What’s Your Flava? – Highlighting diversity in the Australian music industry (Part Two)

Last week, we brought you the first part of our feature on the diversity existing and thriving within our music industry. Across genres, artists have been standing up, proudly so, and making some incredible music that has been, as we found out, influenced by their cultural upbringings in some way.

Whether they had relocated from different countries with their families at a young age, or are Australian born with mixed heritage, these artists all found a common ground in a love of music and desire to create out of their own unique settings.

This week, we continue to learn more about where some of our favourite artists come from and their opinions on the Australian industry’s embrace of the multicultural moving ahead.

001_lance

Melbourne based New Zealander Lance Ferguson moved to Australia back in 1990 and has since become one of the country’s most prolific musicians, founding and touring with The Bamboos and LANU, not to mention collaborating with the likes of Aloe Blacc, Kylie Audist, Megan Washington and more over the years. The latest LANU album, The Double Sunrise, is rooted in South Pacific Exotica music, while also recalling the influence of his late grandfather, Bill Wolgframm.

What is your heritage?

According to everything I have been able to find out, my grandfather Bill Wolfgramm was a full-blooded Tongan. I moved to Melbourne when I was 17 years old in 1990. The moved was sparked by a summer holiday romance and my desire to become a professional musician/dishwasher.

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“My Tongan grandfather was a famous musician,” Ferguson explains. “[He] recorded and released a bunch of records in New Zealand throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. As a kid, I never really spent too much time with him though – so I cannot say that he ever played a strong role in directing or mentoring me towards a musical career.”

“If I had to draw a link between my cultural background and music, I think the strongest influence would probably be all the years I went through school in Auckland with Maori and Islander friends listening to hip hop. The Polynesian community jumped on and identified early with hip hop culture in the 1980’s and I immersed myself in all of that.” 

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I think the bar has been raised significantly over the last decade or so. For a long time, people would hear something great in the local scene and describe it as ‘world-class’ – the feeling was that we had to ‘measure up’ to anything going on overseas. I think the view has become obsolete now, as certain Australian artists and bands are actually leading the way in what they do. Look at Tame Impala, Hiatus Kaiyote and Flume. MC’s like Remi, Cazeaux and Sampa the Great are blowing my mind with their sounds. I have just finished making a collaborative solo album featuring a bunch of my favourite local producers and artists, and the breadth of their creativity is astounding! It’s definitely a great time to be making music in Australia.”

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Melbourne MC Baro has been quick to impress with his talents as a lyricist and performer, most recently seen out on the road with Elizabeth Rose. The young rapper, currently working on a new EP of material, has been featured alongside many new artists including the likes of Tkay, Citizen Kay and Sampa The Great when it comes to highlighting young musicians driving diversity within hip hop forward in Australia today.

What is your heritage?

My family relocated here from Ethiopia in 1996.

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“Music was pretty prominent in my childhood,” he remembers. “I was looking for it from a very young age. My Dad used to have heaps of old CDs in his garage and I’d always be taking CD’s – Janet Jackson, Kenny G, Stevie Wonder etc. Also, hip hop came into my life from my older cousins; I remember when I was eight or nine, my cousin came to my house with hella Jadakiss, Bow Wow, Biggie Smalls and Outkast.

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I’d say so [industry is becoming more diverse]. It’s cool to be one of the first in this wave of [new] artists.”

Photo: James Douglas
Photo: James Douglas

David Le’aupepe has fast become one of Australia’s best loved new rock and rollers as the success of Gang Of Youths‘ debut album The Positions has sent the captivating songwriter and frontman all around the world with his bandmates since its 2014 release. While The Positions was a candid look at Le’aupepe’s marriage and the role cancer wound up playing within it, he here offers an insight into his upbringing as a Samoan-Australian indulging in a love of hard rock from an early age.

What is your heritage?

My Dad is a New Zealand-born Samoan with a German Jewish mother, and my Mum was born in Australia and is the daughter of Jewish holocaust survivors from Vienna, Austria. So yeah, I’m a Jewish mutt. I have Ukranian and Hungarian Jewish ancestry on my Mum’s side as well, a few generations back.

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“My mother is strangely apathetic toward music and my father is a classically trained opera singer,” Le’aupepe says. “I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence trying to find things I liked. My pin drop moment was seeing the video clip for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on rage as a four year old and desperately wanting to play the guitar, but I think I was probably too young to understand that I could play a guitar for a living.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“Culturally, I think so [the scene is diversifying]; however musically, we’re all in danger melding into something bland, mechanical and homogenous. Perhaps we’re so afraid of being human, that we are resorting to this weird coolness and ennui in order to cover it up. I think I’m excited about attempting to transcend it.”

