Provocalz & Lady Lash
Released Invasion Day, January 26, 2015
$5 all funds go to the Smith Street Working Party
Lady Lash says it was her own family's trauma that inspired her to record "Stolen", a song about Indigenous children being taken from their parents.
"My grandmother, she went through a lot of the stuff where she was hidden," says the mother-of-three, who recorded the song in collaboration with a fellow Aboriginal rapper and parent, Provocalz.
"My nana was hiding her under the bed and she could see the boots walk in," says Lady Lash. "Looking for the kids, you know?"
For Indigenous people, it's not an unusual tale. The 1997 Bringing Them Home Report on the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families concluded that: "Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children."
Yet since 1998, the year after the Bringing Them Home Report was published, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children taken from their families has risen by 400%, leading to claims of "a new stolen generation". In 2013, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency chief executive Muriel Bamblett admitted that welfare agencies approached Indigenous families differently, saying: "Rather than putting supports around the child, we say, 'Let's just remove them.'"
On the record, Lady Lash raps:
Where did my mum go? Scared as, I cried
Barefoot, standing there in a straight line
With my sisters, holding on each other
Inconsolable for our mother and our father
I wanted to stay, didn't want to leave
It's my heartbeat, my reason to breathe
I was only five, taken from my home
Shifted off to a place in the unknown
"I just wanted to put it into perspective," says the rapper, as her five-month-old son cries in the background at their home in Melbourne. "Just write it in the eyes of a little girl - you know, how would they feel?"
Lady Lash, born Crystal Mastrosavas, has more insight than most. She spent her teenage years with her family on Koonibba mission, 30 kilometres inland from her coastal birth town of Ceduna, South Australia. When a second church was built at Koonibba mission in 1907, the original church was converted into a school for children removed from their mothers. The prevalent Indigenous language at the mission was Guguda, said to be distinguished by its different terms for "meat".
"From what I heard as well," says the rapper, "because Guga means meat, apparently our ancestors used to eat humans."
As with many Indigenous issues, cannibalism has become politicised by whitefellas over the years - played down by those on the left, played up by those on the right. Language loss, racism, politics and obfuscation have all eaten away at the reality, leaving few recognisable bones of truth.
It was at that mission that the young Crystal Mastrosavas first got her teeth into hip-hop music.
"I was sitting in my room and I was listening to the radio," she says. "It was really crackly because out on the mission you can't hear properly - I just used a coat hanger for the radio signal. But my brother, he was two doors down from me, and all I could hear was, 'Motherfucker this, motherfucker that.' And I'm like, 'What the fuck is he playing, man?' Then he put this song on - that Tupac song dissing Biggie, I think it was, 'First off, fuck your bitch, and the clique you claim...'"
She delivers this line in a beautiful singing voice. It's one of several times in the interview when the rapper breaks into song to illustrate a lyric or to make a point. It should feel awkward, but - such is her talent - it feels only natural. Her "Stolen" collaborator, Provocalz, calls her "one of the most talented in the country". Without missing a beat, she picks up the story again.
"I was like, 'Tell me who this is right now!' He wouldn't give me the CD, so I went out and bought my first album - Tupac's All Eyes On Me. I was just blown away."
Koonibba mission was put on the pop music map when its most famous sons, the Aboriginal band Coloured Stone, followed up their hit "Black Boy" by naming their 1985 debut album Koonibba Rock. Thirteen years later, Crystal Mastrosavas was recording and touring as a backing singer with them. When Coloured Stone rolled through a place famed for its coloured stones - the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy - she stuck around and began raising her first two children there.
"It's an interesting place," she says of Coober Pedy, which is named after its "white man's holes", or "gubba pits". "The opal is absolutely beautiful - beautiful place, beautiful landscape - just be careful you're not walking in the holes."
Her rise to hip-hop fame came after she moved to Melbourne, whipped up the name Lady Lash and flicked a well-timed track named "7 Deadly Sins" to the ABC's Triple J radio station.
