The Show Will Go On
Mau Power's new album takes listeners through the big changes in his life - and the first of those came when he was jailed. "In 2001, I got incarcerated," the Torres Strait Islands rapper tells Green Left Weekly. "And that time I was in lock-up for nine months."
Mau Power, also known as Patrick Mau, was put away for grievous bodily harm after a street fight in the southern Queensland country town of Toowoomba.
"The fight - it was a series of fights really," he says. "From back up home all leading up to one particular fight, which I got charged for and they just looked at my whole history and my rap sheet and then said it's time for you to go."
Looking at Mau Power now, quietly sipping on a glass of water in the bar of Sydney's Metro Hotel just hours before he performs a show, it's hard to believe he's the same person. He's warm, accommodating, softly-spoken and laughs easily. There are no hard edges. He says it was prison that changed him.
"It took away a time of my life that I won't get back, but the positive thing was it actually gave me that time to sit down and reflect and think about where I was heading, what I was doing, where I wanted to be, how I was going to get there, what would happen if I was to continue down the road that I was on. And I made that choice when I was locked up that music is my outlet, that's where I've got to go."
On his song "Transitions Of Life" he raps:
I've been through many stages in my life
Seen so many changes, day and night
Comparing Mau Power's past with his present is like comparing night and day.
"Most of us were always fighting," he says. "People would get in blues all the time where I come from. The areas that I was living in in the Torres Strait, there are areas like that everywhere in Australia. In places similar to where I lived, in the low socio-economic areas - you know, crowded houses, everywhere similar to this - this is where you get what poverty breeds. When you're not having much opportunity, this is what happens."
It can also be a way for people to gain status when they cannot do it through money.
"Absolutely," says Mau Power. "We would actually boast about people we knew who we'd call 'the hit men' - the hot ones who were always good at fighting. We'd watch all this violent stuff all the time and it was entertainment for us.
"And, you know, with the prison system - well, we can go for days about the prison system - that's big business. I know from being incarcerated that I was reduced to a statistic, a number. But I came with a package, they had money around to house me, so these corporations, they thrive off this. So now the legislation and laws that bring in corporations and the private sector prisons, they put so much around where it's so easy to get pinched these days. And for Indigenous culture - which is one of the sad things about it - through generations, it then becomes a view that it's a rite of passage."
It's an attitude that can prove fatal. The hip-hop group that Mau Power formed after he left prison went on to release "Tell Me Why", a song dedicated to a band member's brother who was killed in an interaction with police.
"That was one of our first songs," says Mau Power. "One of the members, Josh Mills, his older brother Nathan, he passed away by an accident that happened in a cop chase. A car chase. Everybody in the community of Thursday Island was affected by that.
"In hip-hop or in that lifestyle, when someone passes on, you let the memory live on and the way we do that is we have the shirts printed up with their names on, we tag their names up on the walls and we make music that reflects our hurt but also keeps their name alive. It was a loss, a heavy loss, so we made that song in his memory."
Mau Power has had his fair share of traumatic transitions, but a far larger one looms for his people. The seafaring Torres Strait Islanders are now threatened by rising sea levels amid increasing coal exports. Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to expand Abbot Point coal terminal into the biggest coal port in the world and dump silt on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef, the world's biggest living structure, starts at Murray Island in the Torres Strait's north. When Mau Power is asked what he thinks of the Prime Minister being given such permssion, he looks nonplussed, then asks: "Permission from who?"
From the Marine Park Authority, I say.
"No," he says, as if I haven't understood. "Permission from who? That area's traditionally owned by people who are the original owners of Australia, so they didn't get permission.
"For him to do that, I mean, the government is always one of the strongest structures or bodies that will always be doing what they think is best for the people, but doing it their own way, at the expense of the future of our natural park, an icon that predominantly identifies Australia. You know when you speak of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is what it is.
"Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters here in Australia have their connection to the land, we have our connection to the sea, it's our way and our life, we were seafaring people from the beginning, we have Melanesian roots, we identify our existence by the way of sea, our totems come from the sea. The Great Barrier Reef BEGINS with Murray Island, so what's happening is very disappointing. It's like, here we go again - another form of pillage that's going to happen to the country."
Mau Power has a better understanding of the Torres Strait than most people. It was first gained when he made the transition to crayfishing company owner at the tender age of 13. When he later transitioned to the Sea Swift freight company, he visited every one of the Torres Strait's 17 inhabited islands. He still travels throughout the islands in his work for remote services provider My Pathway. His song "My Blood My People" declares:
The knowledge of our ancestors
Fans the flames of our cultural fires
The culture gave our people strength in the past
And will do so today and in the times to come
This is our culture
It is our life, our strength
Video: My Blood My People. Mau Power.
Asked what his main observation was when he began visiting all the islands, the rapper replies: "My main observation was the family, kinship, the connection. It opened up my mind to the fact that I could travel to all these islands and I would never be lost, because I have family everywhere, I always have a home. And that's the Indigenous culture as a whole. If there's anybody from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, wherever they travel, they always have a home.
"The other was the remote struggles that we live in. Where I was on Horn Island and Thursday Island, that was considered the harbour to Torres Strait, we were facing a lot of problems, but it would be five to 10 times worse in the outer islands, because of the lack of resources and so on."
Mau Power has highlighted that lack of resources by also making the transition from musician to broadcaster. In an eye-opening interview on his radio show, the rapper tackled the Liberal Member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch, on the lack of resources to build sea walls amid rising king tides. Mau Power sighs at the enormity of the transition.
"The effect that it's having is erosion's happening on these islands, you know. There was a movement back in the 1950s, people and families from Saibai Island moved to the tip of Australia to a community called Bamaga. The Saibai people moved there because at that time they predicted that tides would inundate this island and it would affect our way of living - it would affect our water resources.
"Today, the sea levels are still rising, islands are getting inundated. On Saibai it actually flooded the whole cemetery, so we could actually pick up the whole cemetery. That's a whole health issue in itself. Not last year, the year before, it was recorded that the highest tide fell 30cm short of their main water supply. Had it come 30cm more, it would have contaminated that water, so they wouldn't have a water supply.
