Does Aussie hip-hop have a problem with racism?
This week at TheVine sees the return of Group Therapy, a semi-regular column that operates as a music industry Q&A – a missive we send out to a great many people in order to gauge their feedback on a particular issue.
Previously on Group Therapy:What is the value of recorded music?
Why aren't you going to Splendour this year?
US hip-hop industry reacts to Chris Lilley's 'Angry Boys'
SING! with Geoffrey O'Connor, We Are The In Crowd, Seja
SING! with Story of the Year, The Bats, Felix Reibel
Thomas Rock turned heads in mid-July when he used an appearance on national youth broadcaster triple j to talk about racism in Australian hip-hop. The Def Wish Cast vocoder man conducts workshops with at-risk and marginalised youth in and around Sydney, and chatted at some length with Hip-Hop Show host Hau Latukefu about the worrying trend of white pride and toyshop patriotism that he was witnessing during his sessions.
Rock’s words caused a stir, both in the rap community and the wider music scene. Hip-hop in Australia has often been the target of snobbish derision when it comes to the quality and content of its output, but are there any grounds for accusing the local genre of being tainted with racism?
With this in mind, TheVine dialled some digits and asked 14 of Australia’s biggest hip-hop artists – Rock included – the following question:
“Does Australian hip-hop have a problem with racism?”
Suffa, MC and producer with Hilltop Hoods, co-founder of Golden Era Records (Adelaide)
Yeah, I think there’s racism in local hip-hop. That’s part of what inspired us to do the track ‘Speaking in Tongues’ on the latest record: we’d noticed some xenophobia in our fan base through the social networks. Which was confusing to us, because we’d been raised on everything from Public Enemy to Poor Righteous Teachers. So we just wanted to re-enforce with our fan base: “This is what we’re about. Hopefully you’re about it too.”
We’d see it on YouTube. You might have someone coming over from Louisiana and saying, “I really like these guys. Shout-outs from Kentucky,” and you’d have all these guys leap on him saying, “Fuck off you American shit!” and just attack. It was just bizarre, and confusing.
I know where this comes from: it’s all about the accent debate. Really early on, people like us and Def Wish Cast and others were really pushing to be ourselves because that’s what hip-hop’s about. So it came from this position of not being ashamed of sounding like who you are, but it’s now turned into: “I’m proud of what I am, and I dislike what you are.” So it came from a good place where we were trying to find our own identity, and I’m really proud of that, but I’m disappointed that it’s spun into this thing where it’s gone from not being ashamed of who you are to being overtly patriotic without cause.
With more diverse voices coming into the genre it will break down this problem. We’ve done a video for ‘Rattling the Keys to the Kingdom’, featuring cameo artists from all over Australia of all different backgrounds. And that shows the diversity of artists in Australia, but what’s not reflected yet is the success of such diverse artists. The people having a lot of success – us, Drapht, Bliss N Eso, 360 – there’s not a lot of diversity there. But it’s the strength of their art that will eventually help break down those barriers.
Urthboy, MC and co-founder of Elefant Traks (Sydney/Blue Mountains)
Local rap’s become fairly mainstream because it mirrors Australian society, so it’s inevitable that we also reflect back some of the uglier sides of our national identity. And it’s not something perpetuated by the artists. Hip-hop is a fairly new culture. It’s 40 years old. It’s black in origin. It’s from New York City. It’s from struggle. That’s why when racism comes up in hip-hop it’s a sore point. Because it flies in the face of everything the culture came from. That’s why it’s an issue, but at least we’re confronting it.
It’s definitely good to get the word out on national radio. Unfortunately, it then becomes a dialogue where people say, “Oh well, Australian rap is racist.” Well, no, there’s racism in Australian society and it infiltrates at every single level. Try walking in the shoes of someone who’s a different skin colour – then you’ll see the extent to which racism can affect your daily life.
This is why I’m such a strong believer in Aboriginal hip-hop: there is a platform to tell those stories in ways that sometimes our society closes its ears off to. Because I think the Aboriginal story is important for indigenous people, but I also think it’s really, really important for white people. We have to tell local stories and embrace them with a sense of pride.
Get more of these indigenous artists out there in the public sphere and you are unquestionably going to improve things. You are going to see more people following the lead. I am absolutely 100 percent rock solid on that; there’s no question about it. It should be perceived as the exciting thing that is coming up. It’s not that it hasn’t been here for a while – of course it has – but people should embrace it. This is fucking hip-hop.
