5 July 2020

by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller

Neil Morris

DRMNGNOW on the current opportunity to shape the next hundred years, envisioning a post-colonial society through art, and why the greatest content is going to come from women and gender non-conforming or queer artists.

Neil Morris performing as DRMNGNOW at Yonder Festival 2019. Photo: Cassidy Cloupet

For Neil Morris, we are at a potentially transformative moment in history. Artists are engaging with social injustice in a manner that is reminiscent of the revolutionary 1960s artistic movements, and the recent events of horrific treatment towards BIPOC people have prompted widespread questioning of the ongoing injustices inflicted upon First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. The coincidence of this with unprecedented isolation due to COVID-19 means that it is more important than ever for artists and allies to stay connected and work towards an equitable society. DRMNGNOW is at the cutting edge of this intersection between art and activism, and Jake had the opportunity to have a chat with him this week.

What's been going through your mind recently?

A lot of things. COVID-19 in and of itself has had quite a big impact on me as a First Nations person. Right now, my primary concern is how First Nations peoples can maintain their functioning in a way that fulfils whatever needs we may have. Globally, my concern is how something such as COVID-19 will disproportionately impact our First Nations peoples, and more generally peoples of colour and people within Western-colonial constructs. From a music standpoint, obviously there's a lack of income for everybody, which has a legitimate impact on our lives (including my own), but in one sense, there’s potentially a silver lining to this. 

Even though music falls into the medium of “entertainment” within Western-contemporary societies, it is still inextricably tied to justice and equity for First Nations peoples and practice of culture. Within a time such as COVID-19, I think that there is a chance to press ‘reset’ on parts of the music sector. When we roll back out, how can we reconstruct the industry in a way which is the most beneficial for the greatest number of people? What will be the considerations from a justice perspective? Historically, I’d thought about these things well before I entered into the world of music; in fact, a driving consideration in my decision to join the industry was to create space and opportunities for First Nations peoples, obtain liberation and observe how we value First Nations song.

Watch DRMNGNOW's latest music video release 'Survive' online

The tragic passing of George Floyd has had a flow-on effect to considerations around the value of bla(c)k lives. In this country, and in being the land of a blak Indigenous people, that is first and foremost First Nations peoples. Unfortunately, that type of conversation may have never reached the same fever pitch, but the momentum around that has prompted us to converse about what justice actually looks like and what justice actually looks like living on this land. Is justice driving society in this land? Is living a life that results in the greatest opportunity of sustainable survival driving society in this land? We need to get First Nations justice sorted out. We need to look at First Nations custodianship and sovereignty, and understand what implications that has in creating a just, equitable and sustainable society. Everybody has a role to play, whether we want it to be that way or not.

What are two current music trends that you're most excited about?

Firstly, in these troubling times, subject matter about current issues in our society becomes more and more relevant. I guess that we are reaching an interesting period of time at the moment, where we see that high-quality music exploring injustice is very much accepted and very much vital for people to be listening to. I feel that the music of this time may influence our society as much as the music of the 1960s liberation movements. Ultimately, artists drive the music sector, so they will definitely have a big role to play within this, but I feel like there's something in the wind that says we're ready to delve into that. It comes down to the question of whether or not those that have the most influence in our sector want to be a part of that. If not, then is there another way that they're willing to support that? In recent years, we've had big-time artists come out with some quite politically-charged content. Beyoncé, Childish Gambino… even though the content has been put within the larger assets of the sector sporadically, it definitely does feel like we could have this moment where it becomes more widespread. We have to realise that music is an influential sector in society, whether we want it to be that way or not. It has the ability to inform other parts of our world, even government decisions, to some degree. These issues are currently the most pressing for humanity. This very particular moment in history could shape the next couple of hundred years, or we could somehow just slip back into the humdrum of things as they were... that’s always a reality, isn’t it?

Watch Miiesha's music video for 'Drowning' online

Secondly, First Nations music and the rapid increase in talented young artists who make quality work. In my opinion, these artists are doing it in a way that reflects individual identities, not necessarily an homogenous First Nations identity, and there’s a diversity there which is really moving. I'm currently extremely excited about the ability of those artists to intertwine cultural aspects of their identity into their music. For me, an artist who is really doing that at the moment is Miiesha. She’s phenomenal.

