Hip hop in the Wild West

Police said yesterday’s raids were part of an ongoing effort to stamp out lawlessness in what is becoming known as Melbourne’s ‘Wild West’.
, 2 July 2010

The language of non-belonging was not uttered in the explicit lexicon of race but was manifested in the legally constituted discourses of crime and disorder.
Maria Giannacopoulos1

There’s a woman outside my window who yells into the day and night. She cries, and hurls racist vitriol at passers-by.

‘Fucking cunts,’ she rages, ‘go back to your own country or I’ll fucking kill you.’

In Footscray, even the delusionally paranoid wield race as a weapon.

I am late as I reach the sunken brick building housing the Hip-hop Academy. It is a sunny winter’s day and the Maribyrnong River flashes, rocking in time with the tide, out back of the Footscray Community Arts Centre.

A clean-shaven, long-limbed man in black pants, Run DMC T-shirt and hi-top sneakers greets me. I recognise Aamer Rahman; he’s 27 but could pass for an adolescent.

I am tempted to say, I am here for the hip-hop. Instead, I shake his hand and mumble, I think we’ve met.

‘No, I don’t believe we have.’

I realise, too late, that, actually, I have only ever met Nazeem Hussain, the other half of Brown Planet. That ‘ground, swallow me whole’ feeling: I’d seen Aamer’s comedy routine on his adult outreach program, ‘Workshops for whitey’.

‘It’s a series of specially developed workshops to improve the quality of life for white people,’ Aamer had explained to the audience then. ‘The title of the first workshop is called: “Don’t compliment me on my English.” The final workshop is “Just because I’m at the petrol station, it doesn’t mean I work here”.’

I see myself becoming a punchline.

‘Nazeem is running late too. It’s one of those days,’ Aamer says, then moves on, clipboard in hand, to a group of young people seated around a long rectangular table.

Some of the young men are dressed in colour-coded hip-hop gear: one in matching yellow (yellow T-shirt, yellow cap, black jeans), another in blue; the colours are dramatic against the cream walls and dull carpeting of a building like any high school auditorium.

Hip-hop Academy, the second phase of comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet’s three-year residency at Footscray Community Arts Centre, aims to forge a new satire, ‘an exciting, dynamic new way of discussing racism that is candid, engaging, entertaining and empowering at the same time’.

The first phase involved a series of videos splicing vox pops and roving interviews with media sound bites and television footage. The videos are confronting, excoriating and, occasionally, droll.

Take ‘Invasion Day 2010’. Predominantly white children spread across celebrated Australian scenery sing ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ – borrowed from a Qantas advertising campaign – while footage depicts life in neglected Indigenous communities. Indigenous activist Robbie Thorpe roars, ‘Australia is a crime scene.’ The scenes are interspersed with film from the Oceanic Viking: a weeping Sri Lankan child, fear and desperation clawing at the camera, begs, ‘Please listen, we cannot go back there. Anywhere would be better – it doesn’t have to be Australia.’

The video cuts to a supercilious Kevin Rudd: ‘I make no apology whatsoever for working as closely as we need with our Indonesian partners to get the results we all need in terms of illegal immigration.’

Then John Howard: ‘We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.’

The crowd cheers.

Nitin Garg was murdered nearby: in Yarraville, actually, but the media reported it as a crime committed in Footscray. This was during a storm of violent attacks on Indian students in Australia earlier this year.

The tension had been perceptible for some time; including a campaign oriented to young people of Indian appearance, along the lines of, ‘If you’ve been attacked, tell us’. Us being the Victoria Police; us being Simon Overland, who’d once advised that, to avoid becoming victims, students should ‘Try to look as poor as you can,’ and consider moving to a wealthier – and therefore safer – neighbourhood.

