A quote from indigenous man, Ross Watson, included in Kevin Gilbert’s 1988 book, Living Black, powerfully describes the ambiguity surrounding Aboriginal identity:
What is Aboriginality? Is it being tribal? Who is an Aboriginal? … Is Aboriginality institutionalised gutlessness, an acceptance of the label ‘the most powerless people on earth?’ Or is Aboriginality when all the definitions have been exhausted a yearning for a different way of being, a wholeness that was presumed to have existed before 1776?
This fundamental question of identity is very real for Aboriginal young people, most of whom have grown up on the margins of Australia’s ‘anglo-centric’ national identity. One way in which indigenous young people are attempting to redefine their cultural identity is through the appropriation of elements of commercialised hip-hop culture — namely MCing, break-dancing and graffiti. While, on the surface this could appear to be a simple imitation of American ‘gangsta’ style, a deeper look reveals a hip hop style that is distinct, and significant to Australian indigenous youth culture, politics and resistance.
Hip-Hop and the Commercialisation of Subversion
The subversive element of hip hop first emerged in the early 1970s amongst African Americans in areas such as the South Bronx. Turntables, breaking and rapping over percussive beats took place in the streets, led by innovative figures such as Kool DJ Herc, King Stitt and Count Machouki. Symbolically, these block parties acted as a challenge to the power structures that enforced racial segregation and disadvantage.
Yet hip-hop at this early stage was not, as sometimes thought, an African American monoculture. It was multicultural, involving European, Asian and Filipino Americans and later groups as diverse as Samoans, Cubans, Mexicans and Koreans. This diversity has made hip-hop’s adoption or appropriation into other settings more fluid. Interestingly, rap and hip-hop has been further hybridised through an incorporation of localised dialects, slang idioms, musical forms and dance moves.
Over the 1980s, hip-hop was appropriated by a distinctly American, commercial industry. This marketed style of rap and hip-hop does not derive from the ghettos of the South Bronx, but instead it is made up of mostly young, middle-class black New Yorkers who liaise with white record producers, executives and publicists. A cleverly marketed image of sexually charged, black, street criminals has been created and targeted towards an audience of white suburban young men. Ironically, the more intense the image of a violent, gangster underground, the larger the white suburban audience became. This was most likely due to the reinforcement of the subordinate nature of ‘black culture’ — an exotic and ‘exciting underworld’ characterised by masochism, misogyny and violent posturing, which is at complete odds with the mainstream middle-class white values of American suburbia.
As Tony Mitchell points out in his 2003 review of Australian-made hip hop in Youth Studies Australia, in many ways, young Aboriginal men have been courted by this commercialised black gangsta image. As with that in America, the Australian Aboriginal hip-hop scene is quite masculinised, even phallocentric. Young men seek to ‘mark their presence’ in society. Their dress codes are largely an imitation of black American hip-hop street culture and clothing — oversized pants, loose hooded tops, beanies and baseball caps act as symbols of group solidarity.
Keepin’ it real
Despite this image, Aboriginal hip-hop should not simply be seen as an appropriation of externalised, commercial styles. There are other, more complex manifestations present including a number of innovative female artists rising to prominence within the scene, such as MC Trey, Triple J’s Maya Jupiter, Jade Nemesis and Ebony Williams. The presence of these women distinguishes the Aboriginal scene from American forms by destabilising the dominance of a male street culture. The emphasis of these female MCs on ‘keepin’ it real’ is also shared by many male artists, such as Lez ‘Bex’ Beckett, a well-known figure on the Australian hip hop circuit who grew up in Cunnamulla, Queensland and belongs to the Pjuinga mob. ‘Bex’ has said of his music:
I write about the positive changes you can make with your life, about everyday living, about the struggle to survive, especially if you are a blackfella … I tell them, ‘keep it Australian’, because while it is an American form, we can incorporate our lives into it, we rap our own way.
Other artists including Wire MC, Brothablack, Morganics and group Local Knowledge have been the driving forces of this scene not only in urban areas but also through workshops in remote communities around Australia. The workshops seek to provide tools though which Aboriginal youth can articulate their place in Australian society. For the artists involved, it is a chance to provoke change — to improve the connection between youth and community elders, to give young people a sense of purpose and motivation, and most importantly, to give power to the notion of blackness. These aims are often achieved through the incorporation of traditional rituals and practices into more global techniques such as MCing, breaking and freestylin’.
The New Corroboree
Traditional Aboriginal language has never operated in written form. It is oral, characterised by storytelling, music, dance and other creative arts. Some skilled artists rap in their local languages, which lend themselves (more so than English) to the lyrical flow of hip-hop. MC Wire, a Gumbayngirri descendant from Bowraville, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, describes this dynamic blend of the traditional and contemporary as a ‘modern day corroboree’:
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.
