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- OKENYO on Queerness and Self Love
By Rose Bassett, Ella Clair and Jake Amy Expressive, fierce, honest. These are the words that spring to mind when I think of Sydney-based artist OKENYO, blending her personal identity with charisma, confidence and style. A dynamic performer Zindzi Okenyo has made a name for herself across both acting and music worlds, paving her own space. I recently spoke with Zindzi about her queer identity, music and the importance of representation and self love. During the conversation I was unable to keep the smile off my face. Since coming out as queer to my peers five years ago I have felt an incredible pull to hear, read and engage with the plethora of stories within the queer community. I have often noticed during these conversations or readings that I have felt a sense of belonging and place, feeling myself represented and mirrored in various ways, all the while listening to experiences vastly different from my own. Within this series I aim to continue this theme, speaking with LGBTQI+ artists within the music community of so called Australia. Zindzi was the first of many. Can you talk about your relationship with your sexuality and how much it influences your artistry? I’m 34 now and I think I “came out” at around 23-24. And that’s because I suddenly had a girlfriend and that just felt really right. For me, it’s always been that shame and homophobia have been external. But my personal relationship to my own sexuality… I really love it about myself! And I guess I love it about myself because it’s me. I can’t do anything about it and I wouldn’t want to. Once I realised I was attracted to women I felt more myself. Being with women; they respond to things that I love about myself and I think that really reinforces it for me as a positive thing. Recently I’ve been reflecting on how there is [now] safety in coming out and how this is a really wonderful thing! I guess generations of queers before me might feel this as well - I think it is an amazing change that sexuality is now so openly fluid and it is a safer space for people. It’s more free! I guess it’s hard sometimes to think about how people have been out for so long with no allies, or [the experience of] being in an industry where no one else was out; often being that courageous one and how lonely that would be. And so I guess you carry that with you. In terms of my work, I think that for a lot of people “coming out” very much becomes a part of their work (in their expression) which is excellent. I’ve had a bit of a different experience because it was never something that I felt needed to become a part of my brand; it’s just a part of me. I can understand why people might use it as part of their brand, but I hope they’re not using it as a tactic or a “cool thing”. People want authenticity and it seems like branding has evolved into that. But often to achieve authenticity you have to use this very personal thing to create your brand. And, I recoil a bit with that because all that stuff is so private, you know. I think a lot of the time artists put so much into their work that they go that extra mile. I guess for me that stuff lives within my work, but I don’t believe we should have to monetise it. It really is tricky. Do you feel you have a sense of place in the music industry? I feel like I kind of carved my own way in. And I’m really proud of that. I guess in any space, feeling comfortable and confident as an artist has got to do with how comfortable I am with myself now. It’s all intertwined. Whether I like it or not it’s all part of my quality; my public persona. And I’m so much more at ease with my relationship to all of those things. I think that once you feel okay with yourself, you can go forth and feel comfortable in any space. Comparison kills your joy. That was a great lesson I learnt very early on, especially being an actor. So, I’ve never really compared myself to other people which has really allowed me to be free in my own space. In your opinion, what are the implications of being an openly queer artist? I’ve found that in the music world, it’s a lot more free; people tend to understand things differently than in other artforms. Music is clearer. Like, the musician and the person that I am looking at represent this [cohesive identity], rather than say, an actor, who is playing another character with another story. It’s different. There is definitely a privilege in being feminine and straight passing. I think the history for queer men especially has been really hard. I had some queer relationship experiences early on where I was invisible, and that was really damaging. So after those experiences, I dug my heels in and just said; never ever be invisible. Don’t make someone feel invisible and don’t be invisible. I think that's kind of the antidote to the shame that people are going to put on you. I think, sadly, that still exists. It’s always really important to recognise both that aspect and the privilege you might hold. What was your experience coming out as openly queer? So, when I was in high school, I wasn’t interested in women. I was always interested in my male best friends. And, guys just didn’t seem interested in me. And, although that was disappointing, I kind of just let it go. I was more interested in school than in sex! So I came to dating quite late. When I realised I was attracted to women it just made a lot of sense, but it was quite tricky in those years to identify as queer. Obviously, queerness has been around, but not in the way it is in popular culture today. It was tricky to first come out because I didn’t have the examples that are there today. I didn’t really identify with lesbian culture or what I saw in the clubs; it just wasn’t my vibe. So, I was definitely quite lost for a while. It makes it hard when you’re coming out to your parents if you don’t really know what's happening. Everything’s fine now, but it took some time for some people in my family, only because I think they just didn’t expect it all. Back then, there were no examples of it. Nothing in the media, no language around it. A lot of people didn’t even have gay friends or friends who were out. I think, ultimately, because I’ve been so sure of it in myself, I can also be quite stubborn or stoic. So if people who are close to me are taking a bit too long to get on board I’m just like, no, you have to do it now. Because this is who I am. We need to keep growing our relationships otherwise we have fractures in families. But I think at the core of it, it got easier. And as it did, I became more and more comfortable in myself. What are some of the biggest barriers facing audiences and performers who are queer? I think from a gatekeeper (top down kind of perspective), people are still very much put in boxes. We’ve seen the way that people programme festivals; we can talk about any minority and we’ve had to put quotas in place to diversify. So I think that can be a really minimising experience for queer atists or any minority. Because, we understand how much we are just ticking boxes. It’s so obvious, we are living it. Unfortunately, I think that’s how things change over time. You have to force them to make change. Otherwise people will keep making the same choices they want to make. You can apply that anywhere. So I think that is a barrier, because the minute you think you’re in a box, it can be a really minimising feeling. It’s a very systematic thing. In relation to white iterations of sexualities, do you see a difference in how these are spoken about or normalised comparatively to sexualities in the BIPOC community? That’s a big question. My first instinct in yes, of course, there is a difference. I think the biggest issue is when the intersectionality is not recognised. The white experience is prioritised and then becomes the reference point for when we talk about queerness. I can only speak of being mixed-race African/Australian. Within African diasporas, there is so much depending on where you come from. But I didn’t have a connection to my culture growing up, and I know people who are really committed to their Africanness and the relationship between their culture and being queer. A lot of places in Africa are still not okay with homosexuality, and so that experience is already so different to what is being shown as the white experience of queerness. When I see these [white] representations of queerness… like they don’t really speak to me. And then, between the male gaze and whiteness, it's like wow, how do you even tear that back to get to the root of something you might recognise; something that might help you grow? Because it really is a case of; you need to see it so you can be it and so you can imagine that you can grow in that way. I think that is so powerful. I just finished watching The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix, which is such a cool show. And one of the actors in it is a woman called Tenia Miller. She’s British, black and queer. She’s in her 40’s and she’s a lesbian. So when you see “it”, it’s just rare. I just feel alive when I think about her existing! I don’t think that is something that you can’t understand unless you’re queer. What sustainable practices could we implement post-pandemic that would help us facilitate a more representative and diverse music industry? At the core of it, as gross as they are, I believe that you just have to have quotas. Otherwise things just don’t change. But I also think that in order for things to actually change in a meaningful way… you have to go deep. You have to be really courageous to do that. It’s not easy. Unfortunately, I think a big barrier is when individuals making big decisions don’t really look at their relationship with these things. It’s tricky because none of us as artists have control over that. That is something that, ultimately, is up to the individual. So I guess that’s where quotas really have to be in place. But also [there needs to be an] understanding of why they are there. It’s been heartening the past few months for black and queer communities to come together. But there is also work to be done within our communities, which is about building each other up. That’s a really hard thing to do when you feel like you’ve been taught not to band together. The reality is that you can’t learn about anybody else's experiences unless you actually listen to them. But you know, it’s very hard to be a good listener. Because, everybody is thinking of themselves, and I’m not excluding myself from that. It’s something I think about a lot, wanting to be a better listener. I think everyone really has to; that’s the way for it to work. We need people from different backgrounds in those top positions, which means fostering from the ground up, getting rid of the idea of “risk taking” when you hire someone from diverse backgrounds. I think that is a really bad disease in Australia. It’s so aligned with all of that tall-poppy, small-minded kind-of Australianness. Just do it. Go forward and be that pioneer. We all just need the people already in those positions to be bold, to put their foot down and vote to change this. Because that is actually how we start to really filter through. When you do that, you’re engaging with people from different backgrounds and you then naturally also become a more expansive person. You’re not just around the same people, not looking in a mirror, you know. Because every single unit of people is a mini system; whether it’s your friendship group or your workplace, they are all mini systems. So, we have to really do that work, especially if you are a white person. If you do the work, the reading, the research and really start to understand or get closer to understanding what other people's life experience may be… we can then share that in our systems; telling the people you know, the people you love, people you’re already engaged with what you have learnt. It’s starting small and filtering out. Keep up to date with OKENYO here 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.