"It's about seven deadly sins, you know, lust, greed, envy - all of that. I wanted to come out with a universal song that everyone would relate to. It was just a coincidence that the G20 summit was in Melbourne and it actually got played, so that was like the little anthem track for all the prime ministers and presidents that came in."
On the track, she raps:
Heaven's gates are locking
Because his soul was rotten
Now he's dropping
On the devil's door he's knocking
Riddled with curses
From breaking all the seven deadly verses
Now he's at the end
His reign feeling worthless
"That just launched me as an artist," she says. "To be acknowledged in the hip-hop community - and to be Aboriginal-Greek as well, it was like, 'Wow, she can sing and rap!'"
Asked about her roots, she says: "My dad's dad, he's Greek, and my dad's mum is Aboriginal. And then my mum is Aboriginal and her mum is Aboriginal and her father's Aboriginal. I spoke to my nan about our gypsy roots - she said we have Irish travellers in her forefathers."
Her gypsy-Greek background was brought to the fore by a musician from Europe.
"I met this guy called Kel, he's my deejay, DJ Luc. He came to one of my performances and he's like, 'Hey sister. I have some beats, do you want to jump on some beats?' So he sent me the beat over, then I just started writing. Something just told me to start writing about this gypsy, because I was thinking about the producer - he's from France and you get gypsies over there as well, so I just started writing about this gypsy flying on a carpet, you know, me flying to Paris, to meet a gypsy, to read my fortune."
France's former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, famously flew gypsies out of Paris after offering them plane tickets to leave the country. His supposedly socialist successor, Francois Hollande, has continued the practice. There are many parallels between the persecution of gypsies in Europe and that of Aboriginal people in Australia. Down Under, social services have taken Aboriginal babies from parents at the birth table. In Europe, gypsies - otherwise known as Roma - have been subjected to forced sterilisations.
"It's really sad to take away your right to have a child," says the rapper. "That's really sad. It's genocide. It's just like Indigenous people here being taken away from your mothers and your fathers. It hurts my heart because I'm a mother as well. The gypsies are outcast as really bad and they say they steal from people, they say they're not the people to hang around with. But, you know, they've got a lot of people wrong."
When the rapper used to work as a bank teller, she was watched like a hawk to make sure she didn't steal.
"I never want to go back, never," she says. "It's too much like schoolkids man, it's like a playground. Fucking horrible! Childish games - and obviously you're being watched all the time because it's money and shit. But even the way people treat you when they come up to you as a teller, like throw their card at you and just speak to you like you're a piece of shit. It's real sad."
On her track "Busy Bee", she sings:
Money money is what you want
Pretty paper got you on that hunt
Let it go and the world still grows
Money money is what I need
Can it buy love and set you free?
Let it burn and the world still turns
"I know money's there to feed you, put clothes on your back, to give you shelter," she says. "But money is the root of all evil. It's really sad how people kill over money, man. People try to take charge and think what's theirs, you know?"
Is there a link between money and the stolen generations? If a people's culture weds them to their land and that land is valuable, one way to separate them from that land is to separate them from their culture. The Bringing Them Home Report concluded that removing children was "aimed at wiping out Indigenous families, communities and cultures".
When former prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations in 2008, he was praised by Australia's second-biggest publishing house, Fairfax Media, for ruling out any monetary compensation for the victims. The directors of Fairfax also sit on the boards of energy companies, mining corporations, retail giants and the big banks. Fairfax's flagship publication, the Sydney Morning Herald, said: "The Rudd Government has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its own supporters' emotional needs, yet changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre...
"For now, the Rudd Government has resisted the pressure to follow an apology with compensation, and it should continue to do so."
When the Sydney Morning Herald eventually tired of Rudd, it used its front page to urge readers to replace him by voting in Tony Abbott, telling them: "Australians deserve a government they can trust." As prime minister, Abbott ripped $534 million from Aboriginal expenditure, then told parliament that the failure to "halve the gaps in employment outcomes" between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people "is not because of any lack of goodwill or effort by successive governments".