You raised over $1.8m in an online fundraiser for First Nations Fire Relief. What did you learn about the most from that experience?

During the peak of the fires, there was a widespread sensitivity amongst humans for each other that I don't know I’d ever experienced in so-called Australia. For the first time in my life, it felt that there could be a pathway forward in doing work focussed on community survival whilst doing away with things that were distracting and creating divides. In that time, the most beautiful thing for First Nations people to bear witness to was how people's hearts can be so beautifully open in supporting something that is just. At times, I feel like there may be only a certain amount of individuals who are really down to help do the dirty work against the oppressive elements of society. It’s easy to be sceptical or get down sometimes - there are only so many people who ride the journey with the First Nations cause in a really robust way. In that moment, there was an enormous feeling of genuine, deep empathy that a lot of people do have for the First Nations cause in this land on a more global scale. I realised that there are a lot more people than what I might have initially expected to be on that journey with us, and those people came from all walks of life. Respect and love to those who made a commitment to that cause. It heightened my appreciation for allyship in a way that really filled my cup a lot. It was a beautiful thing to bear witness to, yet my work is still just one little piece of a very big puzzle.

"I feel that the greatest way I could do a Welcome to Country for someone is to do an artistic work with them, to show them that I’m willing to open my spirit up to the fullness of that person in the same way that they are willing to do to me."

Neil Morris on artistic collaboration as a Welcome to Country. Photo: Snehargho Ghosh

What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist?

I’ll preface this by saying that personally, I uphold quite strong values around my responsibilities as an artist. For others, it may not be in their makeup as a human being to facilitate well on that front. Perceived responsibilities can lead to mental health issues for people who are pressured into becoming that kind of a person. It can lead to people losing interest in creating art altogether, so I get that. I respect that and understand that. 

 

The reality is that there are responsibilities as an artist. Whether we like it or not, we do have influence, especially on social media, and we can influence a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to be an all-out “activist”. Not everybody is adept at that and it’s not necessarily the most effective way to navigate our responsibilities. However, at the very least, we need to be cognizant and conscious of our privilege and our platform and the way that that has the ability to influence. If you've got a million followers on your music page, that's a million people who you can take on a journey of understanding. That’s a lot of people. Say you’re one of the highest-selling artists in so-called Australia… You may have access to a social media page with this kind of global reach. You don’t have to be vocal about issues, but by recognising your privilege, you can influence opportunities that are given to the rest of the music industry through your bargaining power, through interacting in the industry on your own terms. I stretch that out to society as a whole as well. I think it’s vital to recognise position and privilege and how we can use that in enabling equality, equity and a just society. For me, that points back to the fact that in this land, you can't have an equitable and just society without First Nations leadership and First Nations sovereignty.

 

I do feel a responsibility to advocate for human rights issues that First Nations people are subject to. I do feel that if I have some visibility, that is often more of a visibility than the First Nations person sitting next to me. I do feel that I have an opportunity to impact current issues by sharing content on my social platforms. Obviously, I want to depict a well-rounded perspective of the Indigenous experience. The complexities of the First Nations experience within this land are very diverse. One of the beautiful things about the social media era is that you can cultivate supportive groups of people who become engaged with you and your values who will then go on and do similar work themselves. Obviously, that's not everybody's reason for using social media - it can be purely about vanity and narcissism.

Who are the people who engage with your social media content the most and what is the implication of that? 

Within so-called Australia, the people that I see engage quite frequently with my posts are Indigeous people and other black and brown populations. There’s also a lot of Anglo so-called Australian people. Furthermore, I think that there are a lot of people who are on their journey of understanding how they can best live in this land in a way that is sustainable for First Nations cultures. I’d hope that the Indigenous people who engage with my media find the content empowering; I’d hope that other BIPOC people resonate with the experiences I share and find value in understanding furthermore how they can stand correctly whilst living in this land. 

