Face the Fire
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If James Alberts, better known as Adelaide-based rapper Jimblah, hadn't discovered hip hop, he could well have ended up serving time in prison.
Instead, he now serves prisoners in prison, by teaching them.
"In my early teens, I just wanted a place to fit and I looked up to the older lads who were [committing crimes]," Alberts, a 27-year-old Larrakia man, tells Green Left Weekly.
"They showed leadership and a courage that I really admired when I was younger. I would’ve done anything to gain their acceptance.
“Sadly, for many of the younger generation, this is how it starts for them. Then, before they know it, it’s all they know and it becomes a very hard cycle to break."
For the past six years, Alberts has been trying to break that cycle by running hip hop workshops in detention centres across the country.
"I love it," he says.
"Hip hop has changed my life in such a positive way - it got me away from the streets, it got me away from getting into the wrong things.
"It’s such an incredible medium to express yourself through and I just want to pass that on to anyone else who is willing enough to open up their minds to it.
"Many people still think it’s all about cars, drugs and 'gangsta rap'. They don’t know about its humble beginnings, the four elements [rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti] and how it was born out of struggle and oppression.
"It was only a matter of time before I would step into a detention centre and run some workshops on hip hop and its positive benefits."
A positive role model like Alberts, whose self-produced debut album is released on Obese Records in August, is sorely needed.
"From my experiences, our younger fellas don’t have many fatherly figures or decent role models," he says.
"Society doesn’t accept them and they often come from broken down families, suffering from drug abuse and neglect. Usually the only place they feel comfortable and actually a part of something is with their 'boys' or 'brothers', their friends. This becomes like a family to them.
"Many feel angry at the world and feel like they can’t get jobs or a decent education and so on. They see crime as an option for an easy income and many of their friends are also offenders."
The fact Australia jails Aboriginal men at a rate far higher than apartheid South Africa jailed black citizens does not help.
Alberts also tries to stop juveniles falling victim to the criminal justice system early on, through his work as an Aboriginal Community Education Officer at Woodville High School.
"I am a mentor as well as a friend," he says.
"I’m someone to go to when the kids don’t feel like they can talk to the teachers. I liaise with the wider community as well, a contact point between the school and the kids’ families. It’s really good work and very benefiting for myself.
"I’ve always enjoyed working with our youth. They're our future. We need to instill within them the confidence and knowledge to know that they can make a difference for our people, that they can be successful with whatever they decide to do with their lives."
Hip hop's connection to youth work is nothing new in Australia - acts from such workshops get lots of radio airplay - but it is not without its critics. It got a bum rap recently in an article by Sydney blogger Ren Won.
In a scathing invective, she claimed some projects were paternalistic, unsustainable, exploited young people and their focus on juveniles continued to portray Aboriginal Australians in a childlike way. What does Alberts make of that?
"Ren Won hit it on the head," he says. "I feel exactly the same way. I would like to see more programs being run by Aboriginal artists. This will empower the younger generation even more so.
"Many of these organisations and workshop tutors are only in it for a quick buck. Funding will be much better suited going back into the communities, rather than out of it. This will be much more sustainable.
"I would like to see more workshops that teach some of the older generations, within the community, to be able to run their own workshops, so that when us city folk leave, the positive benefits are ongoing."
Alberts knows all about the city-outback divide, having been born in the West Australian pearling port of Broome and raised in the Northern Territory town of Katherine.
"Broome is a beautiful place," he says. "I only stayed there for a couple of years after I was born, so I don’t have many memories growing up there.
"I have been back only once since, on a holiday with my family when I was seven or eight. I am lucky enough to be going there to run workshops, with [Aboriginal events management agency] Vibe, next month.
“I remember Katherine being kind of tough. At such a young age you are kind of oblivious to the racism and the hardship of growing up in the smaller outback communities.
"I remember being very puzzled as to why other kids would call me half-caste or quarter-caste and other names I hadn’t heard before. So I would ask, what’s a half-caste? After finding out what it meant, I started calling myself 'half-caste'. It wasn’t until my mother told me off for using it, so I stopped saying it.
"From what I remember of Katherine, it seems to be like a lot of small rural towns - very divided, racism is everywhere and there is a lot of hate within the community. I used to get teased for being Aboriginal at school - not a lot by the younger kids my age, more so by the older kids. It’s not until I go back there now that I see what it’s really like."
