Rapper Miss Hood speaks out for her sisters

April 25, 2015
Miss Hood: "Females are considered the easy targets."

It's Fatal
Miss Hood
Payback Records
Out now

Hard-hitting rapper Miss Hood comes from a long line of women warriors. Her ancestors, the Kunai and Gunditjmara people of eastern and western Victoria, put female fighters on the frontline.

"Both of the tribes were matriarchal, so women were equal to men," says the Melbourne-based emcee. "It wasn't unusual to have women warriors as well as men warriors."

Little wonder, then, that her music packs such a powerful feminist punch.

"Because hip-hop kind of revolves around 'bitches, hos and money', women seem to unfortunately fall into that category," she says. "Females are considered the easy targets in the hip-hop game. It's given me a chance to stand up for women."

On her high-quality debut album, It's Fatal, the track "Sleazy" comes out swinging against sexists:

Don't try to squeeze me
And the pickup lines you use they sound so sleazy
Just cos I'm dressed this way tonight don't mean I'm easy
And I'm tired of that constant womanising
Just look into my eyes and tell me you ain't frightened

Video: Sleazy - Meriki Hood.Bunjil Music Business Project.

"I think this has happened to nearly every girl out there," she says. "You know, she just wants to go out with her friends, so she decides to get dressed up and there will always be one or two men that are there just like practically grinding on her and she's just not given any personal space. 'Look at how you're dressed, obviously you want it.'

"I've had that happen so many times and I'm not even wearing revealing clothes at the time. To still have that kind of attitude on women — it was just one of those moments when I was just angry and put it to paper."

From an early age, the young Meriki Hood found a therapeutic outlet in music.

"Music and art were just always a part of who I was," she says. "Even at a really, really young age I knew that was something that I wanted to pursue. I took up piano lessons when I was about seven. I would do dance routines and perform them at school or if there were talent shows on."

But although her people are matriarchal, it was her late Aboriginal father — rather than her Australian mother — who really empowered her.

"When he passed away she was just one of those really interesting characters that realised she doesn't like Aboriginal people," she says of her mother. "I think she was so heartbroken by the relationship breaking up that anything to do with my father, including his culture that she connected with, she just started to dislike."

Her father, Terry Hood, was a member of the stolen generation who grew up on Lake Tyers mission near Bairnsdale, Victoria.

"You could tell it took its toll on him, which is why he was so passionate to help people in the community," says the rapper.

Her father helped raise seven foster children on top of his own nine, as well as helping establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Victorian Aboriginal Childcare Agency and the Aboriginal Koorie Open Door Education School at Glenroy. It was a remarkable comeback from bad beginnings.

"His past was pretty hard," says the emcee. "A lot of bad things happened to a lot of those kids on the missions. They suffered for years. You could see it in their eyes."

The missions sought to discourage tribal ritual and culture - a particularly sore point for Terry Hood, as his young daughter discovered.

"When I was seven years old I made up this story that I had a school project — I wanted to learn about history and culture even that young. I remember running up to him and saying, 'Dad, we've got a school project — how do we speak our language? How do I say "fish" in Kunai and how do I say "hunting", or how do I say "hello" and things like that?'

"I remember watching my father's face just drop and then seeing him cry. That was the first time I saw my father cry. I was angry with myself, because deep down I think I should have known better. Something told me not to do it, but I wanted to know so badly.

"Even today none of the elders can actually speak full Kunai language. A lot of it, unfortunately, is lost. My goal is to do a song in traditional language to let my father know that our culture never really died, or we can revive it."

Miss Hood: "My goal is to do a song in traditional language."

The rapper is living proof that her language can be revived. Her birth name, "Meriki", means "night bird" in language.

"Lately I've had a lot of owls following me around," she says. "Whenever I go on one of my night walks I'll find they just come in close to look into my spirit and then take off again. The Kunai people were actually known for magic. We had a strange understanding with the environment and animals."

Her other people, the Gunditjmara, had a better understanding of the environment and animals than most. They developed the world's oldest known aquaculture system, dispelling the convenient myth that all Aboriginal people were nomadic. A fierce warrior people, they were also known as "the fighting Gunditjmara", yet colonial diseases had claimed many of them before they even had a fighting chance against the encroaching Europeans.

On the track "Struggling", Miss Hood raps:

Why is the world so cold? Caught in a war zone with no place to go
Who'd have thought a battlefield we once called our home
Is scattered with the remains and the blood of our own
It's tragic, feels like we've been here before
It's a pain that cuts so deep it scars your soul

Video: Miss Hood ft Cee Cee (beat by Johnny Mac) - Struggling. Payback Records.

"When 'settlement' came and the sacred lands and sacred sites became covered in the blood of the innocent, it definitely tarnished the energies," says the rapper.

"We're still struggling today. 'Pain that cuts so deep it scars your soul' is like, if you torture a family bloodline for five or six generations, and in the seventh generation a newborn is brought into this world, it's almost like the pain in that child's eyes is no different than that of people that suffered before. It's something on that person, that child's spirit, where they know something happened that hurts — and they can't fix it."

