Interview: Gabriel Akon on his journey to DyspOra & growing a hip hop empire in Adelaide with Playback808

Being able to speak with Gabriel Akon, I knew instantly I was speaking with an artist on the precipice of actual greatness. The Adelaide-based rapper has been making waves through much of this year; his work as DyspOra and as a label head of independent hip hop collective Playback808 set Akon’s course early and through 2017, the industry is properly beginning to notice.

His story is one that has garnered much press attention; moving to Australia with his family 13 years ago after fleeing conflict in South Sudan and living in a refugee camp in Kenya, Akon’s struggle has definitely been the realest, but in surviving and getting through, his ethic when it comes to rising above and pushing forward has influenced his music.

“I loved music, but I probably would have spent my life – all things considered – being a doctor or a lawyer.” he admits. “I loved music but not to the point where I was like, ‘I’m going to do this for 10, 20 years,’ until I started finding out about the Fela Kutis, about the Bob Marleys. It really attracted me. I coined this term – ‘Sonic Activism’ – seeking purpose through the music and reaching people. In terms of that, that’s what I’ve been really practicing to aim for and get to.”

“It took me, I’ll say five years, to get to that level where I was like, ‘Alright, I can use the music as a vehicle for this’. I was confident enough, but something was missing. I think it was the whole city gravitating to what we’re doing. It’s been incredible and knowing that we’re going to be putting it on for the city; it’s been liberating and amazing. Moving forward, I’ve got a whole lot of music that I’m ready to release commercially now. I was holding off on it for a long time because part of my reason was that [part of the reason behind] music I make is that it has to reach as many people as it can for it to have an impact.”

Upfront and passionately opinionated when it comes to the development and the progression of the Australian hip hop scene, particularly the one he-as-DyspOra and the Playback808 crew have been continually breaking in to over the last few years, Akon isn’t content to wait for long-standing perceptions and constructs to change for him.

“It’s more than time.” he says. “I actually realised that it’s not going to come with time, especially with people in the background, forcing it to happen. Time, in its natural progression, takes ages for things to happen. Sometimes if you knock on a door too long and you start kicking at that door, the hinges will come down and to be honest, with this whole Australian scene? It’s more than just time. There’s a lot of white fuckery being exposed and being met head on. I remember, personally, about three years ago I would have been like, ‘Fuck this shit’, you know? ‘Fuck this racist game. I’m not white, I don’t sound like this, fuck it, I’ll just do my own thing.’ If I could survive long enough, I would go and start a career in Africa. It got to that point where I almost had to make that decision.”

“Solidifying ourselves as an independent label,” he says of his concentrated direction for the rest of the year. “We’re dead serious about this! We just put out E L K‘s single on to Spotify, I’ve got one dropping at the end of this month. I’ll have an official single out and commercially selling after seven years of giving out free music! Heading towards that commercial lane; we’ve done it this far, just releasing stuff and building the brand, so it’s like, ‘Let’s do something with it’. I think just placing Playback808 into the conversation like, ‘I know this might not be Australian hip hop as hip hop in Australia but either get used to it or the rest of the world will leave us behind’.”

On the hype Playback808 and DyspOra’s music has been generating nationally in recent months, Akon is excited as he takes me through the chaos that has been the upswing the label has been taken on.

“It’s crazy!” he enthuses. “Getting feedback and messages from people for different backgrounds; they play the songs because it makes them feel some kind of way. I think it purely comes from just allowing different voices to add to the hip hop game. Australia is a relatively good country; there are bad things going on everywhere but there aren’t too many bad things going on here. When I can come and put my story on a song, and I’m talking about even just touching on not necessarily the bad stuff I’ve experienced in my life, it brings a whole new element that didn’t really exist here.”

“Hip hop is a reflection of what you’re going through and Australia was complacent, especially for the white males who were making this music. They were on a level where not too many things were happening, so you run with them; you go drink and you go party, you tell that good side. When you genuinely have things that you have to worry about, like if I end up being stuck here too long and then started up DyspOra and ended up having a child who is of mixed race, then how do I raise that child in that society? Things like that, that they wouldn’t even have to think about, I already lived it. So for me, to put that down on record was completely new because we’d been sidelined for so long, it’s really exciting.”

Various local showcases and developing their craft at Northern Sound System, out in the Northern suburbs, has brought Akon through with a wave of younger artists in Adelaide who, before the establishment of NSS, didn’t have such a solid platform to explore their creativity in a professional environment. As for the growth of Playback808 over the years, Akon remains confident about the collective’s strong work ethic and the sheer talent that has been existing in the ranks since the beginning.

“For me, I’ve been doing this since I was 15,” he explains. “I didn’t have a mentor or anybody, in any way, invested. Like, ‘These kids – let’s not even help them, but let’s facilitate, whether they want to be doing shows or whatever’. It would have cut the journey in half; I feel that so sincerely, because so much time is wasted when there is no direction in life. Part of the whole Playback808 thing, even though we’re about to turn it into a label, part of it was just about survival. I was in a position where, if I’d kept doing it by myself, I probably would have stopped three years ago. I would have gone to uni. Surrounding myself with that group of kids that I could look to for inspiration, and they look up to me for inspiration…just developing on that and having the brotherhood around, it was completely necessary.”

“I say everything happens for a reason and had the game not pushed us away for so long, we wouldn’t have gotten so focused on ourselves and we might have not improved like that. We wouldn’t have had this, had it been easier. That’s where we get our skill from. When you are around a lot of like-minded individuals, you can always learn off each other. It’s incredible.”

For local fans, Playback808 can next be seen hitting the stage alongside Man Made Mountain at the Nexus Arts Centre on August 5th. Akon is excited about the show and connecting with another local favourite (even though MMM is interstate-based, we’re claiming a bond off the back of recent shows). The importance of bringing communities together and exploring a cultural dialogue that is constructive, positive and progressive has been of great priority for Akon and the crew, one shows like this can be great examples of.

“In terms of the African community, and this is something I like to touch on, music is very internalised for most of us. When we hear kids rapping, we put them on a mic and after a short time, they start making this music and it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ but you realise that it comes from an old tradition. It goes deeper. Our family members and ancestors used to rap like, 2000 years ago, when it wasn’t rap but it was a way of delivering information. It has been built internally.”

“As Africans and as one of the newer minority groups down here and as one of the ones who are copping it as a result of it and are an easy target for all the bullshit, I think it comes a lot easier. We needed something. I hate that we have to prove our worth here to Australians; I don’t have to prove my worth to any human being. It’s like, I’m Sudanese and I’m living in Australia, I don’t have to prove myself for anything but in a way it’s like, this is what people are doing here. That conversation where people start answering the whole social dynamics of which we’re existing in; even in living here for 13 years, the cultural integration is very, very messed up. I think it’s time to open that up and I think music is a very important social tool.”

“I saw him [Cazeaux O.S.L.O] at the Adelaide Festival with Remi,” Akon remembers.”He did a whole set freestyling and I was like, “What…?!” – he was on a whole other level, you know? Some people are just so confident you know, you can’t not learn anything from them. I think Dom and Man Made Mountain are going to be a good connection to have; especially being in Adelaide right now. It’s going to be local like, ‘This is Adelaide’; I love this city and I want to make this the mecca of hip hop. That’s the plan.”

Catch the Playback808 crew performing at the Nexus Arts Centre alongside Man Made Mountain on Saturday, August 5th. Keep up to date with DyspOra here.