Only Built For Koori Linx
Featuring Felon and 18 other Indigenous emcees
Mastered by Felon
The mainstream media are swarming all over the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Felon Mason is stripped to the waist.
It's hot and it's humid, but that's not why Felon - one of the main people helping Aunt Jenny run the Embassy - has taken his shirt off. Nor is he shirtless to show off his well-honed physique: the activist may also be a rapper but, unlike most emcees, he is not vain.
Felon is naked from the waist up because today is the day that the Aboriginal Housing Company plans to evict the Embassy activists who are protesting against its planned development of the iconic "Block". The land was bought with a grant from former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972 to eight Aboriginal people who formed the original housing company. It was intended to provide low-cost housing for Indigenous people, but the new development guarantees no such housing.
"They are using gentrification - which is bad enough - as an excuse for ethnic cleansing here," says Felon, sitting on the ground in front of his tent. "We have been saying that for years, but it got proven by the ad that the developer Deicorp used to sell those flats over there, saying that all the Aboriginals are gone and Redfern is the last virgin suburb."
Amid the media scrum, Felon is expecting to be arrested. If he is arrested, he is certain he will be beaten up. If he is beaten up, he says, the cops will go for the hidden body - not the visible face.
Felon is displaying his torso because wants everyone to see that there were no bruises on his body before he was arrested.
"I know if I get arrested and put in the cells they'll kick the cunt out of me," he says matter-of-factly.
"They used to do it because we were Black kids or we were kids on the street. But now, it's because of what I've been doing at the Embassy and how vocal I am about things. I'm pretty open about the police and their corruption - and I speak as a first-hand witness, not hearsay - and they've got a bit more anger in them at the moment."
Since the Embassy was founded almost 10 months earlier, Felon and his partner-in-rhyme, fellow Aboriginal rapper Provocalz, have often performed at the Block under the watchful eye of the police. They have also performed at rallies in Sydney's CBD, surrounded by police vans. Yet, calling out police brutality is an integral part of their show. Provocalz has performed wearing his "Cop Shot" T-shirt, advertising his song that calls for Aboriginal people to shoot back at police. Felon has worn his own "Cop Shot" T-shirt at a Native Ryme gig next to a police station in the Indigenous Sydney suburb of Airds, as the cops and their cameras stared back at him.
Felon at the Native Ryme gig in Airds.
"The feds are our biggest fans," jokes Felon. "They've got more photos of us than anyone else has."
From a young age, "Felon" - which is a graffiti tag he once used that proved more indelible than the ink - learnt to be suspicious of the police.
"I grew up in Newcastle originally, when I was real little," he says quietly. "My mother took off when I was two. I grew up with my father in Newcastle till I was about six. And then, because my old man up there was getting harassed by the cops really bad - for the same kind of thing that I get harassed here, just his kind of activism at the time - he had to get out of there.
"He had a boot shop, he made leather boots and shoes, but he also made boots for a lot of bikies. So the cops used to harass him around Newcastle – it's a small place."
Increasing his father's paranoia were the regular visits from the Department Of Community Services, notorious for removing Aboriginal children from their families. DOCS' attention had been piqued by the screams the boy would emit when his dad bathed his son to treat his eczema, a painful skin condition.
"I was the worst case in the country when I was born," says Felon, who still constantly scratches at his skin, 37 years after being born. "Because I had eczema and he was a single black father, DOCS would come around almost every other week and harass us, just trying to take me off him. One day after fuckin' months of it they came round and he said, 'Ah fuck ya then', and smiled at them, saying, 'Oh, you've come to help me out and give him his weekly bath?' And he fucked off and left them to give me a bath, because I used to scream and shit, because of the pain. They never came back then, because they realised. But because of all that harassment, DOCS, gunjis and shit like that, we ended up having to get out - so we went bush."
Later, with his first rap group, Tribal Ashes, Felon would rap on the track "Genocide":
Better move quick, ain't no siren sound
Jump the back fence, gotta get outta town
Run baby fast, don't wanna be found
Tryna to take my kids, just because they be brown
The welfare - they trying to take my babies
The gunjis - they trying to take your babies
The government - they trying to take our babies
They come around my house - trying to take my babies
"From about the age of six to 12 I grew up on 7500 acres in the middle of nowhere, pretty much untouched land between Kempsey and Armidale," says Felon. "That's not my mob's land. My mob's from Newcastle, Awabakal mob. But the old fellas in town told my dad about the spots on that land and let us live up there and look after it. So it was hunting to eat when you get flooded in. It wasn't a country town, it was proper bush. We'd grow our own food, but you can live off kangaroos, fish. It was like the second cleanest water in Australia or some shit down stream at that time. I feel lucky to have had that experience in my life, I got to feel land and spirit - our spirit and connection to mother earth is real - I have felt and experienced that, it is not a faith in our culture - I know it is real."
Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, between Kempsey and Armidale.
But they weren't beyond the clutches of government.
