Indigenous rappers are using the political ethos of Hip-Hop to dismantle Australian racism
Indigenous communities have always had a deep connection to the arts, as a form of storytelling, giving voices to shared experiences and to decode and understand history. Music is the main way in which people reflect on their human experiences, whether as a consumer or creator. It’s through the musical art form that trauma, love, celebration, political opinions, oppression, mental health are reflected. As the old saying goes, life imitates art and it’s no truer than in the musical medium of hip-hop.
Hip-hop and rap music was created in the 1970s at New York block parties, where a DJ would manipulate percussion beats of funk, soul and disco songs and a performer would subsequently recite rhymes in order to entice the audience to interact with the DJ and the MC. What started out as a subculture of block parties became the biggest internationally known genre. With early beginnings in feel good territory via catchy and poetic fun infused bars, the genre’s diverse roots, intelligent ecosystem and social/political context fused together to create a genre that was rebellious, brutally honest and politically charged.
It’s with this melting pot of communities that hip-hop had its political awakening and renaissance period, fuelling it to become the genre it is today. This was reflected most by hip-hops first powerhouse act, ‘Public Enemy’, releasing tracks such as “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise”. Then followed N.W.A, the founders of gangster rap, most known for their strong political messaging and brash story telling of America’s West Coast. Fast forward to the 2010’s Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Lil Baby, Childish Gambino, Noname have all become hallmark artists of the hip hop genre, whose magnum opus works celebrate Black art and consciousness, as well as tackling and analysing racial tensions in the USA.
Given the diversification of the Australian music scene artist base, the acceptance of international sounds on Australian national radio and the ease of access to technology in today’s climate, Indigenous artists are taking the mantra of Hip-hop’s golden political and rebellious era and showcasing it through Australia’s mistreatment, genocide and prosecution of First Nations People. White hip-hop has existed in Australia, but it did not channel the original ethos of the genre thematically. Now, the genre’s being fully utilised a renaissance of Australian hip-hop is occurring.
Sonically, the genre aligns with Australia’s rich Indigenous artistic history. Rap music is driven by a strong percussive pulse, similarly to First Nations culture, where driving percussive elements are central to Indigenous music for thousands of years. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Barkaa also sees overlaps between the two cultures, stating, “For me, it’s very simple: hip-hop is about pride, culture, oppression and dispossession. These are themes I draw on to hold a mirror back at those that oppress us.” The artform allows for artists to highlight issues affecting them personally and their respective Indigenous communities, in an accessible, thought provoking and attention demanding way.
Waving the Australian Hip-Hop flag properly for the first time was Briggs and his breakthrough project with Trials, A.B Original. Their 2016 LP, ‘Reclaim Australia’ featured boom bap beats, with overstated bars that stood up to the Australian music industry and society as a whole. It suggests that Indigenous communities remain just as disenfranchised then as they had for years. This message still stands.
More recently, Ziggy Ramo is a critical name in Australia’s hip-hop scene. Last year he released a surprise album, titled ‘Black Thoughts’. Across sixteen songs including three interludes, Ramo distills his experiences growing up indigenous in Australia. His anger and hurt is palpable as he generously details his life so far, while taking aim at the systems that have oppressed First Nations people for 230 years. As Ramo said on social media, Black Thoughts is necessary listening for white Australians. It’s rightly uncomfortable, confronting and not meant to be a gentle listen, but it is also powerful, educational and profound. With Black Thoughts, Ramo shares a deeply personal record that elevates him to a formidable artist and storyteller. (Words by Emma Jones, read the full piece HERE)
JK47 is waving the Indigenous flag in a similar way. In 2020, the then 22 year old rapper released his debut LP ‘Made For This’. With the project, he stated he’s “on a mission, looking to touch the minds and hearts of the Nation and the world.” Sonically the record is influenced by 90’s era hip hop, with a focus on space and mood in order to convey his message of unity and personal experience. Across the tracklist he raps about fatherhood, the ongoing struggles of First Nations People and his personal mental health.
While these are three examples of Australia’s hip-hop renaissance, the list is not exclusive to these wonderful artists. Barkaa, Kobie Dee, Nookie, Tasman Keith, Birdz and Dallas Woods are all contributing to Australia’s honing in on the fundamentals and ethos of hip-hop.
Editorial and words on a website can only say and provoke so much, but this moment in Australian music is revolutionary. Having a crop of young Indigenous artists making the most thought provoking and incredible Australian music while unpacking and dismantling our entire colonial system and oppression is more than just powerful, but operates as more than a trend to look out for.
Purple Sneakers’ acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land which we live and work; the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation/Sydney. We pay our respects to elders – past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded.
Words by PARRY TRITSINIOTIS