singing "77% of Aussies are racist" along with label leaders The Herd.

However, Jimblah's willingness to hold racists' feet to the fire means he is constantly under fire - and from all angles. Yeats said education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Yet Jimblah's attempts to kindle conversation among his followers' often end up with him being dragged over hot coals. One day the emcee is being accused of racism against whites, the next he is being roasted for "sucking white dick" in lauding the label that signed him. Jimblah's face lights up with a lopsided, goofy grin at the memory of that particular insult, his big eyes fixing me with a candid openness.

"I'm conscious that when you're speaking on this stuff, I realise why so many people don't speak on it in a public forum, because it's hard," says the rapper, his grin snuffed out. "It's a lot of weight to carry. It's really easy to let the bitterness get control of you and then you get angry and say some dumb shit that you don't really mean. You can't think properly when you're angry and bitter - it's not you with a level head.

"Around the same time I signed with Elefant Traks, I stopped speaking on a lot of stuff - and it wasn't that I'd stopped being about the cause, it was just that I started realising how detrimental my bitterness was to myself. Like I was letting a lot of hate and bitterness eat me up."

It's an emotion African-American author Maya Angelou is all too familiar with. "Bitterness is like cancer - it eats upon the host," she once said. Then she added: "But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean."

The clip for Jimblah's latest song, "Fireproof", razes rival rappers like a flamethrower fired in anger. Smoke smoulders from the incendiary emcee's charred hoodie as bursts of flame crackle around him. The juddering footage shakes with his stuttering snares as he spits staccato lines over illuminating flashes of "Fire" by Yothu Yindi:

Story telling in my blood
I feel the presence of 60,000 plus years
My ancestors roamed this desert landscape
From the tropics up north to a snow-capped mountain peak
I'm mentally scarred from the blood shed in the past
But I been fighting fire with fire since the day I was born
We backburn
Who's gonna put out my fire?
We backburn
I'm fireproof

"'We backburn' was kind of like that saying 'you can't fight fire with fire'," says Jimblah. "I always thought that was funny. So it's something to do with that and it's about dealing with issues before they get too far out of hand."

It's a lesson Australia needs to learn fast - and not just metaphorically. In the physical realm, there are compelling arguments to continue backburning. The evidence suggests the whole country was farmed with fire before colonisation. The scientific proof has slowly grown, like the undergrowth that now clogs country once described by countless settlers as "park-like".

Just days after Phoenix was released, "unprecedented" bushfires destroyed hundreds of homes in Sydney's Blue Mountains as other blazes raged throughout New South Wales. Jimblah grimaces at the memory. "I know, I know," he says, as if flinching at the unfortunate timing.

At the time, Elefant Traks had released only a short promo video for the album's opener "Save My Soul", featuring Jimblah's haunting intro, "Wake up bro, I think your fire's going out." The label waited a respectable couple of months before putting out the clip to "Fireproof" in the same week that Elefant Traks' Blue Mountains-raised label boss, Urthboy, played a benefit concert for the bushfire victims.

Given the pre-colonial history of fire-management, news images of water-bombing helicopters must conjour up mixed emotions in Indigenous people. But when asked about such practices, Jimblah's response is relaxed.

"Ah, well, they're just trying to save lives, you know," he says, as a sweating Urthboy passes between us to get a much-needed drink from the office water cooler. "Where I live in the Adelaide Hills, a couple of months back there was a huge fire just in the valley over from us, so we had heaps of planes, waterbombers, coming over and I was pretty cool. I wasn't like, 'What are they doing?' I was, like, 'Glad they're doing it'."

But other television news is not so well received. On his song "TV", Jimblah raps:

Turn your motherfuckin' TV off
See this ain't part of the program
They got you transfixed now
So turn your motherfuckin' TV off
Claimin' that that's the way it is
They talkin' shit now
So turn your motherfuckin' TV off

The song ends with a sample from a newsreader: "It's believed all six males are from Redfern in Sydney." It's the kind of glib line that would not make white audiences bat an eyelid - but would have black audiences raising suspicious eyebrows. "Hell yeah," says Jimblah. "That's your people, that's your everything that's being cut down and questioned.

"For years, I remember growing up and the older I got, I would be watching TV and my mind started realising how I was perceived just walking out in the street. We don't turn on Home and Away and see blackfellas. We don't turn on any TV sitcom and see blackfellas doing normal things - a doctor, or anything normal. And if the only time we're going to see them is when the media's glorifying crime and shit - if that's all we're seeing of ourselves, if society views us as that, all of a sudden we're going to fucking take that on, which we have. A lot of kids have. I've spent the last three years working in a high school. A lot of kids talk to me and say, 'How the fuck am I going to be anything? I'm black.' And, you know, they believe it."

