It’s a wet February night in Melbourne. The city is finally cooling down after days of summer sun, and people are staying home. The crowd at the Laundry is small. Nuggety white men in their early 20s trip-trap on their toe tips, gripping pots of beer in the near dark. The Fitzroy bar is almost bare – unusual for an inner-city live music institution. The DJ offers a few tracks of pounding hip-hop but no one looks up from their screens. And then, a ripple: three young South Sudanese men enter – imposingly tall, skin glinting. The Vietnamese bartender runs a hand over his smooth scalp and watches them glide through the Fitzroy crowd. They’re striking. But it’s more than that. They’re visible. Africans are still new here, dating back only to the famine-led Horn of Africa exodus in the 1990s.
Emcee and gig organiser Julez Gregory stands beside me. He’s tall and white, with a lion’s ruff of a beard and piercing eyes.
‘Hip-hop here is fairly Anglo,’ Julez shouts over the booming bass. ‘But this night bridges a lot of gaps, racially speaking. Mainstream Australian hip-hop is more patriotic and a bit hesitant to accept other cultures. The influx of immigrants [into the scene] is forcing people to consider the stereotypes they were brought up with.’ He nods towards the trio. ‘The guys coming out of the African scene are really musically advanced. And the Anglos are appreciative of that, because it’s about skills. You might not understand what they’re saying when they spit rhymes – language is a challenge – but hip-hop is the bridge.’
The leader of the three comes to greet us. He’s taller than either of his companions, with a gentle face. A bundle of hair runs down his back ending in brown wax tips. This is Makol Wol, one of the rappers making African-Australian hip-hop a reality. We shake hands. He’s exhausted; jetlagged from a long flight back from Nairobi, Kenya, his second country, and before that, Juba, the capital of South Sudan, his first. ‘Where am I?’ he asks, half joking. Julez steps forwards. ‘Mxc Wol – you’re up,’ he says. At the sound of his stage name – pronounced ‘Mix Wol’ – Makol breaks into a broad grin.
For eight years, the Laundry played host to Street Poetics – an open mic night for wannabe emcees. As Australian hip-hop went from cringe in the early 1990s (think teenagers rapping badly about their train lines) to mainstream success, the Laundry quietly cultivated Melbourne talent. It’s here that the career of top emcee Mantra began and where commercial hip-hop operator 360 kicked off. But it’s also where Melbourne’s newest arrivals come to show what’s been done to hip-hop as it leapt from America to Africa: recreated, localised, the music of Africa’s poor in megacities. Now, in Australia, hip-hop’s latest iteration is underway.
Mxc Wol leaps up on stage and grabs the mic. ‘This is my homeboy Miracle,’ he announces, gesturing to a short Latin-American emcee. ‘We gonna perform for y’all.’ Their DJ sets them in motion with a pounding beat, a child’s melody floating over the top. Mxc Wol kicks off: ‘Sudan was horrible / Sudan was invaded,’ he raps. Miracle’s voice is low and sharp-edged, while Mxc Wol booms and thrums. They set their arms into motion – the classic hip-hop lever-arm – machinery drawing out buried strings of words.
I know one thing about Mxc Wol – that he was praised by the world-famous South Sudanese hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal as the best new Sudanese rapper he’d seen. We arrange to meet up. I want to know why rap is becoming the music of African-Australians. But I know little of hip-hop’s roots. And so I read, and I find that the commonly accepted trajectory of hip-hop is a little off. The place is right: New York, the South Bronx. So is the period: the early 1970s. But hip-hop is a new iteration of much older musical forms. In part, hip-hop came from West Africa – from the tradition of wandering griot bards, storytellers who spoke in rhyme. When Europeans forced millions of West Africans into squalid ships to work on New World plantations in the Caribbean, amongst their number were griots. During the long centuries of life and death on the plantations the singsong music was kept alive, a way for slaves to cling to traditions. But while the spoken roots of hip-hop were in place during the slave and liberation years, the distinctive breakbeats of hip-hop had to wait until the 1970s, for a man named Clive Campbell.