"Those are the things that we face up there, a lot of health issues, the dangers of having the main water resource contaminated, and people getting their whole islands washed away. I mean, families have been talking about that, to relocate - but that now is a very sensitive area to discuss, simply because people are connected to that area now. Family, heritage, bloodlines, blood ties, it's like a whole removal of a culture from a place that is vital.
"The local Torres Strait Island regional council has been lobbying for the past three, four years for the government to get them to commit to the $26 million that they promised in the beginning to do this sea wall project, which it looks like they will be doing, so there's a positive outcome with that. But the thing is, the $26 million is only probably enough to do one of the islands."
For future generations, the outlook is bleak, as Mau Power is all too aware. The rapper says the other big change in his life, apart from prison, was the recent birth of his two daughters - but hip-hop could prove the ideal conduit to pass knowledge on to them.
"When you look at the connection that hip-hop has as a culture, you have to understand that it came from Jamaican roots as well, but it was also a culture that derived from a lot of Indigenous cultures," he says. "And this is why it fuses so well.
"The core of what hip-hop started out as was to be a vessel for 'the fifth element', which is knowledge. Everything that you did was to gain knowledge and everything that you did was to pass on a story, capture a piece of time and educate, re-educate future generations to come. You transfer that over to an Indigenous culture - Torres Strait culture - we document and keep stories and time pieces through songs and dance, artwork, capture these stories. The similarities are there - and that's why hip-hop fuses so well. As a medium to reach the younger generation, it only makes sense that it fits perfectly."
Mau Power is also making the transition from the rock and reggae that has spearheaded Australia's Indigenous music scene, to the hip-hop that so many Aboriginal artists now choose as a mode of expression and protest. On his song "Freedom", he has bridged the genre and generational gap by collaborating with Aboriginal country music legend Archie Roach. The result recalls the 1980s anthem "We Have Survived" by fabled Aboriginal rock band No Fixed Address.
"I'm a huge fan of No Fixed Address and everybody knows 'We Have Survived'," says Mau Power. "'Freedom', with the line 'we have survived' does pay homage to all the people like No Fixed Address, Bart Willoughby, Archie Roach and the ones that were the pioneers that started the whole Indigenous music movement, back with rock, rock-reggae. These are the people that made it possible for people like me to do what I'm doing. So it really was an honour to be able to work with Archie Roach on this song."
Patriots who proudly call Australia "the lucky country" are easily mocked because they are taking social critic Donald Horne's original quote out of context: "Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck." However, Roach says Australia truly is a lucky country, since it has not one but two Indigenous cultures - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander - and his collaboration with Mau Power shows "they can come together in powerful union".
Mau Power has also formed a powerful union with album producer Mike Justice, forgoing his own formidable production skills that are based on the mechanical engineering Mau Power learnt at the University of Southern Queensland just before he was jailed.
"It's all mathematics," says Mau Power. "But for this particular album I stepped away from sound engineering completely so I could just focus on being an artist and write. Mike is a great producer and the music that he built around me is all me, he just found the elements to be able to fuse it together. And between him and Ben from Beat Tank productions it worked well.
"If you have a really good team and a formula that works then that's when it clicks. And we spent a lot of time on this album - the longest I ever spent on a project - and the sound was very important because I wanted to have something that would resonate 20, 30 years after."
The album is a high-quality piece of work that should easliy make the transition from generation to generation. It also shows the huge transition Mau Power has made, from street-fighting felon to a role model for his people. Music therapist Michael Viega says hip-hop has the ability to transform suckers into successes by taking them on a "hero's journey". In the classic narrative of "the hero's journey" a protagonist who is somehow lacking is equipped with special weapons and embarks on a journey of transformation, conquering their demons and emerging a superhero.
"It's funny you say that, because that's what hip-hop DOES," says Mau Power, who has run hip-hop workshops with disadvantaged youths across the country.
"It gives you that sense of certainty, where you go from having nothing to being high off everything: 'I AM Mau Power.' It gives me a definite purpose. That's what it does. It's like, someone, it could be Jack Smith, John Smith, and then all of a sudden they're like emcee-something and it allows you to be whoever you want to be."
From that perspective, the biggest change in Mau Power's life may well have been hip-hop.
Buy the album here. Read the full interview transcript below.
Video: Mau Power Island Home - Official Music Video. POWERNATION.
Below is the transcript of the full interview conducted at The Metro Hotel in Sydney on March 7, 2014, in which Mau Power talks about his Aria-award-winning grandfather Seaman Dan, his family's roots, the meaning of his name, his lead single "My Island Home", racism on the internet, his live show featuring a traditional dancer, the importance of transforming knowledge into action, his traditional language Kala Lagaw Ya and much more...
Your new song Transitions of Life says: "I've been through many stages in my life, seen so many changes day and night". Tell us about those stages.
The whole 'Transitions Of Life' was I was trying to capture points of my life growing up, especially around the music. Also the negative turns, from the area, the situation that I was living in, you're exposed to more what people would say is the negative rather than the positive, so things like alcohol, drugs, violence and all that, but to us this was normal, because this was all we saw, we didn't see anything outside of that.
On Horn Island?
On Horn Island, yep, and in the Torres Strait Islands when you're surrounded, it's seductive when it's around you all the time. But travelling throughout my life with music taking me different places, I just saw different views, you know? It changed my view and I ultimately had to change myself so I could fit that mode, and those are the transitions of life, yeah. Now there are two major points that I highlight in that song. One - I call them the crucible moments - was in 2001 I got incarcerated, and that time I was in lock-up for nine months.
What did you get incarcerated for?
So actual bodily harm?
Yes, yes, grievous bodily harm.
Fighting in the street?
Yeah - yeah, it was fighting in the street.
In Toowoomba actually.
What happened? Do you mind talking about it?
Ah yeah, well, it was, it was a whole story of things but a lot of venting was involved with that. The fight - it was a series of fights really. All happened from back up home all leading up to one particular fight, which I got charged for and they just looked at my whole history and my rap and then said it's time for you to go.
Because of your rap?
No, not the rap! My whole history rap, my criminal history.
Your rap sheet?
My rap sheet, yes. So most of us were always fighting, fighting that we did - it was just, erm, at that time, the er, you could call it the tough man syndrome or, that was what it was, put up on as a young person that you - that fighting is proving your toughness and I didn't know that outside of the areas that I was living in it was viewed differently what fighting was, people would get in blues all the time where I come from. But down in mainland Australia it's not anything that's normal.
