Joelistics makes Australian hip-hop more realistic

Rapper Joelistics. Photo: Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore

Blue Volume
Released June 20, 2014
Elefant Traks

The flawless music on Joelistics' second solo album is more than matched by the depth of his lyrics - an unflinching look at Australian reality. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward went through the words with the rapper, who brings some much-needed grit to Australian hip-hop.


On "Say I'm Good" you rap:

I'm an oddball, on the wrong team
All my friends are out of step with the mainstream
And the nightmare is in full swing
And the right-wing are fucking up the whole thing

A lot of your album deals with this despair, "the frustration of an outcast bewildered by a deteriorating political and social landscape", as your website puts it. Tell us about it.

The older I get, the more I realise I don't know shit about shit. We're all just stumbling through life trying not to make things worse. Before writing this new album, I was living overseas. When I returned to Australia there was a new government, a lurch to the right and an insidious profit-first agenda that scared the shit out of me. I felt remarkably out of step and wanted to write about it, not in a prescriptive way, not in a finger-pointing way, more in a personal way.

You also rap:

I would never assume to talk on behalf of anybody but myself
When I see anybody on a soapbox all I hear are the warning bells
Even if we're on the same side, I don't follow blind I'm not that guy
And those pigeonholes were only made for the kind of bird that's afraid to fly

Please tell us about the value of keeping an open mind, which is what I interpret this lyric as meaning.

I am a generally sceptical individual and rarely trust groups of people over four or five (just the right amount for a band) even when I am surrounded by people who I assume I agree with on big “issues”, I still head for the fringes. I just don't like being part of a mob. I don't trust groups because it leads to group-think. I don't trust self-proclaimed leaders, politicians or anyone trying to sell me anything. All of which is ironic considering I get on stages and yell at people and then hope they buy my CD. What I do like is when people think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions and care for one another.

If you're surrounded by like-minded friends who are ostensibly successful at what they do - like your record label, Elefant Traks - is that not the route to happiness, though?  

If you're surrounded by like-minded friends, most of the time you are in a bubble where your ideas are rarely tested. I try to actively seek out people who have different world views to me. I work at a youth de-tox in Melbourne and am often working with people who have stunningly different views on the world to me, but this doesn't mean we can't communicate, get along, co-operate and help each other.

You also rap: "I don't buy the bullshit dreams of an aspirationalist modern Australia." The liberal corporate media brainwash the very people who would normally question things, to get them in lockstep with government and big business. Is this what you're getting at, or something else entirely?

I don't buy the dreams they're selling me, and there's a lot of dreams on sale. Be it from governments, individuals, companies, organisations, charities, media outlets, political groups, TV shows, love songs, films... etc, etc ad infinitum. Fuck 'em all. Go your own way.

Photo: Blank Tape Music

On "Not in my name", you rap:

Lately I've been losing all my faith in humanity
And to think that I'm a part of it's embarrassing
I read the paper and I keep up with the news
I can't recognise what we do is even human

This fucking country has a rotten bitter hard soul
These are the laws of the country that the crown stole

It's not enough to turn back a bunch of leaky boats
It's not enough to kill their dreams, then we kill their hope
It's not enough to deprive them of their human rights
It's not enough until somebody lose their life
Dark shadows gather history will judge us harsh
One day you'll ask yourself, did I do enough
And how much cruelty did we allow to be dealt
To a group of desperate people asking for some help

It sounds like you have visited refugees in detention. Would you like to talk about it?

In the early 2000s I lived in a share house on the outskirts of Melbourne and on more than one occasion we were a safe house for escaped refugees from Woomera detention centre. My mother also offered transitional housing at her house in Sydney for refugees who had been released from Villawood with TPVs [temporary protection visas]. I continue to support advocacy groups like ASRC [The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre] by playing benefits and doing workshops. I just try to do my bit.

You also rap:

The journalists gather, the cameras click clack
And at the podium the speaker's putting on his act
He talks in doublespeak, Orwellian reports
Empty words, but his body language says it all
His hands are outstretched, now his arms are crossed
His white face sweats bullets and he nods a lot
Official press release, massive fact omission
The purpose so clear - dehumanise the victims

I'm sure this will bring many politicians to mind for your listeners. Which particular scene were you thinking of?

This lyric is a direct reference to watching [immigration minister] Scott Morrison give press conferences and answer questions after the death of [asylum seeker] Reza Berati. His total lack of humanity and compassion made me sick to my stomach. 

