Type
Essay
Category
Aboriginal Australia
Music

Indigenous hip-hop speaking truth to power

Protest songs have long been used across the globe and through the generations as a way for artists to share their politics. In Aboriginal hip-hop, protest lyrics express collective and individual will and indignation, a resistance to historical erasure. Bek Poetik’s music connects the personal to a shared history of oppression:

At school I read books on Indigenous history
In my own time, my culture wasn’t a mystery
I learnt all about Indigenous Sovereignty
Now all tribal people worldwide are like kin to me
Indigenous minds on spiritual times
As the world wakes up as our dreams align –
Indigenous minds On Spiritual Times
Let the darkness fade
Let the sunlight shine
(Indigenous Minds 2014)

The words carry a message of connected struggle and resilience, symbolised through a genre that uniquely expresses the Aboriginal story within the on-going Australian colonial context. While Aboriginal musicians have engaged African American hip-hop for inspiration, local Aboriginal hip-hop has a poetics and politics of its own.

Resistance is framed from a distinctly Indigenous worldview and socio-cultural position. Traditional culture is juxtaposed against a modern lifestyle to articulate political commentary on being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. For Gumbaynggirr rapper Wire MC music is essential to cultural continuity and identity. Wire’s words, as quoted in Tony Mitchell’s 2006 article on the history of Aboriginal hip-hop, attest to this1:

This is my lyrical healing. I can’t go and get scarred any more and I can’t become a traditional man. I’m a modern day blackfella, this is still Dreamtime for me. Hip hop is the new clapsticks, hip hop is the new corroboree (p.134).

In this way, hip-hop articulates common experiences of Aboriginal oppression across the social rhythms of everyday life. The music reflects the specific historic and geographic imposition of the colonial project on Indigenous Australians. The lyrics assert defiance to this imposition and celebrates Indigenous difference, survival and solidarity. The words embody a deep sense of rage, a calling out of injustice to the system.

In their combined rap Stand Proud, decrying the government forced closure of Aboriginal communities in 2015; Provocalz, Lady Lash, Djarmbi Supreme, Task, GekkZ, Mad Madam, Mr. Krow, and Felon proclaim:

If you try to take my land – just to let you know – you got a fight on your hand …. Freedom to our people.

And of course, A.B. Original’s notorious commentary on the ubiquity of Australia Day celebrations in their song January 26 (2016) (featuring Dan Sultan) pokes holes in the sanctity of a day, that for Indigenous peoples marks the invasion of Indigenous lands over two centuries ago:

You can come and wave your flag
But it don’t mean a thing to me
No, it just don’t mean a thing
Fuck that, homie

Many Aboriginal artists draw on tradition to sharpen and take ownership of their political message.

But this is not by any means a simplified application of tradition, as it rejects essentialisms and systems of commodification.

Aboriginal Hip-Hoppers tradition deflects, blocks and counters colonial and majority assumptions of what it means to be Indigenous. It can be heard in the encompassing voice of cultural reclamation, regeneration, and a call for sovereignty, in the defiant staking of identity.
As Mojo Juju rebelliously asserts:

I will not apologise for taking up this space, every time you cut me down I’m gonna come back fierce (Native Tongue, 2018).

Music and identity are embodied and performed by Aboriginal musicians. The Australian story of genocide, incarceration, invasion and continuing disadvantage is delivered with ferocious simplicity; unapologetic in its enmity to processes of subjugation. Aboriginal hip-hop artists are able to freely and spontaneously express strength in their identity through song, rhyme and First Language.

‘I am Yorta Yorta,’ proclaims Neil Morris (aka DRMNGNOW), as he sings of:

The anguish, the cries that all go with genocide
The devastation, theft and wiping out of tribes
The ancestors in the land that make every child, woman and man
No matter where you stand
The ancestors in the land, no matter where you stand
The ancestors in the land survive, I pay respect (Ancestors, 2019).

This is a tradition that connects younger voices to the old, and the old to the historical injustices that are continuing, and to each one of us as Indigenous peoples in our shared struggles and celebrations.

And yet the focus on ‘tradition’ has attracted criticism from some white Australian rap fans and hip-hoppers, some of whom have suggested that “rap” is not a “black thing”. But to suggest that rap is a black thing is to reinforce racism of privilege among minority voices. It infers that Aboriginal people have a “birth-right” to an essential ancient tradition that others don’t. This so-called “right” justifies in the eyes of some white fans (and others) the construction of Aboriginal people as ‘primitive’ and backward.

Among these critics, Indigenous hip-hop artists are positioned as racists and not the other way around because they draw on, and reclaim essentialist ideas of the ‘true’ and ‘ancient’ Aborigine, and do not apparently embrace identifying as ‘Australian’. This rise of Australian nationalism, and the appropriation and inversion of a Black cultural form to exclude First Nation identities goes to the heart of historical oppression and Aboriginal erasure.

