Before living in Australia, I didn’t know much about Aboriginal culture, aside from the very simplistic and stereotypical picture painted by history books. In Australia I learnt how artistically creative Aboriginal community is, with lovingly kept traditions dating back thousands of years. Especially when it comes to music making.
I’ve been meaning to write about the topic for a very long time. And if there’s anybody who can teach you something about both Indigenous and Australian hip hop history, Briggs is definitely your man.
PART 20 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE.
There’s hardly anybody in Australia who doesn’t know Adam Briggs [aka Briggs]. But the rest of the world is yet to get to know him better. So let me do the introduction.
The most recognisable and outspoken of Aboriginal rappers has released one EP (Homemade Bombs), two albums (The Blacklist and Sheplife) and contributed to numerous collaborations so far. Called “this big fella with so much energy and passion, rapping in a way comparable to some of the greats” or “one of the most hard-working individuals in Australian hip hop” by his peers, Briggs is a man of many talents. He has won various music industry awards on his own (i.e. “Best New Talent” at the 2014 National Indigenous Music Awards – the NIMAs) or as part of the A.B. Original duo (i.e. “Best Independent Release” for Reclaim Australia at the 2017 Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards – the ARIAs). His latest single “Life Is Incredible” feat. Greg Holden is nominated for publicly voted “Best Video” award at this year’s ARIAs. Briggs often makes appearances in movies (e.g. in the Netflix show Cleverman) and on TV (i.e. as guest speaker on ABC’s Q&A). He has also written the script for one of the episodes of Disenchantment – Netflix’s original animated black comedy/fantasy series. Known for his sharp sense of humour and political commentary, he uses the handle @SenatorBriggs for some of his social media profiles. Since the very beginning he has been tirelessly working to bring awareness to issues still faced on everyday basis by First Nations in Australia. And in his own record label, Bad Apples Music, he makes it his mission to help other talented Indigenous artists.
When Hilltop Hoods announced very last minute that Briggs would jump on the tour bus with them in Europe, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him on this side of the world. After a few funny twists on the day, I finally managed to catch up with the Man Himself in the greenroom before the show in Warsaw, Poland, on 16 October 2019.
Silly McWiggles (SM): I’d like to start by paraphrasing something. You did an interview with Bill Shorten [former leader of the Australian Labor Party] on a bike, remember? And you asked him something that I’d like to ask you now but from a different angle. How does it feel to be a powerful black man in Australia?
Briggs (B): [He takes a moment to think]
SM: If you think you are that…
B: I don’t think like that. I’m aware that I have a platform that a lot of people don’t get but I never think like that. I never think outside of my goals, my work, and outside of what I have to do. I never look at it like a trophy or anything like that. It’s work. There’s too much stuff to do to consider it. And knowing where I’m at and how far I’ve come, and how far we’ve come as people… as a People… It’s about influencing but it’s all subjective. The more time I think about that, the less time I’m focusing on what’s really important. So, I just do what I do, I work how I work.
I was never about to waste time
doing stuff I didn’t like
SM: So, out of all the roles – you’re an actor, comedian, community leader, rapper – how do you see yourself? Which one is the most important?
B: I just do what I like to do: whether that’s music, art, comedy… Everything ties into everything else ‘coz all those different parts make up the person, the artist, that is me. Every part has its own mechanism, its own wheel, that makes me tick. And it’s good. If I’m done making music, I can go and write something. If I’m done writing something, I can maybe do something else. It’s really important to me to be able to do a lot.
SM: That’s the ultimate goal in life, I guess.
B: Yeah. Because, death being so prevalent in our communities, and a lot of my earliest memories are of funerals, and a lot of my family members died before 40, 50… I was never about to waste time doing stuff I didn’t like. I’m not gonna spend time doing stuff I hate.
SM: Did you have a plan B in case it didn’t work with music?
B: No. All or nothing. No plan B.
SM: I found an interesting piece of information about you. Apparently you started off with a punk band and you played the guitar. Is that true?
SM: That’s interesting because it’s also a genre which is very political and kind of aggressive. So, how did that happen?
B: It’s because I grew up in a small country town [Shepparton, Victoria, often shortened to Shep]. I always wanted to make rap music ‘coz rap music is what I love first and foremost. But I love metal and punk rock as well, and I didn’t know how to make rap music. And because I grew up in this kind of isolated community, you’re not given the skills to know how to do it. So, I figured I’d just play, I’d learn to play the guitar. ‘Coz that’s at least a step… And that was always my point. If I start on my own and then I’ll make my way up… At least I’ve got my foot in the door with music until I can figure out how to do this rap stuff.