You also rap:

He answers all the questions, with the party line
Repeats the focus group emotion-heavy catch-cries
He knows his audience - and how to handle them
Talk tough, keep it simple, act the larrikin
Make them think that you're one of them, just like a mate
Repeat the sentiment: Ain't this fucking country great?
Now he's hit his stride, he's got them hypnotised
Convinced them there's a threat to their very way of life
And now the lights fade and he walks away
He played it perfectly to keep the power one more day...

It's an age-old trick isn't it - give them an external enemy?

The art of engineering public opinion. The thing is these days, if you have half a brain, it's so blatant and clumsy. The current government are clowns and the whole thing would be hilarious, if the effects of their policies weren't so damaging.

For me, the true emotional punch of this track comes with the complexity of the detention centre guard's character, in talking with the nine-year-old boy:

The sun beats down hot upon a prison camp
A family huddles in a tent with no ceiling fan
The days roll into each other in the worst way
A young boy celebrates his ninth birthday
At night he hears people weeping, it's a common sound
He's used to seeing things – he saw his sister drown
He wonders if it's real, he wonders who to trust
His mum and dad are like ghosts, they don't talk too much
He kicks his soccer ball in an empty field
One of the guards kicks it back and complements his skill
The boy tells the guard: “I turned nine today.”
The guard smiles, stops, then he looks away
He says: “Little man, one day I hope you understand
When you're older and your dignity is still intact
And you look back at this vicious treatment
Not all were complicit, not all were indecent.”

Is this something you have tried to convince friends about, that there is the hope of humanity in everyone, no matter what their profession?

Exactly, but it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I hoped to illustrate that people are largely compassionate and good-natured. The guard says, “Not all of us were complicit, not all of us were indecent.” The guard is having a moment of clarity, a real moment where he wants to absolve himself from what he understands is wrong, and yet on the other hand, he is complicit. I want the listener to say to themselves, “Wait a second, he's a guard, of course he's complicit' - and then question their own complicity.

On "Bang The Boogie" you rap:

I sent a lot of time trying to find out my history
Wondering what it was the wind was whispering

What did you find out?

I am Australian. I grew up here, I breathe the air, swim in the ocean, eat the food that grows here. Simply put, this land has nourished me and fed my spirit, soul and intellect. I may feel diametrically opposed to the current state of social and political culture, but I am still Australian to my core.

And you continue:

I'm from the land where the sunlight's blistering
And everybody's got their own get rich quick scheme
Money money money, make more money quickly
Build machinery to mine and dig deep
The new gold rush economy dick tease
Snap your neck back at a breakneck-quick speed
High school assembly singing the anthem
The words sound empty and I can't stand them
Even back then I had to deal with the phantom
I call myself Australian, short-hand for random

I've got a Chinese father and a white mother
And I was a punk drummer back when I was just a young 'un
A mixed bag mixed race mixed-up kid
What you got? It's something to give 
And I give what I can

Do you think everyone is in some sense desperate for identity - any identity?

Absolutely. Australia thirsts for an identity, a story, a sense of being. The media fixates on things like Australia Day, Anzac Day, Sport, and mateship to try to engineer what it means to be Australian, but it's mostly bullshit, over-simplified and glamorised bland notions of who we are. On another level, we all struggle with our own personal identity, and we should. I struggled with being Eurasian in high school, I struggled with making hip-hop in Australia. But the struggle was necessary. Without the struggle, you're more likely to follow the crowd and allow people to tell you who you are and how you should act - and no one wants that.

And you rap:

I'm from the land where blokes are blokes
And they yell stop the boats and it gets them votes
And they brag and they boast and they promote the fair go
The closer you look, the more you see that they don't
And you hope that this changes, expecting it won't
That somewhere along the way, that's all she wrote
Summerland really has a heart of snow
When the temperatures and attitudes are 40 below

However, you also add: 

But I still call Australia home
I still hit the road with a hunger to roam
And pack a little piece of the place in my heart and bones
Every single time I get up and go

This and your new song “Fly Away” show you still love Australia. Please tell us what springs to mind when you think of the things you love about the country. 

What do I love about Australia? The land, the air, the light, the sky, the sea, the space. When I am overseas, I get homesick for friends, family and that intangible connection to this place. The first two are in the head and the heart, love and loyalty to people, but the connection to place is harder to pinpoint, maybe it's in the atoms.

Buy the album here.