By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Emma Volard, Hugh Heller and Jake Amy
Women of colour who immigrate to so-called Australia are often confronted at the intersection of race and gender in a male-dominated and white-centric society. Added to this is the struggle of maintaining one’s own cultural identity against pressure to conform, and reconciling the desire to establish a sense of home with the knowledge that this land was stolen from First Nations people. South African-born singer Rara Zulu has considered these questions deeply. Earlier this month, I called Rara to discuss her experience as a South-African immigrant on stolen land, what it’s like to be a Black woman in the music industry of so-called Australia, and the responsibility that comes with playing music that comes from a lineage of oppression. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation.
How did you come to be a part of the music scene in Naarm/Melbourne?
I’m originally from South Africa and came to Australia when I was 14. Moved to Sydney first and went to school there. I eventually ended up at the Australian Institute of Music, where I did not finish my diploma… I started gigging more than studying, so I thought, “What the heck, that’s what I’m here for”, and I dropped out and started trying my best in the Sydney neo-soul scene (which was interesting at the time).
Every time I visited Melbourne, I felt there was something magic calling to me. In 2017, I packed my stuff and moved. Sure enough, I ended up meeting incredible people and became a part of the vibrant, sharing, welcoming and accepting community of musicians here.
What has created your sense of home and where do you feel your home is?
Oh, that’s a difficult one, because especially as of late, I’ve been feeling super homesick for South Africa. Thank God for TikTok and Instagram, because I get to go to grooves vicariously and keep up to date with dance moves (...which I probably can’t do). Home is definitely South Africa, and here as well. But there are difficulties associated with being an immigrant in so-called Australia that makes being a settler a little bit harder to digest, the older I get.
If you asked me this six years ago, I’d say, “Yeah, Sydney’s home, because this is where I am”. But knowing that I’m on unceded, stolen land makes it very difficult to plant myself here. I’m grateful to be here.
How can we create a stronger sense of home for immigrants in the Australian music community?
I think we're moving against tokenism; it’s kind of on thin ice. A few years ago, it was definitely the “world music scene” or the “Afro music scene”, yet every other music scene is just called the “music scene”. We need to start changing the language around how we define things. I’m proud to be African. I know when there’s an African festival, I like it to be called such. But there are tiny things that can shape the way we think about music and where it’s coming from. Off the bat, it’s kind of segregated.
Giving people a sense of home in the music scene would have to start by opening up the language and also our venues as well. Dan Andrews put out a list of live music venues he’ll be helping out. Some places didn’t make the list and that was heartbreaking. I think Bar Oussou was the only one I saw that was a space for music that isn't just monochrome, if you know what I mean. I wish our venues were open to giving opportunities to people that have a different sound.
I think we’d be able to give immigrant artists a better sense of home if we put them in the mix, as opposed to segregating them and making the scene this niche-y, tokenised thing. Integrating.
Do you feel that being a female immigrant in the music scene has its challenges?
Yes… When you meet a stranger, at a house party or whatever, they ask what you do, and you say you're a musician. They assume you’re a singer. I wonder what makes them think that? Why couldn’t I be a bassist? But also, I think it largely has an advantage, particularly being a Black vocalist. It looks good.
There were instances in Sydney when I got hired and I didn’t even audition; they hadn’t even heard me sing. They had myself and a couple of other Black people do backing vocals on a competitive singing TV show for their international acts. It was; “Live, this Sunday, international band”. We were hired based on our looks.
When I got there, I saw some people I knew. I said, “Girl, where’s the fried chicken? Where's the Hennessy then? Because, clearly… did you audition?”. She was like, “No.” We got mad paid for that; a huge cheque, for one song. I was like, if we mime, I’m going to cry. Luckily, we didn't have to. But, we didn't even rehearse! At the top of Universal… those people just trusted that this Black girl can sing. That’s an assumption that happens quite a lot.
Being tokenised in that way, but then also getting paid… it’s really weird to settle. How do you confront that? Am I supposed to walk up to the production manager of that band and say, “So I noticed that when you play all over the world with this band, you have the same formula of Black people”?... I don't know what would come from that conversation. Probably nothing. I think that’s the challenge; is this a blessing or is this messed up? Because I get to put bread on the table, but I’m also being typecast.
