Urthboy gives slacktivists a bad rap

Friday, August 24, 2012
Urthboy, aka Elefant Traks boss Tim Levinson.

Smokey’s Haunt
Urthboy
Elefant Traks
Out October 12
Touring from August 30

Has the internet turned activists into "slacktivists"? It's just one of the questions posed on Smokey’s Haunt, the new album by the persistently provocative Urthboy.

"Kony 2012 is a perfect example," the Australian hip hop pioneer tells Green Left. The online Kony campaign was seen by millions, but has so far failed in its goal to arrest Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony.

"We exist online and virtual lives are really important, but they also have this great limitation where there’s a massive amount of smug communication that goes on - with good intentions, but without any kind of measurable outcome," says the Blue Mountains-raised rapper.

"So people join up and they click on surveys and they ‘like’ things and they get involved and they say to their followers and all the people that are friends with them, ‘Look what I’m doing to fix this.’ Basically, we have arrived at a time where broadcasting who you are and what you’re about is sometimes seen as more important than doing anything about it."

Intellectual and activist Noam Chomsky noted the same phenomenon with the Nuclear Freeze campaign in 1980. "The reason it collapsed is, it wasn't based on anything," said Chomsky. "It was based on nothing except people signing a petition."

But Urthboy, otherwise known as Elefant Traks label boss Tim Levinson, is also an eternal optimist, refusing to see things simply as bad.

"If people sign a petition and then are actively going expressing their frustration, writing letters, the whole picture, that does change things," he says.

His constant refusal to see things exclusively in black and white tends to colour everything he does, from signing up Black artists to his predominantly white label, to seeing the dark and light in any given topic.

"The thing that has always been a part of the music that I make is an attempt to somehow reconcile lightness and darkness," he says. "And that manifests in politics, that manifests in personal interactions, that manifests in, just, my observations. I always think that the best kind of dark stories are always told with some sort of contrast with light."

It can also be seen, literally, in the video for his album's lead single, "Naive Bravado". The monochrome mini-movie, which tells a dark tale of troubled teens getting into a knife fight, is permeated with puffs of bright orange smoke.

"We wanted to have it black and white with these little flashes of colour to wake people up," he says.

"In a way, you’ve got sort of a very dark song, but I’ve written it in such a way that I would hope it sounds bright and it sounds like it wants to grab your attention."

The song's commercial chorus has certainly pricked up ears. It has a more powerful hook than Olympic boxer Damien Hooper. The vocal comes courtesy of R&B star Daniel Merriweather, whose life has also been a journey from darkness to light. In Merriweather's Melbourne-based teens he barely escaped a prison term for assault.

"I’m a big fan of redemption," says Urthboy, who has rapped about the pin inside his foot that proves his own teenaged "petty crime schemes".

"I think that any situation, no matter how dark, should be able to be turned around at some point. You’ve got to hope that people have a chance at redemption, because otherwise you have to give up on hope all together. Dan Merriweather’s probably a great example of that - someone who had a troubled background but has gone on to have a world-renowned gift."

The same could be said for Elefant Traks' latest signing, Aboriginal rapper Sky'high.

"Sky’high is an outrageously talented vocalist," says Urthboy. "She comes from a tough background which definitely informs what she talks about and how she carries herself, but underneath that is actually just a great artist. You can never predict the future so we can’t know that she’s going to go on and become a massive artist, but at the same time it’s my firm belief that that is there for her if she wants to take it."

Urthboy has written that Indigenous rappers "may be the future" of Australian hip hop - and has put his money where his mouth is. The supporting artists on his forthcoming "Naive Bravado" tour are almost all Aboriginal.

They include recent Elefant Traks signing The Last Kinection, who have said they deliberately joined a non-Aboriginal label to try to bridge the wide divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous hip hop. That division between black and white is predictably troubling for Urthboy.

"It’s so bleeding obvious that there’s a real disparity there," he says. "And a gap, which in some ways reflects the broader Australian public. At the same time we have a strange and surreal manifestation of the hip hop scene here where you have the majority of the artists being white, which surely is a bit of an anomaly in the global culture of hip hop.

