I’m Not Racist But…

Definitely a compelling title right? This was the title of a community conversation held at the Seymour Center on the University of Sydney’s campus. It was one of many events hosted in part by the New South Wales Reconciliation Council targeted to fight racism in Australia directed predominately towards the indigenous community and refugees. L-Fresh, a.k.a ‘The Lion’, was one of four invited speakers. I have had the pleasure of working with him while I volunteered at Street University (which I will tell you about more in my next post). He is a hip-hop artist who has shared the stage with Nas, Public Enemy and Urthboy and spoken at conventions, most recently for Amnesty International. L-Fresh (picture courtesy of L-Fresh) is a young vibrant artist who has a way of succinctly stating really big ideas and deep thought… yet he is very approachable, and always ready to share a smile. So listening to his accounts of how he was made to feel different because of his religious practices was both saddening (because of how he was treated) and inspirational (because of how he handled it). I asked him to expand a bit more on the topic, and he provided this statement…

“I feel like there is a deep-rooted need for distinction or definition. The scene in Australia is very much divided. Hip-hop in Australia is still very much underground. It is only just beginning to tap into the mainstream. Nevertheless, there still feels as though there is a sort of mainstream and underground divide.

When people talk about Aussie Hip-hop, they seem to be talking about a style; a way of representing Australia in hip-hop. There’s then this need to bring everything ‘Australian’ to the genre. When people distinguish Aussie hip-hop from hip-hop from America, they are focusing on accents, delivery, slang and terminology, beats, etc. Many of those who claim ‘Aussie hip-hop’ detest anything that sounds like it’s from America. So when a young artist; who is just starting to record their music and get their music out there; who is very much influenced by US based hip-hop; and who is only just beginning to find their own style, comes out, they instantly get criticised and not supported, or encouraged. It’s as if those who claim to own ‘Aussie hip-hop’ want to keep the genre ‘pure’.

To me, it is very much an embodiment of the dominant, mainstream Anglo culture that is prevalent in many parts of Australia. If you come to Sydney and explore hip-hop culture, you will see what I’m talking about. Youth from ethnic backgrounds, who identify more with hip-hop from the US, and who create music of a similar kind, are kept out of the dominant hip-hop scene, and if they try to get in, they are criticised, and if they create their own scene, that scene is criticised. There is no opportunity for growth.”

Mirrah Reflects and Hau Latukefu (picture courtesy of Hau) of Koolism, (check out their blog at: http://koolism.blogspot.com/) also explored the idea of a segregated hip-hop scene in Australia. Some conscious artist, or artist who make it a point of including social and political commentary in their music don’t feel they have access to mainstream venues. In another vein, a conversation arose about the distinction between what is “Aussie hip-hop” and everything else. I asked Hau to clear up some misconceptions that I may have developed about the hip-hop scene here in Sydney.

Many artists who I have spoken to, (DJ Peril, Matt Mistery, Hau, Morganics, etc…), note that the movie Beat Street and the break dancing it inspired had the biggest impact on the hip-hop in Australia. Hau observed that at the time Beat Street came out (in the late 80’s), a lot of ethnicities were looking for their identity in Australia. “They had their own [identity], but in a predominately White country, hip-hop provided that. They saw Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, with this new, exciting, edgy culture…a lot of Europeans, Islanders, and Asians were drawn to that culture”. The hip-hop scene was an extremely multicultural scene. He admired artist like KRS-1 and Big Daddy Kane, who sent a clear message of authenticity through their lyrics. He admired and related to the fact that they proud of who they were, despite the oppression. Hau points out that in the grand scheme of things, life is good in both the United States and Australia, but as an ethnicity, you are confronted with the feeling of being an outsider in your own space. Here comes hip-hop, a youth led movement, that is has elements of defiance and rebellion to resist selling out and being something that you are not.

Inspired by his older sister and cousins, Hau (as part of Koolism) came out on Australia’s scene in the early/mid 90s, along with groups like Bliss and Eso, and Hilltop Hoods, which have seen a fair amount of commercial success inside and outside of Australia. Hau had much praise for both of these groups, as he saw first hand how hard they worked, their amazing talent, and the respect they had for hip-hop culture. He also noted that they have the greatest appeal to a specific artist in Australia; White suburbia. During this time, Australia’s White suburbia was starting to listen to 2Pac and Biggie Smalls. The youth in these areas could relate to groups like Hilltop Hoods, and later Bliss and Eso, and other groups who emerged from White Suburbia during this time, which helped propelled them into mainstream media. Hau suggested that the rise of these groups unintentionally inspired the rise of nationalistic pride, with White kids only listening to only Australian hip-hop or local artist. “…to listen to hip-hop by itself is bad enough, but to listen to only local artist… a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t like hip-hop but I listen to Hilltop Hoods’ .. Which could be a good thing or bad thing, but generally it is because they are local (suburban) artist is what people are relating to {when fans make statements like that]”.

This led us to a discussion about race in hip-hop. In an Australia context, there are challenges that non-White artist face in having access to mainstream media play due to their political messages. Alternatively, some White artist have experienced challenges performing in a media that originated in response to the end of the Civil Rights movement in the United States as a way of telling stories that were being eclipsed in mainstream media. These contentions are some of the things that help make Australian hip-hop uniquely Australian, and not simply an appropriation of American culture. In some ways, Hau observes, Australian artist have picked up the gauntlet that seems to have been dropped by American artist, because you will hear more music that speaks to local as well as general societal topics than what is currently being produced in the states. However, we both had to acknowledge that while hip-hop is a culture, it is also music… and sometimes a song is just a song.

Personally, I can say my experiences in Australia have inspired conceptual change and more questions about the social constructs of race and global citizenship. I will speak more about these big ideas in academic articles in which I am in the process of collaborating/writing.

2 thoughts on “I’m Not Racist But…

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