Photo: Sean McDonald
Photo: Sean McDonald

Ecca Vandal burst onto our radar in 2014 and hasn’t stopped creating music and delivering blistering live shows around the country since. Equal parts punk,  90’s grunge and coming to the stage with the edgy swagger artists like M.I.A and Santigold have become famous for, the Melbourne-based musician has been flirting with musical genre and convention since an early age.

What is your heritage? 

I am Sri Lankan (Tamil). My parents and two sisters were born in Sri Lanka. They migrated to South Africa as my Father found work over there. I was born in a tiny town called Louis Trichardt, which is in the Limpopo province of South Africa. Due to the turmoil of The Apartheid in South Africa at the time and soon after I was born, my parents decided to relocate to in the early 90’s, to join the majority of our relatives who had already settled in Melbourne, Australia.

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“I was lucky to be surrounded by a lot of music whilst growing up.” Ecca says. “The home was always filled with music. My parents could sing, my two sisters and all my cousins are extremely musical, playing guitar, piano and constantly singing. I was raised on gospel, soul and R&B music and culturally, Sri Lankans and South African people really love to sing collectively. Whenever groups gather, there is usually singing, music and/or dancing (food always present!)… It was a beautiful thing to be surrounded by fully fledged choirs in our home. I think that’s where my love of rich harmonies came from. Proper aural training!”

“The early part of my music education took place in my sister’s bedrooms. When they used to leave the house I would raid their cd collections and play their records over and over again… Snoop, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Mary J, Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest…”

“My parents encouraged me to learn a few instruments too. Starting with playing piano around the home, mainly teaching myself and picking up a few things from my sisters, I then had violin lessons for around eight years during school. In our culture, music was encouraged, but only as a hobby. However, the emphasis was always on academics.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“The cultural diversity in the Australian music scene is growing exponentially, which is nice to see. To me, that is the real beauty of the scene we’re in – we have a really broad range of artists from different backgrounds creating truly unique music. The growth is not only seen in the number of amazing artists coming up right now, who aren’t all white, but also in the shift of expectations. People always used to think that my original music would be soul or R&B, purely based on what I looked like. Seems it is now starting to be accepted for what it is, not what it should sound like, based on stereotypes. It’s nice to see that not everything has to sound the same for it to be accepted either. To me, that shows progression.”

“Perhaps Australia is leaning in, listening in a little closer, and celebrating Australian music as we are noticing that artists from diverse backgrounds can have a significant impact globally – dope artists like L-Fresh, Remi, Tkay to name a few. I think this ‘lean in’ is a really good start, but we still have a long way to go to be truly diverse – especially when it comes to stronger female artist representation and gender diversity on gig line-ups.”

“Diversity is what really keeps the Australian music landscape exciting…. How bland would this place be if we didn’t have diversity in general? We’d all look, sound and think the same…. BORING!!!”

Photo: Cole Bennetts
Photo: Cole Bennetts

Crowds around the country have been turning on more and more to L-FRESH THE LION‘s fiery and passionate brand of hip hop, most recently with his new album Become. The Sydney rapper has stood out within the genre and by extension, the wider Australian music scene as his culture and religion has played a prominent role in his music and the positive vibes he projects creatively.

What is your heritage? 

I’m of Punjabi-Indian descent. My family migrated to Australia in the late ’80s. I was born in Liverpool, Sydney.

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“Music was always around.” L-Fresh says of his childhood and music’s role within it. “I remember my parents playing traditional Sikh music regularly. Then there was Hindi and Punjabi music in the movies that my family would watch. My dad taught me to play the tabla when I was a kid. In primary school and high school, I got introduced to Western music. My friends would give me their favourite CD’s. I remember going to my friends’ places on the weekends and seeing Video Hits on TV. And I remember staying up late to watch rage.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016… 

“It’s an exciting time to be an artist and a fan of Australian music. There’s so much exciting talent. The music scene is growing at such a rapid pace and the world is looking on with much interest.”

001_yeo

Melbourne-based songwriter and producer Yeo has recently been earning some well-deserved praise with the release of his album Ganbaru – an album delving into some forward thinking and entertaining electro-pop. He recalls his first Casio keyboard and the stereotypes he faced as an Asian-Australian growing up in Brisbane…

What is your heritage? 