What has your musical community looked like in the past two years with regards to diversity?
Due to the privilege that is required to have years of lessons on a respected instrument, there are a lot of white male instrumentalists. You start to see a lot more diversity in our DJs and vocalists, who can develop their craft without lessons.
I'm happy to see that there are a lot more femme instrumentalists than when I first started; it’s not just front women, or front femme-presenting people. I believe people’s mindset and attitude has changed a lot from 5-10 years ago. As much as it's still a boys club, it's not a gatekeeping boys club. There’s also becoming a diverse scene for opportunities. I think we're getting there.
Do you see yourself being represented in the so-called Australian music industry?
As of late, absolutely. But when I first came to so-called Australia, you could never tell me that someone like Sampa the Great would be a pioneer in hip hop. And I feel like there’s a way to go, but the doors are opening beyond tokenism. It’s not as colourful as it could be, but even to have First Nations artists on the Triple J charts is a huge step. It gives me hope for the very near future.
And I see myself represented in the industry, even in positions of non-artistry. I see brown and Black girls in positions of management. It’s really cool to see. That’s my favourite part; when you’re emailing back and forth with somebody who has a beautiful last name. I love to see it, you know?
Your music has been influenced by hip hop, R&B and soul. These genres come from a lineage of Black oppression. Do you think it is appropriate for white artists to be performing in these styles?
It’s appropriate when the appropriate amount of respect is given with the appropriate amount of acknowledgement for where these genres come from.
When white artists take the mickey out of themselves through the avenue of hip hop… to me that feels blackface-y. But like, no one’s going to do that through jazz because jazz was stolen and then became elitist. Every time white artists do make fun of jazz, it’s at the expense of the Black pioneers of that genre. White people won’t do that with the artists they admire…
White people talk shit about how hip-hop is misogynistic and violent, and yet when you bring up the fact that Miles Davis abused his wife, they still hold him to a high regard because of the elitism attached to jazz. Jazz itself started off with white performers doing blackface until they were like, “You know, actually, this sounds good”.
When it comes to the appropriateness of white people playing Black music… I get so upset because there’s no one answer. There’s so much to unpack, and there needs to be a legitimate respect for those genres that sometimes gets lost in privilege.
I know some white artists who perform jazz, neo-soul and hip-hop who really love and respect where the music comes from, but they’re perplexed with feeling that this is how they want to express themselves. They don’t know if it’s appropriate, but now they’ve come this far [in their career]... they don’t want to play a banjo, you know!? It’s really difficult.
Our music universities have to teach these emerging white musicians the struggle. You can’t skim past segregation and blackface! That’s what happened when I went to school. It was a four minute presentation of blackface and then it was The Beatles. Our music educators need to teach people to be sensitive and respectful before they go out into the world and dominate the industry. Meanwhile, Black girls and boys can’t even afford lessons. It does my head in to rationalise that.
I finally had that what the hell moment with the jazz standard ‘Summertime’. It’s a mammy song written during slavery about a Black woman who is probably breastfeeding a white child. It’s a beautiful song, but the way it’s been regurgitated is a reflection of how so much of Black music has been consumed unconsciously.
It’s really interesting how people can be blind when consuming art across cultures, beyond just Black culture. Western peoples are just consuming culture without looking at exactly what it is and what it means. We all need to open our eyes a little bit, I think.
What social/political responsibilities do artists have beyond their immediate scene?
In my opinion, we do have a responsibility, whether you like it or not. Ultimately, we have a platform. Music is a vehicle for expressing current events. Even if it’s a love song, our love songs today include what it’s like to love right now, right? That’s already a responsibility, to share that message.
Socio-politically, if you have a space in the industry that people before you had to work hard for you to be able to walk in and be accepted, you have to continue to work for others that may not be like you to have the same privilege down the line. People who shy away from that kind of conversation are people who separate the art from the artist. But, the artists themselves are a people, and they are attached to the art. You can’t separate them that far.
Once you have a platform you can't just say stuff and think it's not going to affect people. You’re somebody whose opinions are heard. We need to be careful about what we say and do as musicians, regardless of our immediate scene or how big or small we are. It’s important to be involved. There’s no revolution without music. There’s no change. We're subsequently involved so we have got to know what we’re talking about, which a lot of people don't, including myself, sometimes. So we have to read.
