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Strength & storytelling: The Indigenous hip hop voice is getting louder

Originally published on Pulse.

You wanna be as good as me, boy you better practice / Step back feel the power of my blackness

Draped in the Aboriginal flag and catching his breath after an epic dance break, Danzel Baker raps the strong hook to his debut single ‘Cloud 9’ to close out his set at One Day for Sydney’s Red Bull Music Academy Weekender. Though still early, crowds are jolted into gear by the energy of this fresh hip hop talent from Arnhem Land known as Baker Boy, who, for the first time ever, has cracked the mainstream music circuit rapping in the language of his home, Yolngu Matha.

A few nights earlier in the RBMA programme, ‘80s indigenous rock group Coloured Stone play to a packed room at 107 Projects in Redfern, and reprise another powerful lyric, written almost three decades earlier.

Black boy (black boy) / Black boy (black boy) / The colour of your skin is your pride and joy

Though generations apart, from unique tribes on opposite ends of Australia’s vast interior, both artists have used their music to instil confidence and pride in their people.

Baker Boy and his band at One Day, for RBMA Weekender

It should come as no surprise that such confidence is hard won as an Aboriginal Australian; finding self worth and cultural pride in the midst of the continued oppression still faced by Indigenous Australians today is no easy feat. It’s hard enough for anyone to value themselves in the notoriously insecure creative fields, let alone as an Indigenous artist in a country “where we are constantly told that we’re less than,” as Renee Williamson of Koori Radio expresses it. Danzel Baker’s confidence is key to his success—and not to be taken for granted.

Renee, along with Frank Trotman-Golden, co-hosts Koori Radio’s Indij Hip Hop show, providing a crucial platform for both emerging and established Indigenous hip hop artists, broadcasting across Australia and on indigenous stations in Canada and the United States. Renee is a Murri - an Aboriginal nation group from the Gulf of Carpentaria, whilst Frank is a Koori from north-west New South Wales. Drawn together through love of hip hop and desire to advocate for Indigenous artists, they now live in Sydney, broadcasting weekly from Redfern. In different ways, Frank, Renee and Danzel are all extremely significant motivators in pushing Australia’s growing Indigenous hip hop industry forward.

Bunna Lawrie of Coloured Stone at 107 Projects for RBMA Weekender

When Frank and Renee were discovering hip hop in the ‘90s, the Australian scene was small and emerging - the Indigenous one even smaller. Music lovers like the pair were forging a genre for themselves, crate digging and creating music in completely new territory. Now Frank and Renee feel privileged to be able to support a new generation of Indigenous hip hop artists who have grown up with the genre - and improved on it. “There’s a high level of talent and skill coming through at a much younger age,” says Renee. “It’s like they’re hip hop native,” she quips, re-purposing the ‘digital native’ concept applied to 21st century children.

Danzel is one such example. It may have been the Indigenous Hip Hop Projects which gave him his first big opportunity, but it was Danzel’s family - a famously musical one - which instilled in him a love of hip hop, of dancing, and an inherent sense of rhythm. “I pretty much learned everything from my dad,” he acknowledges. “My dad was the first Baker Boy, he taught me dancing and he raised me dancing alongside of him. He introduced hip hop to me, and that’s how I fell in love with it.”

“The level of professionalism has really gone one up,” Frank observes, “and I think it’s down to that confidence. These kids have literally grown up with it - their parents have done hip hop, it’s part of their every day culture. In the ‘90s we had this element of insecurity, like ‘is that hip hop? Is that cool?’ These young dudes have none of that insecurity; hip hop is just a part of them. And that’s really refreshing.”

Renee of Indij Hip Hop show

Indigenous hip hop culture may have been quietly galvanising itself down family lines over the last twenty years but, with the exception of the charismatic Wilcannia Mob in 2002, has made little impact on the Australian mainstream—until now. Enter Briggs and Trials of A.B. Original who, as Frank recalls, had some serious goals from the start. “Briggs said to us in an interview about three years ago that he wanted to change the landscape of Australian hip hop. And I think that’s something he has absolutely done. I saw him rocking it at Laneway Festival [last year] and I just couldn’t believe there were thousands of non-indigenous kids jumping around to tracks like ‘January 26’. Rewind four years and I could never have imagined that.”

When Danzel raps in English he gets a strong message across, but its when he raps in language that he truly hits his flow. Considering the impact the strongly political A.B. Original has had on Australian hip hop in such a short time, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Baker Boy opening the mainstream industry floodgates to a whole host of Indigenous artists rapping in language, and changing the landscape of Australian hip hop once more.

“It’s happening beyond hip hop too,” Renee enthuses. “The Jessica Mauboys, the Dan Sultans - they’re getting out there and building their profile and that does have a flow on effect when people see that there’s a space for them. The music industry is not removed from the wider issues of society, and there has been a lot of racism. The industry had actually been a barrier before, an alien place. It wasn’t a safe space for Aboriginal artists. And that’s slowly being chipped away.”

“And any artist that has a profile - they’re taking it back to their community and helping the next wave come through and instilling that confidence. It’s about saying hey, we can do this, there’s a place for us.”