- Shoeb Ahmad’s Musical Catharsis
By Emma Volard and Jake Amy “People have different identities and it’s always important to remember that everyone has their own unique story. Obviously the story of the cis white male is the predominant story we see everywhere. While we can’t discount that story, we all run parallel to one another, and our experiences in society are so importantly different. We have to be proactive in making more space for all voices, all identities.” That’s Sia Ahmad, a Ngunnawal based sound artist known for exploring deeply personal experiences and vulnerabilities through music, be it through collaboration or under the solo guise Shoeb Ahmad. Proudly identifying as a person of Bangladeshi heritage and a transgender woman, Sia’s recent collaboration with the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) im/modesty depicts her gender identity journey through extreme musical catharsis. Emma chatted with Sia about the new music release, as well as the intersections between sexuality and cultural heritage, unconscious gender bias, gatekeeper diversity, punk rock and parenting, and rebuilding the future of the music industry. Sia: I’ve been making music for the past 15 years. My gender identity journey began halfway through that. At the start, my experiences were personal and internal. There was not a lot of honesty in what I was creating. im/modesty’s original form was as a mounted art installation, and I wanted it to explore themes of sexuality, cultural clash, identity and what defines people. I became surrounded by a supportive group who embraced my story and allowed me to explore those vulnerabilities. Peter Knight (the artistic director of the AAO) and I discussed expanding the installation into a live performance piece. The collaboration has since enhanced my experience and story. Emma: I read that im/modesty is inspired by cultural barriers that people from the Indian subcontinent face when exploring their sexuality. Could you elaborate on this? Sia: In a lot of circumstances, I seem to think about modesty with religious connotations. I identify as Muslim - I grew up in a Muslim faith and although I’m not still fully practicing, I always pertain to those faith values. The title of im/modesty is a play on the notion of modesty itself. The idea of modesty has been prevalent in my life, so the barriers surrounding the discussion of sexuality and gender fluidity have been weird to experience. I feel these kinds of conversations are inherently difficult in my culture, especially for those still living on the subcontinent. Not addressing sexuality is a tradition of silence which still lingers today. Unfortunately this tradition is passed from generation to generation. im/modesty explores the beginnings of understanding my sexuality in puberty, to resigning myself to living my life the way my family and culture wanted it to be lived.” Emma: What was the process like of translating your personal experiences into a musical context? Sia: The musical conception of im/modesty came from an experience in Kerala in southwestern India. There was a lot of discussion about how women and men are seen as modest beings, and I thought deeply about the differences and gendered clash. I taped some field recordings while I was there and used them to set context for the musical narrative. In the AAO adaptation, I gave Tilman Robinson the field recordings to electronically reconfigure using his 4 track tape machine and effects pedals as he pleased. This created a really tactile sound world that is sonically detailed, but performed in a live setting. When conceptualising im/modesty, I wanted to focus on three moments in my life (puberty, early/mid 20s and early 30s) as each moment came with various expectations transpired from other people in my community. There are three musical sections in the performance which reflect these. There is a loud, cathartic section with loose, abstract vocalisations from Sunny [Kim] which dissipates into the feeling of resignation. Following an emotional arc was important. And it’s a privilege and an honour to work with such great musicians. Emma: Do you see yourself represented in the music scene of so called Australia? Sia: When I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me. I didn’t see enough coloured people. There were amazing Indigenous songwriters such as Archie Roach, but my background is from the subcontinent and so I often looked to bands from the UK for visual signifiers. There was a UK band called Cornershop that consisted of a few Indian guys who had music on the charts, and that was the first time I saw people like me playing music. As I was growing up, I found an affinity for Riot Grrrl punk rock - fem driven. That felt more relatable and in some ways my drive to be a musician came from that. I was definitely in a minority group when I was starting out some 15 years ago, but positively, there’s so much more representation of differing identities in the public face of music these days. It’s great to see it evolve over the years. I remember when I used to play gigs back in the day and there would be maybe only two other people of colour there. Having a chat to those two people after the gig was always rewarding. These days, I feel proud to think that I am representing similar people to myself. Creatively, I think that Australia is at a great place. Creatives on this continent are of many diverse backgrounds, be it gender, race, religion, etc. Australia is a multicultural melting pot, and I think we’re seeing the real fruition of that now. Emma: Has your identity affected the way that you've been treated in the music scene? Sia: I think my style of music has always attracted more male listeners. And that’s never really shifted, even after I expressed that I was a trans-femme person in subtle and unsubtle ways through my music. Maybe my audience is engaged with my work because it’s of good quality and it doesn’t matter who I am? My last solo record quiver and im/modesty are deeply personal works. I’m happy that I’ve been able to be seen as a conduit between the community of colour and the community of queerness and the community of indie rock. I would like to think that my identity doesn’t define my work. I’d like to think that my work is informed by it, but it’s not the end all, be all. Emma: Have you experienced a “social disconnect”? And if so, what impact has that had on your music? Sia: Experiences that come with being a trans-femme person, being gay, and being a parent inform me as a creative. I might be on school grounds and have an unfortunate awkward interaction with another parent because of who I am, but that experience is an impetus to write something and express it through creative means. When it comes to social disconnect, I try to be resilient as possible, but as a trans person I’m always clocking even the smallest unconscious behaviours. I work in an office and when I pick up the phone, people may refer to me as “dude” or “man” based on the tonality of my voice. Things like that can irk me. I don’t want people to be so gender biased in their everyday life, even if it is unknowing, and fighting those battles can be arduous. It’s been great to have music as an outlet to deal with emotional turmoil. It’s one of my coping mechanisms. Emma: If there was one aspect from your experience as a parent that you could teach the music industry, what would that be? Sia: Don’t go by the book. Your music should follow its own path depending on your own personal values, not what others think is right for you. As a person, I’ve been heavily influenced by the punk rock scene and I think my parenting style has taken from that too - not following rule books and guidelines, working hard, doing things for myself and nurturing what feels right, even if it may not be the “right” decision. As a parent, I think it’s important to nurture my kids in the best way, shape and form that will set them up for the rest of their life. It’s the same with music. You want to nurture those practices in yourself. Emma: How can we provide support for people of differing identities within the music scene? Sia: In so called Australia, the gatekeepers are mostly people of Anglo-European descent, and that is also true for the majority of arts organisations here. People of colour aren’t always involved. If we can offer space to those people, that’s obviously a great thing, but we need to reflect and consider who is taking control of the narrative in that space, who is driving those conversations, and how constructive that actually is. I think we need to disenfranchise gatekeeping altogether, but before that, we need to create opportunities in those positions of power for people from diverse backgrounds. Emma: What would rebuilding the future of the music industry mean to you? Sia: Drinking has never been a big part of my life, and it’s interesting to perform in music venues that are driven by alcohol sales. My restructure reframing of the industry would begin with this reset, questioning how we can make performance about performance. We can’t deny that venues have these mechanisms to run and for financial motivation, but I think the reliance on the consumption of alcohol has actually completely shifted who benefit from those performance opportunities. It’s also frustrating to think that people are happy to pay $30 for a crappy seat in a movie theatre, but then don’t want to pay $10 to get into a gig. A $5 door fee for a gig is just not viable for performers. If you have four bands on a lineup, filling the venue with 100 people still doesn’t make it worth it. I think it's great that we’re seeing a higher value being placed on music again due to COVID’s more intimate and limited seating arrangements. A $20-$30 gig - that’s a better step. Keep up to date with Sia here 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.
- Maya Vice on Artistic Liberation and Honouring Local Artists
By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Jake Amy “As people, we react to honesty, even if it's a little bit crazy”, says Maya Vice, a Naarm-based RnB artist liberated by creative musical freedom. Once told to fit the “pop princess” mould, Maya’s African/American, Austrian-Czechoslovakian/Australian heritage as a 2nd generation immigrant has helped her become her “strongest self”. Yara chatted to Maya about stereotypes, embracing identity from experiences of hardship and the diverse and beautiful Melbourne live music scene. What follows is an abridged version of their conversation. Do you feel as though your heritage transcends through your artistry? Yes, with the tone in my voice; I feel like I try to really "see" people in the crowd and my musicians, so I can feel when someone's not vibing. I really try to connect with them. And I feel that deepness probably comes from my father. Because he's such a spiritual person that he's kind of pushed into me with his background and his knowledge, how to be open with everyone and how to notice things beyond what's said. I noticed that you have transitioned your artist name over to "Maya Vice". What instigated this change? Well, number one, I left my record label, and they basically took all of my stuff under "Maya". So I felt like I needed to kind of cut from them and get a fresh start. Also, when people came up to me at gigs, they'd be like, "Where do we find you? And I'd be like, "just search Maya!" And you know, there's thousands of Mayas. It was getting a little bit annoying. My last name is Weiss, but it's pronounced Vice. So I just thought; may as well get a name that people can search up and there's all my stuff straightaway. That was the main reason - to cut through all the other Maya's. I thought it'd be nice to just start fresh. I love my old music, but I feel I was a bit more of a diva in that appearance than I feel like I am in real life. So I'm excited for this new stuff to be more artistic and more creative and less of a “pop princess" vibe; which my label was very much wanting to make of me. Y: Do you feel your label was stereotyping you in a way? Yes. And I understand why; to sell records, you have to categorise yourself. There's a lot of people who want one thing, and