RISING hip-hop star Baker Boy only started rapping a year ago, and has only released two songs.
But his ever-growing fan base just voted both those songs into the world’s biggest musical countdown, Triple J’s Hottest 100 — his latest single Marryuna at No.17, and his debut track Cloud 9 (featuring Kian) at No.76.
That’s a pretty amazing achievement. But the 21-year-old “Fresh Prince of Arnhem Land” — who was raised in the Northern Territory’s Milingimbi community before moving to Melbourne three years ago — is even more proud of the fact that he’s helping introduce listeners to his traditional language, Yolngu Matha.
The Indigenous elder revered by some as ‘Australia’s Dalai Lama’ is the spiritual keeper of the didgeridoo. A new exhibition honours his legacy and the immense significance of the Yolngu instrument that is helping to heal a divided country.
He is Djalu Gurruwiwi: a Yolngu elder and lawman from north-east Arnhem Land, a songster, healer, virtuoso and master craftsman of the yidaki (didgeridoo), as well as the instrument’s spiritual keeper. From up here he surveys his Australian Rules team, smiles and nods in approval as his players go through their pre-season paces, calling for the ball and kicking and marking, on this humid morning.
On stage, Baker Boy is the kind of rapper who can get a crowd airborne within seconds. He’s all ego, gold chains and boundless energy, flitting between his native Yolngu Matha and English, imploring the audience to “step back, feel the power of my blackness”. He commands the mic and didgeridoo as if they’re extensions of his tall, agile frame, and inverts himself mid-flow with audacious breakdancing moves.
He is the first Indigenous artist to have mainstream success rapping in the Yolngu Matha language, his singles Cloud 9 and Marryuna receiving solid Triple J airplay. In the past few months he has swept the National Indigenous Music awards, inked a record deal with Select Music (home to the Preatures and Amy Shark), been rostered on the summer music festival circuit, was handpicked by Dizzee Rascal to be his Australian support act, and recorded a remix of Treaty with Yothu Yindi.
Earlier this year, musicologist Joe Bennett took a sample of the top 200 Spotify streams from the Christmas week of 2016 and dissected those that were Christmas-related.
The results, analysed according to parameters such as beats per minute, key signature and lyrical content, were passed to professional songwriters with a pedigree of hits for major artists to produce an “ultimate” Christmas song. The result is rather effective, even for unbelievers.
Aptly enough, that project was commissioned by a chain of shopping centres. But while it distinguishes between lyrical themes, it primarily illuminates the aesthetic dead-centre of the Christmas pop song.
From commerce to campaigns – political Christmas songs
The concept of the “Christmas song” is rife with political contradictions. It marks a day to put aside division and commerce, and yet is aimed squarely at that most blatantly commercial and competitive institution, the pop charts.
There’s a broad umbrella of musical and lyrical tropes that – pardon the pun – rings bells for listeners in constituting a “Christmas song”. The machine-tooled nature of the archetypal Christmas pop song is such a recognisable format, in fact, that it’s been opened up to a hybrid of data analysis and songwriting, as Bennett’s work illustrates.
Other researchers have sought to bring a broader typology to the service of unpicking the ideological resonance behind Christmas songs.
The last of Jarman’s categories though – “good will to all men” – most starkly highlights the complexities around commercial acumen and the political potential of Christmas music.
In the broader canon of “political” pop songs, many of the most well known are, in fact, Christmas songs rather than more overt “protest” songs – a political message smuggled in among the sleigh-bells. John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over is one example, another being Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, a universal soldier’s lament.
Other Christmas songs, notably Do They Know It’s Christmas, have involved direct political lobbying, such as when Bob Geldof tried to get the government to waive taxes on the single itself. This arguably became a more powerful intervention than other more obviously “political” songs – forcing the government to take a position on the tax arrangements around charity singles.
Such tensions around commerce and authenticity in popular music become especially marked around Christmas, with the charts a key battleground.
When Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became Britain’s Christmas Number 1 in 2009, it was the result of social media campaigning against the domination of X Factor releases as seasonal chart toppers. The song’s broad political message was deployed in the specific context of a longstanding debate within popular music consumption.
But while the underlying politics of commercialism and community have now extended into the techniques of political messaging the rest of the year round, there are still attempts to strike a balance.
There’s a raft of Christmas songs that circumvent, without fully avoiding, the Yuletide by taking a sideways (or critical) view of it. These allow ambivalent listeners to participate in the festivities while maintaining their sense of critical distance from the more traditional trappings.
Fairytale of New York is an obvious example here. Where the “traditional” Christmas song is about Christmas, it’s about a love story gone awry, with Christmas as the backdrop. This allows sceptics to buy into the aesthetic, and even the sentiment, while holding firm their anti-Christmas credentials.
Others look at the contradictions head-on. Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun uses the Australian December sunshine as a pivot to focus on family, taking a swipe at commerce – “selling Playstations and beer” – while embracing the sentimentality. Addressing the social context of Christmas is another means of tackling the broader, implicit, politics of class.
More universal ‘human’ Christmas messages
Family, fraught relationships and exclusion can make for a more potent, perhaps realistic, Christmas story than snowflakes and Santa.
In The Kinks’ caustic Father Christmas the narrator, a department store Santa, is mugged by a group of youths demanding practical help.
Give us some money … Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs on”.
Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an isolated and fractious address from a prison cell, packs its emotional punch through mundane details and implied backstory. The story here is both personal and, through that prism, national.