Baker Boy's debut single, 'Cloud 9'

In mainstream Australia pursuit of a creative career tends to be a more self-interested experience. Conversely, this proclivity for Indigenous artists to feed any success, knowledge and skills back into the community, and to pass it down through families, is inherent to Aboriginal culture, and crucial to Indigenous hip hop’s growth.

Though Danzel only began recording hip hop last year, he already views his success in the context of how it can help others. “I’m lucky to have people around me supporting me, making sure I’m on the right track,” he says warmly. “And pretty much that’s all you need: amazing, strong role models.”

“So that’s what I want to do. I want to be the next young role model for young Indigenous kids in remote communities, stuck in the cycle. I want to try to break that cycle. It can be comfortable, but I want them to come out and be a strong leader for their own community. Be focused, be proud of yourself - not embarrassed, or ashamed. Don’t be a caged in person. Be free.”

Danzel shows his dancing skills, with Indigenous Hip Hop Projects

Danzel often describes the “two worlds” he lives in: life in the 6-800 person remote community he calls home in northwest Arnhem land, and life in mainstream Melbourne, where he moved as a teenager to study. Though he recognises that negative cycles in remote communities can be a form of captivity, when he speaks of his home, it clearly holds its own special freedom.

“Beautiful. Humid. Salt water. Fresh air from the ocean,” are the first words that come to Danzel when asked to describe home. “You’ll feel relieved and fresh. It’s a bit quiet, there are not many cars, there’s not much traffic. And we pretty much live off the land as well - we go fishing, hunting, and do a lot of traditional ceremonies. That makes the community strong.”

“In a remote community, you mostly learn the traditional side first,” he explains. “And then you go to school and learn the mainstream way.” Education in both fields is of the utmost importance to Baker. “In remote communities kids know how to learn from people, it’s easy. We start off by sitting down, and we look, and listen, and we learn. So if you can also do that at school - or university, or libraries - you’ll have more knowledge and it will be easier for you to live in two worlds, you can balance it out. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it helped me big-time. Education is power.”

When Baker Boy performed a few weeks ago at the annual National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin, it was clear he had already begun to inspire countless young Indigenous children to follow his lead. As he spreads the joy of music throughout remote communities, so too does he spread his deeper messages. Full of positivity, he says, “I’m starting to see a development of Indigenous culture through music”.

Certainly since its beginnings hip hop has been recognised and utilised as an instrument for social change - whether to help an individual out of a bad situation, or push a broader movement forward. Back in central Sydney where Frank and Renee broadcast from, Indigenous hip hop is also working to change mainstream culture.

“It’s a topic that not all Indigenous people are going to agree on,” Frank explains of the ‘change the date’ discussion which A.B. Original have been particularly vocal about, “but by and large, clearly the vast majority of Aboriginal people see no reason to celebrate on January 26. Beyond that, the reason Aboriginal people have always protested on that day, before it was even a public holiday, is because of what’s happening in Australia. Look at Briggs’ verse in ‘January 26’. He says Hey Briggsy why don’t you pick a date / One that we can all celebrate / How about March 8.”

“The point is it doesn’t matter what the date is - until there’s real and significant change in Australia, changing the date would be purely symbolic, and Aboriginal people will probably still not want to participate in any celebration of what it means to be Australian when we are the most imprisoned people on earth, when we have the lowest life expectancy in the first world, when Aboriginal children aren’t able to access and practice their own culture, when we have the highest child removal rates of the first world… Changing the date is a quick fix. It is meaningful, in that it shows Australia has developed somewhat emotionally, but without making some deeper changes…”

Renee and Frank (right) snapped with some radio co-hosts

“We’ve got to do some real work,” Renee adds. “It’s interesting though, when there’s a common theme, like change the date, different [Indigenous] artists will approach it in different ways and have a different take on it - Australia was multicultural long before it was invaded, so there are diverse voices. One of the things that always attracted me to hip hop and one of the reasons we relate to Indigenous hip hop so well is because it’s about telling the stories. And there’s so many stories from Indigenous Australia to tell.”

“And of course they often end up being political,” says Frank. “Because really we’re not meant to be here anymore if you look at the genocidal policies - we were considered a dying race. So I feel like every time a young Aboriginal person expresses themselves on a track it’s embracing that oral tradition of their culture and heritage and, at its core, an act of resistance.”

Frank is referring to the thinking born in the 19th century during the onset of Darwinism which, conveniently for white colonialists in Australia, characterised Aboriginal population decline as a natural part of evolution - social Darwinism in action. It almost became a self fulfilling prophecy, as colonisers had no compunction in applying erroneous scientific theories as justification for extermination, catastrophically reducing Australia’s Indigenous population almost to the point of extinction. Almost.

We have survived, a white man’s world / And the pain and torment of it all sing Indigenous reggae outfit No Fixed Address, following Coloured Stone at the RBMA Weekender event.

“It’s an act of resistance simply because it’s an Indigenous voice,” Renee explains. “That’s what’s so important. Whatever the message is, it’s coming from our perspective.”

The Red Bull Music Academy Weekender featured amongst its stellar line-up, Indigenous rapper and dancer Baker Boy, Indigenous rock and reggae outfits No Fixed Address and Coloured Stone with DJ support from Koori Radio’s Frank and Renee, plus the elaborate virtual reality experience and dance performance celebrating Indigenous Australian knowledges, cultures and identities, Via Alice.