"We’ll partner with Australia’s largest employers to get more Indigenous Australians into jobs," Abbott told parliament. "Because a job is more than just a pay-cheque. A job is the key to social relationships, a sense of personal achievement and well-being."
For non-Aboriginal people who are in any way critical of a capitalist system that is ripping apart Australia and destroying the planet, it's hard enough to face the nine-to-five grind without becoming depressed. For Aboriginal people, taking part in that system can also mean going against the beliefs of your family, the values of your people and the law of your land before it was invaded by land-grabbers all pumped up on the Industrial Revolution. The alternative to working in the private sector is to work for a government that requires employees to be apolitical "at all times" - and is removing children from Indigenous families at a rocketing rate.
On "Comfort Zone", Lady Lash laments her employment woes:
It's been a long time coming
The bus ran late again
Miss my appointment
They say, "Come back another two weeks from today."
No fare for a taxi
I missed out on a job
Selling bread in a factory
Why is it so hard?
I've been struggling, hustling
To make that pay stay
I travelled so far
Now why you gotta turn me away?
I work hard
Double time doing my hard yards
Doing my best
I need to get this off my chest
Don’t walk me out the door
I'm not your small
It's just one of them days
Where I wanna be on my own
In the mirror
And say hello
It's just one them days
Where I wanna be on my own
On that sofa
In my comfort zone
The name of the rapper's birth town, Ceduna, is derived from an Indigenous word meaning "a place to sit down and rest". There was plenty to stick around for.
"Ceduna has a reputation as a superb fishing location," says the Sydney Morning Herald. "The waters abound with fish and it is common to catch silver whiting, leatherjackets, snook, garfish, tommy ruffs, King George whiting, salmon, trevally, mullet, silver drummer, mulloway, sweep and a range of sharks including school shark, bronze whalers, hammerheads, gummy sharks and world record white pointers."
The young Crystal Mastrosavas was immersed in all that from a young age.
"I'm a fisherman's daughter," she says. "I grew up with seafood left, right and centre and, you know, netting the nets with dad, jumping on the boat, going fishing, going scuba diving.
"My grandfather is a very well-known shark catcher down Ceduna and Adelaide way. He used to go out on the boats, go out and catch sharks and get the shark teeth and sell the sharks, eat the sharks, all that stuff."
The name of her multi-award-winning debut album, released in 2013, was The Fisherman's Daughter - but it contained no lines or hooks that could be classified as hip-hop. Rebranding herself as Crystal Mercy, she pushed the boat out artistically with a high-quality album that embraced her other love, jazz.
"Billie Holliday, I still get haunted by listening to her," she says. "I can't listen to her stuff, because it's really haunting for me."
Jazz legend Bille Holliday's biggest hit, "Strange Fruit", was written about bodies hanging hauntingly from the trees after racist lynchings in 1930s Indiana. It has its modern-day parallel in Australia, where the Indigenous suicide rate is up to five times that of non-Indigenous Australia - and the biggest cause is hanging.
The Bringing Them Home Report concluded that up to 17% of Indigenous children who removed from their parents were sexually abused after being removed. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody in 1991 highlighted the links between substance misuse and mental health disorders in the years and months before most of the deaths it investigated. "It also highlighted the disproportionate number of these deaths (over three-quarters) where there was a history of having been forcibly separated from natural families as children," said the federal government.
On The Fisherman's Daughter, Crystal Mercy addresses the struggle of trying to be a good mother while pursuing a singing career. On "Lady Of The Night" she sings over sultry stabs of horns:
I didnt mean to shine so cruel
but baby it's just me and you
I gotta do what I do
Understand what I'm going through
As the record keeps turning
Mamma's kitchens burning
Got the kids holding me tight
But now I'm off into the night
Hear the sounds of that same old song
The stage is lit, now I'm on
Got my hands on the mic
Now I'm a lady of the night
"I wrote that for my family, to my husband, the kids and myself," she says. "You know, how I'm at home and I'm with my kids, and then I'm a lady of the night - not meaning a prostitute."