The ABC's critically-acclaimed drama series Redfern Now, produced by Aboriginal writers, directors and actors, has made an effort to present black people in more "normal" roles - yet it is not without its critics. In a series of articulate Facebook posts, Sydney-based Aboriginal rapper Felon has dismantled such portrayals as unrealistic. It's a reminder that whoever addresses Aboriginal affairs, no matter their race or background, is playing with fire. It's a minefield.

"Totally," says Jimblah. "It's a hard thing to deal with, hard thing to talk about. As a people, I see how much of a divide is within our own community. I see how detrimental it is towards us moving forward. And there's a big thing when blackfellas are doing well. Back home, there's a lot of blackfellas who think if you're successful in a white man's world, if you've got a good job, if you've got money, then you're a whitefella or you're a coconut, which is messed up. It's like divide and conquer.

"But the other thing as well is, as an Indigenous person who has experienced what I've experienced, I feel like I'm in a better position to break down stuff but approach it in a smarter manner and not just go, 'All white people are racist.' I feel like I can get a lot more out of what I want to see happen if I approach it level-headed. I don't want to create a bigger divide, you know.

"I appreciate people's views and blackfellas' views in terms of what they want to see done. But I don't see everyone packing up their bags and going home and we're running this shit - or that white people in general are bad. I basically want all of us to get along.

"When I look at our plight and our struggle I think we, as a people and as a community, in terms of Indigenous mob, we've got a lot to bring to the table - but at the same time, so does the wider community of Australia. And I feel that a lot of this stuff can't be completely dealt with until we meet in the middle and we both come correct on either side. I think we're all here together now - the best thing we can do is work together."

Working together is the ethos of the ethnically-eclectic Elefant Traks. It is why Aboriginal rappers The Last Kinection signed with the label, rather than an exclusively black one. For Jimblah, it's a way to move on from attitudes that have often been formed for heartfelt reasons. Such reasons are vividly illustrated by the sample of his Nanna on Phoenix:

We had a wonderful lot of children, Billy and I, beautiful-looking children. I wanted an Aboriginal man, I didn't want a white man... A white man used my dear mother for his purpose and then didn't give me any name, so I always said I never want to marry a white man or have anything to do with a white man.

"The thing was, she had time for anyone," says Jimblah, who also has Yanuwa, Wardaman and Bardi blood. "She was a beautiful soul and she wouldn't meet you and go 'Ah, here we go, another whitefella.' She would genuinely be accepting of you, whoever you were. Whether you were white or whatever.

"That little bit that she says can very much come across like she hates white people. I was in very much two minds about it. But I definitely wanted to show how it was so raw and so blatantly honest how she says that, and how she speaks of her kids. It really touched me and I thought, 'I think people need to hear that.'

"You know, people can look at our issues and not think about the deep-rooted causes. All they see is, 'Oh, he's alcoholic.' They don't go, 'Why? Why is he always turning to grog? Why are there so many blackfellas turning to crime?' They go, 'Oh, that's just them, just because they're good for nothing.' It's like, 'Hold up, let's be smart and ask ourselves why.'"

Fittingly, the sample is laid over Jimblah playing piano - an instrument he turns to when the pain starts to burn. Nick Cave has talked of how when playing the piano "you sort of push it away". Rufus Wainwright has described playing it as "a kind of therapeutic process". Chopin talked of playing it to pour out his despair.

"It's a beautiful instrument," says Jimblah. "Sometimes I'm really messed up about something or I try and make a beat or I try to write and it's not happening and I'm so frustrated with music, but then I can just jump on the piano and just jam - and feel amazing."

The instrument crops up again and again on Phoenix, whose purity of sound suggests Jimblah has benefited from sharing tips with Elefant Traks' stable of producers.

"I wouldn't say that's anyone at Elefant Traks," he laughs, prompting Herd bassist Dale Harrison - standing nearby - to join in the laughter. "I still produced the whole thing," says Jimblah. "But the thing that we did different was I mixed the album with someone else. And then we mastered the album with someone else."

The fact that he is now able to dedicate all his time to his intricate, intelligent, individualistic music - rather than the work for prisons, schools and communities that has dominated his adult life - means he is already working on his third album.

"For ages music's always been the last thing that I've been doing," he says. "It's always been my community work that's kind of been at the forefront and I've put in the majority of my time there. On this last tour I really realised how powerful music can be to break down barriers. I've always known it, but I didn't realise exactly - it blew my mind how powerful it can be. So I think I really want to focus on my music and just focus on me.

"It's like a weird thing that I feel - it's almost become addictive, that I feel that I need to be in the studio. It's been like, OK let's look after you for a bit, you know? The rest will follow."

Then he steps back out under that burning ball of fire to greet his sunburnt fans - adding more fuel to the fire, getting synapses firing, that fire in his belly burning ever stronger.

Buy Phoenix here. Read a GLW interview with Jimblah in which he talks about his prison work here.