Clive Campbell was a human vector. He spent his early life in Jamaica, a West African nation transplanted to the Caribbean by slavery. But it was in New York that he discovered that Jamaica’s burgeoning dancehall could be mixed with American technology. In his youth in Kingston, he had watched influential DJs like King Tubby strip a track back to just the drum and bass lines and toast over the top of it, sending out boasting rhymes to cheers from the crowd. Why not repeat that in America? Experimenting with cheap gramophones, Campbell drew out and repeated the beat from hard funk tracks, throwing down his own griot strains over the top to create the simmering poetry of the poor, the first hip-hop. Then he began performing as DJ Kool Herc, and soon, the thing he’d made was out of his hands. Black Americans added their own take, such as the verbal jousting of ‘the dozens’, a game where the aim is to insult your rival’s mother as wittily and offensively as possible. From there, hip-hop took off, drawing in Latinos, Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans. Early hip-hop became synonymous with black empowerment, an exhumation of buried rage, a rejection of white authority. Alongside Kool Herc came other founding fathers of hip-hop like the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, the block parties of the Puerto Rican Ghetto Brothers, and Afrika Bambaataa. They came up with names for hip-hop culture: emceeing, DJing, B-boying and graffiti writing. It wasn’t only the spitting poetry that made rap transcendent – it was what lay beneath, the great pulse of rhythm, the sanctified beat of African-American music, a surviving vestige of the pre-Christian religions of Africa.
But forty years later, American hip-hop is both more and less than what it was, moving from the fierce anger of the ghetto to bitches and bling – the fetishising of success, American style. And in reaction to this, black Africans are reclaiming music they see as theirs by birthright. What a claim, say groups like Senegal’s Daara J, to say hip-hop started in the Bronx when rapping has gone on in Africa for millennia! ‘Hip-hop was born in Africa [and] went around the world to come back to Africa, like a boomerang that has been thrown from the motherland and is back home,’ singer Faada Freddy told the American broadcaster PBS in 2005. But this isn’t quite the truth either – rhymes and toasting, yes, but the music behind it is very much a synthesis from the Americas, according to global hip-hop scholar Sujatha Fernandes.
‘For all its global reach and spread, hip-hop is ultimately about the local,’ Fernandes says. She’s right. In the 1980s and 1990s, American hip-hop conquered Africa, only to be torn apart and reconstructed. In South Africa, it was subsumed into kwaito; settlement music grounded in post-apartheid politics. In Ghana, hip-hop became hiplife, an admixture of rap and local jazzy-sounding highlife. In Tanzania’s former capital, Dar es Salaam, hip-hop culture was absorbed into bongo flava (a synth-heavy urban Swahili style) or became the neotribal sound of young Maasai. Across Africa – particularly the English-speaking swathes – hip-hop rules. The untimely death of Nairobi rapper E-Sir in a car crash in 2003 is still mourned by millions of young Swahili speakers across East Africa, just as hardcore American hip-hop fans mourn the murdered 2Pac. African-American hip-hop is still popular in Africa, for its powerful black voices and the link to the Western life, but local voices have the upper hand. And then, as African hip-hop swelled, it too began travelling – back to the West on the tongues of Somali and Congolese refugees, in the minds of students from Ethiopia and Kenya.
In South Sudan, where Makol Wol was born, there is a common tradition amongst cow herder tribes of a game called Wit, one of hip-hop’s many precursor forms. It is a game of male braggadocio, performed to single women – this is who I am, this is what I can do, this is how many cows I have. Hearing his uncles indulge in Wit is one of Makol’s earliest memories, I discover, and one of the most powerful he has of the few years he spent in his homeland.
When Makol was seven, the war came to his village. The colonial fiction of Sudan – a wealthy Arab north and poor African south jammed into a single nation – was bloodily dissolving in Africa’s longest civil war. Backed by the northerners in Khartoum, the Janjaweed horseback militia mounted punitive strikes on any southern villages suspected of harbouring rebel soldiers. The Janjaweed took Makol’s village without a fight. But then the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels decided they had to take it back, and a brutal little war unfolded. As Makol and his family fled, a mortar round landed squarely in the middle of their group with a whistling ‘whoomp’. For a moment, no one moved. Were they dead? No – the mortar hadn’t gone off. But then, a cry. ‘My baby sister didn’t have a strong heart,’ Makol tells me. ‘She died there. But we survived. We made it to Kenya, and now I am here, and for a reason.’