He retraces his steps, all the way from Broome to Adelaide, in the rolling, laid-back narrative of "My Life", the song that opens his highly original album.
"'My Life' is a story of my journey from when I was born, up until the present day," he says.
"The feel I was going for was a dark kind of vibe, and very raw. It highlights some of my struggles, ups, downs, and is pretty much an insight to what I’m about and where I have come from."
In 2007, Alberts won a $5000 grant in an initiative set up by veteran Adelaide rappers the Hilltop Hoods. He has since gone on to play festivals all over the country and has often pumped up Indigenous hip hop duo Karnage N Darknis as their on-stage DJ and hype man.
He also works in remote communities in a broad sweep north of Adelaide, from the barren and beautiful Flinders Ranges to Ceduna, Leigh Creek, Marree, Copley, Iga Warta, Swan Hill, Port Lincoln and Port Augusta.
"I have been to many different and wonderful places and feel very privileged to be able to do so," he says.
When asked to describe each place individually, he replies: "Out of all of the rural remote towns I have visited, one thing they all have in common is the high level of racism within the community.
"Not all, but the majority of outback towns are very divided, with racism being very out in the open. In the city it is more swept under the rug and you don’t see it that often, whereas out there, it’s a different story altogether."
You don't have to be sensitive to see that, but Alberts' sensitivity is like a sixth sense.
On his album, his antennae seem to pick up on the nuances of everyone and everything around him and tune in to his deepest emotions.
If, as director Anthony Minghella put it, "there's one prison you can't escape from, and that's the prison of your own mind", then Alberts is freeing himself, bit by bit.
The album's title track, "Face The Fire", perfectly embodies his quest to reveal the most fragile and fraught feelings of himself and others as he pours the pathos onto the page and breathes raw emotion into the mic.
"'Face the Fire' was written for one of my close friends who took his own life," he says.
"After I found out, I just began writing, as If I were writing a letter, and it really helped in coping with the situation. The verses are pretty much directed to him, but the chorus is directed more at myself and other people who are struggling with situations in their life, especially the young Indigenous youth out there.
“Suicide is such a huge issue within the Indigenous community. It’s for the times when you just feel like giving up, and it feels like there’s nowhere to turn. You’ve just got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and deal with your problems and issues head on. Giving up is not an option.
“After I wrote and recorded everything, I got in contact with some of the family of my friend and I caught up with them. I showed them the demo version and they were really moved and touched, so I asked my friend’s sister, Rhanee Lester, if she wanted to write something for the track, like a spoken word piece.
"She was all for it. It was a very moving time during the recording process, as you could only imagine."
Such unvarnished intensity is matched by the album's artwork - a gritty, charcoal portrait of the unshaven musician fixing the onlooker with his gaze.
"My friend, Sebastian Humphreys, did the artwork," says Alberts.
"Seb and myself have been close friends since primary school and street art is his passion. It felt only right to get him on board my first project. The theme for the artwork was, obviously, 'Face The Fire'. I wanted something very rough and not too flashy."
His music also unfolds like a loose sketch drawn by an expert hand. The sparse soul of Alberts' measured, moving productions has seduced listeners. His tempered boom-bap clap and rolling funk snares interplay with hooks as big as a butcher’s that have gained him plenty of Triple J airplay.
All the songs retain a live, improvised feel, no doubt captured through his method of working.
A mesmerising YouTube clip shows him burning the midnight oil in his dimly lit studio. The camera is focused on his slender fingers, which work the sampler's pads live with the dexterity of a touch typist. The loops roll out with a looseness that might be lost in the clinical, linear sequencing of a computer screen.
Alberts' fearless zeal for that human touch also sees him striving to go places lyrically that many would shy away from.
"I enjoy rapping and writing about love and relationships because it is such a huge thing within everybody’s life," he says.
"I wrote 'If We Could' when my girlfriend was in another country. She was away for a couple of months and the hurt and pain I was feeling was intense.
"To make things worse, she had cheated on me, so I sort of felt like I was losing her, and I just wanted to go back to when we first fell for each other, to when we first fell in love. I wrote all of the vocal parts and melodies when she was still there, but I wrote the rap section when she had returned and I was struggling to forgive her and to regain my trust in her."
As Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver put it: “In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all.”
Yet Alberts is unafraid to break into ever more uncomfortable territory.
"'Situations' is about a relationship I had with a girl, who was very confused about her own feelings," he says.
"She always said she wanted to be with me, but I think she was always very concerned with what everyone else thought and her own social status. Also, it’s about being used, and you know you’re being used, but you still can’t walk away even when you know it’s the right thing to do."
And he delves deeper.
"'Left Me Here' is very deep and emotional. It’s about the relationship I have with my father. Growing up I saw my father abuse my mother and abuse myself.
"My father was a very good father, but when I was about 12, something dramatically changed within his life - he lost my uncle, his brother, to a drug overdose.
"This began a downward spiral. It pretty much sums up my feelings toward him. I still love him, but I needed to express the hurt and pain he has left me with. The feeling of abandonment."
However, for much of Alberts’ album, the personal gives way to the political.
"'Just Another Day' is something I wrote about Indigenous issues and the things we face as a community," he says.
"The pain, the struggle. I also wanted to express how many Australians say this and that, and express how Indigenous people should do [things] or behave a certain way.
"I wanted to express that, from where I’m standing, it’s a completely different view from where you’re standing.
"It’s easy to judge and say whatever, but at the end of the day, you have no idea, because in reality, you have never experienced or gone through a day in our lives, you have never walked in my shoes.
"I am reminded every day of the society I face, the struggles I have to go through being a young Indigenous man in this country.
"I’m constantly feeling like I have to prove my worth, that I have to prove that I am a decent person, that I don’t do drugs, that I am not a criminal and so on, and I’m constantly trying to break down the barriers and the negative stereotypes that hold my people back."
Such stereotypes are amplified by the mainstream media. Alberts recalls with distaste how a fan approached him after a gig and asked the rapper if he was a member of the so-called "Gang of 49".
The mythical, supposedly all-Aboriginal criminal gang was invented by South Australia's biggest newspaper, Rupert Murdoch's Advertiser, after it got hold of a list of 49 separate offenders wanted by the police.
The 49 people on the list, not all of whom were Aboriginal, were lumped together in headlines as a fearsome Aboriginal "gang". The stories ran and ran.
"It seems mainstream media would rather portray Indigenous people in a negative light, from my point of view," Alberts says.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people in Australia would rather view us in that manner, also.
"The 'Gang of 49' is a perfect example. It’s conditioning at its worst. We have young kids who now want to be a part of the so-called gang and, even worse, our youth are thinking that’s all they can ever amount to.
“I work in a high school and I’ve got the young lads saying to me that they don’t come to school because they're black. They talk about how it’s pointless for them because a lot of them feel like they cannot amount to anything. We need to empower and encourage our youth."
Alberts is also dismayed at the media manipulation of programs such as the federal government's Close The Gap or billionaire miner Andrew Forrest's Generation One.
"Things like Generation One are doing more damage than good," says Alberts.
"They might have good intentions, but when I turn on the TV it’s telling me I won’t live until 50, that I’ll drop out of school by 15, statistics telling me I’m three times more likely to be unemployed.
"What are young, impressionable minds supposed to think when they get bombarded with this every day? When this kind of nonsense is everywhere they turn, they start believing it and giving up hope, because, apparently, that’s just the way it is.
"Don't get me wrong though, they are doing great stuff within the community, it's just some aspects of their campaign I don't agree with.
"Living on and growing up on the missions, I would get teased by other darker skinned kids for being 'pink', or 'white'. Moving to the city I would get teased for being 'black'.
"I always remember thinking, who am I, where do I fit? A big issue within our community is identity, and a lot of our culture has been lost. So when society treats us a certain way and the media pushes the negative issues to the forefront, many of our youth will become confused about who they are and how they should act.
“Instead of empowering our people, we’re going backwards, because programs like Generation One and Close The Gap are claiming and teaching us that we need help and that we can’t do it on our own.
"They’re teaching dependency, practising paternalism rather than teaching about self-determination.
“The media need to stop thinking about what’s going to sell and start pushing the positive stories within our community - they're everywhere."
And James Alberts is just one of those stories.
"Capitol City" from Face the Fire.
Download free tunes from Jimblah's debut album at http://www.triplejunearthed.com/Jimblah