"At 12, we moved. Because I did correspondence school, they stuffed that up, wanted to make people go to a real school every two weeks, which we couldn't do as we'd get flooded in three or four months at a time. So we went, 'If we're going to move to a city, fuck moving to a shitty country town, we'll go from one extreme to the other.' And we went straight to Redfern and Waterloo. A big culture shock. It was about six months of cunts rolling you, but then I started fighting cunts back. As a 12-year-old, how I put it in my head was, 'Ah, we're hunting each other here, not animals, to survive.'"
The skills Felon learnt from six years in the bush have proven to be a lifeline for the Embassy, which has to exist off the grid.
"We've done a lot here with the garden," he says. "We've got a garden going, we're growing our own food."
He has also got solar panels working, kept generators turning and kept the fire burning - literally and metaphorically. But he wouldn't have been able to do it without help.
Felon at the Embassy's fire.
We've got a heap of good supporters who come," he says. "A couple of small groups that are staunch supporters. If we'd have been without them, we wouldn't have been able to keep going."
Among those shift-working supporters are the Socialist Alliance, but also a bunch of black-clad anarchists who flit between the Embassy and their squats.
On Only Built For Koori Linx, the powerful new album that Felon is mastering for Provocalz, Felon displays the kind of hierarchy-smashing outlook that makes the two rappers natural allies for the anarchists. On "Know The Ledge", Felon raps in his speeding, seething style:
So fuck all the royals, the end of the days
Is coming the blue bloods, they wanna be running
To all of the sisters, keep the fight coming
To all of the brothers, no more compromise
Or we're going to be seeing our people's demise
Fuck this evil monarchy, been built on so many lies
It's time for our people to get up and stand up and fucking rise
It's the kind of power-demolishing stance that has got them invited to play at several unlikely anarchist events, including a recent punk gig, where they arrived in their usual tracksuits and trainers.
"We rocked up and half the people were looking at us like we were going to rob their till or something," laughs Felon. "'Who the fuck are these two cunts dressed like this?' It felt really out of place! But once we got on the stage we fucking had a big crowd move up, packed it out! It's fucking universal."
Koori Linx is universal. The epic, 30-track album takes in more than 18 Aboriginal rappers, plus guest emcees from as far afield as Puerto Rico and Staten Island.
"If I get evicted, at least I'll finally get the time to finish the album's mastering," jokes Felon. But there is plenty of truth in what he says. Felon and Provocalz don't let their rapping get in the way of their activism, whereas most rappers don't let any activism get in the way of their rapping. The pair have begun performing under the name Fuck Rappers "because rappers are a bunch of egocentric assholes", as Provocalz puts it. But Provocalz doesn't see activism as hindering the musical output of Fuck Rappers, who are also known as Freedom Riders.
"I wouldn't say it got in the way," says Provocalz. "More that it added to it, because it was through our activism that I linked up with a lot of mob and even the album cover was from the mob at the Musgrave Park Embassy in Brisbane. It might have slowed the process, but in the end it will all be worth it - and with the profits raised we will be supporting our community."
Supporting community is no walk in the park, as even the non-Aboriginal activists at the Redfern Embassy have found out, says Felon.
"All our white supporters here, they're starting to realise now, the staunch ones are now copping shit, because they've been here supporting us for so long, from police, from people around,” he says.
"We've had Ku Klux Klan hoods at the top there, one night. A big group of them all dressed up, screaming and yelling at us - but they wouldn't come down here. We've had a whitefella in his car - a young fella - who used to drive past every night and go, 'Fuck off home, you Black cunts!' We're all trying to work out where that is exactly."
"We've had ice-heads galore, they come down and try to set us up, as if we're selling shit or someone drops bags here, 'Nah, nah, you take your shit.' We've had them run through the camps, smash it up, run through our fire. One lad ran through here naked, going off his head with the cops up the top for an hour. I swear he was throwing energy bolts or something out of himself. He could see them! Give me heroin junkies any day over ice."
On the Koori Linx song "Raise Ya Fist", Felon takes a blowtorch to the ice epidemic - otherwise known as methamphetamine or "shab" - and the rappers who glorify it.
Fuck you shab-pushin' rappers
Sellin' 'em death like it doesn't matter
Rottin' the brains of the kids' bad habits
Leaving the youth and the future in tatters
Fuck this fucked-up Aussie hip-hop scene
It's full of fucking maggots
Either pussy rappers
Or these fake arse fucking gangstas
Felon performs at a protest against Tony Abbott, August 2014.
"You can rap about whatever the fuck you want," says Felon. "But the way they glorify this shit and do it ain't telling stories and truth - that's just wanking on. We have lived more of it in our lives and speak less of it. It's one thing to tell stories and another to glorify shit. Fuck, you're at that age and still proud to be fucking thinking the exact same mentality you did at 15, then you're a fucking wanker. It's not just about content but about what they do or don't do in their lives, all talk. The whole scene shits me."