"That’s not to say that those white artists don’t have a role, you can’t look at these things so harshly, but at the same time it is as clear as day to me that the stories that artists like Jimblah and the Last Kinection have to tell are so important, beyond just the obvious musicality and the great songs that they’re writing. They have an importance that goes way beyond Australian audiences and it’s a story that international audiences want to hear.

"Jimblah doesn’t make songs where you’re going getting pissed on a Friday night with your buddies and wearing hoodies and jumping up in the air and having barbecues and stuff, which is a lot of the kind of stuff that is the most successful in Australia."

Urthboy has written how "school never taught us about the real Aboriginal experience, or the real effects of colonisation". But when asked to name the books that taught him his country's real history, he declines.

"I’ve gotten a hell of a lot more understanding and experience from talking to people and being involved on a person-to-person level than from reading academic books," he says.

"For understanding and getting an idea of what it is like to walk around a shop and be followed in every single shop that you go in because you have a black skin and you’re an Aboriginal person, that comes from talking to people and realising what are the little ways that prejudice affects.

"That’s why I believe that much of the future will be Indigenous artists, because fundamentally we want to hear that story."

Hopefully that will mean more than just clicking "like" on a Facebook post about it.

WHY IT'S BLACK TO THE FUTURE FOR URTHBOY...

Urthboy said so many interesting things about Indigenous hip hop, politics and refugees that we’ve reproduced the full, unedited Q&A below. You can also download the mp3 of the interview here.

Please describe the making of the Naive Bravado video and the orange visual signature.

It wasn’t a massively significant part of the clip, but basically we wanted to use that coloured smoke almost as if to symbolise the negativity that was creeping into the decision-making processes of the young kid and how that smoke was something that the big brother was also involved with, so I guess the essence of that clip is around the idea of the big brother being a bad influence on the younger brother and then realising that his younger brother was looking after him and recognising it and going to help his brother. So the smoke just dissipates at the end where it exists in all these settings of trouble. But, I mean, it’s not like that’s a massively important thing for people to understand. That was just another little layer in that clip - and also we wanted to have it black and white with these little flashes of colour to wake people up.

Is it autobiographical about you and your brother, Matt, or have you invented these characters?

No, the actual story in the song is different to the clip. This was a way of bringing the idea of that song to life. The actual story in the song is really quite a different setting, but it is based on a true story. It’s definitely written about someone, but it’s not myself. The essence of the song is about the idea that sometimes people are needing to have a boost in their own sense of themselves, you know, like a confidence boost or something, that just puffs their chest out a little bit in order for them to feel like their self-esteem can carry them through a situation. It’s really talking about a young boy who’s been disadvantaged from day one. And how you never really get a fair go when you’re in that situation. And if faking it till you make it is a way of taking yourself out of that situation, that constant cycle of disadvantage, then, you know, I’m all for that.

Was your decision to team up with R&B star Daniel Merriweather on Naive Bravado influenced by the fact that “he devoted his pubescence to getting into all the trouble he could find [and] he barely escaped a prison term for assault”, and the fact that you’ve had similar troubled teens, having rapped about how you ended up with a pin in your foot?

Not so much, no. I’m a big fan of redemption. I think that any situation, no matter how dark, should be able to be turned around at some point. You’ve got to hope that people have a chance at redemption, because otherwise you have to give up on hope all together. Dan Merriweather’s probably a great example of that - someone who had a troubled background but has gone on to have a world-renowned gift. But that wasn’t the reason why I got him involved in this song. I got him involved in this song just because I respect his singing so much and the kind of artist that he is.

You have made a brave musical departure with the single, which has a very commercial sound. Will the album be more of the same, musically? Did you feel you were taking a bit of a risk?

Yeah, I don’t really want to make music that doesn’t take a risk. And his sound is very different to the rest of the record. But the spirit behind that song - doing something that other people weren’t doing, making music that doesn’t sound like the Hilltop Hoods or Illy or Drapht or all these different acts, is something that I’m very proud of. Not even proud of, but that is definitely part of my modus operandi. If I was going to settle down and mimic all these other artists that are doing well, I may as well quit. So Daniel Merriweather was really just our absolute ideal vocalist for that song and it was a fluke that we even got him to sing on the tune. So he did take my music somewhere else and some fans that don’t quite understand, they hear it and it sounds a little bit more commercial so they automatically assume that that’s some sort of a sell-out. Well, a different tone of a vocal on a song like that, I can understand. I guess I probably felt that way myself, but ultimately we’re artists that have to live and die by our creative decisions. You don’t really want to hold a little cage around yourself as to what you can and can’t do. I hate to think that the possibilities are limited. I don’t know whether it always sounds like the possibilities are unlimited, but with the music I make, I definitely aspire to that.

