Australia is a nation boasting multiculturalism and opportunity, but with a flourishing music industry that claims progressiveness, why is the face of our hip hop scene still white?
To me, Australian hip hop has always belonged to the Anglo middle-class kids, with their baggy shorts and $5 snapbacks.
They never explicitly told me I couldn’t involve myself, but what place was there for a Korean girl in a genre like that? Instead, I’d gaze up at a stage and hope that someone like me would emerge from the red smoke, but I’d only ever see a reflection of the crowd: white.
I couldn’t connect to them or their music. When the rappers spat into their mics about “Aussie pride”, I wondered if I even fit into their definitions of ‘Aussie’. And I knew it would be a long time before I ever saw an Asian rapper come under the spotlight.
While the Australian hip hop scene has definitely changed since I first discovered it, further entering the mainstream and opening its doors to wider audiences, not much has budged in terms of diverse, racial representation.
The most successful rappers in Australian hip hop are still white.
Out of the 27 Australian rap songs in the past three years of Triple J’s Hottest 100 — Triple J being one of the radio stations that truly helped bring “skip hop” to the masses — only five of those are by or featuring artists of colour.
It’s only this year that I’ve noticed people of colour slowly gaining traction in the Australian hip-hop industry: L-Fresh the Lion being one of them.
L-Fresh the Lion, real name Sukhdeep Singh, raps and talks about race politics like he was born with the words in his throat. The music he makes is raw, real, political, but ultimately fearless.
You can feel the Lion roaring in his work.
We decide to sit down at a café a couple of doors down from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre –where he moonlights as their Youth Empowerment Coordinator – and it’s a cosy little place with warm walls, run by a man with a toothy splatter of a smile on his face. Sukhdeep makes pleasant small talk with another lady from the ASRC next to us in the queue while I wring my hands nervously.
But there’s something about the way L-Fresh talks that makes it seem as if he’s citing poetry, and his hands are graceful and elegant, long fingers plucking and swimming like he’s weaving language into the air. Thick silver bangles jump around his wrists when he does this, and it’s distracting in the best way possible.
Admittedly, it’s strange to look up and know that this Punjabi guy is an Australian rapper — I’ve become so accustomed to identifying the word ‘Australian’ with white, but more importantly, to identifying the words ‘Australian hip hop’ with the same. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Indian-born migrants are the fourth largest migrant community in Australia as of 2011, but L-Fresh is the first Indian-Australian rapper I’ve ever heard of.
While it may be strange, it’s also comforting to look up and know that L-Fresh the Lion is gaining support and success, to look up and know that a South Asian man’s music is making rotations on the radio waves, and that people are listening to his story.
“The industry is slowly catching up. Whether they take it seriously or not is another question. There are artists of colour who just don’t give a shit anymore. They’re so good you can’t hold them down.” There’s a sparkle in his eyes as he says this, hands gesturing left and right, and the glimmer of a smile in his teeth. I can’t help but think that he fits into that category too: he seems like the king of his own castle, and very much in control of his own confidence.
There are others as well who are attracting solid crowds at their shows, and L-Fresh lists them off for me: Remi, Jimblah, Sampa the Great, Baro, Tkay Maidza…
But that doesn’t mean racism is extinct. The Scanlon Foundation’s 2014 Social Cohesion report says 18% of people living in Australia have experienced racial discrimination, a 9% spike from 2007’s report. What many people don’t understand about the concept of racism is that it cannot be explained in one sentence: it is systematic, affecting all facets of life, and those statistics trickle down political, economic, cultural, and social spines – including that of the music industry.
“We’re working in systems that weren’t made for us. We’re working in a playing field that was not made for us. So we’re battling that, just to exist, not even talking about music.” L-Fresh stops stirring the milk into his orange chai to take a breath and be serious, each jarring, frustrated movement of his arms across the table hitting closer to home.
I know what he means. I’ve felt that same frustration too.
“We’re set up to fail in many respects. When the people behind the scenes in the hip hop industry are predominantly white, how do we even get a foot in?”
He’s right. A white society, built on the back of oppressive colonisers, supports white people, putting them in positions of power above those who differ in skin colour, or neglecting racial minorities significant opportunities. This is a big problem in Australia’s entertainment industry at large, an industry which holds a particular focus on appearance and the visual, and an industry which L-Fresh says hip hop is reflective of.
It wasn’t even until the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992 and the debate surrounding cultural diversity from thenceforth that Australian commercial television and film gradually started opening up to performers of colour. 1992 was not that long ago. It’s no wonder we have yet to fully embrace those performers on screen, to this day.
“Flick on your TV, you’ve got morning shows – ‘Is Australia racist?’ with a panel full of white people. Flick to prime time shows, soaps, whatever – predominantly white. And when people of colour are put in roles, they tend to be put in very stereotypical roles.”
