The rappers are revolting

July 1, 2006

Australian hip-hop artists are a formidable voice of dissent as they rage against the political machine. By Tony Mitchell.

THE LONG AND tricky relationship between popular music and politics has been getting a lot of media attention recently, at least in relation to the US. There has been so much ballyhoo about the Dixie Chicks' Bush-bashing - first came their chance remark at a London concert four years ago, then the apology, then, more recently, the retraction of the apology - you'd think they'd become global political pundits. It's not as if there's much in the way of political reflection in their music, but the extensive coverage they've received would seem to indicate that if you're a mainstream American music star, you're given more vox-pop gravitas and credibility than politicians, intellectuals and journalists put together.

Even Neil Young, who hardly counts as mainstream, has devoted an entire album, Living With War, to impeaching George Bush and expressing his disaffection with the war in Iraq. Not one of his strongest musically, still, the sentiment is deeply felt and it has been so widely reviewed in the press that it's as if he is filling a huge vacuum in political protest music.

"Where are the Australian singers spitting rage?" asked Good Weekend columnist Julia Baird in a piece titled "Right-on Song" (June 10). She called on the normally astute music writer Bernard Zuel to opine that "very few Australian folk and bush songs have been about taking it to the Government". Both Baird and Zuel might do well to find themselves a copy of Warren Fahey's The Balls of Bob Menzies: Australian Political Songs 1900-1980, which contains the lyrics to more than 300 home-grown political folk songs since Federation, including Pig Iron Bob, Poor Wee Billy McMahon and Hawke is My Shepherd.

As Fahey notes in his introduction: "It is interesting to surmise why politicians offer such wonderful material for the songwriter. Broadcasts from Parliament House are full of intrigue, name-calling and verbal action that would do a soap opera proud."

No doubt someone is penning a satirical song about Tony Abbott and his "snivelling grubs" as I write. These songs may not be performed or recorded by singers as globally prominent as Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Madonna or Bob Dylan, but they are part of a popular local folk song tradition that runs deep, as Fahey's more recent book, Ratbags and Rebel Rousers: A Century of Political Protest Song and Satire, illustrates.

It features a foreword by Eric Bogle, who wrote what is probably Australia's most famous political song, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, about the slaughter in Gallipoli, which was later recorded by no less a folk legend than Ireland's the Pogues. Ratbags and Rebel Rousers contains songs such as John Howard's Face is Deepest Red ("He cringes 'neath the liberal's frown/And hauls his flaunted Standard down"). Then there's Little Bobby Hawke Loved that Rascal Bond. Or how about another Waltzing Matilda parody, Once the Government of Australia : "With the bosses did unite/Froze the funds of all the unions/ That stood for freedom's right" - sound familiar? It was written in 1949 by Sally Bowen, the wife of a NSW South Coast miner.

Many of these songs are set to well-known tunes so they can be sung in public in demonstrations, but as in Britain and the US, they come from a long working-class vernacular tradition of lampooning politicians. Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Somerville wrote this, to the tune of Frank Sinatra's My Way: "I've penned a Wik that's fooled, I've travelled each and every sly way, And more is always less, I dud it my way".

Macquarie University academic Mark Gregory has a website titled Union Songs, which lists the words to more than 400 such songs, many of them Australian. Monash musicologist Graeme Smith recently published Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music, which surveys a range of political songs, from early 19th-century English and Irish immigrant-worker ballads to more recent political songs by vocal group Tiddas, taking in Weddings, Parties, Anything, a band that has performed and recorded with British jongleur Billy Bragg, the 1960s folk revival, and Aboriginal country music along the way.

The daddy of all Australian political folk songs is, of course, I Was Only 19, by John Schumann of Redgum, which recently had a hip-hop re-versioning by militant Sydney band the Herd. Coupled with a powerful video set in the Vietnam war, which premiered on the ABC's Rage just before Anzac Day, and a musical contribution by Schumann, it formed part of a moving Triple J program that also featured interviews with the children of Vietnam vets.

It's not just folk songs and parody pop songs that launch themselves into the political arena. Rock Against Howard is a double CD by Australian rock and hip-hop artists, which, released in 2004, was compiled by Lindsay McDougall from Frenzal Rhomb and included tracks by a diverse bunch including Something for Kate, David Bridie, Even, Resin Dogs, Youth Group, TISM, Frenzal Rhomb and the Herd. Its track list includes I'm Sorry! by Little Johnny (an absurdist mish-mash of samples from the Prime Minister's speeches, recorded a few years ago by Little Johnny, also known as Pauline Pantsdown, who was responsible for some colourful musical lampoons of Pauline Hanson); David Bridie's Nation (of the Heartless Kind); TISM's The Phillip Ruddock Blues; the Herd's Honest J; and Johnny Howard is a Filthy Slut, by Toekeo.

Another politically oriented music compilation is UnAustralian, a three-CD set released in 2003 by the Red Hot Green Black collective, a non-profit organisation that funds environmental and indigenous groups. Featuring Aboriginal artists Jimmy Little, Nokturnal, Stiff Gins, Saltwater Band, Kutcha Edwards and Native Rhyme Syndicate, UnAustralian also showcases blues and folk artists John Butler, who, like Xavier Rudd, tends to espouse an ecological, environmental perspective in his music. The Herd crop up here again, along with other politically oppositional groups like the Propaganda Klann.