What lyrical themes are you tackling on the new album?

Really, I’m just concerned with life. The thing that has always been a part of the music that I make is an attempt to somehow reconcile lightness and darkness. And that manifests in politics, that manifests in personal interactions, that manifests in, just, my observations. I always think that the best kind of dark stories are always told with some sort of contrast with light.

You’ve got to have dynamics.

Yeah, it’s like that song Naïve Bravado in a way, you’ve got sort of a very dark song, but I’ve written it in such a way that I would hope it sounds bright and it sounds like it wants to grab your attention. So, you know, there are songs on the record about infidelity. There are songs on the record about so-called “slacktivism”, the idea of online communities being activists by pressing buttons and the kind of self-satisfaction culture. That’s something that I think everyone can relate to - you don’t have to be left, or right, or wrong, but everyone can notice that that is a real feature in modern life. We exist online and virtual lives are really important, but they also have this great limitation where there’s a massive amount of smug communication that goes on - with good intentions, but without any kind of measurable outcome. So people join up and they click on surveys and they ‘like’ things and they get involved and they say to their followers and all the people that are friends with them, ‘Look what I’m doing to fix this.’ Basically, we have arrived at a time where broadcasting who you are and what you’re about is sometimes seen as more important than doing anything about it. So that’s a shallow culture, even though in amongst those people are a lot of really good people. It’s a strange development.

Is there anything that you read that inspired these thoughts or was it an original observation?

I don’t think it’s an original observation. I think it’s just part of our lives. It’s the truth to a lot of us. And we’re all on both sides of the equation. Hopefully you do actually do something to change the things that you’re concerned about. Maybe online activism is just part of it, but as far as it being a means to an end, well, it clearly isn’t. People signing a petition will not change things. If people sign a petition and then are actively going expressing their frustration, writing letters, the whole picture, that does change things, but online commitment is only one small part of the picture. So you look at things like ‘Kony’ as being a perfect example of good intentions, but ultimately pointless outrage.

You've said: "School never taught us about the real Aboriginal experience, or the real effects of colonisation". Please talk about some of the books that have taught you about the real Aboriginal experience and Aboriginal history.

Well I have actually read a bunch of books, but what I was saying in that interview was actually that music played a big role in opening my eyes up to that stuff. And I say the question is whether I understand the situation faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and I clearly don’t. What I was pointing out was that music opened my eyes up to this stuff in a way that school didn’t. Music like Public Enemy, Tupac, the Geto Boys, American hip hop that talked about struggle and Black culture and Black Power. Issues that were facing them in the States made me think about what was equivalent that was happening in Australia. And I started thinking about what the attitudes towards Indigenous people were like and I became very fascinated by it. But as far as understanding it, well, I’ve never walked a mile in the shoes of an Aboriginal person, so I have to act from a position of white privilege. And I guess that’s where I stand with the hosts, the custodians, the people that have always cohabited the country that we’re in. You know, there’s such a massive wealth of knowledge and talent and wisdom that we close our minds to when we don’t take Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ views into account and that is really related to almost everything, from art to agricultural practices, through to things like who the hell is represented by our flag. So I could never, ever go out there and say that in any way do I know the real Aboriginal experience. I would never say that.

Want to name a couple of books?

No. I’ve gotten a hell of a lot more understanding and experience from talking to people and being involved on a person-to-person level than from reading academic books. They’re very good and I’m very interested in them, but I’ve only ever got a sense of historical events from books. For understanding and getting an idea of what it is like to walk around a shop and be followed in every single shop that you go in because you have a black skin and you’re an Aboriginal person, that comes from talking to people and realising what are the little ways that prejudice affects.

As a recent immigrant to Australia, I've seen it as important to learn the real history of the country and support its traditional owners. I see it as like a pathetic attempt to "pay the rent" for the privilege of being here, which is partly why I run the Australian Aboriginal Hip Hop Facebook page that uploads the weekly Indij hip hop show for free download. Is this what you were getting at when you said: "An awareness of something as important as our relationship to Indigenous Australia is more than a choice, it’s a responsibility." Or could it really be anything?