Another powerful way of keeping the Aboriginal hip-hop scene ‘real’ is through the use of lyrics as an expression of anger about experiences of racism, segregation and victimisation. Rappers tug at the inherent contradictions of white Australia, such as the parallels between the nation’s colonialist history and current government policies that act as a façade for an underlying preference for assimilation. The lyrics of many Aboriginal hip-hop tracks are overt calls to political action, emphasising the struggle of indigenous youth against a racist, monocultural Australia. Sydney collective South West Syndicate, rap in distinctly Australian (not American) accents:
Ha ha I’m back all with South West Syndicate so make your call
Slappin’ high fives everywhere I go with my lyrical flow that I know, so –
Our nation of residence is getting hesitant
They can’t do shit cos’ they got no evidence
200 years of this bullshit us kooris have had enough
So you better quit
Got brothers like me behind bars and in the gutter
Portraying us as stupid black fuckers
The white man’s plan is getting outta hand
We’re being hung up in your cells across the land
Keep an eye on them drunks in the park
Time for us to raise up outta the dark
From Broome all the way to Redfern
Brothers and sistas raise up it’s your turn
‘Bex’ also draws on overt symbolism of war in his lyrics:
If death is universal then why must it be so controversial for this land of Australia has had it own wrath from the beginning. My people have had their lives ripped from oceans to shore and beyond why must this degradation take place, why must we acustomise pure induction for the wealth of another world order. Tell me why this f**king war
War — what do we need it for?
This War, war in the streets
My people dying, my people, crying
War, war what do we need it for?
Now for my people with this genocide,
Open up and realise’
The out cry from our gravel road
To city street’s
Enterprise of calculated pride
It make ya think
As dwindling picture
Sticking like a photo pressed in fine print (as)
I’m closing out each day on memories
Surround by thicken greed of swollen needs
Energy in the earth
Is all we need,
As hope goes floating by with cloud soaring high,
Like our desert eagle flies in the midnight sky
The morning dawn dies in
Power of urban cultural zed suicides
Turning trogan lies
Now optimised these
People in disguise
Telling story like they earn the glory
By negative demeans
As a riser in this youth cultural
It makes the buck seem closer
But in real eyes
It’s the witness to these white crimes
That turns the tides
As opportunity melt away
Like the scenes of yesterday play
In a white man’s game
No one hears a brother’s cry in vain
WAR — what do we need it for?
The use of powerful lyrics is not the only message of resistance. Other central elements of the Aboriginal hip-hop scene include break-dancing and graffiti, which have also been used (in more subtle ways) as forms of resistance. These acts are symbolic, linked to the reclamation of public urban space — space which, for young Aboriginal people, is controlled and regulated through mechanisms of surveillance, most notably state intervention. In Rob White’s Youth and Public Space Report (1999), interviews were carried out with 80 young Aboriginal people from areas such as Darwin and Alice Springs. When asked about police presence on the street, the most common response was a feeling of restriction:
Being black, people think you’re going to commit a crime … They don’t like us hanging out in large groups, because there’s a lot of us and they’re suspicious … They follow us everywhere, wherever we’re going, playing tough cops sort of thing.
As an attempt to break free from this racially oriented ‘panopticism’, the practice of graffiti and break dancing give youth a temporal sense of agency. Symbolic statements and assertions of black pride or presence are found in tagging and aerosol art, and through break dancing in public spaces. These acts can also be understood in an abstract sense as an attempt by Aboriginal youth at ‘recolonisation’ — reclaiming social space that has been marked by a history of dispossession. Graffiti in particular acts as resistance or rebellion through opportunism, where youth find a thrill in the risk of being caught. Graffiti gains its power as a persistent marker of ‘presence’, or agency, through destruction. The often-unaesthetic appearance of tagging is perhaps most powerful as a confronting reminder to the public of underprivilege, street violence and racial oppression, particularly in a society that seeks to hide these issues.
Nevertheless, the political and social power of such acts is weakened by a wider public perception of graffiti as spurred by no deeper motive than needless criminality. The underlying aim of graffiti to shock and confront is not grasped by the wider Australian public, who are outsiders to the intricate forms of social knowledge created within the hip-hop culture. Nevertheless, these symbols of resistance remain for long periods, effectively transforming previously state-controlled urban space into the symbolic property of those who have created it. So graffiti gains power, not only in space but also through time — as expressions from the past, present and into the future.
Aboriginal hip-hop is without doubt a complex cultural text. Yet it is a mistake to understand it merely as an appropriation of externalised, global forms. As a form of cultural expression, Aboriginal hip-hop functions as a reinterpretation of Aboriginality. It provides an empowering, even cathartic experience for disenfranchised Aboriginal youth, giving them a sense of belonging, and most importantly, a voice. To unlock the key messages for a better future, we should look to Aboriginal youth and their hip hop message: ‘Keep it real’.
Check out the following artists:
Brothablack (originally a member of South West Syndicate)
‘More than a feeling’ Distributed by Obese Records, 2006
Wire MC & Morganics
(see also www.morganics.info/live/)
Tracks titled ‘Hey all you mob’ and ‘Ska’ are by by youth from Mt Liebig Aboriginal Community, NT; the Wilcannia Mob has a track called ‘The River’.
‘Leave Me Alone’ with Mystro
Blazin 4 Mix CD Universal Records, 2005
DJ Nino Brown EP, 2005
‘Today’ Debut Album (Mother Tongues Collective), 2004
‘Foreign Heightz’ album with Maya Jupiter and DJ Nick Toth, 2006
Tapastry Tunes CD album, Shock records/tapastry toons, 2003.
Cristina Notarpietro-Clarke is a student in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.