The United Nations of Australian Music Scene. Case studies on diversity

According to the 2016 census approximately 26% of Australians were born overseas. With the (then) population of 23.4 million people, that makes over 6 million Aussies with their birthplace on another continent.

On the other hand, many Australians born in the country maintain strong ties with their ethnicity and cultural heritage. That makes Australia a truly diverse and colourful country. Like its music industry.

Part 13 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Everybody knows that Angus Young of AC/DC was born in Scotland, Olivia Newton-John’s hometown is in England, Keith Urban is a Kiwi and Gotye’s birthplace is in Belgium.

In my humble opinion, this diversity is an unequivocal asset to the Australian music scene. Musicians with roots from overseas oftentimes incorporate unusual elements into their craft, making their, and the Australian sound in general, very unique.

I reckon it’s fun to know which parts of the world Aussie music owes its flavours to. So allow me to introduce a few Australian artists, less or more known globally, with international roots.

They represent different genres but many of them are linked to the hip hop scene. They are based in different places in Australia but are definitely frequent visitors to Melbourne and Sydney, where it’s most probable to score a gig, residency or a record deal. I’m uncovering them for you having witnessed their career take off during my time Down Under and because I’ve seen them perform live, so I know what they’re capable of.

Just to make it fair, they are presented in order of the year when they started their Australian music business journey, with the most recent debut first.

KAIIT – PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Genre: neo-soul, hip hop, jazz

Based in: Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Career start: 2017

First time I saw Kaiit (pronounced Ka-eet) was on a very cold winter evening in Melbourne at a fundraising event put together by the Indigenous community. Her voice blew people away that night. And literally everybody sang along to Natural Woman.

Another time I bumped into her casually shopping for funky clothes at the Laneway Festival. Fashion is something she perfectly uses to complement her music.

Kaiit spent most of her early years between Melbourne and Port Moresby. Although she listened to Pink Floyd when she was young, she lists Amy Winehouse as her inspiration and would love to collaborate with SZA one day. Settling finally in the Victorian capital she spent a couple of years at a music venue on Tuesday nights doing what she enjoys most: performing and testing her musical abilities. That helped her get involved in a mentoring program called Dig Deep, supported by the Arts Centre Melbourne, where she was able to further develop her craft. And the rest is history.

EMILY WURRAMARA – GROOTE EYLANDT

Genre: folk, blues, roots

Based in: Brisbane, Australia

Career start: 2016

For those of you who know anything about Straya, it will sound a little strange that I’ve included somebody who is Australian in this list. After all, Groote Eylandt is an island off the northern coast of Australia where the Warnindhilyagwa people live. But I believe Aboriginal artists deserve a special mention and recognition: their musicality is exceptional and quite different from what we associate with Australian mainstream music.

Emily Wurramara sings in both English and her native Indigenous language, Anindilyakwa (as in the above video). She often incorporates stories of her people and places where she grew up. She seems quite shy and reserved on stage but her voice speaks for itself.

Since her first single Black Smoke was released in 2016, she has already released an album, toured with a friend, another Aboriginal singer – Alice Skye, performed at festivals (like Woodford) and been nominated to several industry awards, winning AIR Independent Music Award in 2019. After seeing her play an intimate set at the Reconciliation Day Event in Canberra in May, I have no doubts you’ll be hearing more about Emily Wurramara in the near future.

KWAME – GHANA/NEW ZEALAND

Genre: hip hop

Based in: Sydney, NSW, Australia

Career start: 2015

Kwame is the stage name of Rich Kwame Amevor. And he’s pure hype. I had a chance to witness his infectious vibe when he supported Tkay Maidza on tour in 2018. That stage was definitely too small for his energy. He’s super nice, too. When I approached him to congratulate for a rad show and said something about not being from the hip hop side of the business, he said: “Music knows no boundaries”.

Many other good things happened for Kwame in 2018. He opened the iconic festival – Splendour In the Grass (SITG), toured with Peking Duk and Migos, was chosen as Triple J Unearthed‘s Artist of the Year, produced his single Wow (above) himself, was included in Triple J’s rotation and his tunes were added to several Spotify’s playlists. Not bad for one year in the demanding music industry for an up-and-coming muso.

But I guess that’s what happens if you start your hip hop adventure freestyling in front of Asap Ferg.

SAMPA THE GREAT – ZAMBIA/BOTSWANA

Genre: hip hop, pop

Based in: Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Career start: 2014

Her reputation has expanded beyond Australia – she’s already supported Kendrick Lamar, Ms Lauryn Hill and Little Simz. After being present on the Australian hip hop music scene for many years, Sampa Tembo is finally releasing her debut album this September (2019), preparing to tour internationally at the same time.