As a teenager growing up in Nairobi, Makol heard the popular American rappers – 50 Cent, Ludacris – and found them faintly silly. ‘If you convert Wit to American hip-hop, it’s the same but with drum beats,’ he says. ‘But my story and their story are totally different. When they talk about guns – that’s everyday life over in Africa.’ He laughs heartily. So it was not 50 Cent who first spoke to him – it was the Kenyan rapper, E-Sir, who first captured his own story of life on the Nairobi streets.
Makol leans forwards on his comfortable studio chair. We’re upstairs in the Footscray house he shares with his partner, in the city he has lived in since 2003. ‘E-Sir was a superstar, but the world don’t know him. But I do understand. He is my hero.’ Makol cups one large hand inside the other and looks up. ‘E-Sir was our 2Pac – killed before he got really big. He was all about everyday living, about trying to move on.’ Makol took to hip-hop the instant he arrived in Australia in 2003, wanting the power to compel an audience that comes when verse is bound into a song. Soon, the shy refugee had a new persona. As Mxc Wol he had a way to project power, tell stories and raise questions.
In the poorer places of the world, music is many things. It is entertainment – a tune to sing as you work, as you scour denuded scrubland for firewood. It is momentum – a sense of passage through life. It is community – a connecting force. And it is also a free education for street kids, slum lifers, war orphans. Music contains messages – preaching, even, but also life simulacra. In the West, message music has been relegated to the slightly earnest counterculture decades, when the youth had the numbers but not the power. When Makol talks about the message of the music he makes as Mxc Wol, he is necessarily earnest. He has fled Sudan’s badlands, and so what propels him into song is the desire to use his voice – that slim purchase on a new society – to call a message into life from a society far away. Mxc Wol’s approach mirrors child soldier turned rapper Emmanuel Jal, who crusades against African-American gangsta rap for its bad messages.
‘Tell me about African-Australian hip-hop,’ I say. ‘Does it exist? And if so – what is it?’ Mxc Wol ponders. His music and public persona draw on the proclamation of early American rap. But in person he is almost shy. Finally, he says this: ‘There are a lot of African artists who are working their way up in Melbourne. It’s great stuff. So with the right mind and the right message, we can make a strong voice.’ He clears his throat. ‘When hip-hop started in America, it wasn’t like I got this, you ain’t got that. It was more about storytelling. But as they went through the years, it just became marketing. Australians have got more stories to tell than Americans. They’ve already had their chance.’
Mxc Wol’s complaint is common. It is not, as Daara J would claim, that African hip-hop is more historically ‘authentic’. But it is true that African hip-hop is closer to how its fans live. South African white trash rappers Die Antwoord boast of how much realer their stories are, in crime-ridden Johannesburg, compared with the manufactured feuds of wealthy US rappers.
The stories Mxc Wol tells are from his three homes – South Sudan, Kenya and Australia. In his track ‘Sin City’, he draws on the lives of the Sudanese child soldiers: ‘Lord can you hear me calling / my people are dying because of devil dollars / back home we don’t have movie theatres / we have battlefields for worries and guns for sale.’
‘In my music, I ask – if we unite, what would happen?’ Mxc Wol pauses for long seconds. There is a message here. It makes me uncomfortable, this pause. ‘There’s war happening. But can we work together? Can we do positive things?’ Mxc Wol is speaking to me, an Australian in peacetime, but he is also longing for an audience in his first home. South Sudan: independent since 2011 and yet still ravaged by a new civil war, this one between tribes.
Even when you get to a peaceful land, challenges remain. What was it, I wondered, that makes hip-hop appeal to African migrants? Was it because of their youth, growing up listening to American and African rappers? Or is it more – is it, in a white majority land, a way to negotiate being simply ‘black’ or ‘African’ instead of Dinka, Nuer or Surma? It seems so, for what defines African-Australian hip-hop, more than anything else, is rapping about your own life, your challenges, your identity. In ‘Everywhere I Go’, Mxc Wol raps: ‘I’m sick and tired of hearing Africans are more violent than educated / We ain’t going nowhere we right here.’