It's a macho culture on Horn Island or the Torres Strait Islands?
It's macho everywhere, I've now been able to see that. The areas that I was living in in the Torres Strait, there are areas like that everywhere in Australia. I was over in Canada and I was in areas like that. In places similar to where I lived, in the low socio-economic, you know, crowded houses, everywhere similar to this, this is where you get what poverty breeds. When you're not having much opportunity, this is what happens, when you're put in environments like that.
It's a way of gaining status in a way, isn't it, when you can't do it through money?
Yeah, well, yeah. Absolutely. We would, as young kids, sit down and I'd talk amongst my friends and we would actually boast about people we knew who, we'd call them 'the hit men'. The hot ones who were always good at the fighting. We'd watch all this violent stuff all the time and it was entertainment for us. But going back to the two crucible moments, there was one when I was locked up - I was locked up for nine months - and, one, it took away a time of my life that I won't get back, but the positive thing was it actually gave me that time to sit down and reflect and think about where I was heading, what I was doing, where I wanted to be, how I was going to get there, what would happen if I was to continue down the road that I was on. And I made that choice when I was locked up that, you know, music is my outlet, that's where I've got to go. So I planned...
Did you do any music while you were in prison?
I wrote a lot of ideas about what I wanted to achieve when I got out, this is what I want to do, this is where I want to head, constructed when I was in lock-up.
Did they make you work while you were in there?
Yeah, you had the option - you could work if you wanted to. And you would get paid a little bit more, so it made sense to work in there. It was, like, $29 a week, for doing, erm, cleaning stuff. Cleaning out all the offices and the head offices of all the screws and everything. But it was OK for bargaining, that amount of money, so that's what happened and then in nine months I got released, 16 days before my 21st birthday. I came out at just the right time. One of my songs that I did on my mixtape leaked.
'Homeboys', yes, you've done your research man! [Laughs]. So 'Homeboys' had leaked and it was floating around the Torres Straits, floating around in Cairns and also a few people had passed it around in Brisbane, so with the buzz on that I thought this is it, then! I'm gonna continue on with this. At that time I was considered 'the' rapper from the Torres Strait, the only one that was doing it, actually performing, putting stuff on CDs and performing outside of the Torres Strait. That happened. In 2005, I joined up with a crew of like-minded young people - One Blood Hidden Image was the band that came out and we smashed it, we came out from a remote area. I think it happened at such a fast pace that we came out and it was the rap group and in the Torres Strait and Indigenous area of Cairns and the Torres Strait, we changed the whole view of how rap could move from just rapping into actually doing something creative in kind of lining up the career aspects. That's what we did, we changed that. YouTube was just coming out, so we hit up YouTube and were one of the first groups to do a YouTube video. One of the songs, called 'Coolies', had almost 50,000 hits to date. But it was pretty cool at that time because a lot of people had an interest in Indigenous hip-hop music and I was able to absorb a lot of what the industry turned out. The second crucible moment I speak about in that song about changes in life is in the third person, not too much in detail, but I drop elements of it throughout my whole album. In the third verse I speak about becoming a father. I drop a couple of lines about looking back at where my life was. The third verse was it starts off: 'My transitions in life right now it's looking nice, I paid the price to bring justice to the mike my book of rhymes, diary of the life, left my music to tell my seeds what their daddy was like.' So the first two verses are telling them, this is who I was, and this from now on is who I am. That's what the whole album embodies and that's what that song sings about. So those are really the two particular moments that were the big changes and had a big effect.
Incarceration and the birth of your daughters?
You've got two daughters?
Just born very close together?
Yes, 18 months apart.
Yes, but I'm loving that, it's keeping me busy [laughs].
So, TSI people often have diverse roots - tell us about yours, you sang about them with your grandfather Seaman Dan on "Ailan man" - they're from Jamaica?
And where else?
Erm, the Polynesian islands area, Cook Islands. So our bloodline comes from there, the Cook Islands, Niue island, Jamaican heritage, so the seafaring culture's a real... like Torres Strait Islanders define that we are a group of Melanesian people, you know, and all the islands - South Sea, Polynesian, they're real intertwined, the trade routes, we have a trade routes system up there and then that's where all the cultures crossed paths.
So you had Jamaica then the Cook Islands, then Indigenous Torres Strait roots?
Yep, Papua New Guinea, a melting pot isn't it? [Laughs].
You've stressed your connection to the ocean in song. Tell us about your two years as a crayfisherman and visiting all the Torres Strait islands.
No no, I was working on Sea Swift, that was an export shipping company and that was for two to three years and I visited every island. Right now with my job that I do with My Pathway as a job services provider I also still visit all the islands. But crayfishing was my first introduction to working as a sole trader, a businessman. I was 13 and my father, he was a fisherman and he's still a fisherman today. He used to come and say why don't you go crayfishing with us, then? So I signed up, did all the ABNs [Australian Business Numbers] and everything to be working for myself at that age and got an understanding of what it was like to be a workman and stuff.
It must be pretty unusual for someone to visit all the Torres Strait Islands.
The Torres Strait Islands collectively, there are about 270-plus. Seventeen of those are inhabited. And the thing is, with the Torres Strait Islanders, we all have - today - bloodlines to all of the islands, all clusters in the region, so we're interconnected to all the islands. That is actually what the title of One Blood Hidden Image was. We sat down, the group - there were five of us, One Blood Hidden Image, the hip-hop group, which was my band at that time, which I turned into my record label. The guys that we had on there was Josh Mills, Damian Fugee, Leroy Uwang, Dane Naua and myself. Later on we had Troy Kirk and Danny Buni be a part of that - and Daniella Williams. But the original five, we all represented each of the Torres Strait clusters. So I would represent the top west, which is the Boigu, Saibai, Dauan. Damien would represent the near-western, which was Mabuiag, Kubin, St Pauls and Badu - that's where our bloodlines run from, but through our grandfathers I also have roots to the near-western as well. The central region was Josh Mills, the Mills family, that's where they came from. The eastern region was Dane Naua, he would comes from the Murray Island sector but I have ties to that sector as well through my grandfather as well - Dandi and Murray - through the passing bloodlines, so you see we were all a part of the whole, our connection of the roots and the idea behind it was we have one bloodline with no one image. So that is what we said, each one of us sitting around the table were all connected either through a cultural connection or a family connection, so we shared the same bloodline - One Blood, Hidden Image. So that was the title and it stuck then.
