Between 2017 and 2018, I volunteered for the social media team of the Amnesty International Melbourne branch. One of the projects I was involved in was a campaign to raise the age of children sentenced to jail.
Back then, I was devastated to find out most offenders were between 10 and 17 years old. Sadly, many of them were Aboriginal as well.
So it literally broke my heart when, after more than five years of working with Amnesty on that campaign, I heard the lyrics to “The Problem”. And I need you to read this story to understand why a change on that front is long overdue.
In April 2022, The Guardian published statistics on youth justice provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Even though fewer kids ended up in jail in the last five (measured) years, there is still an outrageous disproportion concerning their background.
Here are the most troubling numbers:
- Young Indigenous people are only 5.8% of all young people aged 10-17 in Australia but make up 49% of all young people in detention.
- Indigenous children were younger when they entered the criminal justice system than their non‑Indigenous counterparts and more likely to be from remote and lower socio-economic areas.
- More than a third (37%) of Indigenous young people were first in contact with the criminal justice system when aged 10 to 13, compared with just 14% of non‑Indigenous youth.
- The Northern Territory fared the worst – 108 of the 115 (or 94%) young people aged 10 and over in the NT youth justice system were Indigenous.
These horrifying statistics have been an ongoing debate in Australia for many years. Somehow, the country still hasn’t been able to find an effective solution to this issue.
So if you, reading this post, are in shock and disbelief, think about what it means for the First Nations kids and their future.
Take children from Maningrida, for instance.
It’s an Aboriginal community in the heart of the Arnhem Land region of Australia’s Northern Territory (NT). This small town is 500 km east of Darwin, the state’s capital.
Let me put this in perspective for you. It’s the same distance as travelling between Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Paris, France. Or a bit less than crossing California from San Francisco to LA.
In a remote community like Maningrida, kids have limited things to do when they grow up. And their chances of meeting role models who defy those outrageous statistics shared by The Guardian are pretty slim, too.
Rapper J-MILLA decided to change that.
The rising hip-hop artist is a proud member of the Mak Mak Marranungu people, the traditional landowners of the Litchfield National Park in the NT. And he is committed to giving back to his mob.
In 2022, he travelled to remote NT Aboriginal communities, hosting motivational workshops and performing concerts to “show them a new experience in life.” This is precisely how the collaboration with young people in Maningrida came to fruition.
The workshop resulted in creating a song from scratch, recording it and shooting a music video.
For that last part, half of the kids from the community came out to show their love and support. Additionally, a whole local team participated in different areas of the project.
Aside from the catchy hook, the song’s lyrics are very powerful. “The Problem” tackles the issue of youth offending head-on.
Two aspiring rappers, DK and Tillo, mention living “in a crowded place”, being surrounded by violence and poverty, facing racial discrimination and feeling “locked up in a system pulling them down”. Yet, all they want is to chase their dreams, “head for greatness” and make a change.
They also point out that Australian media don’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.
The message that moved me the most in “The Problem”, however, is expressed in just one poignant sentence: “Imma young Aboriginal, not a criminal“. You’ll surely agree that it’s profoundly sad to hear a young boy having to justify his existence.
Despite the sombre picture the track paints, it ultimately brings the message of hope. LIL YOUNGINS claim they find “dedication and motivation” in all the hardships they deal with regularly.
The group first started creating together for the Maningrida Dance initiative. Despite their young age, the boys found a shared passion in writing music with a politically-charged message. It mostly addresses the systemic struggles faced by the youth in their community, especially those related to crime.
LIL YOUNGINS were creatively mentored and guided through the whole songwriting process by J-MILLA. The hip-hop artist was visibly moved by his younger counterparts’ enthusiasm and dedication to the project.
“I’m really proud of these boys and the challenge they’ve taken on”, he recalls. And I feel nothing but a privilege to be involved in their journey, and I can’t wait to see exactly where they go in life and how far it takes them. I can’t wait to see them grab this opportunity and turn the experience into success. ‘Coz it’s gonna change their lives forever.”
Even though the song features young people from the Maningrida community, “The Problem” reflects the voice of many young Aboriginal people from around the country.
And it’s the track’s chorus that provides the best commentary on the youth offence statistics seen from the Indigenous communities’ perspective:
See, the kids ain’t the problem
(“Why blame us”)
Now you could be the problem
Or maybe the system is the problem
(“Yeah that’s the problem”)
It’s about time to change that system, Australia.
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