if you're in that box, it's easier for them to keep liking you forever. Whereas if you keep changing, a person who likes your pop song may not like your classical song. So I get why they were trying to do that and I think it was very smart. I feel it's hard in Australia to be a soul singer without kind being stereotyped. Like, how many individual soul female singers do you really know from Australia? There's so few, because the market here is not that big. So you kind of have to really structure your place. But I think I'm just learning now, especially with all this Coronavirus stuff. I just think that people react to honesty, even if it's a little bit crazy, or you know, it's boring. So I had to keep doing that over trying to make money. Y: Yeah, that's so true. I also think that your fan base grows with you. It's more personal when the artist that you like is transitioning to something else and you can feel that with the music. It adds a nice point of relatability to the artist. I mean my struggle was that I wasn't wanting to listen to my own music, you know? And that says something. When you're getting your songs back, and you're like, "Oh..." and they're like, "Yeah, put it out! It's amazing!" And you're like, Ah... I don't know". It just… changes. It's like people can sense it. I love honest music. I love music that takes you either on a sonic journey or a lyric journey. I respect great music over great branding. Have there been moments where you've been confused about your identity? In my childhood, I was always so confused. I mean, no one had similar hair, and no one had my background. At school, I would see groups of friends forming, and I never felt as though I knew where to fit in, which made me feel so anxious and excluded. That being said, I’m so grateful because the trauma, stress and feeling of isolation has taught me how to become my strongest self. The hardship from my childhood has given me an incredible work ethic, and I now see and not judge. Do you currently feel centred in your identity? Yeah, I would say I feel extremely comfortable in my identity in the way that I can do things without having to extremely straighten my hair and put on makeup. I want to be me. Not that [changing your appearance] means you don’t want to be yourself. I'm not trying to change who I am physically. But sometimes, mentally, I struggle. I think I have a personality in my mind that I want to reach. But I think everyone has that. So yeah... I would say finally, I'm happy in my identity. It took leaving Australia and a whole bunch of revamps in the media for me to love it, but I do now, finally! They're like "So curly hair, brown skin, big bums..." I'm like, "what's happening?" All this stuff I got bullied so hard in school for. Everyone was like, [mocking] "frizzy hair, big lips, freckle face", and now they're injecting their lips and putting on fake freckles and combing their hair again. That was what we had as women when we were young; in television and movies curly hair was always messy. You were seen as not as polished if you had curly hair. I did heaps of work for corporate stuff. And even just four years ago, every gig, they'd want me to slick my hair, you know? And now they're encouraging me. They're like, "Get out the afro! We want to see it! Shake it, shake it!" And I'm like, "Alright, what's happened? Finally!" It's great. I believe in finessing yourself. I'm such a believer in changing your look whenever you want. As long as at the end of the day, you can go to bed and look at yourself in the mirror and be happy. That's that's the only thing. Where do you feel your home is and what has created your sense of it? Oh my god… I feel at home in so many places. I definitely feel most at home in St Kilda because I grew up in Elwood and I love Melbourne, because I've always lived here. But I used to feel at home in New York and I used to feel at home in Berlin. I think home is wherever you want it to be really. It sounds so cliche but wherever you're at and feeling amazing, that's where I feel is home. I love it. I'm such a travel bug, during this whole lockdown thing I've honestly felt like a caged bird that's just looking outside and thinking, "When? When can I fly? When's it going to change?" Do you see yourself represented in the music industry of so-called Australia? Yeah, I do. Because, I mean, I've worked in it for a long time. And I feel like so many people know me here. But I do feel like it's a bit hard to get commercial success in Australia. I feel like it very much runs on commercial success overseas, or success through a show or something that pushes you straight on to Sony and Universal. I feel like unless you're assigned to either one of those labels in Australia, it's really hard to reach everyone, especially as a female soloist. I think there's a lot of reach for bands; there's a lot of reach for men. But when it comes to being a woman, I don't feel as backed, especially a brown woman. I don't feel as backed by Australia as I did in places like New York, and America in general. Just because they have so much more respect for a great singer versus someone who makes you dance. In Melbourne, music always correlated with dancing, drinking and partying. It's not as much used for healing as it is overseas. But I work [best] live, and Australians don't see as much or promote as much live music as overseas. So I felt like overseas, it was easier for me to be noticed, and for my career to go boom. Here, I think you need more success online. And it's a bit of a shame. A lot of the Australian music scene revolves around punk bands, boy bands, rock bands and solo men. Or you have to go on these TV shows and become like Jessica Mauboy or something. It's kind of hard to really make it big without leaving, and then coming back, which is a bit silly. So I'm a bit mad at the Australian music scene for that. I still think there's amazing people here and the musicians back each other. The radio stations do a lot. They try a lot to play new music and stuff like that. It's more things like the ARIA Charts; I feel like they never support emerging artists, it always has to be artists who are signed to Sony and stuff like that. Whereas in America, there's way more experiences for emerging artists. And as an emerging artist, what would you have liked to experience differently in this industry? I just think; diversity. I feel like it's changing now, since this whole year, with Black Lives Matter. But why did it have to take America broadcasting a huge revelation for us to turn around and start respecting black people? I've found, through working for so long in this industry, I've seen the same loads of people get honoured. And I've seen people pay to receive things that you should be getting for free. It's because we've got such a small scene. I think Australians get very anxious about broadcasting new talent because they always want to make [money]. So, whenever there's things like the tennis, or festivals, it's always the same acts. And I think there's so much better music in Melbourne and Australia; I kind of just wish our scene would stop trying to be popular and start trying to be good. Y: It seems like there's such a divide between the commercial scene and the Melbourne live music scene; they're quite different. I think the Australian music scene should stop trying to be the American music scene (commercial) and it should just be... itself. Looking at the Melbourne live music scene; it's insane! Diverse and beautiful! But it isn't uplifted or showcased as much as our commercial side. That's it. If you listen to Nova and radio stations like that, it's like we're always honouring people from overseas who are on the charts, or our same stock artists who have all come from these shows, which means all of their revenue is going back to the same labels. There’s this real understanding that everyone just wants to make money. I think it would be so nice for our scene to try to start honouring these musicians who are coming up a little bit more. I feel like venues like The Night Cat do this. [The owner] Justin always tries to get new people in. I feel like there's a lot of venues, who are really helping us. It’s more that I want radio stations to turn around and do it. And I feel like Triple J says they do but then they keep putting the same big acts on the top 100. So I think it is our time to just stop trying to idolise American and European acts, and look into our own catalogue and see that we've got [acts] that are just as good. It's a bit of a game, the music industry. The more people I meet, and the more I get into it, the more I realise you just got to love what you do. Because if you get pushed into something, and you don't love what you're doing, you are gonna end up hating it and probably extremely exhausted. Everyone I know who had to tour music they didn't like, ended up leaving their record labels and starting again. There's no amount of money in the world, I feel, that could make a great authentic musician want to change who they are. I'm just realising that now. How diverse has your musical community looked over the past two years? Oh, it's been completely diverse. That's the best part about the music community. It's like we never ever judge. It's kept me going really. The music community is what has made me feel accepted. They were the first people to turn around and not judge me by my clothes or by how much I had. It was always just like, "Oh, you're here. Amazing. Well, we love you." How do you think we can create a stronger sense of home for immigrants coming into our music scene here? I think once things start opening up again, to just try to show people that we love everyone. I think this is what's frustrating me. I always saw Australia as a place that was so inviting. I think it's up to the people to turn around and try to promote equality. All we can do is broadcast: We do love everyone. Because that's what I think now is about: actually coming back together again. Instead of staying together online, we need to hold events and say, "Everybody's welcome.” Because I've had so many friends pushed home; it's just madness. I feel for them because they've spent so long working to be here and loving it here, [then] they have to leave. I didn't even know... it’s so hard. In your opinion, what social and political responsibility does an artist have beyond their immediate scene? I think it depends how big you are. Because in my opinion, I think the bigger you are, the more you should be vocal about your views. Because you have such a platform for change. But I also do believe everyone's entitled to be private and keep their branding and their private life separate. So it really just depends on the person. I do think if there's something going on, that you believe in, you have to talk up about it. And I think if you have a platform as an artist, even just to do it within your music or your art; it's very important. I try to stay a little bit out of politics online, because I just don't want to get into the heat. I don't want to have people forcing their opinions on me. But when it comes to something that I'm passionate about, I'll always speak up, because I think it's really important for people who have any type of platform to always use it for the right reasons. What's one great initiative that you would like to see more of in the Australian music scene? I think I would just like to see more diversity. I mean, I've seen so many people killing it, that were [once] struggling to fit in. But I think we could keep going. There's a lot of diversity coming through but I think now's the time to really keep rolling on that, whether it's in bodies, in cultural backgrounds or just in trying to hire unique individual acts. Just change it up! Now that our whole economy has failed, so many people have gone into not having money and not having spirit. It's time now to give as many jobs out to as many people who need it; not just hiring the same people who are sitting in their mansions, you know? Obviously, they're great. But I think now, on our TV shows, it's time to hire people who need help. 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.