 

I think that First Nations visibility is increased by First Nations people who walk within all sectors of life and who present their own indigenised understanding of how they view their world. Someone who follows my page might also follow a few hundred other amazing Indigenous people: people are not musicians, who own a business with bush foods, who run a fitness company, an Indigenous law firm, an Indigeous architect. People can easily build an amazing knowledge system which becomes embedded into them to the point where they walk out into society and start to question things. “Couldn’t there be an Indigenous person contributing to that?” I think it’s really profound how people can receive a whole gamut of Indigenous information which is out there through social media. 

 

I'm always curious about what people get out of the content that I share, particularly my First Nations peers. Having conversations about social media use is healthy and it helps people. We can’t always see what impact we’re having, whether that may be positive or negative. In terms of allyship, that’s a really key space and there's a lot more discussion that needs to be had around what being an ally within the constructs of social media looks like. Currently, a lot of people want to be allies with causes that they support, but without a lived experience of their predicament we need to be wary of our protocol in maintaining a safe space.

 

J: I’ve been particularly grateful for the resources that you've been sharing on your instagram page.

 

It’s a pleasure. To be honest, I feel blessed to work in this place that we’re at in the world right now. It’s something that my ancestors would have done - work in the face of a greater adversity. If anything, I just feel like I’m doing my part to continue their work. If I can help to create awareness in our society, then I’m thankful. At the same time, I’m gaining as much understanding as anybody else is as well, from the work that everybody is doing.

Why does music become considered “protest music”?

A lot of people might call me an activist, though I feel that all I’m doing is acting on my greatest responsibilities as a First Nations person at this point in history. If circumstances were different in society, I'd be doing something else. Ultimately, cultivating a platform to raise awareness about injustices and/or living on country and interacting with land are both instances of carrying out First Nations custodianship. My role is to be a protector of the land and the ongoing survival of First Nations people.

 

Before coming to music, I was working with my own people for a number of years in the Shepperton area of Yorta Yorta country. Throughout that time, there were concerns about how, as First Nations people, we could actually

actually voice our needs without potentially losing the things that we were getting. There was a tipping point for me after the 2015 protests where I felt like I needed to find a way to start speaking on certain things in a manner that could get greater reach. I really set the intention of using my art for that purpose. It's been a very premeditated intention to use music to elevate the prospects of liberation for First Nations people. Those things considered, that's a great question. I find that “protest music” is a really interesting term. There’s not necessarily a power in calling music that. I don't denounce that songs aren’t protest songs, because they are. I think that “protest music”, which was a term that was used throughout the 1960s, is driven by the broader concept of what it means to rise up against a system of oppression.

Watch DRMNGNOW's music video release 'Australia Does Not Exist' online

Obviously people of different identities have different experiences in society. What are the implications of this for artistic collaboration between people of differing identities?

That’s such a valuable space, but it’s also a complex space. I feel that it’s vital because we can uncover things through these processes that we might not uncover otherwise, and you can present a sense of togetherness, of connection, of understanding. Art is such a sacred thing for me, and it’s a really big thing to collaborate with somebody because the sole driver behind my work is doing the work of my past ancestors, and doing it for future ancestors. The question is: how can the wholeness of that exist alongside a different kind of identity? I definitely take a lot of time around collaborating, even with other First Nations people. That’s a process in itself to make sure that what I'm doing and what they’re doing is going to benefit one another to the fullest extent and be the most powerful thing.

 

I don’t know if “crossing over” has been valued to the fullest extent. Collaboration has been a beautiful thing in the arts sector in this country, but I think much of the amazing collaborative artwork has gone under the radar. If you can create an example of an amazing artistic collaboration, then that means more than just an artistic collaboration. In reflecting on collaborations that I’ve done with people from different ethnic backgrounds, on entering into important pieces of dialogue to create that work, on the largeness of the work that I do… I think of all the people that I’ve collaborated with as adopted family or something to that effect. They will always have their own identity, and they are their own ethnic group, but there’s this sense of a uniformity of connections through those works. I feel that the greatest way I could do a Welcome to Country for someone is to do an artistic work with them, to show them that I’m willing to open my spirit up to the fullness of that person in the same way that they are willing to do to me.

