When I first heard about DOBBY, it was because of “I Can’t Breathe” – the song he recorded with BARKAA, following George Floyd’s death in 2020.
Above anything else, the track’s lyrics got my attention. They are a very powerful response to the false claims by Australian reporters covering the BLM protests in LA that there is no similar history of police killings in so-called Australia. One line in the lyrics in particular, “If I were you, I would educate myself”, struck a chord with me. Because, sadly, it is true: the public still hasn’t got enough understanding of not only that tragic history but the First Nations’ legacy and place in so-called Australia in general.
So when I found out that BLAKSOUND was happening and DOBBY was one of its curators, I saw it as an opportunity to connect and learn first-hand from this talented young artist.
I’m a firm believer in the pedagogic aspect of music. In so-called Australia, Hip Hop, in particular, tends to educate audiences about events rarely spoken about in the media or taught in schools. Moreover, lyrics are very important for the genre and storytelling is an integral part of the Aboriginal culture. So, many First Nations artists choose to express themselves through rap. DOBBY is one of them.
I’m not even sure how this Sydney-based musician (real name Rhyan Clapham) manages to fit everything he does on the music and educational front in 24 hours. He’s surely a man of many talents, with an infinite attention span.
Apart from the DOBBY project, he raps and plays drums in the indie band Jackie Brown Jr. He also tutors at the Uni, organises community workshops, researches both his Aboriginal and Filipino heritage and constantly comes up with new creative things to do. He used to co-host a Hip Hop show on the FBi radio as well. And now, as Sydney and NSW are in lockdown, he’s working on four different projects simultaneously.
There’s one thing that stands out in all his activities, though. “I really believe in education, and I think it’s a piece of the puzzle that I’m trying to contribute to”, he says when we meet up on Zoom.
I approached DOBBY after BLAKSOUND, wanting to pick his brain a bit more about some topics covered at the conference and related to his artistic endeavours. I have about a million questions, and he’s very open and honest in everything he tells me.
To start, we talk about his background. It turns out he comes from a family of educators, so it was probably natural that he would choose the academic way in music as well. He studied jazz drums at the University of NSW (UNSW). And for the honours degree in Indigenous Studies, he chose Indigenous Rap. On top of that, as a young kid, he used to play classical music on the piano but fell out of interest with it towards high school.
Does he think the studies help him with his musical career now? “I think so. I’m in a unique position where I’m drawing from three different worlds”, he says. And it’s very true – when you listen to any of his songs more closely, you’ll definitely hear that it’s infused with jazz drumming and classical orchestration.
His fascination with Hip Hop is a story on its own. It was always somewhere there in the background, but “there were no formal, professional avenues for learning about it. It was more like a hobby, never something you could make money from”, he tells me. Luckily, he decided to use it to his advantage.
DOBBY calls himself a drapper: a drummer who raps at the same time. That combination is still fairly unexplored territory. And that’s also why he’s drawn to it so much – because he can constantly develop.
Asked how this idea came about, he explains, “As someone who loves the drums, I live in that feeling of rhythm. And rap is that same understanding of rhythm. So it only felt natural to try to put those two things together”. He mentions Anderson .Paak as an influence in that field.
There’s another side to his Hip Hop studies that has helped him develop as a First Nations musician. Along with the UNSW Indigenous Studies lecturer Ben Kelly, he published a paper called “On the Rise of Aboriginal Australian Hip Hop”. It is a comprehensive document that presents a chronological overview of the genre’s development in so-called Australia and how it was embedded in the Aboriginal culture.
The paper emphasises that Aboriginal artists were one of the first groups to engage with Hip Hop in so-called Australia. It also draws the connection between the genre and respecting the Elders in the First Nations’ culture by honouring the genre’s pioneers, like MunkiMuk, The Last Kinection, Local Knowledge, Renegades of Munk or South West Syndicate.
DOBBY recalls that up until that research was done, there had not been much reliable information around. And whatever was available seemed incorrect: artist names were misspelt, lyrics were misprinted. So the two academics took it upon themselves to try and update some of that knowledge.
“The important thing to notice is that Hip Hop has taken on new meanings, a new context as it’s found its way from Brooklyn to so-called Australia”, he emphasises. ”There was no understanding of misogyny, materialism in its early beginnings. It was more about the culture, the resilience of the Aboriginal people…”. For anyone interested in music history in so-called Australia, it’s an invaluable document to explore. [You can find it here]
At this point, DOBBY adds sincerely, “This is why I love Hip Hop so much. This practice can help me be myself, especially in terms of the language”. And he refers to both his backgrounds: the Murrawarri and the Filipino one.
He plans to rap more in both of them in the future. He’s working on a track in Tagalog right now, regularly checking the correct pronunciation with his Mum since he didn’t quite pick up the language when he was younger.
But when it comes to his Murrawarri language, the case is much more complicated. A lot of it has been lost. Although there are tapes with how it sounds, there are no fluent speakers at the moment. So an enormous amount of work needs to be done to revitalise it.
DOBBY’s role as an educator doesn’t end with academic research. He’s now a tutor for Indigenous studies at the UNSW himself. Interestingly, before COVID, the majority of his students were international, which he finds quite puzzling. “They learn more than most Australian people”, he says.
That’s why, through his tutoring sessions, he tries to make wider non-Indigenous populations understand that there is still something wrong in so-called Australia. “We were made to believe that Indigenous people don’t exist or don’t matter any more, that we’ve solved the issue or that they get special treatment – none of which is actually true.”