I think it could be anything. Responsibility, I think of that, because what informs us as people is our identity and our identity gives us a sense of place, it gives us a sense of person. It’s the true kind of perception that you have of the place that you’re from. It’s not the bullshit patriotism and nationalism that quite often infects our society. It’s not that shallow, racist expression of who should be here and who shouldn’t, you know, you’re making a judgement call. The real thing that gives you a real sense of what it is like to be an Australian is really being connected with your identity. And if you’re connected with your identity, then you understand your place in the scheme of things. And for the Europeans who have come to Australia - and I guess I’m speaking about the majority of Australians here - it’s understanding that we’ve had a short period of time here versus thousands of years for Indigenous people. Not that that’s the only thing, I think that’s just one of the things that would help you understand your place in the scheme of things. But it actually informs your identity. So if you have prejudiced views towards Aboriginal people because you have some stereotypical and complete bullshit assumption that they are… You come to lazy assumptions about Aboriginal people because you hear things that [shock jock] Alan Jones says or you hear stories about alcohol and you tar everybody with the same brush. Then you genuinely do not understand what makes up our identity. That’s why I feel like it’s a responsibility to understand that. I guess in the same way I think it’s a responsibility to appreciate the way that immigration and different cultures and ethnicities have enriched the country. It’s not all good, of course it’s not all good. That’s the problems with these conversations, they become so black and white, the people arguing do not keep an open mind to the negative impact of it. But people who are against it are so blindly against it that you forget the humanity of it. And I believe that our culture is definitely enrichened with the multicultural contribution. So the existence of all these different cultures has opened up our eyes to all these different experiences and we become rich by that, we have a better understanding of the world and also an appreciation for the differences that make up our overall identity. And if you’re honest about that you don’t need to say it’s all good. You go, yeah, there’s bad, but the good will hopefully outweigh the bad. In my opinion, definitely that’s the case.

Unfortunately for most people appreciating multiculturalism stretches only as far as trying the different foods.

Yeah, definitely. The funny thing is, that’s a starting point. I would hope that different foods is like a tiny door that’s ajar. It’s like that perception that a particular kind of people, like say, I don’t know, Afghani people. Because there’s war there and there are really extreme views there - a lot of which are unconscionable in my opinion, attitudes to women and whatnot, things that I find very hard to reconcile myself with - the lazy and the easy thing to do is just assume that everybody is like that and as soon as you start meeting some of those people, you realise they’re very gentle people and very kind people and the people that I’ve met have always been open-armed and welcoming. So it gives you an appreciation for what things are really like - not what’s easy and what sort of suits your own prejudice.

Speaking of attitudes towards women, it seems like misogyny is the biggest millstone around rap’s neck. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, rap music has always been very direct. You don’t always wrap things up in a poetic way. I guess that’s why “bitch” is such a common term in, particularly American, hip hop. I would hope that with an eye to understanding that perpetuating those kind of terms is a direct sign of disrespect to your own sister or your mother, your grandmother… I mean surely there’s a relationship there where they would be horrified that people would ever refer to their family like that. Hip hop needs to pick its game up on that front because hip hop has always come from a place of struggle and gender has always had its own role in struggle and there’s the dominance of males in our society, from wages through to positions of influence. It is something that is changing and it changes with understanding of how ridiculous it is to ever believe that a gender or discrimination on gender is just as bad as discrimination on anything. To put people into a box that allows you to stand over it, it allows you to feel as if you have some sense of superiority over it and that just allows you to have a form of oppression. Hip hop has always been fighting oppression so you would think that hip ho would embrace it, but you know, but I don’t believe that I can be a spokesperson for hip hop. But I would hope that that will change, for sure.

You’d hope that people would see the parallels between racism and sexism.

For sure. The same with homophobia. There have been massive changes and leaps forward in attitudes towards homophobia in hip hop in the past 10 years, definitely. And I’ve definitely been involved with it, just watching American artists come out. Coming out against homophobia, coming out for gay marriage, these things are massively significant if you look at the attitudes that previously existed. We have to recognise that change and feel like that’s a cause for optimism.

