PART 2 | Hip-Hop’s Divided Nation: The Oppositional Nature of ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Responses to Hip-Hop in Australia

PART 2 | By Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw

From my own initial interviews I have learned that white Australian youth have struggled to come to terms with their own identity, predominantly because of the hangover left from British colonialization. The following quote is from a discussion I had with a Sydney based German immigrant, named Antonio, who claimed to be an observer and stressed that he wasn’t a participant in the scene: 

They [white Australians] have grown up in a country with no identity. Everything you find here starting from city names such as Liverpool and Newcastle etc. to food such as beans, eggs, pies, bangers and mash is a copy-cat of Britain. They said about Oz in the 50's and 60's that it’s more British than Britain. Well now these kids are in a situation where they have no identity and they can’t generated enough of their own to populate the country, so immigrants such as myself are coming, and suddenly these kids indoctrinated with white Australian policy by their elders and the society find themselves in a precarious position where they fear for their relevance. I think people like you and me who come from countries with a long and distinctive history are barely able to comprehend what it is like to not know your history. So what better way to get a sense of self than expressing yourself and finding some way to transport it, and this is through hip-hop. 

When pressed for his evaluations upon ‘white’ and ‘black’ responses to hip-hop in Australia he stated 

In general I can say that Pacific Islanders and Aboriginals are more drawn to America because they identify more with American blacks, naturally, than with Australian whites. I’ve felt it to be extremely difficult to speak about race issues with suburban white Australians. There is so much hate buried in them towards indigenous people and immigrants. Well, the conclusion seems to be that you can seemingly love and admire and worship black American hip-hop stars but you do not have to have a spark of love for your own oppressed black minority and somehow they can justify that in their own mind?

What is extremely unique to the Australian hip-hop scene as opposed the one that I studied in the UK, is the inherent racism as expressed earlier, or the 'cultural logics' of the Sydney/Australian hip-hop scene. Both sets of white youth have acted out their role as a 'minority' within the racial majority, but in the case of Newcastle, UK, there is no notable black population to act as a cultural reference, so it is essentially ‘blackness in the absence of blackness’, a need by mainly working-class white youth to fill a cultural and social void left by the effects of de-industrialization, whereas in Australia there is a recognizable ethnic minority, which due to long-standing racial subordination is not recognized, appreciated or respected.

“The Hip Hop Scene I encountered did not consider itself to be artistic or avant garde...instead espousing decidedly conservative discourses of nationalism and community” (Maxwell, 2003: 16). Where I think Maxwell falls down greatly is his semi-dismissive attitude towards Aboriginal appropriations of hip-hop: “However, it is probably best not to overemphasize any relationship between Hip Hop and Aboriginal Australians purely in terms of a logic of the color of skin” (ibid: 68). He instead sees the benefit of the experience of African-American blackness as encountered through hip-hop in Australia more by the way in which white Australian youth get an understanding of oppression, isolation and blackness that they otherwise haven’t been privy to. I disagree, and see that there is immense benefit in viewing the relationship between Aboriginal and African-American ‘blackness’, and of course in seeing how Aboriginal people deal directly with oppression, isolation and blackness that they are privy to, and the extent to which they can emphasise with black America because of this. In the same way that white Australians have questioned the authenticity of Aboriginal rappers (because of the American accents that they use) Aboriginal rappers have staked their claim for authenticity and have questioned ‘white’ responses in return:

Black America, and black Australia have a connection for one main fundamental reason, white hatred, white racism, that’s how far back the connection goes... It was a slave’s voice, it was a poor man’s voice, it was a hungry child’s voice, you know, and we could relate to that voice, we could hear that voice, because we had them same voices in our own communities, in our lands, and this is the original song of hip-hop. But white Australia, they don’t want to hear that voice, they like the sound of hip-hop because they like how, you know, how funky fresh all them African-Americans are looking there today, with their ‘bling blings’ and singing about the club. When seriously, hip-hop is all about giving and getting love, but nah, the Ozzie grabs a mic like it’s a f**king cricket glove (Wire MC as interviewed in the documentary B.L.A.C.K: An Aboriginal Song of Hip-Hop).