Before you dismiss this run of music as niche or alternative, it's worth noting that in April the Hilltop Hoods became the first Australian hip-hop group to go straight to number one in the ARIA charts - to the great embarrassment of ARIA, which didn't even have a link to the Hoods' Melbourne-based independent label Obese.

Although "Man all these pollies in power are cowards so it's only fair/ That I hate John Howard like I hate Tony Blair" is about as sophisticated as they get, Australian hip-hop turns out to have quite many politically minded participants embedded in its 15-year, largely "underground" history.

And it is no surprise that political rock groups such as Midnight Oil, and Australian bush ballads and political folk songs, have been a strong influence on some of these MCs, such as Sydney crew the Herd, which caused a small scandal in 2003 with the track 77% (the title refers to the number of Australians who supported Howard over Tampa and the children-overboard incident).

Typically, the scandal wasn't so much about the subject matter of the track as about the group's use of expletives and "dissing" of talkback radio hosts, who of course returned the favour, with Stan Zemanek slamming the ABC for supporting the group, and providing plenty of free publicity in the process.

In response, Triple J radio devoted a half-hour talkback to the track's language, and the SMH Guide ran a feature - both of which sadly failed to examine the sentiment of the lyrics beyond the swearing.

The Herd is part of the Elefant Trak collective, which releases CDs and organises tours and concerts with other hip-hop groups such as Melburnians Combat Wombat - a bunch of ecologically-minded activists who spend a lot of time performing and DJing at mining sites such as Jabiluka and running hip-hop workshops with Aboriginal and disadvantaged kids - along with TZU and Curse of Dialect. TZU has a witty and amusing take on the national anthem in the track Recoil on recent album Smiling at Strangers: "Australians all let us recoil, for we have no idea/We go to war for wealth and oil, our home is girt by fear/Our land abounds in growing rifts, dividing rich and poor/In history's page, this is the age, of fair justice ignored."

Many Australian hip-hop fans have a degree of political awareness that might come as a surprise. The Elefant Traks website has had forum discussions of issues such as the Cronulla riots, West Papuan asylum seekers, the Koran, Labor party pre-selection, VSU, indigenous community abuse allegations in the Northern Territory, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan, Piers Ackerman and Miranda Devine.

The Herd's national tours have taken titles such as Coalition of the Illin and Rogue States, while Curse of Dialect employ music to embody a form of living multiculturalism. Curse's surreal "rainbow hip-hop" samples ethic folk music from around the world, and MCs Raceless, Vulk Makedonski, August 2 (the date of World Anglo-India Day), Atarungi and DJ Paso Bionic represent Maltese, Macedonian, Indian, Maori and Burmese cultural backgrounds.

Joelistics, the Eurasian-Australian MC from TZU, uses his lyrics to attack colonialism and demand an apology to Aborigines.

Here's a sample:

"Australia's history is no mystery/An alien nation built on British colonisation/And genocide demonstrations, conquest, war/Terra Nullius insults the indigenous/ Aboriginal people who weren't treated as equals/Their stolen generations aided forced assimilation."

Beyond simply a musical genre, hip-hop is first and foremost a lifestyle, and Australian participants express the politics of everyday life, as local hip-hop commentator Nick Keys put it: "It's about the politics of the everyday, the micropolitics of people's everyday lives. And this movement - made by people who are intensely interested in political change - highlights the shift of the political discourse in society, not the abandonment or inherent lack of political activism. The political organisation of Elefant Traks is fundamentally much more radical politically than a group or person (say like a Bono type) signed to a major label and doing a sort of guilt-purging 'protest song'.

"I think there is a real case to mount for the politics of process, networks and self-made organisations (which are always mostly underground) over the kind of representational of a political message writ large, which can always be absorbed back into the spectacle of consumer capitalism with its message leeched of power."

Melbourne MC Pegz, a prominent member of the Obese stable along with his DJ Plutonic Lab, demonstrates in many of his lyrics that Australian hip-hip can be both witty and astute in its politics of everyday life.

So too does MC Reason. By day a history and science teacher at Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, he is by night a hip-hop jam enthusiast, bringing together peers such as the Hilltop Hoods and running graffiti workshops. Now in his early 30s, Reason is a veteran of the Melbourne hip-hop scene. In the 1990s he was involved in the Push, an educational program that took workshops on hip-hop and urban street cultures to young people in outer regions in lower socio-economic regions of Victoria.

Reason is also the DJ of Hittin' Switches, the longest-running community radio program featuring Australian hip-hop, which has been operating on radio PBS for more than 15 years. His tracks challenge the listener to think about a scattershot range of issues such as peace in the Middle East, Mabo, the Bali bombings, giving up a seat on the train to the elderly, and suburban battlers. His track Out on the Patio is a witty Melbourne-based palimpsest of rock group Gangajang's 1985 hit Sounds of Then (This is Australia), which also offers observations on Howard's Australia; he also includes Midnight Oil among his main influences. His latest EP, Life's a Lesson, is a series of reflections on global politics, the environment and his experiences as a schoolteacher.

As he has said: "Hip-hop is a medium which in Australia is very predetermined by one's beliefs, stance on issues and personal views. I have always ensured that every word that I utter on a track is truly representative of where I am at in everyday life. My interest in the environment, politics and reconciliation come from a number of years studying at university and involve living out these concepts in everyday activities.

"Being a proactive member in society, whether in the hip-hop scene or everyday life, is important to me."

I don't think you'll find many US hip-hoppers, or mainstream rock stars for that matter, capable of being as eloquent as that.

Thanks to Astrid Lorange and Nick Keys.