If your only experience with Aussie hip-hop is what occasionally makes its way through to commercial radio, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a genre dominated by white, middle-class artists. But Australia has always had a diverse, multicultural hip-hop scene, and the release of a new, confronting album by Punjabi-Australian MC L-Fresh the Lion is your excuse to get acquainted with it.
Hip-hop had a massive impact on my childhood. As a kid growing up in regional NSW, whose ears were accustomed to STAR FM’s “Best of the 80s, 90s and today”, the first hip-hop I listened to changed my perspective on music and the world.
My favourite artists paid homage to the history of hip-hop by being unashamedly political. Rappers like Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Common and Brother Ali taught me a lot about politics, inequality and fighting racism.
Discovering Aussie hip-hop was a revelation. Artists like The Herd were producing unique, fun music that critiqued the state of politics in Australia but at the same time made you feel hopeful for the future. Derided as “skip-hop”, our local hip-hop scene used to get a pretty bad rap, and to some extent it still does. Our most commercially successful artists, like 360 and the Hilltop Hoods are basically all white, and they tend to steer clear of political anthems. Our biggest hip-hop export is Iggy Azalea (enough said).
But scratch just a tiny bit below the surface and you’ll find the vibrant, diverse music scene full of innovative musicians, reinventing the genre to tell interesting and engaging stories about contemporary Australia.
Enter L-Fresh the Lion. L-Fresh, and his soon to be released second album Become, represents everything there is to love about Aussie hip-hop. It’s unfair to analyse L-Fresh’s music solely through his cultural background (he’s a Sikh) but it’s bloody refreshing, given how little diversity there is across our music and entertainment industries, to hear an Australian born MC from a Punjabi background talk truth about racism and politics in Australia.
L-Fresh is signed to Sydney label Elefant Traks (home to The Herd, Urthboy and Hermitude) and Become is his second album: an unapologetic, fiery and timely look at Australian society.
It’s hard for me to write in an unbiased way about L-Fresh. His family, like mine, are from Punjab and the idea of a Punjabi-Australian rapper killing it in Australia, is pretty damn exciting. He’s signed to my favourite local record label. His lyrics talk about the experience of growing up as someone from a diverse background in a country with more than its fair share of issues with racism. The first single from the album, Get Mine, serves as a war cry for migrant Australians.
“So I rise up but when I finally get a bit, I’m reminded that I’m still a second class citizen”.
“They tell me to go home but I come from here, I can see it in their eyes, they don’t want me here”
The album traverses issues of overt and subconscious racism in Australia, the legacies of British imperialism, and refugee policy. It features artists like Nigerian-Australian rapper Rami and Jimblah, an Indigenous Australian MC from Larrakia Nation in the Northern Territory. And in addition to hip-hop beats it also weaves together elements of traditional Punjabi and Sikh music.
The last point shouldn’t be too surprising because L-Fresh tells me he was “surrounded by Punjabi and Sikh music” as a kid before he was ever exposed to hip-hop.
“It was the stories of people that really got me, and how they were telling them. It was so raw and so honest,” L-Fresh told me, explaining what sparked his love of hip-hop.
He cites West Coast rapper Tupac as a key inspiration, for using his music to tell stories about his community and life experiences.
Interestingly, and perhaps rarely for a local hip-hop artist, L-Fresh wasn’t exposed to Aussie hip-hop until he’d started performing as an artist himself.
When I asked L-Fresh about the fact that the Australian hip-hop scene is unique in the sense that the most well known artists are from white, middle-class backgrounds, he told me that the issue wasn’t so much about the hip-hop scene but the entertainment industry more broadly.
“The entertainment industry in this country gravitates to what it’s used to, and Australia is one of the only countries where the most well known hip-hop artists are white.”
“But the diversity is there, and has been there for a long time, at a grassroots level.”
Given the context of Australia’s pretty bland and beige entertainment industry, and the lack of popular, breakthrough hip-hop artists from diverse backgrounds, did L-Fresh set out to radically intervene with his potent lyrics about race and racism or was it something that just happened subconsciously?
“From the outset I wanted this record to be a lot more raw and open than my first record,” he tells me.
“My first record put me forward as a balanced and positive individual, and with this record I wanted to show it’s not always like that.”
“A person is not always positive, a person is not always like that without experiencing challenges so from the outset I wanted it to be raw, I wanted it to be honest and I wanted it to be confronting.
“If I have to deal with these issues what’s the point of me censoring that? How about I just tell it like it is?”
The album is L-Fresh’s attempt to capture the complexities and challenges of experiencing and confronting racism. Funnily enough, I didn’t find the album that confronting. When L-Fresh was detailing racist abuse hurled at him by punters at a gig or when he described the feelings of being talked down to as a minority, I found myself nodding along, recalling similar experiences.
But if you’ve never been on the receiving end of racism, like most of our entertainment industry, most hip-hop fans and indeed most Australians, I can imagine the album would be confronting. L-Fresh doesn’t hold back. He’s upfront about the fact that the reason so many tracks talk explicitly about racism is because that’s what he experiences in Australia.
On Be Cool he details the way those visibly from minority backgrounds experience racism on a day-to-day level:
“As we pull up at the airport, it’s all cool till security comes along while I’m waiting, and I get pulled aside from the queue, that’s another random interrogation”
At a time when racial tension in Australia is on the rise, when there are more far-right, ultra-nationalistic political parties than ever before and when debate about the whiteness of our media industry is intensifying, L-Fresh’s album is a raw and honest look at our society, one that deserves to be heard.
If you’ve ever written off Aussie hip-hop because you think the white people can’t rap, you should suspend your cynicism and give it another go. The album is a snapshot of everything that is exciting about our local scene. L-Fresh, Jimblah, Remi and all the other artists featured on this album are a testament to the diversity and strength of our music industry, even if they haven’t yet seen massive commercial success.
Despite pretty bluntly calling out the insanity of our current refugee policy, L-Fresh is adamant that his album isn’t a direct intervention into federal politics.
But it is an intervention into the problems we as a country have with racism. Problems that are growing, not diminishing. And for that reason it deserves to be heard loud and clear.
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