Dara, agrees with the above sentiment:

I definitely think being black in Australia has a lot of similarities to being black in America. Historically, when the colonialists came to Australia and stole the land and committed genocide, they often rounded up surviving Aborigines and placed them on missions and reserves similar to how they did Native Americans. However, in many instances these mission reserves would operate in similar ways as slave plantations; where Aborigines were force to work unpaid for rations while consistent efforts and policies were made to destroy Aboriginal culture and to break and domesticate Aboriginal people. As slavery was no longer officially supported internationally, it was called ‘protection’ instead and was supposedly done for the benefit of Aboriginal people. Furthermore, the same ideas used to control marriage for breeding African-American people to create strong slaves were used here in attempts to breed out Aboriginal people. Also, Aboriginal political movements in Australia have always drawn much inspiration from black political movements in the US. From Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanism to freedom rights, civil rights to black power, these actions have been mirrored in Australia by Aboriginal people inspired by these movements. Right now there is a strong movement towards sovereignty which has been sparked by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was established in the 70s by Aborigines inspired by the black power movement in America. Also, just day to day living Aboriginal youth identify with African-American people in being a systematically disenfranchised, disempowered black minority living in a ‘first-world’ country. There is definitely a certain level of understanding and identification through similar experiences.

Of course, hip-hop in Australia was not constructed through a directly shared experience or integrated history with African-American culture but, as in most places worldwide, through the active engagement with various forms of media. Maxwell has noted that the most distinctive feature of the construction of the hip-hop world in which Australian youth operate is “its thoroughly mediated nature” (2003: 70). Therefore, 'virtual communities' derived from and linked to the Australian hip-hop scene within the Internet (such as message boards, online blogs and YouTube comments to videos) have an ability to create and influence a sense of ‘hip-hop self’ through the reconfiguration of personal and collective identities. Also, it is clear from primary research, that the Internet is the site for a cultural battle ground between white and black participants, with racist abuse being hurled at Aboriginal rappers for their Americanized style by white Australians who deem them unauthentic for example, or for Aboriginal rappers to make rap videos detailing (through sound and vision) the atrocities put upon their forefathers. Community is thus being redefined rather than replaced by the Internet, and the Internet offers a new way to shape collective identities, and most importantly, offer ready access to American hip-hop with the click of a mouse. 

The immediacy of the Internet, with its instantaneous communication, serves to provide more spontaneous changes to identity than those artistic practices discussed in previous work (Hall, 1992; Back, 1996). The last decade has seen the Internet provide a seismic change to cultural practices, with points of reference being multiplied through this new form of global communication and, as a result, this has rendered the original debates surrounding cultural influence and identity formation largely out of date. As the outlets (discussion boards, blogs, websites, chat rooms) for online debate are unregulated and self-generated they present a more radical transformation of ethnicity and identity formation than other forms of regulated and established broadcast media. They offer private and undisturbed discursive space which enables a radical reformulation and assertion of identity through the processes of online arguments, debates and suggestions (Song and Parker 2009). “As they argue, write, read, send E-mails and interact with one another on and offline, the creators of thousands of interwoven online texts over the years have been articulating ‘race’ and ‘culture’ on their own terms” (Franklin, 2003: 465). These online exchanges of information often lead to offline social events (such as gigs and recording sessions being organised) which provide an even more concrete example of the Internet’s power to affect behaviour and influence aspects of self-definition. The ‘ever emerging text of the Internet’ (Thompson, 2002: 411) and its ability to shape and cultivate collective identity is not well documented and has yet to receive sustained analysis, which is particularly pertinent to the Australian hip-hop experience which has always relied on the media since its inception, which coincided with Malcolm Mclaren’s 1982 hit song “Buffalo gals” inspiring a string of local off-shoots (Maxwell, 2003).



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Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw, Configaration Records CEO

Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw is founder and chief executive officer at Configaration Records.

Configaration Records