- Sammm: My Drug Addiction and The Worst Thing I Ever Did
By Sammm, Jake Amy and Ella Clair I’m currently 25, but I’ve been living with a bit of an “air” over my head for almost 10 years. I’m coming to terms with my drug addiction. It’s difficult to talk about sometimes, but the more I do it, the more clear it becomes. As a teenager, I didn’t really identify the unhealthy behaviours I was indulgent in. I wanted to do the “cool” thing. As you do in high school, I started smoking heaps of cigarettes, and that turned into smoking joints, then lots of bongs. I moved out of home, dropped out of school, and got deeper into things. Acid, MDMA, stimulants and amphetamines. I got caught in this cycle of “substitution”. As I grew older, I got a full time job with a reasonable paycheck, so I moved into more expensive substances. That was two and a half years ago, and it’s when I started to really lose control. It was all fun and games. Working 40+ hours a week in a cocktail bar, I’d get pretty drunk on shift, head out and buy some amphetamines and stay up all night. I’d rinse and repeat that for months on end, crash for two days at some point, then start the cycle back up again. And I lead a double life. At the time, my partner of four years didn’t have a clue. And I was drifting away. It was definitely a unique and anxiety-inducing experience. But also, it was so easy to get stuck in the silence. I used to come home from a night out an hour before my partner would wake up in the morning. I’d pretend to be asleep and wait for her to leave for work. It became so easy to sustain that style of living. In the back of my mind I felt I’d be able to sort things out; that I’d simply revert and pull myself up. That was not the case - I kept spiralling. One time I accidentally ended up being a getaway driver for a mugging. I was sitting in a car with a dealer. He said, “I just have to go and grab something”, and then all I saw in the rearview mirror was taser flash. He jumped in the car and yelled, “GO GO GO”. I took off with the handbrake on - I was so nervous. I don’t see that guy anymore… but it's one of those weird cracked-out memories that has always stuck with me. That was two and a half years ago now and it’s been a slow exercise to work my way through it and get back on track. My inspiration to get back on my feet came from people around me and music. I wrote a five track EP called “Fresh Sheet Feeling” as I began to grapple with my addiction. The EP is meant to go through five different stages of a relationship, tied in with heavy drug themes. Whenever I hit rock bottom or I feel that things are going off the edge, I’ll sit down and listen to it, front to back. It’s a personal time capsule with saved emotions that I can revisit at any time. (I also just released it, which is exciting.) Especially for the people closest to me, I feel like I haven’t been fully able to understand the emotional weight my actions have had. I acknowledge it has really affected and dragged my friends down, and I’ve lost a lot of good friends over the years. Now I’m working on it, it’s been easier to be open with those around me, but I can tell that when I’m hurting, my friends are often hurting as well. Amidst the storm, I thought it would be more hurtful to my partner if I asked for her help. I feel that I treated my intimate partners the worst over this time - cheating on them with a substance. You receive similar pleasures from a relationship with drugs as a relationship with humans. High dopamine rushes, security, motivation. Drugs are so taboo and can be secretive. There were times when I rocked up to my partner’s house, and she would notice something’s up… I’d flat out lie about what was up, to the point where I would gaslight her and be awfully manipulative. I think for young people and musicians, it can seem that doing drugs is a cool roll-’n-roll thing. You shouldn’t assume that’s the way the rock-’n-roll lifestyle should be lived. I do often find that musicians have joined the music industry for an outlet to express emotions. If you’re vulnerable, you can definitely fall into that lifestyle. If you’re getting into it, slow down a little bit. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re going in circles, rather, identify what’s causing you to cycle. Be kind to yourself. If you’re in a similar situation to what I was in, there is a very high chance that you will lose the faith of close ones. It’s important to accept that these people will leave you for their own well being. Also, you need to have the confidence to talk to people about things no matter how awkward you think the conversation may be. And be real to yourself with where you’re at. If you know someone who is struggling, anger is one of the worst ways to approach them - it will push both parties away in very opposite directions. It’s important to note that nothing’s going to change overnight. You should have no expectations. My greatest struggle has been working on my methamphetamine addiction. It’s been a pretty long grind to get where I am now, and there is still a long way to go. I would like to take a moment to thank all drug and alcohol counsellors. There’s a lot of help out there if you seek it, even for people who can’t afford expensive rehabs/psychiatrists. If you are dealing with a similar issue, there’s a great hotline called ADIS who can link you directly with health centres to organise support. Keep up to date with Sammm here 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.
- A Hunger For Culture: An Interview with Nui Moon
By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair and Hugh Heller “Melbourne has really defined it’s own style of music, and has grown an identity because of the mixing of artists” says Zhonu “Nui” Mzali Moon, AKA “Future Roots” and one half of Digital Afrika. While opening up about his extensive collaborations amongst the Afro-Aussie music community, Nui exchanged his views on the relationship that so-called Australia has with immigrant artists. Earlier this month I chatted with the percussionist-producer-DJ about the significance of his roots, integrating world music into raves and the demand Melbourne has for migrant-made music. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation. Let’s start with a bit of background on you. How Digital Afrika became a part of your journey? My father is Ghanaian and Moroccan. And my mother is European Australian, I guess; Scottish/Irish. I was conceived in India where they met but then was born here in Australia. So, I consider myself “Afro-Aussie”; that’s a term I use sometimes. I was into urban, Afro-American music as a teenager and later in life, but that led me to explore more about African music and traditional music from around the world. I've always been into drumming and actually went and studied percussion in West Africa. I went and explored my roots. And I'm still doing that. I've been to different parts of Africa about nine or ten times now. That musical journey has led me deep into traditional African music. I've always been interested in dance music, electronic music and electronic production; making beats. So it's kind of a new evolution of Afro-house. I got more into DJing... you know, into producing and making that music. It's been a really amazing journey working with the EP we're just about to put out, because it also features lots of other Aussies from Melbourne including Remi Kolawole and Thando. Oh, [I’m a] big fan of Thando. She came and killed it. Gbade from Nigeria, who's a more recent immigrant to Melbourne, who plays in the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, as I do. And another friend of ours, Dominic Wagner, also did a rhyme on it, as well as an Afro-American rapper, Cazeaux O.S.L.O. Some of them are Australian mixed with African. Some of them are African immigrants to Australia. Some of them Afro-American immigrants to Australia. The new EP is really representative of that. Where do you feel your home is? Yeah, that's a really interesting question. That's the journey for us to discover, you know? I'm still learning about that, and where I feel home is and why. Learning about my original cultures and my adopted cultures; in some ways you feel like you're not particularly connected to either 100%. And I think if you don’t 100% identify with one particular culture, there can be difficult times where you feel you're missing something. It can be confusing. You really have to be resilient and look within. What do you have? What you do have is an opportunity, I think, to take the best parts of all your cultural influences. You can mould something new from all that material given. If you choose to look at it as an opportunity, surely it can be. It also gives you freedom to connect to other cultures or make new bridges and connections between cultures. Maybe it’s your role. I love Australia; specifically the land itself. As a younger teenager, I really wanted to leave here to understand my father's origins. I had a really strong calling to go to Africa. Which I did as a teenager, I think I was 17 on my first trip to North Africa, and Senegal. Through my artistic endeavours; I've travelled, and I've interacted with musicians all over Africa and the world. At first, you're kind of searching. But at some point, you're more confident and you have a stronger identity; a sense of yourself. It's a confusing journey, but kind of rewarding. I would recommend it to anybody who is thinking about returning to their roots if they've immigrated to a new country, because I think you immediately understand your parents a lot better. Understanding the environment they grew up in, their expectations about their children, and what their life journey is about. So that was probably the most important journey I ever took, that first trip. And I'm glad I did it as a kid; it is a formative age. Compared to other music scenes you experienced, what did you find to be so special about Melbourne's music scene? I arrived in Melbourne almost 10 years ago after living overseas for a while in Europe and North Africa, where there was a freshness and a freedom. The scene here in Melbourne could be looked at as restrictive. There's not really a big enough scene to totally support different styles of non-Western music exclusively. So there's a lot of crossover; mixing of artists and styles of music. At first that kind of feels a bit washed out. It’s like not really jazz, or not really hip hop. Initially, it's difficult because it feels there’s more compromise involved. But I think over the years, Melbourne's really defined its own style of music and has grown an identity because of the mixing of artists. It's been great to be part of that. Even within the African music scene in Melbourne, it's just a few Senegalese and a few Ghanaians and a few Sudanese, and they're more inclined to work together, where they wouldn't necessarily either in their home country, or even in a larger city, where there are really established scenes for each country. Another great thing there’s a lot of live music venues, and hopefully, after COVID there still is. They are very vibrant people, the people of Melbourne, and they support live music a lot. There's a lot of smaller gigs, constantly going on. And in the last decade, I would say a lot of festivals have built up around the Victorian area, as well as in the city. Audiences love categorising and sometimes find genre-defying music confusing. What has your experience been like sharing Digital Afrika with an Australian audience? It's really interesting with Digital Afrika. It's dance music; even though it's very syncopated with complex parts, there are also very simple rhythms. It's 'house-y' in a way, so we've actually been able to talk to a huge audience in Australia, from people who like world music to people who just like raving and everything in between. It's also a nice kind of vehicle. A lot of people that wouldn't have listened to traditional percussion are suddenly exposed to it through the dance genre. So it feels like we’re making little steps, educating people about cultural music through more popular forms of music. What do you think would happen if radio stations explicitly played music of different cultural backgrounds for the next three months? That would probably work! Pop music is the popular music that's put in front of people. They can see more of it because they're exposed to more of it. Hopefully, popular music does get more diverse in the future. A lot of popular forms of music actually started from African music; blues and jazz to, you know, R&B and hip hop. Interestingly, it does feel like there is a bit more of acceptance of truly African music, and modern forms of African music. The Afro beats and all the kind of pop music coming out of Africa at the moment is definitely making a big impact on the world. It does seem to be the time for the African sound to make a push into popular music. Over the last few years, what kinds of diversity have you seen within your music community? Well, I've been going to Africa every year, and working with a lot of Africans. Last year, I received a grant from VicArts to do some recording in Ethiopia and North Africa. So, I'm really cultivating a bit more; not just the local Australian music community, but bridging more Australian world music with the world. I’ve been trying to move more into that role of being a facilitator of Australian music, collaborating with international artists. But otherwise, as a percussionist, you can fall in and out of many forms of music and work with many different types of people. It's actually a very versatile area of music. I've worked with some great Indigenous artists and with Papua New Guinean, Pacific Island drummers. I've worked with West African drummers in more popular forms of hip hop and reggae. So yeah, my musical community is very diverse. I'm a real collaborator in the truest sense. How do you think we can create a stronger sense of home for immigrants in the music community of so-called Australia? I think that has come a long way. I did feel, when I first arrived in Melbourne, that a lot of the more established artists had more of a classical training; they were quite elaborate, theoretical players. Whereas now I feel like there's been a lot more interaction from musicians, immigrant musicians, who are masters of their own form. That scene of Australian orthodox musicians has embraced all the cultural players more. I think they’ve had to; it was a bit stale. I think the Australian music scene is hungry for more colourful and cultural influences; especially in Melbourne. In Melbourne specifically, there are a lot of agencies and funding bodies that are empowering immigrant and ethnic groups to produce their own music, distribute and perform it. There could be more of that, because apart from musical processes, learning the business of it [is important]; how to build your profile and production skills and have a network of technicians working with you. It goes a bit beyond just the musical element. Only a couple years ago, I got my first grant to produce music and I've been making music in Melbourne and Australia for more than 10 years. I went for a couple early on and didn't get them. There was a real language involved with it; professionals would write grants for you. Now, the grant bodies are moving away from that model, making them a lot easier to word and get your point across. Do you think that you have experienced privilege as a male immigrant? If yes, how so? Yeah, I would say that's kind of innate in the music scene, especially with regards to female instrumentalists [as opposed to singers]. It's just much more dominated by men playing drums and bass and guitars and horns, especially within the professional realm. I've never really thought about it much, until I travelled to Cuba and did some recording and studying over there for a couple months. Maybe it's their socialist background or something; the women are clearly represented [in roles such as] military doctors; it's very down the middle. But interestingly, it was similar in music. There were just so many females ripping on the instruments. Just burning. I was just like, damn, there's so many girls on stage, not just singing, but playing percussion and bass. In the other realm of music, there's been a huge rise of female DJs in the last couple of years in Melbourne and across the world. So that’s definitely been a welcome change. Who wants to watch a dude up there dance to his own tracks and stuff? It's not as cool. Why hasn't this been a thing forever? You use Future Roots as a stage name. What does that phrase mean to you? Well, I was heavily into reggae music, and interested in the ideology around reggae music and most of Rastafarianism. I like that idea of going back to your roots and understanding where you’re coming from, and then your future and where you're going. So that's what it entails. But interestingly, after I'd started using the name I had this crazy vision, and I saw it as an acronym as well. To explain that, future is Forward Universal Thoughts Unifying Revolutionaries Everywhere. And roots is Respect Of Original Traditions and Symbols. I came up with that after I’d been using the name for years. It was a mind blowing minute for me. That really is what it represents, and I’m still trying to live up to that. What would you have liked to have experienced differently as an emerging artist in the music industry? Getting paid more money. I've never been into the “starving artists” thing. I didn't sign up for that. It's been very interesting in COVID. Our industry has been devastated. I'm up here, fortunately, at the moment in Byron Bay, and there's some opportunities to do some small performances. We've been doing some African dance classes with Digital Afrika. People can actually dance to our music [because of the] athletics area of legislation laws around COVID. It's been interesting to see how important it is for people to have these outlets; to be able to gather in groups and dance and enjoy and be together. Maybe there'll be more value put on arts and culture in the future. We can’t say for sure, but I think people are really accessing the value of it, as it's been taken away from us. What's a piece of advice you would give to your younger self? I guess believing in oneself and not giving up on your own originality. I didn't really have an orthodox musical upbringing or career, but all the parts have made sense eventually. So you know, to believe in that what you're doing is valid, and will be important for something, somebody or even just yourself. I think when you're emerging as a young artist, self doubt comes through at different times. Whether due to believing in your art or trying to make ends meet. There's all types of challenges that come with being an artist. But I think it's worth the journey. Keep up to date with Nui here 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.