What was your main observation from visiting all of those 17 inhabited islands?
My main observation was the family, kinship, the connection. When I come to an island, first I - even though I've got blood ties from there - I must pay respect to the traditional owners who live on that island. They always say that you have blood ties from here as well, so when we come they always greet you, they tell you, this is your family, they give you that knowledge. So what it did, it opened up my mind that I could travel to all these islands and I would never be lost, because I have family everywhere, I always have a home. And that's the Indigenous culture as a whole, we always feel, if there's anybody from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, wherever they travel, they always have a home. So when I come down here I have friends who are family down here and some of them will be at my show tonight, who live in Sydney, so I always have a house, so that was the thing that opened up my mind to it. The other was the remote struggles that we live in. Where I was on Horn Island and Thursday Island, that was considered the harbour to Torres Strait, we were facing a lot of problems, but it would be five to 10 times worse in the outer islands, because of the lack of resources and so on. That's what I saw and it opened up my mind - especially when the younger people, who follow the music, they were treating me first like a big brother but also someone who made it kind of thing, so I was like, 'OK, now I've got to be this role model to actually show them this can actually go somewhere.'
Your song "Tell Me Why" was a tribute to the brother of a member of your crew who died after interaction with police - tell us about that.
Ah yes, yes, that was "Tell Me Why", one of our first songs. One of the members, Josh Mills, his older brother...
Nathan, yes, he got - you've really done your research on this, man! [Laughs]. You've really dug deep on this. Yeah, Nathan, he passed away by an accident that happened in a cop chase. A car chase. And that had a big impact, especially for us of that generation, because that was one of the big brothers, you know, he always looked after everybody. And when that happened, it affected everybody that was in the group. This happened before we were a group. Everybody in the community of Thursday Island was affected by that. In hip-hop or in that lifestyle, when someone passes on, you let the memory live on and the way we do that is we have the shirts printed up with their names on, we tag their names up on the walls and we make music that reflects our hurt but also keeps their name alive. in doing that we, er - because at that time before Joshua and I connected to do this group, he believed in his younger brother so much then, so it was like a - what do you say - like, we had to do that song, you know, in respect for that big brother, because he knew that we were going to do this before we knew it, he could kind of see that. You get people like that, and it was a loss, a heavy loss, so we made that song in his memory.
You've talked about the interweaving of your culture and hip-hop culture. Do you think hip-hop is a lifeline for Indigenous culture?
In a way, yes, in a way you can say that. I was watching - I don't know if you've seen it - [Ice T's hip-hop documentary] The Art Of Rap.
Ice-T? Grandmaster Caz? He said a line and I quote him on this line, he said, he was speaking about hip-hop how back in the days we used to dig through our mothers' and fathers' crates and we took old funk and jazz records like, you know, John Coltrane and James Brown and re-vibed, breathed new life into that music that was phasing out. So he said, and I quote: 'Hip-hop didn't invent anything, but it re-invented everything.' And that was a dope line for me and when you look at the connection that hip-hop has as a culture, you have to understand that it came from Jamaican roots as well and the culture itself, it was born out of oppression at that time, but it was also a culture that derived from a lot of Indigenous cultures, so the living and the teachings of the culture - I'm talking about hip-hop as the culture - has similarities that can relate to any other culture that it comes across - any ethnic culture. And this is why it fuses so well. Now I'll give you an example in the Indigenous culture in Australia, Indigenous Australian culture, the core of what hip-hop started out as was to be a vessel for the fifth element, which is knowledge. And in dealing with knowledge, it passes on in storytelling and the art of movement, art of rapping, everything that you did was to gain knowledge and everything that you did was to pass on a story, capture a piece of time and educate, re-educate future generations to come. They modelled the emcees, or the rappers, the rapper-poets, on the meaning of what the 'griot' was.
Yeah, from West Africa.
Oh, you know - yeah, the West Indies. They were the knowledge keepers - those guys could do the singing, the dancing, you know, poetry, plays and all of that - that was that particular person and this was what became the art of emceeing and also the art of hip-hop in the rap format. You transfer that over to an Indigenous culture - Torres Strait culture - we document and keep stories and time pieces through songs and dance, artwork, capture these stories. The similarities are there. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is one of the oldest living cultures in the world. So these elements were there and they were documented - this is how we passed on our knowledge, passed on our story, the cycle of life. As we say, life and learning is a circle - and that's why hip-hop fuses so well - and as a medium to reach the younger generation, it only makes sense that it fits perfectly. I didn't start out aiming to do that - fusing - so I could teach the next generation about the stories. I just did it because it was a way that I could keep my cycle of learning and my cycle of culture alive for me. And in turn it did that for younger generations as well.
You sing about transitions and hip-hop is a transitional or transformational genre of music. Therapists say it's the ideal genre for music therapy - you use hip-hop to work with kids - tell us about it.
Absolutely. It's because hip-hop, when it was beginning, when it was in its infancy, it was a way to express yourself, self-expression without judgement. It was in an art form that anybody from any background, any walk of life could come in together and share. To a young person who has restrictions on things they can express, this is the outlet. You can see how it can attract anybody. The young people, once they're able to break out of their shell and express themselves, that's when you can open up a relationship between generations. I could say they're the next generation, you know the young bloods, the future, but through the art and language of hip-hop we can all relate on a level where we're on the same level - and that's what hip-hop does.
Given your people's connection to the ocean and the Great Barrier Reef, what do you make of the plans to expand Abbot Point coal terminal into the world's biggest coal terminal and dump silt on the Great Barrier Reef, because Tony Abbott has been given permission to do it.
Permission from who?
From the Marine Parks Authority.
No, permission from who? Marine Parks... that area's traditionally owned by people who are the original owners of Australia, so they didn't get permission.
Sure, well, the colonists didn't get permission to take the country in the first place.
Exactly, so that's a whole messed up situation.
The coral cover on the Barrier Reef has halved since 1985.