The origins of hip-hop are not stable, but constantly re-worked as Aboriginal artists invest to authenticate what is true for them in their own cultural practice and beliefs. The emergence of these forms of authentication shows how contemporary Aboriginal music incorporates traditional elements into new styles. Ceremonial songs in turn use the instruments and techniques of contemporary music. Dunganda Street Sounds, from Ramangining in East Arnhem land in Northern Australia accentuates the pastiche of genres that contour modern Aboriginal music. In their song Sénor (2008), they combine traditional language with Spanish to the back beat of yiḏaki (didgeridoo), and hip-hop and Yolngu cultural dance moves.

This mixing of genres and styles stresses how tradition is always messing with the truth. It emerges in clear and decisive forms in the sound and song of Baker Boy as just one example among many. Baker Boy raps on his track Meditjin in Yolngu Matha and his music is infused with the traditional instruments of his homeland, while being backed by customary rap beats and the deep and fast rapping of New Zealander JessB.

Gender politics is often intertwined with the politics of tradition. Hip-hop remains predominantly a male domain of expression as is the case in the US. And yet a defining feature of Indigenous Australian hip-hop music is Indigenous women artists. Indigenous women have contributed their voices and musical talents to hip-hop since its emergence in Australia, turning notions of gender imbalance on its head.
One of the leading women in this space is Naomi Wenitong, a founding member of The Last Kinection. Their political message is a call to solidarity and sovereignty. The trio produce Hip-Hop which champions a modern Indigeneity against a background where Indigenous urban identity is regularly contested as inauthentic in Australian society. In their arresting 2012 track I Can featuring Radical Son, the band encourages Indigenous people to “believe in their plan” and to stand proud with their Indigenous identities and cultures in the face of opposition and racism. Naomi sings:

You’ve got that fire
For the things you desire
I am only one heartbeat away
So you should reach higher
I’m so sick of maybe’s that defeats what you plan
So I will be the first one to say – I can.

Lady Lash (aka Crystal Mercy), a strong Kokatha/Greek woman originally from the west-coast of South Australia and now based in Melbourne, combines hip-hop and Jazz poetry and beats in complex spiritual messages. Her 2019 track Yadu, meaning deadly or good, honours Kokatha women as ‘Weena Mooga’ all our women:

Whisper from my deep sleep calling from the equinox
still sleeping as, we move into a new day is done
navigate from the womb and feel your way through
the darkness and the light of the woman in you
rebirth the child the earth, sun and moon
to honor the dreamtime of our sisters in tune.

Lady Lash is also a member of the first Indigenous all female hip-hop group OETHA (meaning: Our Earth The Heart Acknowledges). OETHA are Lady Lash, Miss Hood and Dizzy Doolan, who as Indigenous Sistas celebrate women as the backbone of every family, community and society. The focus on femininity acts as a harmonising message juxtaposed alongside the resistance, resilience and cultural opposition of patriarchal forms.

The masculinity of hip-hop, including Gangsta Rap that romanticises violence as a perceived breeding ground for gangster culture, are challenged. The messages, these strong Aboriginal women portray in their music confronts and opposes mainstream and reductive forms of representing everyday life, opening up a place of creative expression for young and emerging Aboriginal artists and musicians.

Essentialism throughout the music of Aboriginal hip-hop is used as a deliberate tool to invert, question and re-focus the essentialism imposed on Aboriginal people by critics. This is a speaking back to the wider political and social context that continues to silence and oppose First Nations voices. The protest songs of Aboriginal Hip-Hop artists come from a deeply personal place, but are authentic in their respect of a clarity of vision for a just, caring and more humane future.

As the continuing Black Lives Matter protests in Australia demonstrate, we haven’t reached this ideal future. Birdz reminds us of this in his exposé Black Lives Matter (2017), condemning the killings of Indigenous young people at the hands of authorities and vigilantes:

This one right here for Elijah,
Kalgoorlie raise ya lighters
And watch that motherfucker burn
Down with the murderous liars ….
Now we say black lives matter
But shit, the fact of matter is
We just black matter to them
This shit keeps happening
Let me hear ya, oh my …

The music and lyrics of Indigenous Hip-Hop allow us to confront significant realities of living in the shadow of the on-going colonial project and to realise what is possible; what it takes to get there to ensure change. The shared rage can transform into meaningful action, or simply be a means to express how things should be, who one is and how to thwart systems of violence.

In these songs the ancestral energy is centred and respected; its power glimmers and shakes in the enduring musical styles of current generations.

We need this music because it represents an emerging generation of Aboriginal leadership whose protest is fuelled by injustice and its unequivocal demands for a new order.

In all these songs the resistance is alive and kicking. It thumps in the refusal to be boxed into neat and nameable categories, and it echoes in the persistent plea to give First Nations issues a voice.

It is my neighbours’ and my friends’ favourite music, whether they like it or not.

 

Endnotes
Mitchell, Tony. “Blackfellas Rapping, Breaking and Writing: A Short History of Aboriginal Hip Hop.” Aboriginal History 30 (2006): 124-37. Web.

 

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Suzi Hutchings is Arrernte, whose mother’s family is from Central Australia. She is an academic at RMIT, radio DJ and producer, with an enduring interest, and love of the music of protest in Hip-Hop, Soul, Jazz and Electronica.

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