I was born in Brisbane. My parents are from Malaysia and their parents are from China. I guess that makes me a proud Malaysian-Chinese-Australian. How good is Malaysian food by the way!? Got a buzz right now, like ramen in the last few years or dumplings in the late 2000s…

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“I had a little Casio keyboard growing up,” he says. “Mum and Dad saved their pennies and bought me a piano when I was seven. I knew it was a financial stretch for them, but I loved bashing out bangers on the Casio so much that I begged them hard. Mum agreed on the condition that I would take it seriously and boy, did I hate it when she forced me to practice in the coming years.”

“I remember going to school and being surprised at how many other Asians were ‘taking a musical instrument seriously’. That was one of the first times I became aware of the stereotypes that surround us. I didn’t listen to much music from Asia growing up. In Australia, pop music was the most accessible – it was always on commercial radio and TV.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016… 

“Slowly, slowly. There’s a long way to go, since the industry whitewash bias runs deep. It actually runs all the way to the consumers and the unfortunate cycle continues, because it makes some suit-wearing corner-office inhabitant a lot of money. That being said, there is movement under the bamboo ceiling.”

“I am super proud and stoked and inspired when I see my non-white-male friends moving up and supporting each other, and also when I meet industry folk who clearly don’t give a flying fuck about race or gender. It feels like it’s happening more and more. Yay!”

001_hau

One of the O.G.’s of the Australian hip hop scene, Hau has been part of the fabric of the country’s genre since his Koolism days. Canberra-born, now Sydney-based, Hau dropped his long awaited debut album, The No End Theory, in 2015 after signing with House of Beige.

What is your heritage? 

My parents came over from Tonga in the mid to late ’60s. They knew of each other back in the homeland but they met and, according to my Dad, fell in love at first sight. Funny story: Mum says that Dad was talking about marrying and having kids on their first date! Some may call that romantic; a lot more would probably call it creepy. Haha. But yes, I was born in Canberra and grew up in Queanbeyan – a town of NSW, only five minutes outside of Canberra.

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“It’s interesting,” Hau says. “Music was everywhere; house, car, church, functions etc, but my parents weren’t musicians, nor were any of my other older relatives (besides playing the guitar, but which Polynesian wasn’t?). My dad loved country music, my mum loved ‘60s and ‘70s rock, both loved Tongan music and hymns. My sister, who is older, loved pop, glam rock, reggae, R&B and hip hop. So too did my older cousins.”

“It wasn’t until my generation were there aspirations on becoming musicians (and rugby legends, of course). One cousin was and still is an opera singer. Another was obsessed with Prince and to this day, is one of the most talented dudes I’ve ever known. Another sang jazz and reggae. Everyone could sing or rap. Crazy talented family.”

“I believe a lot of my soul and love for harmonies came from going to church and listening to the beautiful choir sing. If you’ve ever been to a Polynesian church, you would have heard the tones and the textures and the harmonies in full flight. I really do believe that is where I learned how to harmonise. Well, church and Jodeci.

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I definitely feel the climate is changing – both the appreciation of different sounds and artists of different backgrounds. What is super exciting to me is seeing influx of artists of African decent coming through making hip hop. When I was coming up, there weren’t that many (shout out to Zux, N’fa and later on Diafrix and One Sixth) and if there were, some were unfortunately made to feel not that welcome into the ‘scene’ because it became a very white person dominated industry.  A lot of them felt cast out and went to do their own thing. Which is sad, but in turn forced them to create a different scene and have their own sound.”

“Now, you see the product of that and the new generations are coming through loud and proud and it’s awesome. Artists like Tkay, Remi & Sensible J, Sampa, B-Wise, Miracle, Anfa Rose, Manu Crook$, Carmouflage Rose, Midas.Gold, Gallus, Kid Pharoah, S A M, True Vibenation and a whole bunch of others. Exciting times.”

Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
Remi and Sensible J have always been vocal about the state of cultural diversity and its acknowledgement (or lack thereof) within Australia, whether it’s in the music they brought to listeners everywhere on debut album Raw x Infinity, or through impassioned live shows and interviews. Remi has fast become one of Aussie hip hop’s most important young guns, while the music he and J have been crafting on their sophomore album Divas and Demons is set to take things to another level in 2016.

What is your cultural heritage? 

SENSIBLE J: I was born at the Dandenong Hospital in Victoria and at the time, was the first member of my whole extended family born in Australia.  My family are from Cape Town, South Africa, and they migrated to Australia in 1975 when my brother was a little one year old! They didn’t like the idea of raising a family during Apartheid (my parents and family were labelled “Coloured” on their ID’s, which restricted you from certain things like which public transport you could use, certain places to go, separate beaches etc), so they felt a move to the “lucky” country was the go, as it was quite easy to get into Australia back then…

REMI: I was born in Canberra in 1991. My mother is Tasmanian and my father relocated from Nigeria in 1981.

