Resistance, survival and pride are themes inseparable from hip-hop music produced by Aboriginal Australians. While most recordings are self-produced disks unavailable through mainstream retail outlets, at the grassroots the scene is thriving.
Australia was introduced to hip-hop in the 1980s as a wave of African American performers, such at New York’s Public Enemy with their politically charged lyrics, won international audiences. Indigenous youth identified with messages of Black rebellion. Aboriginal Australian, Wire MC, explains: “What really grabbed my attention was N.W.A saying, ‘Fuck the police!’… [they] were saying things that we wanted to say, but were afraid to say because of the past history between our people and police.”
Aboriginal hip-hop also has its roots in Jamaican reggae and has built on the sounds of ’80s pioneers, such as No Fixed Address with their anthemic song, We Have Survived. As well as these influences, the music draws deeply on local culture. The genre is well suited to the oral story telling traditions of the Aboriginal community.
Munkimuk is often referred to as the grandfather of Aboriginal hip-hop. In 1992 he co-founded South West Syndicate. The band, predominantly Aboriginal, was proudly multicultural, having at various times included members from Lebanese Australian, Pacific Islander, Croatian, German and Anglo Australian backgrounds. Their performances were avowedly political and won them recognition with an Indigenous Deadly Award for achievement in 2003.
A force for culture
. Elders have embraced hip-hop music as a positive educational tool. Youth workers approached Munkimuk to teach hip-hop skills. He sees his work as a vehicle of self-expression for the downtrodden from a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds, but especially Indigenous youth. Many performers now run workshops designed to promote school attendance, self-esteem and health messages. Veteran artist Joel Wenitong, formerly with the band, Local Knowledge, and now part of popular trio, Last Kinection, sees the music as a way to get the “young blakfella mob back into their culture and teaching our history through music.”
Local hip-hop artists reject derivative rapping in an American accent. Many Indigenous performers rap in language. Munkimuk has performed in Jarwadjali, his grandmother’s language from the Grampians in Victoria’s west. The Last Kinection, on their CD, Nutches, perform the haunting Ballooraman. NaomiWenitong explains that she is singing in “Kabi Kabi cos that’s where Joel and I are from, that’s our clan.”
Some American hip-hop performers have been rightly slammed for blatant misogyny and homophobia. While the Australian scene is not completely free of this, with some Payback Records artists falling into this trap, sexism is not a staple with many performers using music to promote r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
Should Know Better
from Nutches is a brilliant track that speaks to both women and men. Naomi Wenitong, performing as MC Nay, makes a powerful appeal: “how you gonna let him do all these things to you/ are u gonna let him walk over you/ sis you gotta be strong/ cause he’s never gonna change until he knows you’re gone.” Speaking to the men, her brother Weno insists: “So you wanna have a go. Brah sit back down / You’re a strong proud man and you need to take control / I know you know better than this. Don’t blame the piss. / It’s all up to you, it’s time to end this.”
Australia has its own all female hip-hop label, Mother Tongues, formed in 1998. Its 2003 compilation of the same name features three tracks by Wirdjuri woman, Ebony Williams. Williams started performing in 1995 at age 15 with the duo, Two Indij. And she’s still pumping it out. The beat goes on is an infectious track where Ebony raps about being a young Black woman made stronger by hip-hop. She tells us: “you can do things that change the world or you can speak a lot of crap.” Open up your mind is a classic political rant set to a beat. Written in 1999, Williams polemicises against rightwing populist politician, Pauline Hanson, who specialised in scapegoating Aboriginal people, claiming they received special treatment. The track, which opens with a distinctive didgeridoo riff, highlights the special treatment – disease, genocide, stolen generations – and demands Hanson to “go back to selling fish in your stupid shop.”
Renowned for performing at rallies and community events is Sydney rapper Jackalene Extreme, who uses her musical talent to campaign against Aboriginal deaths in custody. And Melbourne’s own Little G, with her Aboriginal Greek ancestry, gave a deadly performance at a 2009 Melbourne rally protesting the NT Intervention. This rebel, who has been performing since 1999, uses hip-hop to channel her anger about massacres and deaths in custody. Check out her track, Invasion Day, on her Myspace page.
. Little G is signed to Melbourne’s Payback, a community-based label formed by Essendon footballer, Nathan Lovett Murray. Their first album, Mixed Tape number 1, is available from the Payback webpage. The collection opens with a didj number in language. Lovett then explains the aim of Payback: “Payback records is about giving Indigenous people a voice. I feel there are a lot of Aboriginal leaders out there who are not speaking out about injustice against Aboriginal people, because they’re controlled by the government. Payback records is about speaking out about that shit.”
Tjimba and the Yung Warriors are part of the Payback crew. Often seen performing at community events, they feature on Mixed Tape number 1: “When the warriors come out to play we get the crowd pumped up in a major way” is impossible not to dance to. Johnny Mac’s sound is smooth. He’s “speaking out loud against the KKK because I’m proud of being b-l-a-c-k.”
. There’s a huge amount of amazing music available on the internet. One of the earliest offerings from Last Kinection is a powerful protest version of Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home, which packs a punch by sampling some of Rolf Harris’ racist offerings. But many recordings are no longer available. I’ve been unable to find Tjimba and The Yung Warriors’ highly regarded first album, Warrior for Life.
But a great taster still available is Making Waves Hip Hop, a compilation featuring Last Kinection, Impossible Odds, Street Warriors, Jimblah, Wire MC, Tjimba and Yung Warriors, Brothablack, Munkimuk and many more. It promotes itself as providing “a snapshot into contemporary black Australia through the eyes of some of this country’s best hip-hop artists who are determined to take a stance and make a difference, using the power of the lyric and the hook of a beat.” With tracks like Eskatology’s Rise Up and Knowledge Bones’ Too Deadly, it does just that!
But my top pick is definitely Last Kinection’s latest offering, Nutches, named for their late grandmother, Nanny “Nutches” Wenitong, who was their inspiration and last connection to their clan. It’s musically brilliant and diverse. Worth Marching For is a tribute to the early pioneers of the movement and a call to keep fighting back.
On The Way
, which samples Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations is dedicated to: “the stolen generation/ And the innocent mob in incarceration.” And the list of those who crave justice, grows and grows: “I dedicate this to the girl who ran away from home/ And the boy on the corner sniffing on chrome/ I dedicate this to the alcoholic lying in the park/ And the drug addicted chic with a broken heart/ I dedicate this to the victim of date rape/ Who just found out that her period is late/ I dedicate this to the kid who hates himself/ Cause his uncle couldn’t keep his hands to himself.”
The whole collection is strong. However, Black & Deadly is the musical stand out. Listen once and it will lodge itself in your brain! Obviously mindful of an international audience, MC Nay explains that there’s one word that unites all of Aboriginal Australia: “deadly,” meaning strong, proud, the highest of excellence and very, very cool! The grassroots Indigenous hip-hop scene is indeed deadly!