Mxc Wol is at the forefront of a wave of non-Anglo artists making hip-hop heavy on the message. But he’s by no means the only African-Australian rapper. The pioneering Eritrean-Comoros Islander duo Diafrix have already hit the mainstream, going from Footscray to major airplay to performing at Glastonbury in 2011. Through Mxc Wol, I hear of the others rising through the ranks. But how did this begin? Are they riding on the decade-long wave of interest in Australian hip-hop, or are they carving out their own niche?
In 1995, Mushroom Records put out Home Brews, an early compilation of Aussie hip-hop. The liner notes read: ‘The prevailing attitude is that only American hip-hop is real… The main challenge for Australian hip-hop is to discover and consolidate what makes it unique.’ Skip-hop, it turned out, was the answer: white-boy hip-hop heavy on the Australian accent. Def Wish Cast ran a thread of nationalism through their early rap anthem ‘A.U.S.T’: ‘On hip-hop charts they come across a new discovery / US, U.K, U.S – what A.U.S.T?’ When hip-hop researcher Ian Maxwell met Sereck from the group in 1995, the Anglo rapper told him this: ‘They’ll tell you it’s a black thing, man. But it isn’t…It’s our thing.’ And so this malleable form became shaped anew – as the music of working-class whites from the outer suburbs.
In the noughties, Australian hip-hop began powering upwards. The timing was right, as a new surge of Aussie pride was rippling through the nation’s veins. The country was cashed up on iron ore, and we coasted proudly through the GFC. And there was still a lurking disquiet about multiculturalism and the dilution of Australia’s white dominance, visible most clearly in the million votes garnered by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in 1998 and, seven years later, in the anti-Lebanese riots on Cronulla beach in 2005. Hanson – a window to the unfiltered white Australian id – had spent the late 1990s railing about Asian immigration before Howard commandeered her voters. When she resurfaced in the noughties, she’d switched tack. Gone were her issues with Asians. Now, she was worried about Africans – the newest and most visible minority. And African migrants and refugees knew it. They could feel it in the air. How could they overcome this sense of difference?
Fuelled by a resurgent Aussie nationalism, the Aussie hip-hop scene grew. Australian artist MC Justice won the Scribble Jam MC Battle in 2005, then the world’s biggest emcee challenge. The following year, independent filmmaker Oriel Guthrie made the documentary Skip Hop and popularised the term as a reclamation of skip, the disparaging schoolyard slang for Anglo-Australian. But did the strong sense of Aussie pride in hip-hop mean racism? Thomas Rock of long-time skip hop crew Def Wish Cast sparked a mini storm in 2012 when he told Triple J that many fans – and artists – had seized on the ‘Aussie’ part of Aussie hip-hop. ‘A lot of friends…have felt this racism growing in hip-hop. They saw hip-hop being for everyone and now they’re getting that racist backlash towards them. They’re being told you’re not Australian hip-hop because you’re black and that’s really scary,’ he said. In a follow-up, the Vine asked top Aussie artists whether hip-hop had a racism problem in this country. Most said yes – to a degree. ‘It’s like national pride mixed in with this strange sense of ownership,’ Melbourne emcee Fluent Form said.
But while Australian hip-hop’s mainstream remained resolutely patriotic, with growth came spread. Before long, you didn’t necessarily need nasal tones and nationalism to make it. Radio-friendly groups like Hilltop Hoods got big fast, diluting ocker accents with snippets of female vocals. Earnest progressives The Herd turned hip-hop political during the conservative rule of John Howard’s government. Bliss n Eso, a trio with roots in America, Australia and Morocco became huge here and overseas. And then came a new wave: Aboriginal, Asian, Latin American and African artists, who set about moving hip-hop away from skip domination.