SM: You mentioned a lot of influences for your musical style. You were fascinated by the American rap at the beginning, correct?
SM: And that’s how, I reckon, a lot of people in Australia started. Could you take me through the history of hip hop in Australia, also from the “black” perspective? Who were the “forefathers”?
B: Hip hop in Australia’s been around since the late 80s/early 90s. But it didn’t really strike until the late 90s/early 2000s. And that’s when the compilations, all that stuff, everyone started to come together. Hip hop in Australia very much started as graff. It was a graff scene, graffiti writing at first… Melbourne graff is renowned worldwide. So, all the early Australian hip hop stuff stems from that. They were all writers.
SM: Any particular names or bands that you can recall?
B: Def Wish Cast were probably the first. They were the first dudes who were killing it. I’m pretty sure they had the first rap video and all that stuff. But that’s just the history. I didn’t learn that until much later on. The only thing I ever tried to mime was American rap. We didn’t have Australian rap until much later. And it wasn’t until the Hilltop Hoods [Briggs looks in the direction of MC Pressure and DJ Debris who are sitting further away in the greenroom] when I was like, “Ah, people are doing it for real for real. ”
Hilltop Hoods are the blueprint for
modern and contemporary hip hop in Australia
SM: Yeah. They [the Hilltop Hoods] have been around for some time…
B: It’s these guys whose blueprint everyone operates off in Australia. They are the blueprint for modern and contemporary hip hop. And the reason they’re doing stadiums is because of all the hard work they put in. And they’ve always been super supportive of the scene and other artists, like me and Trials [of Funkoars and A.B. Original]. They are very inclusive.
SM: Speaking of Aboriginal rap… What I experienced about your culture… and I’ve tried to travel and speak to people around the country… It seems like it’s a very peaceful kind of culture. The tradition of the Songlines and the Dreaming, it’s all very positive. Whilst rap is kind of the opposite, it’s kind of aggressive. And yours is, too… Very raw and very strong. So how do you reconcile those two things together? What does your family think about it?
B: They love it. Because we’re an endearing culture, for sure. But we’re also very proud and very strong. And we are cultural warriors as well. The protest started as soon as 1788, when they [the white settlers] came with the ships. So, we’ve always had a presence of protest. The nature of that, the positivity in protest and what the actual message is, can be lost on people because they can’t get past the hostility or aggression. A lot of people can’t get past that in a lot of genres of music, be it metal or punk as well. They can’t get past them being scared of it. Which is exactly what I like. When I first saw rap videos, it was scary. But that’s what made it good. The juxtaposition is real. And that’s the Full Metal Jacket, Duality of Man…
We’re an endearing culture but also very proud and strong
And we are cultural warriors
SM: I really liked that video you made breaking down the Australian anthem… which is not very considerate of Aboriginal people. If you could propose something that would stand, musically, for Australia as a whole… Or if you could make an anthem or name a song that could be an anthem… Do you think there is something like that?
B: The song [the anthem] just sucks. It’s a real average, boring song. It doesn’t instil any kind of… [he pauses]
SM: … pride, you reckon?
B: Yeah, pride. The issues with the song itself are part of the issues Australia has as a whole. That it doesn’t recognise or acknowledge its truth. And that’s what the biggest discrepancy is. The anthem is just not so much the words of it. It’s more about what it represents. Why would we stand up for any song when black males in Australia have the highest suicide rate in the world? Black females in prison population in Western Australia is the fastest growing group in the world. There are reasons for it, beyond it being a bad song. The song sucks. I say that a lot and people know it. Technically, it’s a shit song.
SM: Although it’s not my anthem, I get your point. If you look at the words, it doesn’t represent you as a People whatsoever.
B: No, it doesn’t. And you know what… I think most Australians feel like it doesn’t represent them, either. And it’s not that old. There are better songs.
I think most Australians feel
the anthem doesn’t represent them, either
SM: Can you name one?
B: [He thinks for a few seconds] “Run to Paradise” by the Choirboys [he laughs] Here you go…
SM: Haha, okay.
B: “Run to Paradise”, Choirboys. That’s fantastic. [He laughs again] I think everyone could enjoy that.
SM: So, a different question. Some time ago you spoke to Conan [the host of the American late night TV show CONAN], and you said that you “want to change the perception of an Indigenous artist”. Can you explain what you think the perception is now and where you want to take it?
