It’s Friday and the Darwin Festival is nearing a close, running a bright-faced victory lap around the balmy top end town. Since I’m a mere itinerant while I’m here, I let the breeze carry me through the day. From Parap, down to the shore, and to the historic Fannie Bay Gaol.
Here I explore the old buildings; the mess hall, the small shadowy cells… the gallows, sitting there dusty and nonchalant, tacitly haunted. These time-worn relics are dauntingly juxtaposed with fragments from here and now: the festival exhibition Behind The Wire, housed in one of the gaol buildings. It displays art from the Territory’s correctional facilities - including works from the disgraced Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The art is all intriguing, and some of it is breathtakingly beautiful - as with the nuanced, colourful intricacy of Daryl Riley, Esau Djandjomerr, Kevin Tomlins and Silas Maralngurra (to name a few). Most works employ familiar dotted, ochre-tone styles to represent animals and sites, in many cases (so I’m told) depicting sacred or privileged information that few are entitled to relay.
Not much of this art seems to be a direct reflection on (or response to) incarceration - with a few notable exceptions. Tomkins’ ‘Abstract Behind Bars’ recalls modernist minimal painting to deliver a colourful, triangulated composition overlaid with black intersecting struts. Are we looking out, or in? And is it coincidence that (reduced to its geometric lines) the abstracted portrait of imprisonment so resembles the Union Jack? Elsewhere, Zac Grieve’s illustrations portray women in the japanese manga style - each of them missing their left arm. In ‘Secrets’, a blue-haired woman cries and puts her remaining hand against a window frame; or is it another cross-joint of bars? In ‘Beneath the Surface’ a red-haired woman grins maniacally against a stormy backdrop, her face scratched and bruised, her missing arm and left-torso replaced with cyborg technology. Grieve’s backstory is grim and controversial, his fate shaped by mandatory sentencing laws and perceived injustice (you can Google it if you want to know more). He’s also an avid gamer and budding sci-fi novelist. While his drawings could be mere fantasy, it’s hard not to read the artist’s own situation onto the disquieting images. The exhibition at large invokes an uneasy feeling, an ambivalence. Is it okay to enjoy these works as simply beautiful or interesting - given their unifying thread as artefacts from the prison system, and similarly a lineage of disadvantage? But then, to regard them as any different from art in a conventional gallery risks the perpetuation of a dehumanising gaze. Why complicate the celebration of creativity by fixating on its origins? Why muddy my reading of a person’s art by bringing their incarceration, or NT politics, into it? To repurpose their creativity for my own agenda? I don’t know. I guess it is complicated.
The sun sets and spills fire all along the blue-green horizon, orange glow bouncing off the mangrove leaves. We mix orange juice with mango and pineapple and rum and say hello to the fruit bats that have gathered, hungry tongues wagging, in a nearby banyan tree. Then down to Festival Park to collect our tickets for the rap show.
SAMPA THE GREAT is up first, backed by full-time collaborator GODRIGUEZ on the beats. From the moment she appears, the MC - born Sampa Tembo, in Zambia - projects a powerful energy. She strides to the mic and stokes the party mood with a businesslike rigour.
Once we’re satisfactorily animated, we get to immerse ourselves in her fascinating lyricism and Godriguez’s dense, jazzy production.
The sanguine, snaking ‘Blue Bossa’ is an early highlight, launching the crowd into an emphatic sway. On that chromatic tangent we also get ‘Born To Be Blue,’ with its descending piano/double bass motif and sparse, hard-hitting beat. Sampa delivers every word with a kind of zealous poise that is totally rare and captivating. And while on record ‘Born to Be Blue’ is kinda subdued - the vocals stuttered, simmering, with a hint of irony - live it becomes a loping party anthem, with a full crowd chant of the soul-affirming chorus: “I’m great / you great / we great / we all great.” Also, it’s neat to hearing a song extolling the virtues of vegetarian barbecuing. Thumbs up. Soon we receive the immediate, ascendant feminist anthem “F E M a L E” - with its dense, unstoppable flow and spell-it-with-me refrain.