 

Being able to enter into a dialogue and a synergy to create the work gives artistic collaboration a transformative element. It enhances connections between communities. It explores how identities in this land and this society might look like in the future, where we might not need allyship anymore. What would that society look like in which everybody gets it, and where everybody understands certain things in terms of a justice-based society that has a value for Indigenous sovereignty? What kind of collaborations would then happen within those spaces? What does that do to the identities of people, and to different roles for those types of identities and societies? I do think that artistic collaboration can give us a glimpse into what a post-colonial society can look like. It creates a post-colonialistic sense of liberation, that is seldom seen and seldom felt.

"There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world. People need to realise that"

Neil Morris on the power of queer and gender non-conforming artists. Photo: unknown

What do you think are the next steps for addressing gender inequality in the Australian hip hop scene?

There needs to be a lot more support around gender equality within the hip hop scene. I feel like Sampa The Great has single-handedly done a lot of the work around that. While she hasn’t necessarily been in the industry with that support from the outset, she has had an incredible amount of wonderful people who believe in her, (most often people from her own communities, from the African diaspora, in so-called Australia). I really admire Sampa for her respect for First Nations people. The beauty I see in Sampa’s story is how it can be so empowering and uniquely valuable when a woman is supported by their own community.

 

There is so much power in gender non-conforming artists, as well as other queer artists. Nobody else can offer the kind of power that they can deliver to the world and for me there’s obviously an understanding that needs to take place for people to realise that. Everybody’s got their own taste, but for me, Sampa’s work is unmistakably powerful and has shown why we need to get behind these things and how the biggest steps are about equitable resources and contribution. There needs to be more resources put to supporting First Nations women and other black and brown women within music.

 

What I’d like to see are academies for hip hop that have a focus purely on women. We should be looking to develop a specialist environment for them to be nurtured and developed. I feel this is crucial for gender non-conforming artists and queer artists as well. There also needs to be at least 50% non-male artists on the rosters within hip hop. That needs to be a benchmark that everyone needs to be aiming for and reaching. As long as we continue to have rosters that are more than 50% male, then we have a problem, and I feel that we’re at a point in society where the greatest content is going to come from women and gender non-conforming or queer artists. We’re in a time where these voices just need to be heard, and it’s their time to shine. I look at some radio playlists and think, “Why do these playlists still look like this?”. It needs to change, because everybody is going to benefit from that.

If there was one aspect from the Australian hip hop scene that you could take to the world, what would that be?

Barkaa. She’s an amazing artist and First Nations woman currently based on Eora countries in so-called Sydney. I see a real ancestral fire within her work - it’s just incidental that she also lives in Sydney, where colonist society originated in this land… I guess it makes sense that she has this level of fire and power and passion. I wish that the world could see this artist and how she’s a product of the Indigenous fight against the colony. There’s something incredibly powerful when I listen to her. I’m not hearing hip hop. I’m feeling a force of ancestors who are not happy and who are projecting themselves through this amazing young artist. 

 

As a First Nations people, I think there has been a beautiful and natural relationship with hip hop. A lot of artists

artists with political and oppressive struggles have gravitated towards hip hop and they all have a certain way of expressing themselves in that genre. [Hip hop] is a groove-based music… I guess in this land, First Nations music is also groove-based music. There’s a synergy there. It’s so beautiful to see how First Nations people have then taken their identities into a medium such as hip hop. I think this crossover is the most special and unique element of hip hop in this country, given that it integrates people who have been of this land for over 60,000 years.

Watch the music video for Mackridge and Barkaa's most recent musical collaboration

Keep up to date with Neil on Instagram: @drmngnow

Watch Sampa The Great's recent live stream for Roots Picnic online

Watch Childish Gambino's music video clip for 'This Is America' online

We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

Thank you dearly to Neil Morris for your time.

Interview with Neil was conducted on 1 July 2020.

Article first published 5 July 2020.

Photographs taken by Cassidy Cloupet and Snehargho Ghosh.

Written and edited by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.

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