You have said: "I was asked to write about the state of hip hop in Australia. I'd prefer to shine a light on what may be the future of it: Indigenous Hip Hop." You have put your money where your mouth is, signing Sky'high and The Last Kinection. You have also signed Indigenous artists up to tour with you. Please describe what the following artists mean to you:

- Yung Warriors

Yung Warriors are cool, they’ve got a lot of potential, they’ve written a few good songs, they stand for something. It’s good music, that’s pretty much it. The fact that they have an Indigenous heritage is something of interest, but I booked them because I like their music. I just wanted to see them play live. I haven’t seen them play live so I was being a bit selfish.

- King Brown

I don’t know too much about King Brown, but he sent some music across to us and I hadn’t really heard too much of him. But yeah, we’re playing music and out for giving people a chance and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in Katoomba. [Green Left interviewed King Brown here.]

- Sky'high

Sky’high is an outrageously talented vocalist. She’s got a great sense of song. She comes from a tough background which definitely informs what she talks about and how she carries herself but underneath that is actually just a great artist. That’s why Elefant Traks got involved, we really believe in her. You can never predict the future - it’s the same with any artist - so we can’t know that she’s going to go on and become a massive artist, but at the same time it’s my firm belief that that is there for her if she wants to take it. If she has the discipline and the focus and the drive to do it, she has the talent - which is not something I can say for a lot of people.

- Jimblah

The proof in the pudding about my belief in Jimblah is the fact that I have been very vocally supportive of him since his record came out on a competing label. So you can’t say that I’ve been trumping him because I have an agenda. I just have a massive love for the dude. He’s one of those artists that could be an international success just because there’s no one like him. He has an incredible singing voice, an amazing flow, his productions are really interesting and cool and wonky. He should be fucking huge. But the feeling is definitely in place in Australia… he doesn’t make songs where you’re going getting pissed on a Friday night with your buddies and wearing hoodies and jumping up in the air and having barbecues and stuff, which is a lot of the kind of stuff that is the most successful in Australia. And I don’t mean to diminish that, because in a way that’s a mirror or a reflection of what a lot of people’s values are. And so it does get picked up because people really appreciate that spirit. Jimblah’s not about that, but his talent is unbelievable, I’m a huge fan.

- The Last Kinection, who sang on their latest album about playing to tiny audiences. I wanted to talk about how the standard of Indigenous hip hop is incredible and yet it has such a small audience.

It’s definitely lifting up in quality all the time. I think that in past times many of the artists that would have ordinarily come through those channels, the more popular channels where Bliss and Eso and Illy have come through, is partly because there has just been a disconnect between those scenes. So you’ve got Aboriginal artists out there and in the past they just didn’t have a connection and so they haven’t come through with the wave of artists that have come through. And also there was more of a disconnect between the cultures before, but then… All through the history of hip hop developing in Australia, there ’s examples of Aboriginal emcees and B-Boys and Djs who have been involved but it’s just never been a big deal. As it’s blown up, it’s become much more stark. It’s so bleeding obvious that there’s a real disparity there. And a gap, which in some ways reflects the broader Australian public. At the same time we have a strange and surreal manifestation of the hip hop scene here, where you have the majority of the artists being white, which surely is a bit of an anomaly in the global culture of hip hop. That’s not to say that those white artists don’t have a role, you can’t look at these things so harshly. But at the same time it is as clear as day to me that the stories that artists like Jimblah and the Last Kinection have to tell are so important, beyond just the obvious musicality and the great songs that they’re writing. They have an importance that goes way beyond Australian audiences and it’s a story that international audiences want to hear. That’s why I wrote that article and why I believe that much of the future will be Indigenous artists is because fundamentally we want to hear that story.

Yep, that’s certainly the case with the Aboriginal Hip Hop page - we have a huge following from overseas. Payback Records boss Nathan Lovett-Murray has also said the interest from overseas in Aboriginal hip hop is a lot stronger than it is in Australia, which is what partly inspired me to start uploading Munk’s show to the internet. You have talked about the rise of racism among white Australian hip hop fans. As a non-Australian, my reaction is WTF? Don't they know it was originally a black artform? West Sydney Aboriginal rapper Sesk told Green Left he sees a big divide between the white and black hip hop scenes in Australia, that they move in mutually exclusive circles, and that he wants to bring them together. What are your thoughts?