Yes, I've worked in radio and I've found out all these facts, you know the mining of our natural resources only kills the Earth that we live on. The world today has become reliant on these natural resources, you know, these energy forms, so that it's become a way of life. You take away electricity, everybody will be so lost if you take away any technology. The price that we pay is that we kill the very place that we live in. For him to do that, I mean, the government is always one of the strongest structures or bodies that will always be doing what they think is best for the people, but doing it their own way, at the expense of the future of our natural park, an icon that predominantly identifies Australia. You know when you speak of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is what it is, you know. The connection to ocean, you know, right now we just went through a whole sea claim in the Torres Strait region. So we claimed back the boundaries in the Torres Strait region of our sea areas, you know, we have the land titles and the sea titles, that's all happening right now. Our connection to sea is how the, er - Aboriginal American, or Native American brothers and sisters have their connection to the land, or Aboriginal brothers and sisters here in Australia have their connection to the land, we have our connection to the sea, it's our way and our life, we were seafaring people from the beginning, you know, we have Melanesian roots, we identify our existence by the way of sea, our totems come from the sea. The Great Barrier Reef BEGINS with Murray Island, you know, so, knowing that, what's happening is very disappointing. It's like, here we go again - another form of pillage that's going to happen to the country.
You're also a broadcaster and on one of your shows Warren Entsch expressed his disappointment at failing to get funding for sea walls amid increasing king tides in the Torres Strait.
Yes! [Laughs]. You heard the radio show?! Where did you get that?! [Laughs].
Just the other day I just downloaded it.
Ha ha - wow!
Tell us about the sea walls and the king tides.
Ah, man. The effect that it's having is erosion's happening on these islands, you know. There was a movement back in the 1950s, people and families from Saibai Island moved to the tip of Australia to a community called Bamaga. They actually moved to a place - that region was owned by the Aboriginal people of the Cape, but through cultural customs they negotiated and they were given this area to get established on and it was called Bamaga. The Saibai people moved there because at that time they predicted that tides would inundate this island and it would affect our way of living - it would affect our water resources. That was in the 1950s, early 1950s. Today, the sea levels are still rising, islands are getting inundated. That island, Saibai, is one of the major targets - the top western region, Saibai and Boigu and the central islands - because it's so coralled and sandy cays. We just, actually, last week through my work, My Pathway, we had a meeting with, erm, a couple of people who came up and were talking about the same sea walls, the building and construction of the sea walls and the rising tides, as well as the funding within the Torres Strait Island regional area, at a whole community forum. So with that, the sandy cay areas, erosion's happening, so what happened was when they designed the original - this is how the information goes - when they designed the original sea wall, there wasn't enough research back then for them to see the rising tides. How the flow of the water works is - especially around the central region - is when they sweep away, the tides will come in a certain area depending on the season of the year, they will sweep away a certain amount of sand, but deposit it in another area of the island. And then when the seasons change again they would have to do that, so they would be recycling that sand in particular areas, when nothing would be lost. It would actually deposit more sand back into that area than anything else that it had taken away. But when they built sea walls it disturbed the flow of how the sea would deposit back the sand, so it would take away but not put back. So that's what happened that started the erosion. Now today they're still having discussions about the development of the sea wall. I know the government of the day - Warren Entsch - they sanctioned $5 million to have this all roadmapped out to help develop, building the sea wall. And now the local government, the local Torres Strait Island regional council has now been lobbying for the past three, four years for the government to get them to commit to the $26 million that they promised in the beginning to do this sea wall project, which it looks like they will be doing, so there's a positive outcome with that, that's going to happen over the next couple of years. But the thing is, the $26 million is only probably enough to do one of the islands. So that's the whole thing around that. And you know...
It could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of having to relocate people and so on.
Yeah, I mean, families have been talking about that, to relocate - but that now is a very sensitive area to discuss, simply because people are connected to that area now. Family, heritage, bloodlines, blood ties, it's like a whole removal of a culture from a place that is vital. It's been discussed, that those are the realities that we're facing - but, you know, it's a discussion that has to keep on going.
When the king tides come in, does it flood farmland?
Not so much farmland, but it does...
People's gardens, yes. On Saibai it actually flooded the whole cemetery, so we could actually pick up the whole cemetery. That's a whole health issue in itself. Not last year, the year before, it was recorded that the highest tide - that was a really high tide then - fell 30cm short of their main water supply. Had it come 30cm more, it would have contaminated that water, so they wouldn't have a water supply. So those are the things that we face up there, a lot of health issues, the dangers of having the main water resource contaminated, and people getting their whole islands washed away.
Archie Roach has said Australia is lucky in that it has two Indigenous cultures, and they can come together in powerful union. Your collaboration "Freedom" on your new album almost seems to be carrying the torch on from No Fixed Address's 'We Have Survived'.
Yeah, yes, yes.
Want to tell us about that collaboration?
Yeah, well No Fixed Address, I'm a huge fan of No Fixed Address and that song in particular, everybody knows 'We Have Survived'. The title of 'We Have Survived', it does pay homage to all the people like Archie Roach, No Fixed Address, Bart Willoughby and the ones that were the pioneers...
You mean your song?
Yep, sorry, 'Freedom', with the line 'we have survived' it pays homage to that, because they are the pioneers that started the whole Indigenous music movement, you know, back with rock, rock-reggae, these are the people that made it possible for people like me to do what I'm doing. Forget hip-hop, I mean music in general throughout Australia. So it really was an honour to be able to work with Archie Roach on this song. The song 'Freedom' was, what I saw was the next generation or phase of what we need to do to come out of this - what's the best way to put it? Well, basically, what I'm saying is freedom is the freedom of conventional slavery, freedom of self, this is what the whole album talks about - about the change of me coming from prison, me coming from alcoholism, me coming from violent areas to change to become something positive for my people, for my community. Freedom speaks about that it plays odes to those before and I say this all the time to all the young people I work with, how our athes and akas - which is our grandfathers and grandmothers - worked with very little education, very hard to give us opportunities. So not to take responsibility to build those obligations for our people is an insult to their work, to their memory. 'Freedom' speaks about freedom from the whole of the system, the government system, the system of just being dependent and being and letting that individual grow and be that leader. That's what I speak about in that song, at the same time paying homage to those who have come before us. Archie came from the Stolen Generation - these people went through the deepest part of what the oppression was. They are the products of that and we are the by-products of the effects it had on people like him. But music brought us through it - you know, it saved his life and he made the opportunities available for people like us to carry on the music whatever our format is, to carry it on for the future generations. I feel, from a hip-hop artist perspective and an Indigenous perspective, that I have an obligation back to my people to make sure that this knowledge or cycle keeps on passing on from generation to generation.