Eschewing the standard Christmas musical and lyrical devices entirely, How to Make Gravy is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the typical tinsel-draped fare, and buries its politics in the personal. Yet it’s still become a Christmas classic.
The search for authenticity and political punch
From outright celebration, through charity to explicit political salvos, there are many ways to musically address the pleasures and strains of the season. Aesthetic tropes – the musical bells and baubles – notwithstanding, the form is actually very broad and embraces a range of genres.
The “ideal” Christmas song in the sense of commercial pop is also open to subversion. Beyond this, there’s a strong draw among some sections of the public towards more cynical, or at least ambivalent, takes on the traditional Christmas customs – even if these often end up adhering to what are ultimately similar sentiments.
As in Dickens’ immortal story of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, there’s room, it seems, for the humbug to carry the day without ruining it.
The opening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) is as prosaic as it is poetic. A battle-scarred billy on a roaring campfire has come to the boil. Into its churning depths an unidentified hand drops a palmful of tea, followed by two more of sugar. Just enough to sweeten its otherwise pungent bitterness.
Off-screen, from what feels to be another time and space, we hear a wildly enraged whitefella insulting an all-but-silent blackfella. The taunt “black bastard” is barked with undiluted contempt. Over the course of the film, this pointed juxtaposition of sound and image will be used, in concert with a series of fleeting flashbacks and flashforwards, to both layer and unfold an acutely tragic narrative.
Thornton’s sensitively scripted story, which draws on the conventions of the western, is simple. Its social and ethical implications, though, are not. In self-defence, an Indigenous man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) shoots and kills a local landowner, Harry March (Ewan Leslie).
Only later, while they are on the run, does Kelly learn that March raped and impregnated his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). After they return and surrender themselves, this information has a decisive impact on the outcome of his trial and its traumatic aftermath.
In their film, set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, Thornton and his scriptwriters generate a great deal of complexity from a relatively straightforward plot. For example, although the landowner for whom Kelly and Lizzie work, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), says he regards them as equals, this does not prevent him from “loaning” them to March and, in doing so, considering himself a good Christian. Likewise, March’s “borrowing” of them to help him work his land is clearly motivated more by a compulsion to abuse and terrorise them than a genuine need for their labour.
To complicate matters further, the roots of his pathological thirst for cruelty appear to lie in the deep psychological damage caused by years spent fighting in the nightmarish trenches of the first world war. It could even be argued that Kelly, long before March threatened him at gunpoint, was already at war with him and his ilk. This is a fact vividly magnified by the fatal encounter between Sergeant Fletcher’s (Bryan Brown) posse and a party of “undomesticated” Aboriginal warriors.
Impressive as they are, these are by no means the film’s greatest or most memorable cinematic subtleties. Sweet Country’s finer moments undoubtedly belong to its intelligent mise en scène; its unflappable trust in action as a means of telling, not just showing; and, last but not least, its delicate deformations of narrative flow and direction.
For instance, I cannot recall a single scene in which the landscape was merely a convenient backdrop or decorative setting for the actor’s bodies, gestures and dialogue. Even the light and weather that sculpt and animate its sublime, occasionally menacing immensity play an indispensable role in shaping the dramatic highs and lows of Thornton’s taut, but mercurial narrative.
Fletcher’s gruelling attempt to traverse the blistering surface of a blinding salt lake without assistance is unforgettable in this regard. Indeed, nothing sums up his not being in accord with the land he and his fellow invaders want to possess and dominate than his near death in this virtually wordless sequence. Kelly, who is in accord with it, rescues him.
Most impressive of all, however, is the film’s sparing (but potent) use of flashbacks and flashforwards. Thornton and his editor, Nick Myers, employ these to embody the partially abstract notion of historical consequences. By evoking the past or the future of a particular thought or act, they make visible a process that is sometimes hard to grasp, even when it is beyond doubt. To present the seed or fruit of a particular situation while it is still unravelling is to highlight its ethical dimension, to undermine its inevitability. We rarely see this kind of synchronicity between form and philosophy in Australian cinema.
That said, to my mind, Thornton’s widely lauded Samson and Delilah (2009) evinces a somewhat more uncompromising attitude towards the corrosive impact of British colonialism and European Christianity. This is because Sweet Country’s cultural and political authenticity, as it were, is affected by the fact that it features two internationally recognisable actors and draws on a Hollywood genre for its iconography. Fortunately, only in a handful of instances do these constitute a distraction of any real significance.
In truth, for me, there were many payoffs with respect to its powerful reworking of the outback western. Chief among these was a possible – tantalising – connection between settler Mick Kennedy’s (Thomas M. Wright) watermelons in Sweet Country and Tom Doniphon’s (John Wayne) cactus roses in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Both represent a point of collision between one world and another. Our task, as viewers, is to turn collision into crossover.
Sweet Country premiered in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival. It will be released generally in 2018.
Dynamic performer Tay Oskee has unveiled a new music video recently, putting his roots and childhood centre stage. For “Like Waves”, Oskee took a trip up to North East Arnhem Land, an area of the country he still counts himself privileged to have grown up in, and over the course of eight weeks, documented life up there.
As he explains about the video, “In the clip you can see the story of a young lost Indigenous man who takes a journey back to his homeland to regain his connection with land and culture. I was lucky enough to spend a big chunk of my childhood living in Yirrkala which is situated in North East Arnhem Land, and it was here that my family was welcomed into the Yolngu culture which is still so strong to this day.”