Over the past three decades, Footscray has been portrayed as crime riddled, drug infested. This is partly to do with poverty; but researching its history unearths recurring patterns. In the mid-1990s, for instance, media coverage of youth gangs, violence and drugs – focusing on Vietnamese youths – was ubiquitous and savage, something akin to the landscape of Romper Stomper. Today, with a new wave of immigrants, the stories target young Africans.

Footscray is one of those suburbs liberal Australia is ambivalent about. It’s the embodiment of multiculturalism, and as such we like to know it exists, as long as we don’t have to live there.

Brown Planet’s Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain both have law degrees, though only Nazeem works as a lawyer. They’re community workers, human rights activists, Muslims, comedians, hip-hop aficionados, Star WarsStar Trek geeks, television stars and writers. Their Salam Café was the first Muslim comedy show to be filmed and shown in a Western country.

Nazeem tells me it’s common for community organisations to run hip-hop workshops. They liked the idea of an outreach program specifically for young people.

But how does comedy fit with hip-hop?

‘In standard, classic hip-hop, they’ll make some points about something that’s funny or set-up in a sort of punchline structure. There’s just a huge overlap, because they’re speaking from the “not dominant” perspective,’ Nazeem says.

I wander through the rooms dedicated to the aspects of hip-hop: mixing, breakdancing, rhyme busting, graffiti: the determination of the young people is electric.

I admire the perseverance of the breakdancers. The warm-up exercises look excruciating: the dancers crouch on both knees, low to the floor, extending one leg out, then quickly retracting before throwing out the other.

‘We’re breaking down concepts, shapes and styles. For instance, imagine you’re sitting on a big jar of jam,’ says the teacher. He shows a sitting twist that flips into a horizontal relaxed freeze. ‘These guys understood what cool was. After I spin on my bottom, I’m just going to lie down and be cool.’

The African youth in yellow finds this hilarious.

Earlier this year, thirty young African men related their experience of targeting and harassment by Victoria Police for a report funded by the Legal Services Board. The allegations ranged from racial slurs to physical assault.

‘They kicked me on the ground,’ said one kid. ‘I thought I was gonna die or pass out ya know? Just after that, I thought they were taking me to the police station, [they] put me in the divvy van, they drove me all the way to back of [deserted locality]. Then they all bashed me, they chucked my wallet out. “Come out you black cunt. Get out of divvy van”, you know? They hit me straight away, aiming at my leg here with the torch. So I ran down you know, they just, they got in the car and they left ya know, they left me there.’

In her paper ‘Terror Australis: White sovereignty and the violence of law’, Maria Giannacopoulos contends that the inception and survival of Australian law and sovereignty is dependent on racial violence and unceasing racism. Giannacopoulos theorises that it is not possible for youths with ethnicity to be thought of as ‘local’ or belonging in the Australian landscape. In the case of the Cronulla Riots, the ‘so-called locals’ were portrayed as ‘the un-raced, rightful owners of Cronulla beach,’ with the beach itself ‘their possession to fight for’.

The authors of the Legal Services Board report conclude that this is how the police ‘legitimise’ their own racial violence; ‘they are able to feel as though they are acting on behalf of “the community” and against the “outsiders”.’

Fear of a Brown Planet echoes the Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet. Upon its release twenty years ago, Patrick Kastner described the album as ‘the collective conscious of an entire people … It touches on everything – race, sexuality, entertainment, war, disease, religion, philosophy, politics’.

The title is empowering precisely because of the implicit threat: a recognition that the group you belong to – the majority of the world’s population – is feared and subjugated and yet could, perhaps, rise up and overthrow the bonds of oppression.

‘I think it’s difficult for white Australians to have any appreciation of how it is to be different,’ says Nazeem.

What do they make of Australian hip-hop culture, aka ‘skip-hop’?

‘It’s a bizarre kind of mutant form,’ Aamer says. ‘It really is a lot of middle-class white people recreating a culture completely disconnected from its roots.’