In 1846, Henry Meyrick — a squatter in Gippsland, Victoria — wrote in a letter to his relatives in England: "The Blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with."

Hypocritically, many of the women were slain in a proclaimed act of chivalry by an armed party hunting for a white woman supposedly held by Aboriginal people. The motive was questioned after no such woman was ever found.

The slaughter continues. The same track, "Struggling", opens with a sample about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

"Deaths in custody was always another thing that was important in the Aboriginal community that we also had to go through, and the track itself was we're struggling, just keep going, let's not their deaths be in vain," says Miss Hood.

Today, Australia has the dishonour of being the country that jails the highest proportion of its Indigenous female population in the world. Aboriginal women are 17 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal women. It's a statistic the rapper is all too familiar with, having worked in the Dame Phyllis Frost women's correctional facility by teaching music as a therapeutic form of healing and self-expression.

"It doesn't help that half of them are my family," she says. "I saw a lot of my family in there that I didn't realise were actually in prison. A lot of it's for simple things like unpaid fines or breaching parole, really. The sentences are a lot more severe.

"Unfortunately that's now the backlash that I'm expecting from closing off remote communities that's happening under Tony Abbott's new 'lifestyle choices'."

In March, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott shrugged off the decision to close 150 Western Australian remote Indigenous communities, saying the taxpayer should not have to fund people’s “lifestyle choices” — despite the fact such people have lived on their ancestral lands for tens of thousands of years.

Miss Hood says: "Realistically, no one's going to want to deal with them in the local community or in the suburbs."

Miss Hood's album is named It's Fatal in a tribute to her all-girl group, Fatal Attraction.

She has seen first-hand the benefits of Aboriginal people living on their ancestral lands, having run workshops in remote communities — including a particularly memorable time at Finke in the Northern Territory.

"Their fitness level was insane," she marvels. "If you do dance routine workshops you've usually got to really stretch and get ready, but these kids are all running around and they're good to go, basically.

"We were watching them do flips and cartwheels off high things, firewood — if you went and did that you'd break your leg or do something insane, but they were fine.

"It's Third World conditions. It's not unheard of for them to not eat for a day. The water isn't the cleanest, but they're amazingly strong human beings. They wear a smile on their face all day, while half of them are starving. But they are still extremely fit.

"Traditionally, with the whole hunting and gathering systems, they're a lot stronger than most and they suit the climate a lot better than us."

The ever-hotter climate hit with full force when Miss Hood travelled to Brisbane to protest and perform at the G20 summit in November last year.

"The weather was CRAZY," says the rapper. "It was just really, really hot. It took a little bit for my body to acclimatise to it. It was SO humid! There were times when we'd be marching in 40 degree heat a bit of a distance, yelling and walking. In heat like that you do get pretty exhausted really quickly, but the rallies were all really peaceful.

"It was just a great experience, I met a lot of good people along the way and got into a couple of traditional sacred sites, which was amazing. Got a few Dreamtime creation stories as well. It was powerful stuff. To be there with all the elders and helping the Brisbane community and spreading word to all the other Indigenous communities from around Australia was awesome.

"We were camping at Musgrave Park and there would have been about 40 of us in tents and it just had a really good sort of community feel. They had sacred fires going and we got to sleep under the stars. It was almost like a bush camping experience, just in Brisbane. Jumping on stage was awesome as well — pulled in a good crowd of people."

The links between protest and hip-hop have been all but broken as the genre has become commercialised. However, Miss Hood serves up a powerful reminder not only by performing at protests, but also in the lyrics of her album's lead single, "Stronger":

This was a freedom of speech for the people
To voice our opinions till we're treated as equal
Political stature, let me soar like an eagle
Ain't the end of me yet, see me at the next sequel

Video: Marngrook Xtra: Miss Hood - Stronger. MarngrookFootyShow.

"Well, you know, that's where hip-hop originated from," she says.

"When hip-hop started it wasn't about ho's and bitches and blunts. It was associated a lot with the African-American culture — their pain and struggles. And a lot of the African-American rallies and protests actually helped with the Indigenous protests over here, too. We have so much in common, from being punished for the colour of our skin, to the enslavement of our people. Not to mention the stolen land and children of the Native Americans and First Nation People — we have all suffered, but music brings us all together. Even the whole Black Panther movement, they also had a small association with the Aboriginals down here."

One of those Aboriginal activists was Gary Foley, who is sampled on Miss Hood's album. The renowned historian has said that the older he gets, the more he is struck by the parallels between racism and sexism. It's a fact that isn't lost on another Aboriginal woman warrior who was also at the G20 protests — Miss Hood's cousin, Meriki Onus.

"We've been confused a lot," says Miss Hood. "She's one of the leaders of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. I'm always in the media for music and she's always in the media for protests, so a lot of people get us mixed up and confused and we've just been kind of going with it, like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm Meriki.'"

