Message Sticks: Outback hip hop hybrid

Sarah-Jane Norman

For some time now, local hip hop stalwarts Morganics and Wire MC have been conducting workshops with the young Indigenous communities of Bourke, Wilcannia and Broken Hill. The aim has been to arm the kids with a fresh, potent form of expression that they can own and share. The first big success to come out of this process was the Wilcannia Mob with their 2002 hit Down River, which made it to No. 51 on JJJ’s Hottest 100 and scored the group a set at Homebake. River Rhythm Beatbox delivers something quite different. A showcase of 23 young, outback hip hop artists with Morganics and Wire sharing the production seat, the show is a multimedia smorgasbord-beats, words, visuals, documentary, movement—in effect, performative storytelling, that essential practice where Indigenous and hip-hop cultures speak to each other.

The night begins with a dual acknowledgment of ownership—to the traditional owners of the site, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and then to the traditional owners of hip hop. As we enter, a video montage of the streets of the Bronx circa 1971 is playing on the largest of the space’s 3 projection screens and DJ Swipa is spinning Grandmaster Flash’s The Message. The flavour of the space at this moment is overwhelmingly urban and American—we are a long way from Broken Hill. But it’s just a passing, respectful nod to the Old Skool. Respect, after all, is the motto of the medium: acknowledge and have pride in your roots, but don’t strangle yourself with them. The room blacks out. When the screens come back to life, we’re all on the dry road out west, listening to Charlie Pride on Koori Radio.

The performers mingle casually in the space, taking turns in the limelight, while audiovisual material—of the river, of the desert, of the local chicken shop and the IGA—anchors us at the narrative source. We hear testimony after testimony from the kids and the locals about the benefit that hip hop has had in the community. We see the recording studios; we hang out. At no point are we allowed to forget that this show, these performers, have come from somewhere, a somewhere that we are allowed to see and feel instead of just imagine. But this documentary element is necessary not only to provide context, but to remind us that what we are viewing is not a neatly packaged finished product. It’s a window into a process—dynamic, honest, warts and all.

The word ‘showcase’ is often read as ‘amateur night.’ This is not the case here. With ages ranging from 7 to 20, it is true that the bulk of the performers are young and green, but there is some real talent here. Standouts include the Back Lane Brothers (a group of boys with serious presence and skills), the Broken Hill Girls (present only in video form, but with great lyrics), Victor Riley and Lisa Webster (high energy and a sense of humour) and the Wilcannia Mob (they haven’t lost their touch: the room goes wild for Down River). Any grumblings about the grafting of an “American culture” onto an “Indigenous landscape” emanating from the more cynical corners of the audience have been silenced by the end as the perfection of the partnership becomes self-evident.

It’s about time Indigenous culture was given the freedom to hybridise, and River Rhythm Beatbox pulls it off beautifully. Traditional culture permeates the entire performance. It’s present in the instrumentation (the didj has a sound almost tailored to hip hop), the unique arrangement of beats, and the rhymes themselves. But at no point does this feel forced, like the performers are trying to actively ‘Indigenise’ hip hop. They are far too honest for that. Their roots are just there, constantly present as an ancient influence on a contemporary practice. It seems that it is not just hip hop that’s benefiting Indigenous kids; Indigenous kids could teach hip hop a few new tricks as well.

Message Sticks: River Rhythm Beatbox, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 28-30

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 46

© Sarah-Jane Norman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004