Sometimes we ride the same train. It’s easy for me, a non-descript white male, to blend in to the background. For them, even without their loud excited conversation about a studio session, not so much. Young African men in hip hop attire – an outward expression of belonging somewhere – in a country that still largely treats them as “the other”, something to be feared.
In late 2014 I moved my recording studio to a location in inner city Melbourne. Directly opposite one of the largest public housing estates, and within a minutes’ walk of the most notorious drug dealing site, in the state. I partnered with a community organization with one aim: give people a chance. Running free studio sessions for “at risk” youth and people of all ages experiencing socio-economic challenges the studio time quickly evolved in to “Rich Beats”, a hip-hop focussed music program.
I’m not someone who can use the phrase “music as a tool” – music means too much to me and many musicians I know to belittle it to a place of using it as a means to an end. What the studio sessions with these young people does afford is time to explore the issues facing them in life, but it must be genuine. Sure, some kids will turn up once, record a gangster track, take a pic in front of expensive studio gear to impress their friends then disappear. Beyond that the discussions turn to actual experiences – life as a refugee in a new country, racism at almost all levels of society, relationships, social stigma associated with living in public housing, domestic violence. While some similar programs seek “outcomes” (marketable products using participants) Rich Beats has always been focussed on exploring the real-life experiences of people involved rather that creating a poster pin up for issue of the week. These are not mutually exclusive, but young people are smart – they know when they are being manipulated – healthy relationships between program leaders and other artists cannot grow on a basis of an artist being used solely for a marketing exercise.
So, it is not unexpected that some of the most outward attention our program has seen is not for playing millionaire gangsters but for writing and performing a single confronting domestic violence and violence against women. To coincide with White Ribbon Day in 2015 one of our hip hop crews Nu Regime recorded the song “Better than this” which not only addressed domestic violence but also butted against the misogyny of hip hop culture. The single received a grant, was played and promoted on community radio, and the crew performed it at a live concert during a White Ribbon Day event on the North Richmond Housing Estate.
Creating a space for genuine personal expression can be hard. There are times when I don’t enjoy or agree with the content of a song, but in the interest of personal development of the artist and the growth of their community I allow it – people need to feel that their voice is valid and being heard. Other times it is a good opportunity to discuss issues: “Why do you, born as a person of colour, believe it ok to use a homophobic slur against someone?” “Do you understand that some women don’t think that word is a term of endearment?” Occasionally my former life as a nurse kicks in and suddenly the studio is a safe space free of authority figures where we are discussing safe drug use, safe sex and mental health issues.
In the context of community development none of the discussions and relationships that really matter are possible without authenticity and respect. Music gives them a valid voice interacting with the world around them. A young person brings in a song telling their actual experience of life while the media around them does the best to forget their existence. “I am here, and I am worth something” becomes “we are here, and we are worth something”. Writing and recording a song gives someone a space to share true life experience – experience that can resonate with those around them and in sharing becomes “I am not alone”.
It’s not just about music, it’s about confidence and possibility. One rapper, initially too shy to speak clearly into the mic, has gone on to be a stand-up comic. Another just finished high school with the aim of studying medicine. There are also the challenges – drug use, discrimination. We don’t always win.
As I get off the train we exchange sly smiles. It can be heartbreaking, these young men with amazing abilities and potential and the struggles they face. Often referring to me as a father figure, which is touching but also leaves me angry that a few hours of studio time each week positions me in their lives that way. The letter of support to help keep one of them out of youth detention. The late-night Facebook messages about relationships. The discrimination evident even now as they ride the train. I wonder if my country is a place they will ever fit in, or if they just have to pursue a future where they always stand out.
Christopher Sprake is a singer-songwriter and producer based in Melbourne, Australia.