Things get a bit more abstract with two back to back tunes from the Weapon Chosen release - a 6-track rework of selections from Hiatus Kaiyote’s Choose Your Weapon album. Weapon Chosen is probably the most adventurous and experimental Australian hip-hop release I’ve ever heard, so it’s thrilling to hear these songs delivered live. Think warped, fragmented beats and unpredictable, lolling-tongue rhymes reminiscent of the weirdo dynamic between Madlib and MF Doom on Madvillainy. Closing it out is the slow-burn real talk of ‘Weeoo,’ which gives the vigorous, self-assured set a darker and reflexive edge: “I was made to be great,” reiterates Sampa, “but the woman in mirror looking awful unfamiliar.” She contemplates, it seems, the costs of leveraging her identity and experience: “I wonder will I work with what I have? If I’m willing to backstab, my own people for a pass at - fame.” And with this open-ended, inconclusive finale, they’re out.
L-FRESH THE LION is nominally the headliner tonight, and as he emerges - flanked by dj/producer MK-1 and hypewoman/emcee MIRRAH - the crowd responds rapturously. L-Fresh (or Sukdheep Singh, as it says on his mail) has serious charisma; a vintage hip-hop demeanour infused with a compassionate outlook. That can only be a good thing. He dives into his tightly prepared verses, leaping around the stage with purple lights blaring, and the ever-grinning Mirrah leaping even more, sipping from a Camelbak as she goes. Mirrah is mostly providing a font of inexhaustible energy, and some backing vocals, but she does get a few moments to shine with verses and a cappellas, brandishing her talents as a fully-fledged rapper with a flow to rival the man of the hour. MK-1 spins the boom-bappy beats casually in the background, sporting sunglasses and a sports jacket. Stylistically, this type of hip-hop doesn’t excite me much: it’s got an old-school approach that feels too well-worn to my ears, the rhyme schemes too uniform and plodding, the beats too safe, predictable and cheery. But it’s impossible to deny L-Fresh’s appeal when you see the crowd going full throttle. Moreover, his message - fundamentally one of tolerance, inclusivity and positivity - is a vital addition to the ideological landscape in Australian music. Everyone is happy to preach those virtues when they’re topical or convenient, but few embody it so staunchly. Whether it’s actively including female emcees in his shows (see: Mirrah, Sukhjit), drawing attention to indigenous rights issues or volunteering with refugee resettlement programmes, L-Fresh walks the walk. Tonight, a West Papuan man named Peter joins the crew on stage to play guitar and sing, promoting the independence movement for his home province, with a moving crowd singalong of the word ‘Freedom.’ L-Fresh’s set is imbued with the wisdom that sometimes, to say something right, you have to hand over the mic to the those who wouldn’t normally be given the platform. The set closes out with some fierce EDM-inspired energy, then tour mate Omar Musa joins the stage, Sampa re-emerges and and we get the big closer. It’s an impressive banger spun around a spirited Banghra sample, and hinging on the joyous panjabi party refrain “Balle! Balle! Balle!” The air is electric, the crowd all smiles.
L-Fresh’s music probably isn’t going to join the ranks of my favourite contemporary Aussie output in the same way that Sampa’s has. That’s a taste thing; I vibe on the latter’s piercing, exploratory style, while L-Fresh reminds me more of straightforward “positive rap” outfits like Jurassic 5 who have never been my cuppa tea. Nevertheless, both of tonight’s acts are hugely talented and important, breaking new ground in the Australian context. Both represent (chiefly) their own unique personal narratives, and (in turn) a growing diversity in Australian hip-hop. Their lyrics evince a burgeoning focus on progressive politics and thought-provoking poetry, as opposed to big-noting, or merely celebrating beers and beach cricket (great though they may be). It’s an exciting time for rap music in this country. It’s a testament to the Darwin festival that it’s brought two such crucial torchbearers together, for such a slam dunk of a party.