She laughs.

Meriki Hood is keeping the traditional names alive. Her 10-year-old daughter is better known by the rap-referencing name Lyrik, but her Aboriginal name is Molang Merie, meaning "eye of the storm". It just so happens that when Molang Merie's father first set eyes on Miss Hood, a storm was brewing.

"I'd just turned 18," says Miss Hood. "It was my birthday and I was getting to spend my 18th birthday on stage. Then I met him and it was like one of the movies."

She laughs.

"I was on stage performing and this big gust of wind just blew through my hair and it just looked like something out of a romance film. I remember his eyes just meeting mine while I was just singing and rapping and he just couldn't stop staring at me.

"He turned around to his younger brother and said, 'You know that girl on stage, I'm going to have her, she's going to be mine forever, you watch.'"

Her admirer, the Aboriginal rapper and producer Johnny Mac, is her "soul mate and best friend". They have been inseparable ever since, though they were tested early on.

"We'd only been together for about three months when I'd fallen pregnant and that in itself was a big shock. I was on the pill at the time, so it was pretty terrifying. And I was offered a deal by an American friend who wanted to fly me to Los Angeles and I'd already recorded a couple of tracks. His friend had a label that was interested in me and that was like a dream come true, I was only 18 and like, 'Fuck, is this really happening to me?' Then to find out I was pregnant it was like, 'Arggghh.'

"Johnny Mac really, really wanted a child, so we went with his dream. I've been trying to hold on to my dream ever since, too."

A promising career derailed by motherhood is still an all-too-familiar story — and the struggle against sexism continues in the hip-hop industry for all women. Miss Hood says her all-girl group, Fatal Attraction, was also derailed by motherhood after one of the members, Renee Sweetness, fell pregnant. Another member, Cee Cee Honeybee, then decided she wanted to go solo.

Miss Hood with her all-girl group, Fatal Attraction.

Miss Hood says the title of her album is a reference to the disbanded group.

"It's Fatal is a tribute for my girls out of Fatal Attraction," says Miss Hood. "We won a couple of awards. We were nominated for a few others. We'd put in so much hard work and effort that it'd be a shame to let it go to waste.

"My own personal experiences are, if you're a guy, you seem to get everything handed to you in this music industry. If you're female, you will get things handed to you if you're willing to put out for it.

"That was the whole thing with Fatal Attraction — I was trying to actually accomplish females uniting and safety in numbers and just educating girls who are trying to come up in this industry about what some record labels or managers can be like and it's OK to say no, you don't have to put yourself out there like that to get where you want to be. You might have to work 10 times harder and it might take you a little longer — because the quicker you come up in this game, the quicker you will disappear — but you don't have to completely demolish your dignity to pursue your dreams.

"We'd done so much good work and I didn't want those amazing tracks to just fall on deaf ears. Both my girls, Renee and Cee Cee, wanted to do solo stuff, so I just did the next best thing and asked what they thought about me having those songs on my album to still promote them as solo artists and make sure that the hard work wasn't going to go to waste. And the girls were really keen on that idea."

Miss Hood and Cee Cee Honeybee both appeared in the reality television talent contest X Factor — a move Miss Hood made with her eyes wide open.

"Yeah, for me it was just publicity," she laughs.

"I guess I was curious to see how fake the television industry can be, when it comes to talent shows like that. I knew a lot of it was fake, but the storyline they used wasn't about empowering women or representing Indigenous culture or anything of real value.

"X Factor used a badly-ended relationship between two of the contestants, Fatal Attraction and Lyrical Styles, then played it out like a whole ex-versus-ex sort-of punchline — a media frenzy on just stupid shit."

But some good did come of the experience, when Miss Hood contacted a pair of fellow Indigenous female contestants — the sister act MajikHoney.

"The song that we ended up creating was Kingdom Come and that was amazing. It was mixed and mastered in New York by Tony Dawsey, who's done a lot of other amazing things in the music industry. So that was pretty cool, to work with Tony — and he also said that my voice, my vocal, has a Missy Elliott flavour to it, which was interesting."

It's not the first time Miss Hood has been compared to hip-hop royalty, by hip-hop royalty. Public Enemy's Chuck D has made the same comparison.

"Yeah, Chuck D, he said he really liked my stuff, it kind of reminded him a bit more of the old skool Missy Elliot feel as well. He was very easy to talk to and even gave me a few pointers."

Miss Hood is continuing to put those pointers to good use, lining up a potent set of political tracks for her next album and lighting another feminist fuse with two other Indigenous femcees.

"We're working on a track together," she says. "It features Dizzy Doolan - she's amazing, we were meant to do a track years and years ago, so we're finally doing something - and also my deadly sistagirl Lady Lash. It's going to be powerful, raw music."

She smiles.

"It's all about empowering women and standing together."

Video: Miss Hood ft Cee Cee (beat by DBoy) - Days Are Long. Payback Records.

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