B: The perception I’ve felt was that Indigenous artists had to be mournful and reminiscent. We had to be almost submissive to be listened to. I’ve had interviews with people when they’d be like, “what if you weren’t so angry, what if you didn’t swear as much”. Well, would you tell Chuck D [of Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage] not to be angry? Would you tell Zach de la Rocha [of Rage Against the Machine] not to be angry, not to swear? You wouldn’t. Australia, and especially the Australian media, has this paternalistic dialogue with Indigenous Australians. And if you want to be heard, you’re gonna use your indoor voice and play nice. I wanted to shift the paradigm of what an artist can be. So that kids know: if you wanna be an artist, you don’t have to fit in a particular box. They can be the artists they need to be. That’s what that’s about. And my point is, not everyone has to be angry. My point is, everyone can be anything.
SM: True. For instance, Baker Boy is not that angry.
B: No, and that’s beautiful. He has fun. That’s perfect, that’s fine. But there’s room for all these kinds of kids: angry kids, sad kids, happy kids. There has to be room for everybody. White people have it. White people have Justin Bieber’s, Billie Eilish’s, Kate Perry’s and Troye Sivan’s. They have this wide spectrum of what artists can be: weird kids, funny kids, happy kids. They can be all these different things: punk, rock, metal… With Aboriginal Australians it’s like, “You better act a certain way. Because if you don’t fit our narrative of what we want to present as a PR team, you’re just not gonna fit at all”. There has to be room for the kids to grow and be themselves, and to open up those different doors and different lanes for artists to be artists. ‘Coz that’s the most important part. If you wanna paint today, you can paint today. If you wanna sing tomorrow, sing tomorrow. That’s the whole point.
My point is, not everyone has to be angry
Everyone can be anything
SM: Your label, Bad Apples, is Aboriginally-run and you’ve got only Aboriginal artists on your roster now. You just signed Alice Skye, and that – I feel – is a bit of a different approach. Because she’s not really a rapper. Is that the direction you wanna go?
B: I started out as straight hip hop because that’s what I know. And that’s where I knew I could help the most. And as a group, we need to open up the books a bit more and open up our vision to include different genres. And especially young girls because they are so underrepresented.
SM: She’s the only woman on the label now, correct?
B: Yeah. But this is exactly the underrepresentation in music. It was really important for me to do that and help her, to try and boost her career. She’s gonna be a star, I know that for a fact. She’ll do what she does with us and then she’ll be gigantic somewhere else. But that’s what she needs now and that’s the most important part.
SM: How do you sign artists to your label? Is there any particular key? Or do you look for something specific in them?
B: I do look for something specific. I look for something that I feel like I can help. If I don’t or can’t sign someone, it’s not all the time because I don’t like them. It’s just that I don’t know how I can help them. I can help them find something else maybe… But when I see an artist like Alice, I’ve got good ideas for Alice, I can help. She’s already gonna be great, she’s fantastic. And if I can help a little… It’s the same with the other guys. I can see the vision. I can see how I can help steer their career. The whole point of Bad Apples isn’t to hold artists down and keep them. It’s meant to be a springboard, right? They come through, I try to teach them enterprise, so that they can create their own business. So they can create autonomy and self-determination, and their own income. That’s the most important part. Being great.
That’s what Bad Apples is
It’s about being able to express yourself, and your truth
SM: I understand where you’re coming from and I think it’s awesome. Would you ever consider opening up to white artists? Or do you want to keep it strictly Aboriginal?
B: They [the white artists] have got enough labels [he laughs]. If I’d started, if I had a different label, I would. But black fellas are so underrepresented. And there’s no labels like this, that run like a proper label, to make it happen. So, this is first and foremost. And that’s what makes it special, that’s what makes it real. That’s also what makes us unique and that’s what we need… The best thing about all the artists we have at Bad Apples is that they’re all unique. They sound very much like themselves and they’re all very much their own artists, with their own story. And what they represent is their own truth, and that’s what Bad Apples is. It’s about being able to be comfortable and express yourself, and your truth. It’s really important to amplify Indigenous voices and First Nations artists. Because they haven’t had that pathway. Mainstream white artists have a preferential pathway and they can access different platforms.
[At this stage, Hilltop Hoods are starting their soundcheck, so it’s getting really loud around us. I’m worried Briggs needs to do his soundcheck as well, but he assures me we can go on with the interview. I have a few more questions.]
SM: You’re a Yorta Yorta man. I read somewhere that your language is disappearing slowly. Is that right? [Briggs nods] So, it’s not widely spoken in Shep and in the area?
B: No… Because back when they had the missions, when you were on the mission, you weren’t allowed to talk your language. Just English… Part of the assimilation process was to make everyone speak the King’s English. And if you didn’t, you got your rations taken away and you got beaten.