Archie Roach says music saved his life and you say it saved your life as well.
Yes! It literally did save my life. That was my choice in the lock-up, I mean I could have been going in for years, be in the same place as a reoccurring offender, I could have been dead, who knows?
On 'The Come Up' you say "Dangerous is knowledge, so equip my us with danger."
Ace, ace, equip my ace with danger. You refer to your ace as your main person, or I do things by my ace, I do it by myself, number one. Ace, like the card. So, Dangerous is knowledge, so equip my ace with danger, I'm equipping myself with knowledge.
The fifth element [of hip-hop].
The fifth element - exactly. So you've got to equip yourself with knowledge. In doing that - I have to make this statement - I know people who use the term 'knowledge is power', which is half true. Knowledge is potential power, but without action, it is useless. So when I equip myself with danger, when I speak of it in 'The Come Up' I'm talking about the actions that are applied with it, to do what I do. And that's the eternal change in an individual who is searching for something better.
Yeah you've always got to put it into action.
Definitely. You can know how to build the greatest motor vehicle but unless you apply what you know...
Yeah, I see that a lot in people who have a lot of knowledge, but don't do anything with it.
Exactly. This philosophy comes from a person who is one of my greatest idols - Bruce Lee. I grew up with Bruce Lee and I'm a fan because, one, I do mixed martial arts - but not only the martial arts, but the philosophies. Being someone where he came from back in the 1970s to break the mould that he did and set a standard for a minority to create what he did, that's powerful, for any race any ethnic race and his saying, which I quote in 'Let The Horns Blow' is, 'Knowing is not enough - you must apply. Willing is not enough - you must do.' Simple. People will say that's a philosophical saying, but it's not - it's common sense, you know. If you know how to do it, then do it! That's when the manifestation of what you know becomes reality.
On 'The Come Up' you also rap: "The songlines that time keeps reminds me we not only survived but we made it shine nicely. The cost, though, is pricey. Righteous enlighten me. Fortune's gonna tell you, we timed this hit nicely." Talk about that - That's pretty upbeat.
You're aware of the songlines? The cultural passing of knowledge is always the songlines, so the songlines that time keeps reminds me, going back listening to everything that I've been taught through my cultural language, to music that Archie Roach and people like him, No Fixed Address, have performed, reminds me that we've not only survived it today, but we made it shine nicely. I mean, look at all the achievements everybody has done in music. You can look to people like The Last Kinection, Jessica Mauboy, you know, we made it shine nicely. The cost, though, was pricey. I mean, we've had to go through a whole - well, Archie Roach I'm referring back to there, a whole lot of error where they were part of the Stolen Generation and even before that - my grandparents were similar - I had similar circumstances up in the Torres Strait - not to the effect of what they did with the Aboriginal people, but we were in that oppressed area as well. But going back to, you know, a couple of generations before that, they were killing people. They were killing Indigenous people, just because they were Indigenous people, you know. So the cost to get to this point was - we lost a lot. So to, 'Fortune's gonna tell you, we timed - this particular song - I timed it nicely.' Now is the most perfect time for anybody to make a positive change in this land. Now could be whenever you choose now could be. So it could be today, tomorrow, when we say now is the most perfect time for me to make this shine nicely, then you're on your way to making that positive change.
It's getting worse in some ways, in that jailing rates are skyrocketing.
And along with that, a proportional number of deaths in custody.
Yes. It is an alarming rate and you've got to go back to the roots and see - really probe into the cause - why is this happening? These are all the symptoms - well, not the symptoms, but the after-effects of things that happened back when oppression came in. It just gets worse and worse. And if we're not addressing this, then it will just continue to go into a deeper and darker hole. And, you know, with the prison system - well, we can go for days about the prison system, but that area, that's big business, the private corporations - and I know from being incarcerated that I was reduced to a statistic, a number, but I also was - I came with a package, they had money around to house me, so these corporations, they thrive off this. So, in saying that, now the legislations and laws that bring in corporations and the private sector prisons, they put so much around where it's so easy to get pinched these days. We get pinched for nothing, man, I've seen people pinched for petty stuff and they've been incarcerated. There's a lot of money here, man. And once you get into that system, it does something to you, it kills a part of you, a part of you dies. And for Indigenous culture - which is one of the sad things about it - through generations, it then becomes a view that it's a rite of passage, you know. I went down that same track, when I was younger - 'I'm going to get to a certain age and I'm going to fight, you know, I'm going to have to be physical, I'm going to be the man'. You know, if I get locked up, you know, I've seen all the brothers, they've been there before. You come back, they're like 'Ah, yeah, you've been locked up?' I go, 'Yeah, I came on through', you know, it becomes like a rite of passage, which is sad - it shouldn't be.
So that fight in Toowoomba you got into, that was planned?
Not that fight, no. That was a spur of the moment type thing. That was the one that I got caught with. You know, given my previous history and everything, the judge said enough was enough. And you know, with that I took responsibility, it had to happen and I'm glad it happened, because if it didn't happen, who knows what my path would have been.
Regarding private prisons, I was approached by a law lecturer who works in justice reinvestment and she was interested in Indigenous hip-hop as a therapeutic tool that is more effective than prison in preventing crime.
OK, wow. That's interesting, that's great to know that the book [www.realtalkthebook.com] has had that effect and - I mean exactly - putting it into the prisons, that's too late now, if you're trying to change someone's mind, say, who's already there, in that negative area, you're going to have a very difficult time. If you go back to the roots and work out what's happening before you get to that point, that's when you want to address that. It's like anything - even with health, they're putting money into development of dialysis machines and dialysis institutions back in the Torres Strait, extending the hospitals. I'm like, 'You're putting money into a place where the effects have already happened. Now, we're just there to nurse it and slow the process down of the inevitable, instead of putting the money back into the education of how not to get this diabetes and all these things before, the way you're living, before you get to that stage - and that's what you need to do, to be investing in communities.' I think I would like to meet this lady and have a discussion with her. I'm glad that people like her, people like you guys here put these things out, because it needs to be known and if it's not talked about, people don't think about it. And once we're inspired to think and talk and have these discussions, then we can move into places of change and pushing for change.