- Mindy Meng Wang on Breaking Stereotypes, Artificial Intelligence and Growing Roots in Australia
By Hugh Heller, Ella Clair and Jake Amy Musicians who emigrate to Australia face the challenge of integrating into a new culture while preserving their own identity and tradition. This is on top of the challenge already faced by all artists; creating art that expresses themselves as well as the collective that they emerge from. Chinese-Australian musician Mindy Meng Wang has forged a strong identity, blending Western influences with her own musical tradition. Hugh had the opportunity to discuss identity and art with the distinguished instrumentalist. Here are the most inspiring parts of their conversation. What do you think is the role of art, or your art, in bridging the gap between people of different cultures? Lack of understanding has caused so many problems in the world, and art is one way to introduce a cultural mentality to people who don’t have that background. When I perform, I don’t just “play music” - I try to introduce music plus philosophy and culture, and I’ll often tell stories. The reason that harmony and other elements of music are different in Chinese traditional music is because they’re actually connected with mathematics and philosophy. Most people have no idea about that. If we all start to understand each other more across cultures, we will eventually find that there are many similarities that make it easier to understand each other and also break stereotypes. And I think the reason people still have these stereotypes is because (even in European countries) they’re formed by secondhand information - we think we have lots of freedom on the internet, but what we get to see is very selective. For some reason, people trust the media so much that it forms their political views. Being a Chinese musician that works in Australia with a lot of Australians is a bit weird - I feel that people have a curiosity about me. There's still this “exotic” sense there. And people don't really understand what I do, but they're interested. Generally, those people are very positive. Sometimes, there's hidden racism. Many times, industry collaborators will first check my political views before they commit to working with me. That’s kind of weird. If I was a white person, maybe they wouldn't ask me, “Do you support Trump? Because if you do, I’m not going to work with you.” With me, people check who I support and what I think is right and wrong. So I guess this is a special experience of being a Chinese musician working in the West. People don't understand me… And that's why I'm here - I want people to understand me, and I want to introduce them to the culture from where I grew up, show them that the music is nice, and that I love Chinese culture and Australian culture. I want to be a positive influence. You’ve said that the "Western art world system is innovative and encourages the individual". Could you elaborate on that? I think that in Australia, we’re encouraged to be ourselves; to be different. We’re still working on that as a society, but it’s definitely mainstream now. Here, we are proud that we're human beings, and even though we have faults, they are accepted. In China, things are very different and based on ancient philosophies… In China, there is often a standard of what is “good”. When we’re young, we’re told we’re not good, and no matter how hard we try, we're not good enough. And it’s everywhere: assuming telling people they’re not good will make them try harder; so they'd be better. And it’s not encouraging. This is a way to train children. And the ancient philosophy actually doesn’t encourage individuality. It emphasises harmony and sacrifice. You sacrifice for your family, for friends, for society, and therefore if your individualities get in the way of others, you should definitely not have them. The mentality is so different. That comes in everyday life and also music. In Chinese music, for example, they will give you an old, ancient piece, and the best way you can play it is exactly what you've been taught. Within there, you can put emotion, but they don't encourage you to be so different. Chinese people are very restrained and contained, even about a feeling. When you're young, you shouldn't just let things out because that would disturb other people; you should contain and digest it by yourself. So the arts is all in a very finite, contained form. For those who do not understand music that well, they might think different people play one piece almost exactly the same. The differences are very, very small. Here, you could go any direction and it's all encouraged. I think it’s very different, in terms of arts and mentality, and you can see it easily. Considering that, why is it important for you to maintain your traditional practice? I’m definitely not a typical classical musician from China - I try to musically “break the box”. But traditional practice has formed me and become a part of me. I have to use that to my advantage: to reach to different levels, different directions. I think it’s very important to maintain a strong foundation, so I can go higher, or in a completely different direction later. A traditional player might look at what I do and think, “Wow, it's really out there, it's something we haven't even thought of, something we’ve never tried,” but if you look closely, the traditional practice is the foundation. What challenges have you had in maintaining your identity since being in Australia? Definitely a lot of challenges, but it wasn’t so bad, because the first difficult time was when I went to England. That was more of a shock, coming from China, because before I went to England I had never been to a foreign country. When I was there I didn't really speak the language very well and I was young. Before I left China, my life was very controlled. Like all the kids; I went to school, I had lots of homework and I had to practice. So I basically had no “childhood”; it was about study and practice. Even when I was 16, my mental age wasn't that grown-up compared with Western kids. We were absolutely a couple years behind. In China, parents would never let you go out for a date. It's definitely not allowed when you're 16. So when I went to England, that was a really big challenge and a very shocking time for me. When I came to Australia, it was much easier. At least I spoke the language. But it was still very difficult, because I didn’t really have friends and I had no connections here. I definitely didn't know how to get into the music industry… That took a bit of time, and at many points I thought “maybe I just can’t make it here” and would have to go back to England or China. But, after two or three years, I found that my connection to Australia grew. Like a plant I started growing roots. I started to get to play music with lots of different and interesting musicians. Before I left China, I only had one identity. Since then, I constantly have to juggle between two. I think I have actually been influenced a lot by Western culture. When I go back to China now, or even talk to my family… well, actually, my mum is not happy. She asked me, “Are you Chinese?!” I think she finds that she doesn't really know me sometimes because the way I think about things, or do things, is very different from what she used to know. And even my friends, like Western friends, sometimes comment, "You are different from other Chinese people." I think they are trying to give me a compliment. It is actually really weird to hear that, but what they mean is; they feel they can understand me better and I understand them better. I guess it's just because I was quite blended with Western society after I left China, unlike a lot of students. They live in bubbles, and so they don't really get to understand what's going on here, and what the culture is, you know? So, yeah, I'm constantly between these two. And now I think I actually find a very comfortable space, where I really embrace all the traditional culture of China and also have a very confident knowledge about my own value and where I want to go. So I don't have doubt about my identity anymore. I accept it is a blend, it's not going to be Australian or Chinese. It's a blend of both. And I feel really lucky that I can see things from different perspectives. You really have to have this deep understanding and experience in both cultures to be able to have that. I really like it now, so it's not a challenge anymore. What advice would you give to a young composer who has moved to Melbourne from China? Firstly, being a composer or musician is just generally a very difficult thing, without even thinking about where you are from. Unfortunately, if you're female, or if you're young, or if you're from a different country; these things will make it extra difficult. You have to be mentally prepared. You have to be strong about what you want to do. Otherwise, you're not going to last. Secondly, just try everything. You probably think you know what you want to do, but there are so many things you haven't tried, and once you try, you might think, “Oh, I can do more than one thing.” And that actually gives you more opportunities to get to know the industry and understand people and introduce yourself as well. Thirdly, you have to be super positive, mentally. There'll be a lot of things that upset you in the progress of your career, and you have to be mentally prepared to overcome all this, which is probably one of the most difficult things. When I first came here, I did actually try to get some advice from someone who had a similar background, and I think that advice was to go back to London. Now I understand why it was like that, but I would not tell that to a newcomer, because I understand what it feels like when you hear that. I think I would just tell people that you have to be super strong. But, you know, if you are, and you're determined, just stay and try to be patient. Why did that person suggest that you go back to London? I think that person explained that “there’s not much going on here, it's super difficult”. This was an established composer from an Asian background, which even for him, it's very difficult. He was saying, “You're doing so well in London.” I was in the best Chinese string quartet in Europe and it looked like the environment and the future was bright. He was saying I wouldn’t “have any of that here”, you know? I guess he thought it would be much easier for me to pursue my career there rather than here. But I’m so glad I stayed, because now, after so many years, I really understand Australia much better now. I do feel like it was a good choice. It suits me, and I have no doubt this will be my home. If I gave up, I would have never learned this. How would you change the Melbourne music scene to make it more welcoming and inclusive for people migrating from another country? Compared to Europe, we don’t have a good system. Even though the Australian government is putting effort into this, in London, there are a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge about Asian culture. In London, there are community groups practicing different art forms, and there is a community interested in that… there’s a full system. Here, even on the basic level, the community are not gathering together to do those things. It doesn't have an environment. Imagine if there was a huge community of a thousand people who organised events to practice the one art form regularly. Then they actually have this culture here, and then maybe more people will be studying this, in university, for example, and the entire awareness of one thing will be different. So, I think we have some individual artists like me, who are promoting and introducing arts and culture, but I don’t think it's in the full chain. It's a bit broken up. I don’t think that provides a healthy, self-sustained form of developing this type of culture. And it’s the same with every culture, not only Asian. So it needs so many different things to actually create a healthy environment, and we're missing lots. You developed a work using "ancient Asian art forms to trigger human emotions and artificial intelligence to read the audience's mind and emotional states." What are the implications of that for using software to make art in the future? The software I use is called Biometric Mirror, which reads emotions, and I use the arts to trigger people's different emotions. Then we can see the connection between what artists do and how it goes to the audience and how it is recognised by artificial intelligence. What I like about this is we're actually using something really ancient versus something really futuristic. It's like a communication between past and future, between what is ancient and what is going to be the future for all of us. AI is going to be more developed… it’s not perfect now, but it will get there. And I think it will eventually come into our life from many different angles. But by doing this kind of project, what I really want to tell people is to think about how far we want to go with modern technology. To think about how much of our life and and our humanity and feeling we want to give to the AI to let it interfere with. Even now, you can tell your speakers what to do without pressing a button. 