SM: I didn’t know it was to that extent. I thought it was more the inconvenience of speaking a language the white settlers didn’t know.
B: No, you were just not allowed.
SM: That’s pretty sad. So, do you speak any [of your language]?
B: Nah. My sister’s really good: she does presentations, acknowledgments and openings, and stuff. I’m trying to work out a time, so I can [learn it one day].
It’s really important to amplify Indigenous voices
Because they haven’t had that pathway
SM: It’s amazing how many different Indigenous languages you have in Australia…
B: Yeah, Australia looked more like Europe for centuries. Hundreds of nations. And it makes sense that way, too. If you look at the land mass, it makes sense for all these different nations and all these different dialects.
SM: Exactly. And I’m thinking now… Baker Boy raps in Yolŋu [Aboriginal language from the Northern territory]. If you were able to speak your language, would you consider rapping in it as well?
B: Yeah, of course. ‘Coz I rap how I talk. I use the slang and stuff like that in my rap. But I wouldn’t do it until I was fluent and comfortable. ‘Coz otherwise it would be cocky, trying to force it out. When it’s natural, that’s when it happens.
SM: Okay. So, here’s a tricky question for you: If you were to name a few albums or artists whose music could help get to know the Aboriginal history…
B: Yeah, probably Charcoal Lane by Archie Roach… Gurrumul…
SM: I’m glad you said that because Gurrumul was one of my favourites. You did a few collaborations together. What was it like to work with him?
B: That was amazing. He was so fun and humble…
SM: Any other artists?
B: Yeah, the A.B. Original album [Reclaim Australia]… Thelma Plum’s new album [Better in Blak] is pretty good. Especially as an example of the female perspective which is really important. Then there’s Kev Carmody… There is a lot.
SM: And if you were to name rappers to watch from your community? Not a long time ago you mentioned Kobie Dee and now he’s signed to your label. Anybody else?
B: Nooky just dropped a new album [Junction Court EP]. It’s really honest… Because I’ve been away, I haven’t been listening to the street a whole lot at the moment. Nooky sends the stuff to me. Nooky is the one who’d send me these albums like “check’em out”.
SM: I saw you two [Briggs and Nooky] perform together for the Reconciliation Day event in Canberra back in May. And it was pretty amazing because it was a gig in a theatre, a sitting event. And then you came on stage and everyone got up to their feet. It’s just incredible to see, with the charisma that you have, how people respond to you. A true community leader.
B: I don’t think it’s always like that with those titles and those monikers. That’s for other people to worry about. I don’t worry about who’s the leader and who’s not. I just do what I do.
SM: Okay, so a follow-up question. I’ve noticed that if there’s anything Aboriginal-related in Australia to discuss, you’re most likely going to be asked to make a comment or share your opinion. The work itself is, obviously, really important and you said once that you’re the “go-to-guy” for these sort of things. Isn’t it a bit tiring, though?
B: It is. And my thing, and the strength in my work is, I don’t pretend I have all the answers. For me, I’m still that kid from Shep, so all I know is my reality. How I grew up and where I grew up. And I know it’s a bit different from everybody else, even black communities as well. I can only give people my perspective and that’s all I ever present. I never say I have the answers, or I have the right answers. All I can do is say how I feel, how I think. And that’s all I ever try to leave with: honesty. That’s who I am and that’s how I talk, and that’s my answer… It should evolve overtime. You should grow in the process. My answer today might sound different from my answer in 5 years. But at least I have a different perspective, different understanding if I’m learning. But everything I do is always a step back to my morals and my values.
I never say I have the answers, or the right answers
All I can do is say how I feel
[The Hilltop Hoods’ soundcheck is now full-on, so the noise becomes too difficult to talk]
SM: I think it’s a sign for us to finish off here. Thank you very much for making the time to talk to me. I’ll catch you at the show tonight.
And then the unofficial part of the chat begins. Briggs tells me that he got lost walking around Warsaw’s old town, went to see The Palace of Science and Culture and got himself a scarf with the name of the Polish soccer team from the capital – Legia. And we exchange a few more opinions on Warsaw’s architecture, best steak in the Polish capital, hooligan tours and his travels in Europe with his best mates, Hilltop Hoods.
Later on that night Briggs delivers what he does best: a raw and honest show, debuting a new song “Go To War”. He also accepts a special gift – a jersey from the Polish AFL [Australian rules football] team “The Devils” that came to Praga Centrum to see the show.
After the gig the gang are off to their next destination, Prague in Czech Republic.
Hilltop Hoods’ European tour with Briggs ended on 24 October in Zurich.
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