I grin as he mimics the clicking of a remote, the aerating milk in the coffee machine shrieking behind his voice. A friend and I were discussing this just the other week, him complaining that the idyllic cul-de-sac lifestyle represented in Neighbours was filmed in one of the most culturally diverse suburbs of Melbourne, and yet all they have each season is one token person of colour.
“I’ve had opportunities thrown to me that were very tokenistic. I don’t want to be put up because of that, I wanna be put up because I’m good. Because my ideas are of value, my talent is of value. Not because I have a turban or a beard.” L-Fresh strokes the latter, forefinger and thumb gliding over his upper lip to smooth back the hairs.
Try it now. Flick on your TV, as L-Fresh said, and watch the advertisements and shows: how many people of colour are there? Listen to the radio: how many hosts of colour do you know?
Look at a festival lineup: are there any musicians of colour on there at all?
It’s clear that this tokenism occurs across the board in the entertainment business, and it’s all tocreate the illusion of social cohesion. While most of us who rarely find our faces represented pick up on it straight away, denial amongst others is prevalent.
Other times, people just don’t understand. Many Anglo-Australians struggle to make sense of stories that juggle topics of racial discrimination and oppression – their privilege prevents them from doing so. And while they may be aware that this happens around them, they can still find these conversations easier to digest when it’s relayed from a white voice. One would think music, something known for bringing people of all walks of life together, would surpass all this, but unfortunately it is the same case with hip hop.
“When rap comes from person of colour, especially when it’s confrontational, [white audiences] can’t relate. Jimblah – his music is a fucking war cry, you know? It’s confrontational. It’s challenging you and what you think you know about race and race relations in this country. Remi’s ‘Ode to Ignorance’: it’s in your face, telling you “this is my experience”. It’s not as easy to digest than when the Hoods did ‘Speaking in Tongues’ for example,” L-Fresh says.
Tony Mitchell, senior lecturer of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, agrees with this idea. Mitchell has observed the hip hop scene for the past twenty years now, with a keen interest in representation of race and ethnicity. In the only photo I can find of him on Google Images, he stands with his thumb in his jean pockets, comfortable in his denim jacket and with a crooked, unprepared look on his face. He looks like the cool, ex-roadie uncle who used to own a Harley Davidson, but his e-mail responses are crisp and articulate in contrast, reminding me that he is a professional academic.
“The majority of hip hop audiences in Australia seem to be white Australians who relate to white hip hop artists. One has to dig in the margins for alternatives,” he says.
Mitchell also believes the fact that white rappers tend to rap less about race politics factors into their likability and attractiveness for white audiences. This comes as no surprise, as there is a heavy sense of denial in Australia when it comes to racism. We have a history of disguising discrimination under the term “bullying” – as can be seen with the recent Adam Goodes debate –and denying what it really is. The reality that fans consciously refuse to listen to racially charged rap songs and are able to excuse themselves with a casual “Oh, it’s not my type of music” only kicks rappers of colour off the industry ladder.
Mitchell says the mainstream coverage of Australian hip hop doesn’t help these musicians either.
“I don’t think hip hop is very different from other music genres in that respect. There have always been non-Anglo hip hop artists in the margins, as there has been with other music genres. It is only relatively recently that hip hop has reached the mainstream – it used to be a totally underground genre, so there is a certain logic to the current situation.”
The mainstream is part of a more corporate world, a place where systemic racism is brutal, and thus it is expected that those in positions of power are Caucasian. They are the ones who call the shots; they are the ones who get to smack potential artists down like the hand of God.
L-Fresh the Lion sips from the curved edge of his porcelain cup before setting it back down onto its little white plate. He steadies his elbows on the wooden table, then props himself up to flick his wrists around as he speaks.
“Australia’s known for being multicultural, but I feel like that’s been orchestrated, with power in mind.
“To the point where I was born and raised in South West Sydney, and I question whether I’m an Australian. ‘Cause I don’t even know what it means. If it means that you’re born in Australia, then I fit within that box. But why do I feel like I don’t fit in that box or category? It gets asked of me so many times. So it’s clearly not that you’re born in Australia. Clearly there’s something else there that’s unwritten. And we can see that. We can feel that.”
When he says “we”, I feel an undeniable twinge of understanding in my bones. Yes, we can see that; we can feel that. And it’s upsetting to know that so many of us from non-Anglo backgrounds have had to feel this way, at least one point in our lives: isolated and ostracised. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone under the public eye.
“It’s become a blessing that I stand out,” L-Fresh says.
“I use it to drive me to the point where I say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna be so good. I’m gonna let my music speak so loudly that no one can say no.’”
And he, and so many others like him, have succeeded in doing so, speaking out against the systems that have stopped them and paving the way for younger generations to follow. Their music and their presence is so loud that even when a white rapper may be the only thing playing on air, I can hear them in between the radio waves: yelling, spitting, empowering.