30 years ago, you wouldn't think about that, you know? Is listening to music from a speaker at home, by telling and talking to your Siri or something, the same as actually going to a concert or going to a jazz bar and watching real human musicians play music? You know, there are so many decisions, and I feel like people don't really pay attention to this. They just take whatever they've been fed. The reason for this project came from one time when I went to Splendour in the Grass. I saw they had a science tent, and they were showing this programme called a biometric mirror, which is the one that analyses you from a single photo. And it's kind of a joke, because it's not accurate. It only just developed and it was actually meant to make people think, to question, but guess what: people don't question! They just come, they queue up, and when the software tells them they're irresponsible or not attractive or older than their real age, when it answers not what they expected, they just get upset straight away, you know. From being so happy, queuing at a festival, and then they see that and their face completely just drops. I found it very interesting. They didn't even question what it was, how accurate it is...they just get influenced. So I just thought, okay, I want to do something to push people, make them uncomfortable, even, so they think about making a decision for modern technology, not just getting it without any thought. I'm going to take this project to another level. Hopefully next year, we can put in a big live performance, and this time I'm using this software, the AI, to pick up the emotions from the audience and translate them into music language to be played on the electromagnetic piano. So while the audience is watching the human perform on stage, they're mind-controlling this piano to interactively play with the human musician at the same time. And they can't lie about their feeling! Sometimes you go to a performance and people ask “what did you think?” And you just say "Oh, yeah, it's pretty good". But with this one, you know, if you don't have a positive feeling, you can hear it. There's no way you can lie about it. So I hope by exposing people's feelings, and challenging the audience, it will make them think about what they want to do with modern technology. Keep up to date with Mindy here 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. Photos provided by artist.
- Speak Up For Australian Jazz
By Adam Simmons This is a mixture of invitation, plea and manifesto to encourage each and every reader to participate in shaping the future for Australia’s jazz community. Right now, the conditions we face are challenging – largely no viable gigs (especially for Victorians), restricted travel, lack of visibility, lack of connection and lack of voice. But from a different perspective, if we recognise these conditions for the opportunities they present, we might just “weather the storm” and come out much stronger as we emerge. An opportunity upon us, is the upcoming Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions – with a deadline of Oct 22nd. An inquiry gives us access to the government to tell our stories, share our experiences and present our facts and figures. With this inquiry’s terms of reference, there is the chance to explain our integral part of the music sector, as well as society more broadly and to imagine what might be. I am preparing a submission based on previous research as well as recent consultation. I will give an outline of that here, but I hope that you will each consider your own submission also. A quick clarification about the word “jazz”. I will use it here in a broad, encompassing sense to cover traditional, swing, mainstream, bebop, cool, fusion, avant-garde, free, smooth, neo-classic, contemporary, experimental, noise, acid, pop, whatever else – I’m not concerned about the style. For me, jazz is a process, or as Ronny Ferella has put it, “It’s not what jazz is, it’s what jazz does.” Jazz In My Time I’ve just hit 50 years of age a few weeks ago. I started playing recorder when I was seven, clarinet at eight and saxophone at age 12. I’ve been playing in bands for almost 40 years, professionally for over 30. I studied improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts, and I can now look back and recognise how the skills I learnt there have informed the wide range of activities I’ve engaged in including: performance, composition, education, sculpture, theatre, curation, mentorship, advocacy and more. Things have changed over that time. Visibility of jazz has been lost – in the 80’s and 90’s I remember seeing artists like Sandy Evans Trio, Paul Grabowsky, Don Burrows, The Swingin’ Sidewalks, Brian Brown and Judy Jacques on TV – all presenting their music. Around the mid 90’s my quartet featured on Bert Newton’s morning show on Channel 10, playing original music. This all seemed possible and attainable because I saw friends and colleagues there also. But it feels the only times I see them now is in backing bands for Carols by Candlelight, acts at the AFL Grand Final and shows like Dancing with the Stars. I don’t see our Australian jazz artists telling our stories on TV anymore and national radio is not much better – a whole generation or two have been neglected. Linked to this is the lack of sustainability within the scene due to decline in real value of gig fees and the impact of the internet and streaming on record/CD sales. The general rate for a gig is often around $100 – that’s if you’re not doing a door deal which for a jazz gig carries the very real risk of getting much less. But I was doing gigs in the mid 90’s for $100. My first wedding gig around 1986 paid $150. And my father tells me the story of knocking back a regular weekly nightclub gig for $100 because he didn’t feel he was good enough – that was in 1969! And it’s not much different at festivals: one prominent Australian festival where I have performed for over 20 years, the rate I have received has stayed steady around $280-300. Same for the prices of CDs/albums, which have been pretty much the same since for 30 years, but the return has suffered from a reduction in sales numbers as music is consumed in different ways now and revenue from royalties has diminished due to digital disruption. There has been a corresponding loss of record label support as retail outlets and support have disappeared. There have been positive changes also. I see the standard of general musicianship of students increasing as each generation passes on the benefits of their learnings, with teachers often coming from a trained jazz background. Gender diversity may not be perfect, but it has come a long way in terms of numbers, consideration and awareness over the decades. There are no excuses for curators to not be presenting balanced line-ups, especially as audiences are increasingly demanding this. Access to information, education and recordings has changed unbelievably due to digital and technological advances. The ease and speed of communication has helped jazz develop as an international form with strong national differences in each country. It has also made it easier to connect internationally for touring, promoting/releasing music and facilitating international collaborations. Where Are Things At? The Australian arts sector, including jazz, has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and largely ignored by the Federal Government in its response. This has just compounded the structural issues that have been slowly eroded and neglected over many years, particularly since the change of government back in 2013, which led to the abandonment of a national cultural policy that had been bilaterally approved. Australia’s jazz sector has not been immune or unaffected by this neglect. If the Global Financial Crisis was not bad enough in the loss of major sponsors for various national jazz festivals, that have not returned, the funding fiascos perpetrated by George Brandis’ Catalyst program have had lasting effects. Not least of which, was the loss of federal funding for Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues for several years, noted as Australia’s premier jazz and blues festival. As mentioned above, a bunch of other conditions exist for Australian jazz – minimal mainstream media presence, education funding cuts, stagnant (or decreasing) artist fees, erosion of revenue sources from recordings due to emergence of streaming, lack of organisational infrastructure, gradual shift in funding focus of narrowing contemporary music to exclude jazz. But on the positive side, we have a wealth of young and talented musicians across a range of jazz styles, we have and are contributing internationally, our audiences are passionate and loyal, we have skills that are utilised within many other sectors and more broadly, there is strong international activity in jazz that is interested in engaging with Australia. Jazz can be a dirty word when used to dismiss what we do as old hat, impenetrable, elitist or low-brow, but if you’re David Bowie, Paul Kelly, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast or Beyonce, jazz might be informing the music and worn as a badge of approval. Things are not perfect, but jazz is not dead - and in my humble opinion, far from it! Is Anyone Doing Anything? Actually, there’s a bunch of things happening now – or rather that have been slowly developing over the past couple of years or more. Different industry gatherings, organisations and individuals have been researching and considering ways to improve support for Australian jazz. The examples I know about include the National Jazz Alliance, Sounds Australia, Australian Music Centre, Stonnington Jazz Industry Summit, Port Fairy Jazz Festival’s Jazz Workshop, Eric Myers (Discussion Forum/National Jazz Think Tank), Richard Letts (The Music Trust/Music in Australia), Johannes Luebbers and Tim Nikolsky (Australian Jazz Real Book). There are many good people who care deeply for this community. I took on a pro bono role to look at developing a state/nation-wide jazz industry as outlined in the Victorian Jazz Industry’s Strategic Action Plan. This 2019 report was based on the consultation done by Port Fairy Jazz Festival. The similar notion of a peak body for jazz was raised at the Stonnington Jazz Industry Summit. Given the same conversation was being had by very different groups within the broad spectrum of jazz, it made sense to combine efforts. Slowly, my work got a kickstart through preparing and consulting for a submission to Victoria’s Creative State 2020+ last years. COVID disrupted most of my plans, but there have been other ways to further the cause, including the Australian Jazz Forum held recently. And that brings me to the upcoming Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions. On 26 August 2020 Minister for Communications, Hon Paul Fletcher MP asked the Standing Committee on Communications And The Arts to inquire into and report on Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions. The terms of reference are broadly looking to gain an overview of the state of the arts sector and elicit potential opportunities for its development. Aside from considering the impact of COVID-19 (which I have already written about in terms of jazz) and identifying avenues for innovation, the inquiry is looking for guidance about how to recognise, measure and grow the economic and non-economic benefits, including community, social wellbeing and national identity. While I may be sceptical of the motivations of the current Federal Government, this is an opportunity to convey the value of the arts beyond the more common economic lens that has helped spawn “creative industries”. There is no national arts and cultural policy in Australia. The first one was Creative Nation, delivered by Paul Keating in 1994. The second one, Creative Australia, was launched by Simon Crean in 2013, but was abandoned after the election that year by Tony Abbott’s new government. So, despite the final report to the 2015 Senate Inquiry on the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts recommending the development of a national arts policy in consultation with the arts sector (page 77) and creativity being recognised as being crucial to international prosperity in the 21st century, why is it we still have nothing in place in terms of real support for arts and culture in Australia? Giving Jazz A Voice Jazz sits squarely in this picture – both in terms of the scaffolding it provides across contemporary music as well as having a part to play in contributing to Australia’s national identity. Jazz is entwined with the fortunes of other sectors including hospitality, tourism, education, health and more. But it has been almost 20 years since Australia had a formal national voice for the jazz sector. Who is going to tell the story now? Who is going to tell about how jazz develops skills for creating music spontaneously together with complete strangers? Who is going to talk about the regional towns whose communities benefit from the tourism dollars brought in by jazz festivals? Who is going to talk about the influence our jazz musicians are exerting internationally in cities like New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore and more? Who is going to talk about the fact that our music is just as deserving and just as relevant as any other style within contemporary music? Us. That’s who. It's Time To Get Involved Here is where I make the case for you, the reader, to become part of making change. Let’s assume for a moment that the Government takes notice of the final report from this inquiry. It will be based only on the information they seek or are given. And they will be looking to see where they can have the most impact, get the biggest bang for buck and basically win votes. There will be many people making a lot of noise for themselves. If you and your community are not represented, then you can’t count on anyone else to do it for you – as someone quoted today, “you have to be in it to change it”. Power of numbers – the more voices speaking for jazz, especially in all its diverse forms, the better. And one of the strengths of jazz is the fact we cross over so many generations and communities. As a musician I have played with both my teachers and my students, sometimes even all together, but all as equals in service to the music. If we can engage with Government in the same way as we play music, our unified voice will carry much greater weight. That’s being positive. But what if my inner cynic is correct instead? If all our hard work and passion was to fall on deaf ears, wouldn’t it all be pointless? No – then it’s even more vital to do - and this is more why I’m making this plea now. It will be the passion, the ideas, the discussions, the dreaming, all of this and more that we really need to express while we can. Working together to create a shared understanding of what we each need and imagining what we might be and articulating that clearly – just think what we might achieve if we could do that? Whatever we do now is actually the beginning of a much bigger plan. But What's The Plan? At the time of writing, I am still pulling that all together, but here’s what has been going on and the rough plan before next week’s October 22nd deadline for submissions. About three weeks ago, the Australian Jazz Forum was held. Over 70 people were in attendance, sharing ideas, thoughts, information and solutions about how we might improve the jazz sector. All of that is available on the Mural platform: a digital whiteboard, as a shared community resource for information and contributions. This is helping inform a submission to the Inquiry that I am preparing for community comment and feedback – that should be almost available by the time this article is published. Then what is required of you is any combination of: sharing of this article consideration of the draft submission and offering comment/feedback get informed/contribute via the Australian Jazz Forum Mural prepare your own submission – watch this video about how to write one complete the Parliamentary Inquiry’s official survey Whatever you do, it needs to be your story, your voice. This may be as an individual, collective or an organisation. I hope the work and resources I’m preparing will be of use, but whether you use it or even agree with my approach to things – the main thing is that you make the most of the opportunity to have your voice heard as part of a democratic process that you might just be able to have an influence upon for you and your community. Read my draft outline here 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.
- Danielle Ponder: A Call For Love
Written by Jake Amy “It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America,” says Danielle Ponder, a New York vocalist, activist and public defender. At 16, her brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a robbery of $170 where no one was hurt. Since, Danielle has helped thousands in the criminal justice system by connecting judges to the compassion in their hearts. I recently chatted to Danielle (amidst her #BlackLivesMatter protesting in the US) about identity, artistic collaboration, “business people” who control the music industry, and her new release with Naarm-based cinematic soul outfit, Karate Boogaloo. Here’s the most powerful parts of our conversation. You’ve said, “It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America”. Could you talk about your experience? Cops are killing Black folks. Not like that wasn't happening before. But Black folks are trying to survive a pandemic and also trying to survive racism. It’s an experience which highlights the fact that we [Black people] always carry an extra burden. And it gets to the point where I’m just like, “Enough is enough”. It doesn’t help that we have Donald Trump as president, who reinforces a lot of the white supremacist beliefs… so it can feel very much like a motherless child. Where do we belong as Black people? Because America doesn’t feel like our home. Do you feel centred in your identity? Well, I will say: right now is the Blackest I’ve ever felt. I feel thankful for the connectedness in the community right now. I feel proud of all of the young people who are active. And I feel proud about all the #BlackLivesMatter protests happening all over the world. It’s been beautiful to see. And I think I wear my Blackness proudly, deeply… but that can also be stressful at the same time. I noticed in Look Around, you sing about feeling “all the pain in the world”. Do you think the people who make the “big calls” in the industry know what that feels like? If not, what possible implications does this disconnect have on the music industry? Most of our music executives are white people, at least in the US anyway. Many, older white men. And they’re business people, right? Business people tend to focus on what’s profitable, not what will heal the world. And I think that’s a loss. It’s often lost that music is a healer. Music can change the world, but, if there’s such a focus on what is marketable, we lose a piece of that. It’s really unfortunate, because music is probably one of the most powerful tools we have. And there are so many artists who can’t rise to the level of a famous pop star because they don’t fit a certain “formula”. I mean, there are some who definitely use their position to shine light on social issues, like what Beyoncé is doing right now (granted, she had to become “untouchable” before she could do that). One of the downsides of our industry is that it’s managed by people who are concerned with marketing, and not concerned with transformative change. Do you think that will ever change? If I say this, I’ll probably never get a record deal, but, I feel the [major label] industry is dying. Artists like Chance the Rapper are independent and are doing their own thing! I see labels becoming less relevant. It is possible that we get to a world where artists are completely in control of their music. And that would be a beautiful, beautiful thing to see. What do you think are the next steps for addressing racial inequality in the music scene? The next step for addressing racial inequality in the world (period), is reparations. For Black folks, there has to be. All the studies and research shows us: you cannot close the racial wealth gap until you explicitly fund and invest in the Black community. The music industry, specifically, has gotten rich off the struggles of the Black community. There is no way our community should be looking the way it looks when we invented blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B, funk. I mean, there’s no reason we should even have something called “the hood”, right?! We should not have dilapidated houses. We gave this country so much. There’s no reason why our neighbourhoods should look the way they look. And I think the music industry needs to go further; don’t just put up a black square and say “Black Lives Matter”. Invest directly into the Black community. Every track that is funk, soul blues, etc… 10% should go into a reparations fund for the Black community. Our struggle, and our pain, and our suffering created that music. You cannot detach the suffering, the struggle and the people from the genre. Over here in Australia, it seems that centuries-old Western classical music is valued and respected more by government funding bodies than newer styles of music such as soul and jazz. Do you have any thoughts on that? I don’t know if that’s because it’s centuries old, or if it’s because of racism and eurocentrism? One could argue that the foundations of Black music are also centuries old. The percussion that you hear in reggae or funk, or the use of the guitar, which was originally an African instrument. One could argue that what we have now is only a modification - or its remnants of what we had centuries ago in Africa. We know that people of different identities have varying societal experiences. What are the implications of this on artistic collaboration between people of differing identities? Despite our differing identities, there is a foundation on which all humans stand, and that is the need to be valued, the need to be loved. I think there can be a sense of connectedness when we look at collaboration with those basic principles. I wish folks could look at this Black Lives Matter movement as a call for love, and a call to be valued. If people could see it in those simple terms, then I think it’d be easier for them to connect. Working with a band like Karate Boogaloo… they do a great job of educating themselves and are so thoughtful. They know how to decentre whiteness, follow Black leadership, and elevate Black voices. They call me and have questions, like, “Hey Danielle, do you think we should do this in this way?” That’s what’s so beautiful about them. Do you see yourself represented in the music scene? Locally, yeah. And I have a really great fan base; my hometown is just so supportive… I don't know where I’d be without them. Internationally, I see myself in some ways, but I do think I’ve had a very unique experience. I’ve been a public defender and represented thousands of people in the criminal justice system who have been accused of crimes. That experience is very unique, and I don’t know of any other musicians who have had that. How does that make you feel? It makes me feel like the time will come and I will be [represented]. Where do you look to see yourself represented? Everywhere! And I really want to be able to spread my message worldwide. I want to tell the stories of the folks who I’ve represented and stories of those who are marginalised. When I’m travelling, I take [the story of] Tamir Rice with me, who was a 12 year old boy killed by the police. Whether I’m in France or Switzerland, Melbourne or wherever, I tell that story. I like to bring my culture and my people with me. And I like to present an authentic version of myself, Danielle Ponder, and my experiences. What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist? I used to think that artists had to talk about political issues. I used to think it was our duty to do so, but I’ve changed that belief, especially for Black artists. For some Black folks, writing a fun song about dancing may be what they need to heal, or what they need in order to survive being Black in America. I think we should make the songs that make us feel good. But for those of us who can, please tell the stories. And I’m one that can, so I do. If there was one aspect from your experience working in criminal justice reform that you could teach the music industry, what would that be? The art of telling a story in a way that connects people to their hearts. As a criminal defence attorney, that’s my job. If I’m representing you and you did something terrible, I need to somehow connect that judge to your humanity and connect them to their heart by saying, “Listen, he’s a good person. He’s working, you know? He’s just struggling right now with the drug addiction,” or whatever it might be. As an attorney (and especially as a public defender), you’re constantly trying to connect people to their hearts. You try to get a judge to be compassionate. To me, music can do that as well. What change would you like to see in the industry over the next five years? I would like to see an industry that is more accessible to artists who may not have money, may not have connections, may not fit the formula. An industry that truly values the talent. I think about some of my favourite singers and just don’t know if they would have made it in today’s industry. Think about The Staple Singers - what record label today would accept that band? I want to see an industry that asks more of the questions “Does this connect to the heart?” and “Does this tell the story of the human experience?” Rather than, “Will this sell Sprite?” and “Will this sell Nike?” Did you have anything you wanted to add? My time in Australia was amazing, especially my time in Melbourne. It’s such a diverse city… I mean, I’m sure y’all have issues that I just don’t know about. What I loved about Karate Boogaloo and other folks I met in Australia was their honouring of the Indigenous folks who live there. That’s something we don’t see enough in the USA. It was really refreshing to see that respect. Listen to Danielle's latest single with Karate Boogaloo here 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. Article first published 14 October 2020. Written by Jake Amy. Edited by Ella Clair.