Yep that comes back to identity. How do you understand hip hop if you don’t even understand where it came from? When you go to iTunes and buy a song and then go to a festival and dance around, there’s no obligation to have a knowledge about where all that stuff comes from.

Well, maybe that’s the way it should be.

There’s no need for it. However, it gives you so much better an understanding of things if you do have some of that appreciation because you just understand where everything fits, you know. You understand that the new school hip hoppers exist because there are old school hip hoppers and you get a sense of how everything moves. But I’m just mostly into it because those things have made up experiences that will never be done again. It’s like maybe looking back at the music from the Fifties and Sixties and seeing all those events that changed everything forever. It’s fascinating. It makes it so much more exciting. Then again, when hip hop becomes pop music it just becomes disposable and that’s not to say that every song that gets popular is disposable, but the kind of people that enjoy it, get it , enjoy it, move on. You don’t have that same kind of affection for it. I guess that’s where you kind of differentiate from the tourist participant in the culture with the people who are really passionate about it. I guess that’s the same for everything.

The late Black Panther leader Geronimo ji-Jaga, Tupac Shakur’s godfather, said of the attempt of corporations to subvert hip hop: "Hip-hop is indigenous and it’s powerful and it scares the hell out of these people, right? So, they have to get control and employ Cointelpro-like tactics... After the leadership of the Black Panther Party was attacked at the end of the ’60s and the early ’70s, throughout the Black and other oppressed communities, the role models for up-coming generations became the pimps, the drug dealers, etc. This is what the government wanted to happen. The result was that the gangs were coming together with a gangster mentality, as opposed to the revolutionary progressive mentality we would have given them.” What are your thoughts?

I can’t see how you’d argue with that. But you do it from a level of individuals advancing their own cause and, to me, that moves the culture of hip hop away from something that is really closely connected with a struggle and those social movements and it becomes more a part of the broader capitalist system where it’s every man for himself or woman for herself. And that’s pretty much what we ascribe to as a planet, bar a bunch of countries. I mean it seems to be that collectively, particularly the Western world has agreed that this is the best system. And so it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that popular music forms would gradually work parallel to that and adopt the same values. You see less of that collective good and more of that individual greed. I’m not saying these things as if they’re inherently evil, because I am part of that. But definitely from a big picture perspective, that’s I guess how I feel about the way hip hop has gone. But I also would like to say that in some respects, you know, I read some essays which talked about how gospel music and early jazz was really linked with Black struggle and how, over time, when jazz sort of turned into scatting and different forms - bebop - things that took Black culture away from having those songs of struggle put into words. So it was clear what it was about, it was really connected with that struggle. There was a backlash against these new forms of jazz, where people were saying ‘What’s the point of it? It’s not about Black identity, it’s just about the music form.’ And I think that there was a feeling of betrayal in the people that were fighting for equal rights. But as time wore on, it became very clear that bebop and scatting, despite not being clearly identifiable with the struggle, were examples of Black excellence. How that influenced the entire world, arts and music all over the world and that all came from the excellence exhibited by these jazz musicians. So in a way, I guess that’s very clearly a foot forward for equal rights and progresses the struggle, because it just puts its cards on the table, it says, ‘Look at this. You do not consider us equals? Well, good, because actually we’re better than you.’ So maybe, just maybe, the fact that commercial hip hop has seemed to abandon that history of struggle, maybe it’s not something that we should all roundly condemn. Particularly not white people. It felt really illuminating, that story, because it was just like, holy shit, that’s amazing. Because you’re not on the frontline with placards, but you’re doing it, it’s in your life, you’re not pausing for anything, you’re just proving it by your actions.

To what extent do you think growing up as a hip hop fan as a white, red-haired kid in the Blue Mountains made you sympathise for people who may be perceived as "outsiders"?

I don’t know why the hell I became interested in hop hop culture. As a kid I had blond hair, my beard is red, I don’t identify on that level. That’s only a small aside, I totally get what you’re saying. I don’t think I’ve ever identified as being part of anything. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider. But I think that most people do. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure a lot of people do.

Well, I guess it’s all down to perception. You've always been a strong supporter of refugees. What did you make of the Houston report last week and its aftermath, with parliament voting for offshore processing?