'My Island Home', the lead single from your new album, was originally written by Neil Murray of Warumpi Band when he was on a bus going home after spending time with lead singer George Rrurrambu on his country. What do you think of the controversy around Neil Murray getting the royalties for that, given that it was Rrurrambu's story?
It's a touchy subject. There's a part of, you know, in... yeah, there's a lot of...
I mean, it's a common thing for non-Aboriginal people to appropriate Aboriginal culture and make profit off it. You can go a couple of blocks from here and see all races selling Aboriginal souvenirs.
You'd have to go back and speak to - well, you can't speak to George right now, or maybe Neil Murray. I mean, maybe in the beginnings or the essence of the song when he wrote it, that wasn't the case. I don't think you write the song in the beginning with the intent of, 'I'm going to make a lot of money off this at someone's expense.' We don't. If someone's life has inspired someone to write a thing then that can change through time. So it's really hard to have a debate about that. If that was the intent at the beginning then we could talk about that. I've got a lot of respect for Neil Murray and I've also got the upmost respect for the legendary Warumpi band. That song was iconic and so the essence of what it was, was based around the story of George because he was about connection to land and to place. That's what made it so powerful. And yeah, so it resonated with everybody and that's why it became a success. And you couldn't predict something like that at the time.
You make a great point there, because whitefella law with the copyright and so on would have kicked in later.
Maybe the record company and all that did it later, but...
But he wouldn't have had that intention - that's a great point.
But like I say, I can't speak for Neil Murray, unless you were there from the very beginning, the foundations.
Your music is very well produced and you've said: "I took what I learnt from my studies in mechanical engineering and applied it to sound engineering.” Tell us about that - is it a visual thing?
Ah, no, the production side of it in sound engineering, it's all mathematics, you know, the oscillation of soundwaves, that's what it is - mathematics. When you work out the foundations and the fundamentals of a delay and effects, it's adding subtracting, multiplying, it's all mathematics and that's why it's sound engineering. You know it's all mathematics - and mechanical, the pushing of the desk. That made having a basic foundation in mechanical engineering, made sound engineering more understandable to me. I could see it and I'm like, 'OK, I see what you're trying to do.' I know what the sound is like, but to see it in a digital format and how to achieve that, it made sense then. That's why it really had a great input into how I came across sound engineering.
Where did you study mechanical engineering?
That was the time I was up in Toowoomba, I was studying there, at the University of Southern Queensland. Then also around that time, I got incarcerated, so I never completed it. But, like I said, it folded over, so that's when I came across sound engineering.
Tell us about your album's producer, Mike Justice.
Mike Justice and Ben Hense from Beat Tank productions, he's the engineer behind all that, he's made it sound awesome and he engineered the hell out of that. And Mike Justice has the ear as a producer for the sounds that were... I met Mike back in 2011.
He's from London right?
Yeah, well, he lived in London, lived in New York, his heritage is Moroccan and from the Caribbean as well, so he's another melting pot of different cultures. He's lived all over the globe, so his ear for the sounds and influences was caused by every day, it was universal. So when I came in and showed Mike a song, I had it from Mau Power's perspective, with the influence of the traditional culture that I know. And he was able to build a whole universal sound around it. And as a producer...
How did you come across Mike?
Through a mutual friend - and he introduced us. Mike at the time, I came across a few of his mixtapes online and we spoke over the phone and I told him about my drive and my passion and it was the perfect time, because when he met me I was going through that change, taking everything that was negative and turning it into something positive - and he had already previously been through that, so he was like a mentor through the whole change. And when I was talking to him I was getting excited and he was getting excited about this sound because we knew that it clicked. Because he knew I knew what I wanted. And for this particular album I stepped away from sound engineering completely so I could just focus on being an artist and write, so I could get other producers to put beats there, other producers to build a sound around me. You know, good producers, they can take a song, a basic song and then make it sound pleasing to the public. Great producers can take a song that you produced, build something around it that has a universal sound and still be uniquely yours. Mike is a great producer and the music that he built around me is all me, he just found the elements to be able to fuse it together. And between him and Ben from Beat Tank productions, they just - it worked well. If you have a really good team and a formula that works then that's when it clicks. And we spent a lot of time on this album - the longest I ever spent on a project - and the sound was very important because I wanted to have something that would resonate 20, 30 years after.
In "Moment of Clarity" on your previous album "Two Shades Of Grey", you rapped: "I see a nation ain't grown up, same issues show up, like reconciliation was nothing but a word." Want to expand on that?
Yeah, we had a Reconciliation, you know, movement - when was it? Back in 2000? A bit later than that. And then it still didn't heal the nation, even the Apology itself. It's going to take a long time for that and Reconciliation is nothing but a word. Racism still exists today. All you have to do is look on YouTube comments and the people - man, I had this discussion with another bala [brother] of mine last night, who's an artist, Alick Tipoti, one of my mentors in a cultural aspect and also with creative arts and the stories that he captures is also what inspires me as well. And we had the same discussion about what, you know, how the world has become this place where doing things politically correctly has suppressed people's way of speaking and produced more closet racists than anything in the world. That's how I see it. I mean, people... Because you can't say things and do things - which is a good thing - but it also suppresses your ability to express the fact that you don't like something, you don't like it. And now people just come up with creative ways to do it online and you get this whole glut of creative ways to downgrade something or someone. And you just think, wow, how do people come up with this stuff? This is how I view it anyway. And a comment, you can't trace it back to the source - I mean, you could if you dug deeply, but you know that gives someone the freedom to just sit behind a desk and just say anything really, and in turn you have to ask yourself do people really think and feel this way about other people, or...
The internet can have a dehumanising effect. It's like when people get in their car - in that protective little metal box - and start tooting at people.
Yeah, so with that track 'Moment Of Clarity', in those lines I particularly speak about Indigenous cultures and how things that are supposed to have changed have not changed. I'm not talking about any particular groups of people, I think people themselves have to change in order for things to heal. Because healing starts within.