Sampa’s African roots (from Zambia – her birthplace and Botswana where she grew up) are present not only in the beats and sounds she produces but also video clips (see above) and her performances. Her musical craft might also have something to do with the fact that she wanted to study audio production. She came to Australia via the US, having shortly lived in both LA and San Francisco. One of her biggest achievements in the industry is beating Tame Impala to a prestigious Australian Music Prize in 2017.

She frequently speaks about the place of people of colour in Australia, especially in the music industry and based on her own history. I had a chance to experience that at TEDx Melbourne in 2017 when, before starting her performance, she gave a powerful speech. Her words, “Revolution begins with you”, still resonate in my head.

TKAY MAIDZA – ZIMBABWE

Genre: hip hop, synth pop, electronic music

Based in: Adelaide, SA, Australia

Career start: 2013

Her real name is Takudzwa Victoria Rosa Maidza. This tiny person with big music skills moved to Australia from Africa when she was 5 years old. She has spent most of her life in WA (Western Australia) and SA (South Australia) because of her parents’ professions (metallurgy).

Since starting her music journey, she has already played several Australian festivals (i.e. Laneway or Falls), supported international artists (Charli XCX and Years&Years), made it to Triple J’s Hottest 100 (in 2014 and 2015) and recorded with other artists (like WhatSoNot or Killer Mike). In 2015 she won the Rolling Stone Award for Best New Talent from Australia and in 2018 she took the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Australian Act. You might hear a little Nicki Minaj in Tkay’s songs – the American rapper is her big inspiration.

In 2018 I spontaneously went to see her play instead of another big act – I had a feeling her gig would be lit. And I wasn’t wrong. Not only did she nail it but boy, the gurl can dance!!! A manifestation of her Zimbabwean heritage, perhaps?

JACEK KOMAN OF VULGARGRADPOLAND

Genre: folk-punk, criminal songs

Based in: Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Career start: 2004

No, he’s not Russian. And he’s not a full-time musician, either. Jacek Koman is primarily an actor who has starred in both Polish, Australian and international shows and movies. He lived until early 90s and then moved to Australia after meeting his now actor-wife. He has appeared in significant productions, like Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Great Gatsby or – more recently – an Australian movie directed by Simon Baker, Breath, and Netflix series Tidelands.

On the music front, Jacek is the frontman of Vulgargrad – a band composed of both Australian and Polish musicians. They play mostly Russian and Ukrainian criminal songs (yep, such a genre exists) and have released 4 studio albums so far. Their interesting stage image (check out the fashion in the clip above) and Jacek’s charismatic performances helped them gain a faithful fanbase and score slots at music festivals in Australia (like Adelaide Fringe or St Kilda Festival) and Europe. They also contributed a song to an Australian TV series called Underbelly that narrated true events from the gang wars in Melbourne between 1995 – 2004.

In my view, Vulgargrad can attribute their success partially to Jacek’s command of Russian and knowledge of Russia’s history and culture. After all, Poland is a close neighbour and the language similarity makes it a bit easier for Poles to learn it.

Last but not least…

GANG OF YOUTHS – THE WORLD, LITERALLY

Genre: indie rock, alt rock

Based in: Sydney, Australia

Career start: 2012

I’m 99% certain you’ve heard of them before. Perhaps the most international of all Australian bands, Gang of Youths represent several different cultural and ethnic backgrounds: guitar player Joji Malani* is Fijian, keyboard virtuoso Jung Kim is Korean-American, bass shredder Max Dunn is from New Zealand, drummer Donnie Borzestowski is Polish-Australian while singer David Le’aupepe has Samoan-Jewish heritage.

Their band’s history is equally turbulent and inspiring. Between David Le’aupepe’s attempted suicide and Jung Kim being denied a visa to remain in Oz on one occasion, they released one of the most epic albums – Go Farther in Lightness – in 2017. They also supported Foo Fighters on their recent tour in 2018 and are about to join Mumford & Sons on their upcoming one. It’s hard to count the festivals, in Australia and worldwide, where the band has appeared on the bill in the last 2-3 years. And if that’s not enough, they were the first act to play the MTV Australia Unplugged series in Melbourne in 2018.

Gang of Youth’s performances are famous for “David Le’aupepe’s hips”. Watch the video above to see what I mean. I bet his Samoan roots have something to do with it…

UPDATE:

*Joji Malani parted ways with Gang of Youths in October 2019

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