Another new song he’s been focusing on in lockdown, called “Walk Away”, talks about that ignorance as well. DOBBY felt he needed to get some feelings off his chest in that regard. For instance, it’s quite an apathetic and uneducated approach for some to say “forget about it, it was so long ago, it wasn’t me”. The track was premiered at BLAKSOUND’s closing party and should be released soon, hopefully.
First Nations culture, history and music are three worlds that often collide in the young rapper’s workshops and performances he stages for his people, too. Such is the case of the “WARRANGU; River Story” that he’d still be touring with now if it weren’t for the NSW lockdown.
This all-encompassing project refers to the problems with drying waterways, linked to excessive irrigation, cotton farms, almond plantations or the Adani coal mine, amongst other issues the community noticed. It is political activism and cultural knowledge narrated through music. DOBBY was able to finance it from the Create NSW Peter Sculthorpe Fellowship grant he was awarded a few years back.
How does he tell the WARRANGU; River Story? He describes it as a performance in which he plays the piano, raps in language and has his friend, DIOLA, and cousin who plays the guitar, Murrawarri Yuwaalaraay singer-songwriter Kelsey Iris, accompany him on stage. The music is also combined with the voice of Brad Steadman who is a Ngemba man from Brewarrina. In the recordings, he talks about the Dreaming stories of what’s happening with the rivers.
Whilst the tour is on hold for now, DOBBY is happy he was able to perform for his family in Brewarrina. He hopes to continue the journey even more up North once travelling in-state is allowed again. He also wanted to take the performance back to Sydney to „sort of report how the community is feeling about water irrigation and corporate greed – all these things that are really damaging the Murray Darling Basin in NSW”. We might hear the 8-song project as an album in the near future as well.
The last topic we cover in our chat is BLAKSOUND and DOBBY’s role as a curator at the conference. I’m particularly interested in the event’s significance to the First Nations’ music community.
“We don’t have a music industry here in so-called Australia without including and prioritising our First Nations voices”, he states. And he gives me several reasons why an all-Indigenous conference was long overdue.
Firstly, Australian music history is embedded in the First Nations’ identity. Stories expressed through music are important to Aboriginal people. Hearing those stories and making an effort to understand the Indigenous perspective helps so-called Australia move better and faster as a nation. Last but not least, amplifying First Nations voices means creating a sort of musical economy which helps to feed families and entire communities.
He’s very humble and modest talking about his contribution to the event. First of all, he gives credit to Digi Youth Arts and Vyva Entertainment (the organisations that put BLAKSOUND together) and praises his co-curators: Sycco, Jem Cassar-Daley and Loki Liddle.
I inquire about his yarn with Aunty Marlene Cummins, an icon in the jazz/blues realm. It turns out it was fascinating for the young artist as well. “She’s got yarns for days, she can talk forever”, he smiles at the thought. DOBBY acknowledges that he discovered a lot of new facts prepping for the chat. For instance, he explored Aunty Marlene’s involvement in the Black Panthers’ Brisbane chapter, and how oppressed minorities in different parts of the world had connected over reggae, Hip Hop or even rock music back then.
Asked whether BLAKSOUND will have future editions, he says, “Now we’ve set precedence, there’s no going back. Once Indigenous voices are heard, you can’t unhear it. We want it to feel awkward without us.” So there are very good chances that it will be a recurring event.
At this point in the chat, I suddenly get kicked out of Zoom. So when I manage to log back in, we’ve just got a few minutes left to wrap up the conversation.
Regarding his other projects, DOBBY tells me he thoroughly enjoys being a part of Jackie Brown Jr, which he considers a great alternative to his solo rapping. I also find out that – of all instruments – he wants to learn to play the cello.
Describing his collaboration with BARKAA, he says, “I absolutely adore everything she does, and I’m in awe of her spirit, her energy, passion, and talent. She’s got such a way with words and her focus on the mic is unlike any other artist I’ve seen”. They connected through his management, and BARKAA didn’t hesitate for a minute when he pitched featuring on “I Can’t Breathe” to her.
When I tell him that I’m currently based in Europe, he reminisces about the Reeperbahn Festival [which takes place in September in Hamburg, Germany] where he performed in 2019. You can tell he truly misses travelling and touring internationally. On that note, we both express hopes that things will change for the better soon, and we sign off.
Post cover image: KURT PETERSEN PHOTOGRAPHY
DOBBY is a rapper, drummer and music composer. He proudly identifies as a Filipino and Aboriginal musician, whose family is from Brewarrina on Ngemba land and is a member of the Murrawarri Republic in Weilmoringle, NSW. He has performed extensively locally including BIGSOUND and Sydney Opera House, and internationally in Germany, the UK, the US and the Netherlands.
DOBBY recently took out Best Video for ‘I CAN’T BREATHE’ in the 2020 FBi SMAC Awards. “I Can’t Breathe” has become the unofficial anthem of Australia’s Bla(c)k Lives Matter protests and is being used throughout schools in so-called Australia as material alongside curriculum to assist in educating students.
DOBBY was labelled as the 2018 “BIGSOUND buzz act” with his live show being described as “mind-blowing”, “dynamic” & “powerful”. As the tour continued internationally, DOBBY was listed by media reviews as one of the top 10 buzz acts to come out of both 2019 The Great Escape, UK, and Reeperbahn Festival in Germany, from a line-up of over 450+ artists!
DOBBY is a multi-instrumentalist who is increasingly being known for bouncing between piano, drums, & drum pads, with his unique signature ‘drapping’ (rapping & drumming at the same time). *
* Info taken from the artist’s official EPK
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