It's been a consistent gripe throughout his musical career, which started with Tribal Ashes and moved on to D.T.A. MOB - both groups being founded with another south-west Sydney emcee D-Cuz - before he began collaborating with Provocalz. On D.T.A. MOB's "Game Ain't The Same", Felon even took aim at Indigenous emcees, rapping:
So you want to act gangsta
What you represent?
The guns, the drugs
Or your muthafuckin' ancestors?
"There's a lot of these even country Blackfellas doing this gangsta shit, because they think that's what they've got to do for hip-hop," he says. "They talk all this crap. We fucking live a lot more the real shit down here and are connected to a lot more shit, we're actually living it and we don't glorify it, we don't talk about it."
Inauthenticity is one of Felon's pet hates. During the early months of the Embassy, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation arrived on the Block and began filming the third season of its critically-acclaimed drama series about the area, Redfern Now. Felon had smelled an assimilationist rat from the start, posting extensive deconstructions of the series on social media.
"It wasn't authentic," he says. "The thing is, a lot of our kids don't get it. We're trying to decolonise and reconnect to our culture as it is. It'll brainwash a lot of our young people about the history and how we interact with each other. What I saw was 'good Black, bad Black'. Anyone who was on the street - that just means, fuck, half of my mates, half of my family, me and Provokes, we're all just shit, according to Redfern Now, because that's how they depicted kids or the ones sitting in the street.
"They don't explain anything around how the communities got to have anything in them that was good or bad or dysfunction. Most of it was fake anyway - you'd think you'd get that knowledge and story behind it, but it was really just shallow, fucking characters that weren't real."
Some might blame the formulaic characterisation on the fact that the series had drafted in an English screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, famed for his crime series Cracker.
"I'd been putting a lot of it on him," agrees Felon. But his mind was changed after he read an op-ed that the show's Indigenous producer, Rachel Perkins, wrote in praise of Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson, who is feted by the right-wing media.
"It shows all that shit I wrote, I was actually still giving her and the rest of them credit,” says Felon. “I was still thinking it was more like it was the Pommy writer they got in. But then Rachel put that up about Noel Pearson and I'm going, 'No... it's on purpose. The things I spotted in the series were done on purpose.'"
On Felon's acapella YouTube video "16 Bars", he takes aim at Pearson, who has been heavily criticised for heavily-funded, yet failing, policies that many have branded assimilationist.
Fuck your gammon lacky jacky jackys, they don't speak for me
Let my people talk for themselves, Noel Pearson ain't our leader, see
"I could have listed a whole lot of them, I just couldn't fit that in a verse, so his name's the one that got put on," says Felon. "It's not that any of us maybe have a right to shut Noel Pearson up. He's got a right to say his piece. But the other voices aren't heard - and that's the biggest issue. It's about people being hand-picked as a voice and most of those who get hand-picked as a voice are the ones who toe the line, the rhetoric of the government and the assimilation and they're the ones who suddenly get labelled 'leaders'."
Metres from where Felon sits, past the constantly burning Embassy fire, someone has nailed together a huge sign that surrounds the Embassy. It spells out the word "SOVEREIGNTY".
The Sovereignty sign at the Embassy. "We need recognition of our sovereignty first," says Felon.
On "16 Bars", Felon raps:
No more faking, we're taking a stand
And we ain't shaking, we're making a plan on how to make you understand
It's time to recognise the rights of the sovereign people
Come to the table, sign a treaty and be rid of all the evil
"We need recognition of our sovereignty first," says Felon. "And then a discussion of a treaty is needed, because we need to move forward on an equal footing, instead of the whitefella always coming and telling us the solution and telling us how it's going to go. Because when someone's above and someone's down here, nothing's going to work.
"Don't get me wrong - there's a lot of places where treaties have not worked, but possibly we can learn from the mistakes from those ones. One is the step of having a treaty and then that's the debate you have, to make sure it's done properly. There are other debates about an Aboriginal state too, there are pros and cons to many options we have, but the discussions need to be had and our people need to be the ones having them. First and foremost our people's sovereignty needs to be asserted and recognised. Our people, our grassroots people, need to have their own voice heard."
Sovereignty and treaties barely get a mention in the mainstream media. They may be swarming all over the Embassy as we speak, but Felon says it's been a battle trying to get any coverage.
"We've been here, this Embassy, for nearly 10 months and we've contacted them the whole time. The lack of mainstream media - they just don't want to know. It keeps it hidden."
Poor and disadvantaged people are not a demographic the corporate media can sell to advertisers. When they do report on such people, it is as a problem to be solved, not as individuals who may have valuable insights. At best, their opinions are literally worthless. At worst, their opinions are a threat to the multifarious business interests of the corporate media bosses. Anti-development protesters are a prime example.
Today, though, the media are here to witness the solving of another problem with the possible eviction of the Embassy - and the arrest of the protesters. Whether the eviction and Felon's arrest comes today, or some time later, he's convinced the police will be brutal.
"They've flogged me before for nothing," he says. "But this time I think they've got a good reason to go hard."