You said of 'Two Shades Of Grey': 'There’s this grey area that people don’t touch on. To me, it’s that cloud over that black area where it’s like putting a smoke screen lens over it, where people just don’t want to touch topics under that area, it’s too sensitive.' Tell us about that.
We were just talking about it, you know the internet, things about the sea walls, the Great Barrier Reef, things like this, people know, we know about it, but if you have a sit-down, you listen to people's conversations, what do they talk about?
The weather, what's on TV. We don't really talk about them, but we know that these things are happening. And why isn't it anybody's responsibility to engage in these conversations? I mean, once again it goes back to the individual, they might think it has nothing to do with them, 'I don't need to be a part of this.' You can't change somebody, you can't really say that they're wrong or they're doomed because they feel that, but that's what we're talking about in 'Two Shades Of Grey' - areas where, if you think about it, we just said it. You know when you said it that you were thinking about it, so...
You've said you learnt how to perform live from your grandfather, Seaman Dan. Tell us what tips you picked up.
None of it was his live performance, what I learnt from him was how live performance made people feel. People love live music. Do you love live bands?
I go out all the time.
Yes. I love live music. I don't go out to clubs that much now, it just doesn't provide that atmosphere, but when you've got a live band performing, there's this energy around that atmosphere that - it's just a great place to be in. You know, you feel like you're having a great time and you're inspired and happy, everything that you had Friday morning is now gone by Friday night, you know. All that negative energy. That's what live performance does. An entertainer makes someone feel good about the moment, feel good about themselves in that moment, sings to them, sings FOR them and this is what my grandfather taught me, you know, with all the live performances, that's what stood out. Just local performances and how everybody loved that two, three hours he was performing. Because it was a great time.
You've got a full live band with a dancer right?
Yes, yes, a traditional dancer.
No, this is another cousin of mine from the Torres Strait.
He's flown down with you?
Yes, Joey Laifoo. He's a traditional dancer in his own right. he's one of the people that is a knowledge custodian behind dancing for the Torres Strait. He's got the knowledge in dancing and the practice in dance. He's also an artist and his knowledge behind it is advanced. He is one of the teachers of dance now and he'll pass it on to the next generation.
Your name Mau Power is obviously taken from your surname, but what does your moniker mean to you?
It was a nickname that stuck with me from when I was young. A couple of big older boys just called me Mau Power: 'You've got the power, Mau - Mau Power. That's who you are.' Then it just stuck. Everybody said it. There's been lots of different translations. I know someone over in - I don't know if it's Solomon Islands or Samoa - they say that 'mau' means 'first'. So it's the first power - it's like, I like that - that sounds cool, but the actual origins of it is it was a name that a couple of older brothers gave to me, and it stuck. Right now it has a different meaning to it. When you say Mau Power - it was that young boy who was in that place where there was no opportunity and I was knocking on the wrong door and I turned that around and went somewhere else.
I wouldn't say superhero - I'm just someone that had...
It's been said that in music therapy, hip-hop takes clients on a hero's journey, where they start out defective in some way, and are given special weapons to go on their journey and they conquer their demons and return a superhero.
It's funny you say that, because that's what hip-hop DOES. It gives you that sense of certainty where you go from having nothing to high off everything, I am Mau Power, it gives me a definite purpose, that's what hip-hop does, so I can see how they relate it. That's what it does. It's like, someone, it could be Jack Smith, John Smith, and then all of a sudden they're like emcee something and it allows you to be whoever you want to be.
It's very empowering. Tell us about the saying "Eso".
That means thank you in my language and that's from the western dialect.
And the name of your language is...?
Kala Lagaw Ya.
The KKY language?
There's two, there's Kala Lagaw Ya, and Kalau Kawau Ya - KKY - from the top-west region is another dialect form of the Kala Lagaw Ya language.
And is your language dying?
Erm... [long pause] I think it is, slowly, slowly, you know, getting less and less practised. There are still people who speak it fluently and there's people who still teach it. I speak it to an extent and I also understand it, but it's because the knowledge keepers at the time - they didn't perform to what they were supposed to do in keeping this language alive. Right now everybody's trying to revive it. I think Torres Strait Islanders are in a great position where it hasn't completely been lost. There are still people who speak it, so we can revive it, being how everybody's so close. But, yeah, it is slowly going away but not as fast as what people think it is.
Would you like to take us through any other album tracks?
Lemme think, what do I have? I think you've covered the major ones that really talk about what the album is about. I also have a song with Radical Son. Two actually. One called - erm - the one I wanted to talk about is 'Family Love'. That track, it was a song that I put together which talks about paying respects to our mothers and fathers. You get songs - people put out songs talking about their mum, how much they love their mum, talking about their dad, how much they love their dad, how much they don't love their dad, songs like that, so I wanted to do a song, you know, that's for parents. It's a love of family. The underlying story of the song, or how it was constructed was, for me, being from a very family-oriented culture, these values were instilled in me when I was young and very young as any family does with any child. And as you grow, you tend to forget, eso [to thank], the people that actually give you these teachings of life. You know, your mother, your father, your uncle. In our culture, your uncles and aunties have a bigger role to play in growing us up than our mothers and fathers. It's just how it is, the paternal uncles teach us the ways of living, hunting, gathering. And the maternal aunties - we call them mothers as well - teach the women, so they have a really big, strong role in everything, you know. Your older brothers and your cousins, they really have a role. So this song is really directed at that, you know, to say thank you, eso, I know those things you went through, because when I was locked up, you were locked up with me. And in the end, that's what I say, it's funny how it goes, because then life gives us children of our own. I just look at my daughters now, the teaching that I have taught and now it's passed on to them, the way I grow them up. And in that track I go from being a son to a father, that's what I capture in that track.
And what did Radical Son bring to the album?
Ah Radical Son! He's just a... man - he's an amazing artist. His vocal tones, his energy. I don't know if you've ever heard him speak spoken word poetry. His passion and his knowledge about the art and the culture. He brings that raw, husky voice into that, you can hear that sound through there and when you hear him singing close you can hear the emotion come out of him. He's been a bala [brother] for a long time - I've known him from way back. He also is a good brother, a solid guy. And he's got great musical ability - I was like, I've got to get you on my album.