I meet Diafrix’s Khaled Abdulwahad at a cheery community centre in Fitzroy. He has a quiver of loosely bound dreadlocks, a lean face built for grinning and an easy air about him. He looks as if he’d be good at his day job as a youth worker with African kids at the nearby commission flats. Khaled is Eritrean by birth; his arrival here dates back to the 1990s, when the Horn of Africa was starving. The short version of Diafrix’s career is from a Footscray garage to Glastonbury, but in reality, the duo took the iceberg approach. Eight years of unseen work lay under the waterline. Diafrix were on the outer during the early skip-hop years. ‘For a long time, we were known as a community band. It was hard to be taken seriously,’ Khaled says. By community, he means ‘ethnic’ – the type of group called upon to perform a positive version of multiculturalism, perform the role of grateful migrant for white audiences.
Why have Diafrix become so heavily involved in mentoring other African rappers? ‘For younger Africans, there are no role models of black leaders,’ he says. ‘So hip-hop is a way of saying – this is how a black man is successful, this is how he is king in the Western world. But if they listen to gangbanger disrespectful hip-hop, that can be damaging. We let them know about the other side of hip-hop – positive artists – and make them understand about racism and politics.’ Now I understand why Mxc Wol and Diafrix make message hip-hop as opposed to American gangsta rap. If music and sport are the two well-trodden methods people of colour can use to be successful and powerful in America, the same is becoming true here. But there are differences. African-American rap is driven by the need to reclaim power and identity in a country that used to own their ancestors. African-Australian rap is altered, made positive, to account for the gratitude of refugees (and white expectations thereof), the desire to belong and forge a workable identity.
For Khaled, the need is clear. Many African migrants live first in the drab commission flat highrises. ‘The first step from Africa is into those flats – and the first thing the kids see is all the drug dealers,’ he says. ‘African kids tell us – there is this gang in Dandenong. That means we gotta have our own gang in Fitzroy. And they also feel they don’t belong here. It’s why it’s important for them to see us getting accepted in the mainstream world and not acting gangster.’ He runs a hand lightly over his ropy mane. ‘I think it’s working. You can see now in Melbourne that everyone is blending. Africans are working so hard. They are so nervous, so grateful to be here.’
I’m at the Laundry again and it’s night. I’m here to meet another up-and-comer, 1/6, named for Africa’s proportion of the world population. He’s late – very late, considering he has to be on stage in 20 minutes. But then, a cry, and I see a young man arriving at a half-jog. ‘I’m 1/6 – or Aaron,’ he says, offering his hand and a brilliant grin. ‘Sorry I’m late. I was drinking on the train and the police caught me.’ On stage, two skip-hop emcees are leaping about. They are mousy little men, yellers, who pound out testosterone-laden lyrics to a sparse crowd. ‘Bitches – get where my dick is,’ yells one skip-hop emcee, who is, incongruously, wearing a straw hat. Aaron winces. He eels through the crowd on a fluid of hand-slaps, flirtation, shit giving. Faces light up as they see him.
His story is the inverse of the others I’ve heard. Born in Australia, Aaron Stephanus returned to his parents’ homeland of Namibia as a child and did his schooling there. At school, everyone listened to hip-hop. ‘It was massive. All day, every day,’ he says. His hands throw out stiff-fingered shapes in the air as he speaks. ‘You know, Australian hip-hop is predominantly white males. Being African and a rapper is a hard position to be in. Everyone expects a certain story. What’s your black story? How’s Africa? And I say – I’m Australian.’ He shapes his mouth into a glittering O of exaggerated shock. ‘Hip-hop is my hustle, it’s my job. I’m just trying to keep the lights on so I can see what I’m writing. And sometimes you can be that frustrated, depressed, struggling to finish your education ’cause you don’t have money to sustain yourself – and you just want to spew that venom that’s in you.’ He glances at his watch. ‘Shit. I gotta get on stage.’
As he hops on stage, 1/6 turns on the charm – a grin and a handshake for each of the skip-hop growlers he’s replacing. His Anglo DJ spins the disc. He prowls the stage, lithe, hungry, dredging up words. The crowd perks visibly as he sends out his rhymes. He’s got flair, shaking his finger, shouting out, ‘Read-read-read between the lines.’ He leaps adroitly over a snare of mic cables. There’s no shouting. His flow is elegant, but suffused with power, intensity. The skip-hop emcees clap reluctantly. Everyone is moving. It’s a small sea. A start. A new iteration.
Image credit: Kmeron