Hip-hop is supposed to be ‘art of protest. It’s roots are in race,’ they tell me. Young people need to critique the genre more strongly because the industry is always going to push musicians like the Hilltop Hoods.

‘Forget that they’re middle-class white boys from Adelaide, rhyming about x, y and z. Think about the 2006 Big Day Out, after Cronulla, when the organisers banned the Australian flag and then had to undo the ban because people got so upset. Hilltop Hoods was one of the headline acts, and they went on stage with Australia flag bandannas,’ Aamer fumes. ‘Openly white nationalist sort of imagery in their performance, and no-one really said anything. It basically went completely unchallenged.’

He shakes his head. ‘It’s like a snowball effect – there’s nothing standing in the way of that attitude permeating Australian hip-hop.’

The City of Maribyrnong, located in Melbourne’s Wild West, is home to Footscray, and includes surrounding suburbs Braybrook, Kingsville, Maidstone, Maribyrnong, Seddon, Tottenham, West Footscray and Yarraville.

Footscray belonged to tribes from the Kulin nation until European squatters arrived in 1839. The municipality of Footscray was established in 1859. Much of Melbourne’s early production started here – quarrying, meat canning, distilling, stonecutting. In the late 1800s, chiefly because of the river, Footscray was an industry capital of Victoria.

‘There are few suburbs going on faster than Footscray. Property, land, or houses quote 30 per cent advance; tall chimneys keep rising; factory artisans throng the stations and the streets; every place that can by nails, by saw and hammer be tortured into a house is let,’ said the Footscray correspondent for the Williamstown Chronicle on 17 December 1870.

After the Second World War, a flood of migrants came from Italy, Greece, Malta, Poland, Yugoslavia and Germany. Labour opportunities, cheaper housing and established ethnic diversity have led to continuing migrant and refugee settlement in the Maribyrnong area. There are now significant communities from China, Vietnam, Burma, India, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. By 2011, the population is expected to reach 74 000, comprising of people from 135 countries, 85 languages and a vast constellation of cultures.

According to UN statistics, the average time a refugee spends living in a camp is 17 years. In Footscray, there are scores of young such survivors, witnesses of trauma and torture. They frequently suffer mental illness and depression; they face language barriers, cultural exclusion, isolation, poverty – and often, they fear the police.

I sit taking notes in the rhyme-writing workshop. Strands of sideline chats about Dead Prez and Malcolm X wash over me. There are only three would-be MCs alongside local musician and producer, Pataphysics.

‘There’s no watching in hip-hop,’ Aamer had said earlier to a sullen 14-year-old.

This comes back to haunt me.

‘Are you going to write a rap?’

‘She’s a journalist,’ says Nazeem.

‘A journalist?’ repeats Pataphysics

I move closer. ‘Yeah, I tried to write a rap. Just now.’ Not a lie.

‘You gonna write about journalists? CNN, NBC, ABC / who’s gonna break the story tonight?’

I laugh, embarrassed. For one, I’m not a journalist. Second, I like to think I’d write something more meaningful if I were going to be an MC.

‘The only line I have is: Afghanistan is on my mind.’

Pataphysics looks disappointed; clearly it’s not much to work with. Together, we scratch a first verse: Afghanistan is on my mind/ Enemies of the West/ You know the kind/ Invading, terrorising/ Keeping their oil and resources from us –

‘It needs work,’ I say.

Pataphysics agrees.

One of the other aspiring MCs begins: ‘Irate/ setting fire to the state’.

It’s the most intimate writing class I’ve been in.

After an hour or so, the young, up-until-this-point silent, male participant delivers an unexpectedly humbling performance. Those walking past pause to eavesdrop – you can tell this is something. I forget the rhyme immediately; it seems private and fragile.

A young person, finding his voice – and it’s so quiet. You sense that he never even knew he had it before.

  1. Maria Giannacopoulos, ‘Terror Australis: White sovereignty and the violence of law’, Borderland e-journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 2006.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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