In the Shadows No More: Indigenous hip hop slipping into the mainstream
Words by Oliver Kuskie
With back to back songs in the top 20 of the 2016 and 2017 Triple J Hottest 100 Countdown, Indigenous hip hop is trickling into the mainstream in ways it has never done before.
As an expressive art form it is giving voice to a new generation of indigenous artists and the indigenous perspective on societal issues.
This was made very clear when A.B. Original, a hip hop group consisting of the forefather of indigenous hip hop, Briggs, and longstanding Funkoars member, Trials, released the song January 26.
The song had provocative lyrics such as,
“How you wanna raise a flag with a rifle/To make us want to celebrate anything but survival.”
It was about moving the date of Australia day and sparked a highly public debate across the nation.
“Since 1788, the trials and tribulations that we have to overcome, are often brought back to the surface on January 26th.” Said Briggs about the song and the Invasion/Australia Day debate.
That was the launching platform to bring new artists to the landscape such as Baker Boy, Lady Lash, Ziggy Ramo and Nooky.
Not all of the artists are primarily driven by justice and politics though.
Ziggy Ramo, the up and coming Perth rapper said in a recent interview with the AU Review,
“Music is really therapeutic for me, so it took me time as a person to realise who I was and who I wanted to be; music just became an extension of my counselling.”
Ziggy Ramo, prominent Indigenous Hip Hop Artist. Photo courtesy of Falls Festival.
Crystal Clyne Mastosavvas, stage name Lady Lash, is another indigenous hip hop artist. She is a Kokatha woman with Greek heritage who moved to Melbourne from a small town on the coast in South Australia. She is breaking into the hip hop scene with a blend of rap and jazz.
Indigenous Hip Hop Artist, Lady Lash. Image courtesy of SBS. Taken by Emma Papammanouil.
She started out as a poet moving to rap at an early age.
“I started out with poems then progressed to rhymes, I just fell into it with inspiration from others MC’s. To express myself with lyrics and spit over mad beats was a natural transition from poetry.
“A lot of the indigenous singers influenced me, although, most of indigenous rap artists don’t get the shine they deserve in the music industry. It’s a bit better nowadays and I grew to know who was in the scene and still is by working alongside amazing minds out there.” She said of her origins.
She sees the movement as, “Holding space within the mainstream, especially women like myself.”
The fans of the movement are especially passionate, engaging with the heavy content and themes without losing their urban culture.
“My followers are deep thinkers, they share a connection with me that helps us navigate our way through life, respecting and holding space for positive. They are eclectic and eccentric with open minds and a few hoodies in the mix.” Said Lady Lash
Blake Sangster, 21, is one such fan. He lives in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and feels he has a voice through indigenous hip hop.
“Being Koori myself, I’m able to connect with the messages that these rappers are portraying in their music. Being indigenous represents a lot of hardships, especially growing up.” He said.
“Hearing these struggles in rap music allows me to make a connection with what I’m hearing and makes me proud to be indigenous.”
Blake struggles with the reality of the live music scene, especially in Sydney.
“Unfortunately [indigenous artists] don’t do a lot of performances in Sydney, which reflects the struggle that these rappers have with breaking into mainstream music. Also a lot of them come from rural areas across Australia and may not have enough money to come to Sydney and perform.” He said.
“The Yabun music festival is great for indigenous hip hop. Not only do they get big names there but they also offer markets and get good speakers to speak about indigenous problems.”
The Gadigal Radio station in Redfern shares these views. They are a Sydney wide radio station that plays indigenous music and promotes indigenous artists.
Street art at Gadigal Radio Station in Redfern. Photos by Adamo De Nigris and Oliver Kuskie
They were a major sponsor of the Yabun music festival, the biggest one-day eventin recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The event is held each year on January 26 on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people.
The event has an annual gathering of around 40,000 people and features music, stalls and panels surrounding indigenous issues.
Station representative, Lilian Miles was enthused about the direction of the indigenous hip hop scene.
“It’s starting to take off with artists like Baker Boy, we have a lot of new artists like Electric Fields and Nooky who has burst onto the scene. It’s becoming so successful that even the old guys like Street Warriors are coming back in and contributing.” She said.
There is still a struggle ahead of the movement to turn it into the mainstream.
“We need more resources; we have the Redfern community centre which is great but that’s the only big one we have. We get great mentors like Throne to help us run workshops there and they have a whole array of stuff to offer to the Indigenous community.”
Lilian believes there is hope for the movement and for what it does in bringing communities together under one banner.
“I think the most promising aspect of the indigenous hip hop scene is that most of our artists come from remote communities. So in five years’ time I can only see it continuing to growing both mainstream and in these remote communities.”
This is true of many rising stars. Baker Boy who recently had the first ever single in the hottest 100 that featured indigenous dialect is from Yurrwi a small community in the Northern Territory. Similarly, Ziggy Ramo is from a small community in Arnhem land before moving to Perth.
The message from all these artists is clear and summed up by Lady Lash.
“We are here, we have the ability to create and speak within our power. My community comes with me on this journey.”