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“My parents were in a band together back in Cape Town (Pops, a guitarist; Mama, a background singer),” J says. “I was incredibly lucky to have a whole bunch of instruments around the house from such a young age and encouraging parents who didn’t mind the racket and noise coming from the lounge. Either from the bongos, guitar or shitty Casio keyboard with the preset Bossa Nova (my fav beat back then).”

“All my childhood memories tend to be music related (listening to Bob Marley at my Uncle’s house and loving it, [through] to receiving my first record as a present when I was four (Queen‘s Greatest Hits). I was always fascinated with my Pops’ record collection and had my own lil stereo and turntable in my room that I tried to scratch on when I was about eight, after seeing Young MC and MC Hammer videos on Video Hits, maybe? I was always attracted to anything with a cool drumbeat or something that made people dance. Then my best mate’s older brother passed me a NWA and Public Enemy cassette in 1990 and it was over. Hip hop and beats.”

“I was always surrounded by music,” Remi agrees. “Mum always played the piano and  on any given day, the household stereo would be bumping Michael JacksonMarvin GayeMiles DavisGeorge Michael, that kind of stuff. When it came to my African heritage, my Pops would play some music in the house but to be completely honest, he sheltered my brother and I from our African side, out of fear that it would alienate us more than we were already about to be.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“It’s slowly becoming more diversified,” Justin comments. “I think change like that can often take a long time, although I wish it didn’t! I just want to see the music scene represent the actual diversity of cultures and people that reside in Oz, ‘cos we all out here making cool and interesting music. It’s a very exciting time to be making music, as ears seem to be a lil more open to sounds that aren’t “the norm”, and I think it’s needed right now. There’s a lot of artists with incredible stories to tell, which I’m sure many listeners could relate to.”

“I would definitely say the Australian music scene is diversifying,” Remi says. “Society is made better by knowledge. Knowledge of different experiences, different perspectives, different sexual orientations, different beliefs. We can only become more powerful, more resourceful and more accepting by diversifying all facets of our society. I think this is especially relevant in the arts, as there is no filter. The media can try and put a black out over what we say, do or represent, but we can still reach the people. Art is subjective and you can try and tell someone their favourite artist is a liar, an instigator or whatever, but the people will see through that bullshit. Change is inevitable and necessary. That is what excites me.”

Photo: Lauren Connelly
Photo: Lauren Connelly

Joji Malani, like fellow Gang of Youths’ bandmate Le’aupepe and Hau above, represents for the Pacific Islanders doing their thing out of Sydney. The guitarist and writer brings his Fijian pride to the stage confidently – you’ll have noticed the presence of the Fijian flag draped across speakers and the stage at recent shows and it’s a cultural background Joji notes has had a huge influence on him as a musician.

What is your heritage?

I am abruptly and proudly Fijian. My family chose to relocate to Sydney in 1998 for better, future opportunities in music… LOL JKS. No ethnic family would ever want their children to follow their dreams. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or some shit.

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“Music was always there in my upbringing. The music that surrounded me as a child is still my biggest influence in my inspiration and writing. I never had a ‘cool’ music upbringing, though. Music was only really seen as a hobby in my family and not something to seriously consider. I remember music that played on the radio or at the Fijian gatherings. We sung and danced a lot, but music was always something that was in the background.”

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On diversity within the Australian music scene in 2016…

“I think yes and no. Yes, I see a lot more variation in ethnicity, but I don’t see the cultural diversity embraced and implemented into the scene sonically and musically. I feel like people in the Australian music scene don’t really create from what really, truly influenced them. Most of what I hear seems to be catered for a platform and a template that already exists in the world.”

“People just want to be accepted and fit in without taking a risk, embracing who they are and where they come from and sharing that with a greater audience. I would love to hear someone of Caribbean or African descent making tropical beats because it’s who they are and they want to share that with the world, not just because Dev Hynes and FKA twigs (two very easy examples to make, I know) have made it cool.”

“I’m not trying to make a statement like, ‘Only black people can make gospel music’, I’m trying to say it would be nice if people were more honest in this scene. If you’re a Mandarin-speaking Chinese, bring some fucking Erhu into what you do. It sounds cool. Fuck it, I’ll play your Erhu!”

“What excites me, is that there is Mandarin kid somewhere in Australia who grew up taking Erhu lessons but now, his Erhu sits and rots in his room whilst he spends his nights jumping between DJing at a warehouse party and playing with his Post Metal/Post Punk band – I’m going to steal his Erhu and make something fucking beautiful with it. Capitalising on the shit that Australians are embarrassed of excites me.”