A.B. Original member Briggs performs at the 2017 ARIA Awards. AAP Image/David Moir

Pointing to the scoreboard: how Indigenous hip hop keeps talking to white Australia

Indigenous rap has been in the spotlight recently with the success of acts such as A. B. Original. The duo has had a year of awards success with their album Reclaim Australia and hit single January 26:

White Aus still got the black history (that’s true)
And that shirt will get you banned from the Parliament
If you ain’t having a conversation, well then we starting it

Like A. B. Original’s members Briggs (Yorta Yorta man Adam Briggs) and Trials (Ngarrindjeri man Dan Rankine), other Indigenous rappers have been starting public conversations about white Australia’s black history and producing various forms of hip hop since the 1980s. Rap is one of the most accessible musical genres for people with things to say, but few opportunities to say them to an audience.

One reason for A.B. Original’s success is the nature of the conversations they start – on such topics as police harassment and violence, deaths in and out of custody, Australia’s history of structural racism and the economies created by white nationalist structures, the long-term effects of those structures on individual and communal lives, and the desire and will to overcome those effects.

These topics are commonplace among many Indigenous Australians, but non-indigenous audiences rarely hear them addressed with such clarity, as well as both feeling and humour. Dan Sultan, who features on the song January 26, has said that he does not see the song “as a protest”, but “as pointing to the scoreboard”.

From the 80s to today

From its beginnings in the 1980s, Indigenous hip hop has risen in popularity in the 2010s, partly because of the dominance of social media as a means of distribution and listeners’ engagement with non-mainstream politics in Australia.

Early hip hop groups include South West Syndicate (including prolific members Munkimuk (Mark Ross) and Brothablack (Shannon Williams)) and Native Ryme Syndicate, with members still performing and mentoring new generations of artists.

In the early 2000s, Newcastle brothers Predator (Abie Wright) and Wok (Warrick Wright) formed Local Knowledge with Kabbi Kabbi man Weno (Joel Wenitong) and later Jayteehazard (Jacob Turier). The group split in 2006, with members forming Street Warriors and The Last Kinection. In the same period, the Wilcannia Mob hit Down River grew out of a Morganics workshop. Gumbayngirri man Wire MC (Will Jarrett) created new hip hop and is succeeded today by his son, the rising artist Tasman Keith.

During this time, Yorta Yorta woman and Greek Australian Little G (Georgina Chrisanthopoulos) was writing and performing about identity, communication and justice, while Kunai and Gunditjmara woman Miss Hood (Meriki Hood) was building her career as a performer, writer, composer, producer, broadcaster, mentor and activist.

Today Indigenous hip hop is as diverse as ever. In Bourke, a group of school students became B-Town Warriors.

Recent acts (among many others) include Meerooni rapper Kaylah Truth in Brisbane, Philly from Mildura, Izzy N The Profit from Sydney, Butchulla artist Birdz (Nathan Bird) from Katherine, Yuin man Nooky (Corey Webster) from Nowra, Jimblah from Adelaide and Katherine, Noongar artist Beni Bjah from Perth and Baker Boy (Yolngu man Danzel Baker), who raps in English and Yolŋu Matha.

Acts vary greatly in style, approach and musical and lyrical content. In Victoria, Ceduna-raised Lady Lash (aka Crystal Mastrosavas/Crystal Clyne/Crystal Mercy) celebrates her Greek and Kokatha ancestry and combines hip hop, jazz, soul and opera to produce “spiritual” music.

Her piece Her She Bars begins:

I skated off with my lyrical crown
Head held high with a message so proud
Walk in this world like a rose petal,
Visions of righteous girl spitting heavy mental
Hold my hands as I follow you into hiding
With the sands swallowed by the silver lining
My mouth dry but I’m hungry for that Microphone
A live wire got us jumping on these nights I flow…

Meanwhile, in the Torres Strait, Mau Power, from the Dhoebaw clan of the Guda Maluilgal nations, raps in Meriam and English, with his latest single celebrating the late Eddie Koiki Mabo:

His story
Was one about Birthright
History will remember
This great fight

That moment
Terra Nullius abolished
Planted a seed for our people
To be Acknowledged…

In their different ways, Lady Lash and Mau Power may seem more explicitly celebratory of personal and collective histories than A.B. Original. But, even as Briggs, Trials and Caiti Baker lyrically contemplate death together in the track Dead in a Minute, they maintain A.B. Original’s humour and celebrate the power of “talkin’ on the mic” and walking “into the light”:

They want me out the way, in the grave or the prison
A slave to the system so I’m talkin’ on the mic
To bring black back in fashion as I walk into the light

It might be tempting to see A.B. Original’s popular success in 2017 as a sign that non-Indigenous Australians are more open than they were in the past or that things have improved for Indigenous people across Australia. But, as with Yothu Yindi and other Indigenous groups that gained similar levels of acclaim in the late-1980s and early-1990s, popularity does not mean things have improved.

The fact that the songs on Reclaim Australia needed to be written, that the “scoreboard” had to be “pointed to”, counters this notion, perhaps as effectively as statistics on Indigenous health and education or the government’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.