Do you have any stories of comfort found in the Australian scene?
Yeah, I think there’s heaps of comfort. It’s definitely because of the rise and the change in technology; we have access to so many good things here that come from immigrant people. What’s comforting to me is that I have so much more access to what makes Australia more multicultural than “multinational”. Everyone's like, what's your "nasho"? I'm like, I've got the same accent as you, babe. My nationality is yours. We sound the same. What's the problem? You mean, why am I Black? Gotcha. So, there was all of that.
With the rise of social and streaming platforms, we have access to local artists. Their expression is so comforting to me. I didn't even realise how alone I felt in my adolescence until I was surrounded by people who look like me. Now we have access to one another and there's a lot more opportunity.
There's so many great artists and producers here. People are well equipped and don't have to pursue the big city lights. I mean, you still could if you wanted to. But like, you don't have to do that anymore here as an immigrant artist, to create and share gorgeous music. There was a time when I wasn’t encouraged to find local artists because there was just no knowing that they even existed. Now we can see them. And that is bloody awesome. I love it.
Do you feel centred in your identity? If so, what does that look like for you?
Yes, I do feel centred in my identity. And that comes from recognising other’s identity, I suppose, especially in terms of things like heritage and culture. The more I learn about where we're at with indigenous peoples here, the more I am pushed to further read up and learn about my people.
I came here at 14. It’s the age where you're figuring shit out but you also have quite a solid sense of yourself. When I first came here, I didn't want to let it go. But I also moved to the whitest place ever - people with fish braids asking me how my cornrows stay on my head… I said, “Are you dumb”? From then on, I had this really staunch protectiveness of my African/South-African identity. Surprisingly, it didn't make me assimilate.
When I went back to South Africa for holidays and people said I had an accent, I was so upset with myself. I didn't want to lose my language. I'd meet other Black girls who didn't speak their mother tongue, and though that's no one's fault, that would terrify me. I'm not religious in any way, but my mum has a Zulu Bible that I would read profusely. I'm super centred in that and I'm incredibly proud of being from where I'm from. I try to make an effort to integrate my mother tongue in my music. I want my music to be bilingual, because I am. I guess the name that I called myself, Rara Zulu, was a part of me trying to grab a hold of that. I think about it a lot, actually, because otherwise, I think I’d feel really lost in creating here. If I was back in South Africa, I'd be working with all these South African artists and I wouldn't have to try so hard to push my heritage. I do try to respect it, whether it's wearing traditional attire during a performance, or trying to integrate some Zulu lyrics; which is really hard, actually. A lot of words don't exist in English and just don't rhyme. The only time I really feel the pressure [to include my heritage in my music] is when presented with opportunities that put me next to "world" musicians. That's when I feel pressured. Because I'm like, "Oh, no, no, no, it's not like that. I just sing in Zulu sometimes."
I used to be such a staunch child about my heritage. I was like, “Dude, don't touch my head, don't touch my face. Don't say the n-word.” I was like this renegade child. Because I was also the only Black kid at school. I felt like I had to defend myself and my entire community without even knowing it. Teachers would say certain things that’d nearly make me nearly cry, like saying the word Negro five times in a lesson. I felt like if I lost South African Tam, like what am I, you know?
I've got a little girl now, and those feelings are coming up again. I don't want her to feel lost. So, we're doing the work for her to understand where she is, and what it means to be here. If I'm not centred in my identity as a Black woman, she will definitely not be. Also being a biracial child, on stolen land, there’s a lot of things that she's gonna have to figure out later on. I'm trying to make it easy, but it never will be. ‘Cause belonging is everything, hey?
I remember trying to explain to my mum why Black girls are so sensitive about braids. I had to come away with the fact that when my mum was my age, she was not worried about white women appropriating her hair; she didn't have time for that. There was way more to worry about. Now, we've got time to get into the depths of identity.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
You are valued, and you are really, really good, so don't dim your light to make others comfortable. "Dude, shine bright. People love it. And like they dig it and they want it. You'll feel so much better for it, if you just shine at your ultimate brightest because making yourself small is only just going to diminish the light for everybody else as well.”
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 First Nations people who have read this article.