- Danielle Ponder: A Call For Love
By Jake Amy and Ella Clair “It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America,” says Danielle Ponder, a New York vocalist, activist and public defender. At 16, her brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a robbery of $170 where no one was hurt. Since, Danielle has helped thousands in the criminal justice system by connecting judges to the compassion in their hearts. I recently chatted to Danielle (amidst her #BlackLivesMatter protesting in the US) about identity, artistic collaboration, “business people” who control the music industry, and her new release with Naarm-based cinematic soul outfit, Karate Boogaloo. Here’s the most powerful parts of our conversation. You’ve said, “It’s been one of the most painful years to be Black in America”. Could you talk about your experience? Cops are killing Black folks. Not like that wasn't happening before. But Black folks are trying to survive a pandemic and also trying to survive racism. It’s an experience which highlights the fact that we [Black people] always carry an extra burden. And it gets to the point where I’m just like, “Enough is enough”. It doesn’t help that we have Donald Trump as president, who reinforces a lot of the white supremacist beliefs… so it can feel very much like a motherless child. Where do we belong as Black people? Because America doesn’t feel like our home. Do you feel centred in your identity? Well, I will say: right now is the Blackest I’ve ever felt. I feel thankful for the connectedness in the community right now. I feel proud of all of the young people who are active. And I feel proud about all the #BlackLivesMatter protests happening all over the world. It’s been beautiful to see. And I think I wear my Blackness proudly, deeply… but that can also be stressful at the same time. I noticed in Look Around, you sing about feeling “all the pain in the world”. Do you think the people who make the “big calls” in the industry know what that feels like? If not, what possible implications does this disconnect have on the music industry? Most of our music executives are white people, at least in the US anyway. Many, older white men. And they’re business people, right? Business people tend to focus on what’s profitable, not what will heal the world. And I think that’s a loss. It’s often lost that music is a healer. Music can change the world, but, if there’s such a focus on what is marketable, we lose a piece of that. It’s really unfortunate, because music is probably one of the most powerful tools we have. And there are so many artists who can’t rise to the level of a famous pop star because they don’t fit a certain “formula”. I mean, there are some who definitely use their position to shine light on social issues, like what Beyoncé is doing right now (granted, she had to become “untouchable” before she could do that). One of the downsides of our industry is that it’s managed by people who are concerned with marketing, and not concerned with transformative change. Do you think that will ever change? If I say this, I’ll probably never get a record deal, but, I feel the [major label] industry is dying. Artists like Chance the Rapper are independent and are doing their own thing! I see labels becoming less relevant. It is possible that we get to a world where artists are completely in control of their music. And that would be a beautiful, beautiful thing to see. What do you think are the next steps for addressing racial inequality in the music scene? The next step for addressing racial inequality in the world (period), is reparations. For Black folks, there has to be. All the studies and research shows us: you cannot close the racial wealth gap until you explicitly fund and invest in the Black community. The music industry, specifically, has gotten rich off the struggles of the Black community. There is no way our community should be looking the way it looks when we invented blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B, funk. I mean, there’s no reason we should even have something called “the hood”, right?! We should not have dilapidated houses. We gave this country so much. There’s no reason why our neighbourhoods should look the way they look. And I think the music industry needs to go further; don’t just put up a black square and say “Black Lives Matter”. Invest directly into the Black community. Every track that is funk, soul blues, etc… 10% should go into a reparations fund for the Black community. Our struggle, and our pain, and our suffering created that music. You cannot detach the suffering, the struggle and the people from the genre. Over here in Australia, it seems that centuries-old Western classical music is valued and respected more by government funding bodies than newer styles of music such as soul and jazz. Do you have any thoughts on that? I don’t know if that’s because it’s centuries old, or if it’s because of racism and eurocentrism? One could argue that the foundations of Black music are also centuries old. The percussion that you hear in reggae or funk, or the use of the guitar, which was originally an African instrument. One could argue that what we have now is only a modification - or its remnants of what we had centuries ago in Africa. We know that people of different identities have varying societal experiences. What are the implications of this on artistic collaboration between people of differing identities? Despite our differing identities, there is a foundation on which all humans stand, and that is the need to be valued, the need to be loved. I think there can be a sense of connectedness when we look at collaboration with those basic principles. I wish folks could look at this Black Lives Matter movement as a call for love, and a call to be valued. If people could see it in those simple terms, then I think it’d be easier for them to connect. Working with a band like Karate Boogaloo… they do a great job of educating themselves and are so thoughtful. They know how to decentre whiteness, follow Black leadership, and elevate Black voices. They call me and have questions, like, “Hey Danielle, do you think we should do this in this way?” That’s what’s so beautiful about them. Do you see yourself represented in the music scene? Locally, yeah. And I have a really great fan base; my hometown is just so supportive… I don't know where I’d be without them. Internationally, I see myself in some ways, but I do think I’ve had a very unique experience. I’ve been a public defender and represented thousands of people in the criminal justice system who have been accused of crimes. That experience is very unique, and I don’t know of any other musicians who have had that. How does that make you feel? It makes me feel like the time will come and I will be [represented]. Where do you look to see yourself represented? Everywhere! And I really want to be able to spread my message worldwide. I want to tell the stories of the folks who I’ve represented and stories of those who are marginalised. When I’m travelling, I take [the story of] Tamir Rice with me, who was a 12 year old boy killed by the police. Whether I’m in France or Switzerland, Melbourne or wherever, I tell that story. I like to bring my culture and my people with me. And I like to present an authentic version of myself, Danielle Ponder, and my experiences. What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist? I used to think that artists had to talk about political issues. I used to think it was our duty to do so, but I’ve changed that belief, especially for Black artists. For some Black folks, writing a fun song about dancing may be what they need to heal, or what they need in order to survive being Black in America. I think we should make the songs that make us feel good. But for those of us who can, please tell the stories. And I’m one that can, so I do. If there was one aspect from your experience working in criminal justice reform that you could teach the music industry, what would that be? The art of telling a story in a way that connects people to their hearts. As a criminal defence attorney, that’s my job. If I’m representing you and you did something terrible, I need to somehow connect that judge to your humanity and connect them to their heart by saying, “Listen, he’s a good person. He’s working, you know? He’s just struggling right now with the drug addiction,” or whatever it might be. As an attorney (and especially as a public defender), you’re constantly trying to connect people to their hearts. You try to get a judge to be compassionate. To me, music can do that as well. What change would you like to see in the industry over the next five years? I would like to see an industry that is more accessible to artists who may not have money, may not have connections, may not fit the formula. An industry that truly values the talent. I think about some of my favourite singers and just don’t know if they would have made it in today’s industry. Think about The Staple Singers - what record label today would accept that band? I want to see an industry that asks more of the questions “Does this connect to the heart?” and “Does this tell the story of the human experience?” Rather than, “Will this sell Sprite?” and “Will this sell Nike?” Did you have anything you wanted to add? My time in Australia was amazing, especially my time in Melbourne. It’s such a diverse city… I mean, I’m sure y’all have issues that I just don’t know about. What I loved about Karate Boogaloo and other folks I met in Australia was their honouring of the Indigenous folks who live there. That’s something we don’t see enough in the USA. It was really refreshing to see that respect. Listen to Danielle's latest single with Karate Boogaloo here 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.
- Rara Zulu on Protecting Identity, Unconscious Cultural Consumption and Shining Brightly
Written by Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Emma Volard, Hugh Heller and Jake Amy Women of colour who immigrate to so-called Australia are often confronted with the double disadvantage of being racially discriminated against in a male-dominated 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. Article first published 11 October 2020. Written and edited by Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Emma Volard, Hugh Heller and Jake Amy.