Jimblah, MC (Adelaide)
Yes, to put it simply. That’s my experience as an indigenous artist. I know a lot of the older heads are very proper and of course they know what hip-hop’s all about, but a lot of the younger generation coming through have issues and can be quite racist.
I first started picking up on it on the internet – of course. I don’t understand: people would add me on Facebook and then offensive shit would come up on their timelines. You might call people out after they’ve posted a meme or something like that, and they’ll claim that they’re not racist. And I understand that – a lot comes down to ignorance – but then occasionally there is that full-on in-your-face hate.
When I made my ‘Racism in Ozhiphop’ video I had a major chip on my shoulder. I was very angry because I’d seen this thing going on for a while and when I finally tried to discuss it, nobody really wanted to engage. Hence the video. I think with myself and other indigenous artists, we tend to bite our tongues a little bit, but I just thought, “Fuck this man.” If I can’t stand up and be myself in hip-hop, then what’s the point? This is hip-hop. And after I did the video, so many indigenous artists hit me up and talked about being inspired to speak up.
Tommy speaking up on triple j does make indigenous artists more confident in talking about it themselves. But it’s always so much different when it comes from someone who’s not indigenous – that’s just the way it is, for better or worse. So I was glad Tommy did that. It certainly got a lot more people talking.
Azmarino, MC – Diafrix (Melbourne)
Momo and I have been in the industry for about ten years now, and what we’ve found is that among the MCs – among the Aussie hip-hop community – there’s no such thing as racism. Absolutely everyone has a common understanding.
But where we find a bit of a difficulty—as African-Australian artists—is if you’re talking from a multi-cultural standpoint. Aussie hip-hop is not targeting that urban non-Anglo music community. In Melbourne, if we do a gig and get 600 people, half of that crowd will be multi-cultural, and those people don’t listen to triple j or Nova or other radio stations. So 50 percent of our crowd aren’t voting for us to be played on triple j and so on. We have a lot of talented MCs in Aussie hip-hop who are of various ethnic backgrounds, but they’re having trouble crossing over because they won’t get that request or support from Australian radio.
We supported Bliss N Eso recently, and at the concert you could see that patriotic ‘Aussie-Aussie’ thing going on. Which is great, because it’s giving young Australians from an Anglo background a voice. But now the genre’s gotten so big that it’s time for it to spread its wings and become a bit more inclusive of other stories, immigrant and indigenous. Having white MCs standing by us, collaborating on tracks and so on, will help develop role models for the wider community.
I would totally agree with the idea that it’s part of a wider problem with issues of race in the country. And the media, to be totally honest, has not been helping much. It often seems to create more division between communities. That affects us as MCs, but it just means that we have to work twice as hard to bring that commonness back together, and hip-hop is a beautiful way to do that because no matter what their background, young people listen to rap music.
Dialectrix, MC (Blue Mountains)
The short answer is yes. A small yet growing percentage of young fans believe Australian artists to be the best at rapping and that other countries’ artists – including the US – are naturally inferior. It’s an overly patriotic reaction of taking all the “Australian” and leaving out most of the “hip-hop”. It’s been exacerbated by artists pandering to a larger audience with the marketable effectiveness of colloquial content, as racism wasn't a problem that existed in the genre prior to its commercial acceptance.
Australia has had problems with racial integration as a whole for a very long time. Our political history is entwined with it via various policies – the White Australia Policy, for instance – and the long term effects have been strong enough to impact contemporary society. It’s manifested itself as a racial discrimination that’s still, although in the minority, intrinsically a part of modern Australia.
Hip-hop originated from, and is still widely regarded as, a predominantly black and Afro-centric culture. Australian hip-hop embraced the beauty, character and lifestyle of Australians and the passion, knowledge and creativity of hip-hop. It’s a mongrel mutation. And the more this half-cast mutation merges with popular culture in a racially tense country, the more you will see confusion and conflict. Any Australian who truly loves hip-hop could never be racist. It’s pure lunacy. It’s just that the current term “Australian hip-hop” in many ways has changed etymologically away from what it once meant as more and more uneducated followers represent it in an overly patriotic sense.
Does Australian hip-hop have a problem with racism? Yes. But only because more people in a nation that has a history of racial intolerance are being exposed to the genre and choosing to represent it.
(Continued next page)