"Meaning, going out and being on stage and trying to get out of the house while the kids are on my legs, you know? 'Stay home, mum, mum, mum!' And the kitchen's still burning, you know, after I've cooked the feed. It's about me transitioning from home to stage."
Having mastered the transition from home to stage, she's now transitioning from jazz back to hip-hop - with her first proper hip-hop album, titled Milky Way. It's been a difficult journey.
"I was back in Ceduna, I was sitting on the edge of the water on the foreshore with my two longnecks, sitting there just having a drink - and then this Milky Way just came out of the sky. It was freaking awesome. So I was like, 'The next album needs to be Milky Way!' That was 2013, in December, and then a week later I found out I was pregnant."
The news that she was pregnant was the final push that made her put down the longnecks for good. Alcoholism had been stalking her and was trying to pull her down with it, resulting in some disturbingly dark and twisted music released under the moniker of Acidious Gabe.
"Acidious Gabe," she recalls. "That was my drinking state. Very dark. About being paranoid. Fucking things are getting me. Very dark. I'm actually quite happy I didn't release an album, because they say what you put out there comes back to you. I've only released, like, two songs that were on the album - and I was, like, 'No, I'm not going to put this out, because it's too dark, man.' It was a very dark time of my life. That was alcohol, written all over. You say you're going to stop but then you don't and, you know, it's like calling your name in the back of your head, going, 'One drink! Just one drink!'"
The voice addicts often hear calling them comes from what is called the "base brain", the same part of the brain that tells people when to eat, breathe and reproduce. Unfortunately, it can also mistakenly come to think that drugs and alcohol are as indispensable to humans as air, sex and food.
"It's like a sucking hole that's sucking you back in there," says the rapper. "It's fucked man! I used to sit there going, 'Why am I drinking this? How did this drink get in my hand?' I felt I was going to die, man. I went through a stage where the alcohol took me so much that I almost died. I had a panic attack as well. And it was so severe that I felt my spirit coming out of my body. It was pretty full on. It was probably about from morning to night to the early hours of the morning, drinking. So yeah, I don't wanna be ripped to that level. I'm better than that and my family don't need to see that shit. I'm still reminded of that day and I thought, 'Nah, I can't do this to myself.' When I was just coming off the alcohol, the baby happened, I was pregnant and I think that helped it along as well. I was going to AA as well, so I've still got to get back to AA. I don't feel I need, desperately need, to go. I was looking at the 12 steps going, 'What the fuck is that?'"
AA's founder, Bill Wilson, based the 12-step program on that of a Catholic cult he was attending while trying to get sober. There is no reason why it should have any relevance to recovering addicts, whether they be Catholic colonists or Aboriginal atheists. The most thorough study of the effectiveness of the 12-step program ever conducted concluded that AA's "death rate was appalling". The study was conducted by a member of the Board of Trustees of AA. If Lady Lash is going to get her album out, she's better off staying well clear.
"Now it's like, this is it," she says. "I'm no longer drinking. I'm no longer occupied with drinking. I need to get to do something more with my music now. I don't talk a lot about the Indigenous culture, but on this track that me and Provocalz are doing, I'm really jumping head first into acknowledging now my culture and I think it's time for me to just step out and branch out even more, touch on those issues and get it sorted. I'm ready, man. It's my first proper hip-hop album, because it's just straight raps. It was produced by my husband, Skitzo Productions, who's produced a lot of my music. He's the father of baby Thomas and stepdad to my two older kids, Klameisha and William. I think I was just thinking too much about what other people would think about me back in the day in the case that I released something full. But now I'm ready. I'm ready to just send it out to the universe."