Like another nail in the coffin of our conscience. Like a hammer that is just beating down mercilessly on us having enlightenment. It is beating down on our path towards enlightenment. Pushing us back. You feel like as you get older and as we grow as people we learn, but [when] there are all these things, you feel like it just makes you question about whether you go forward and improve as a people. And I haven’t lived for hundreds of years, I don’t have that context of how we constantly repeat ourselves with the same prejudicial views that are effectively the same that humanity has always had, you know, mistrust of strangers, motivated by fear, all these things that manifest in modern life, the same way that they would have always affected us. But at the same time we develop technologies and we learn a little bit more about science that enlightens us on so many different levels. But then there are things that, politically speaking, it just makes you depressed.

Do you think the main problem is that we just don’t have accountable democracy? Governments get voted in every few years and then do whatever the hell they like. Do you think things would improve if our democratic system was reformed so that politicians were held accountable for each bill that they voted on?

But it seems like that’s what we’ve got. Where they’re taking decisions that are going to deliver them numbers when they do the polls.

But do they pay attention to those focus groups? It seems like they break the promises as soon as they get in.

Yeah, for sure, but those promises are all based on polls as well.

But then they break them.

But it’s a lot easier to make those promises when you are trying to convince someone of electing you into power. When you get into power there’s a whole bunch of things that you’ve got to sacrifice and compromise and then they look at their polls to work out which ones to cut off first.

That’s because they’re not accountable.

It’s like a dog chasing its tail. The accountability is going to be the same for the next person who gets voted in. You know, you’re going to have a constant cycle of politicians who aren’t able to deliver the things that they needed to get them across the line to begin with. I don’t know, I think the conversation about what the best system is or how to make democracy work is such a huge philosophical discussion and I am just not the person to have the answers there. I’ll chime in, but…

Well, no one has the answer.

Yeah, absolutely, if you had a system where the elected leaders of the day actually had a sense of the common good and didn’t have to subscribe to democratic values it would be much more efficient, things would happen much quicker. But you’d have to put all your trust into people who end up being Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. By the same token, democracy on paper is brilliant, but it’s also very slow. It reflects ugly views of people.

But if you don’t accept those views then you probably want something more elitist.

Yeah that’s right, but I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to not accept views, otherwise how would things change?

Through better education. Through better media.

These things are absolutely true. You inform people better.

You’ve spoken for a long time so thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. I have just one more question. Afrika Bambaataa’s concept of the five elements of hip-hop are MCing, DJing, breaking, graffiti writing and the oft-forgotten fifth element – knowledge. To what extent do you think artists often forget this fifth element?

I think everybody’s guilty of that. It sometimes takes a wise person to realise that they’re in a position where people listen to them. So you can get caught up in your own little world and forget that you’re part of a community and the whole community operates better when everybody is considerate and they’re considered in their actions. And knowledge is the thing that feeds that considered action. Because you have a consideration of the consequences of your actions. And maybe you have an idea of the historical relevance of the situation that you’re in, which also informs the way you share your influence. But I wouldn’t say that I’m immune from a lack of knowledge. I mean I forget words all the time. I don’t know enough of things. I can’t do everything and it’s frustrating. So I’m in the same boat as everybody else in not honouring that concept of knowledge as much as I should.

Well it would be a fool who thought they had mastered it.

For sure. I also learnt from years writing with The Herd, I think I came to a bit better understanding that you’re constantly complaining, constantly talking about things and quite often it comes from a very egotistical place, like as if you’re able to judge others. And the judgement of others is the downfall of everyone. I mean, it’s like the Christians who fight so hard against gay marriage and yet will say, ‘Thou shalt not judge.’ The instinct to judge is a flawed one, I mean I’m the first to admit that I’m just working my way through this.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Well, we didn’t really talk about the album that much and that’s fine with me because I’ll be talking about that enough as it is.

You must get sick of interviews.

Actually, even though today’s, like, really busy and I’m going to be here at work late, particularly because this interview’s gone on for quite a while, the interviews like this where we’re talking about general things and having a discussion are actually quite enjoyable, I like them, so thanks for that.

Well it’s been great speaking to you.

Yeah cheers man, thank you.

Green Left will be buying a copy of the album. To win our copy, send your name and address to CriticalFilms@gmail.com before it's released on October 12. Winner picked at random.

From GLW issue 935