I have a gripe, and that gripe is the proliferation of hip hop workshops targeted at Indigenous mob, particularly young fullas. You may think that this is weird, a long term, hard core Indigenous hiphop-head who doesn’t believe in hip hop workshops? Well, let me explain. I love hip hop. I grew up on hip hop. I’ve taken a hell of a lot, and learned a hell of a lot from hip hop. I do believe that it can give a voice to the voiceless. My issue with these workshops is the exploitation and paternalism that is rampant is so many of these programs. This is not an attack on all programs, because there are some good ones out there that do great work, nor is this breakdown based on one group in particular. This is my opinion, in consultation with other Indigenous practitioners, on some of the biggest issues we have seen with these programs. Let’s have the discussion so we can get this out in the open and hopefully change things around for the better.
Disadvantage: we KNOW, nearly every, if not all, indicator of disadvantage shows Indigenous people as the most disadvantaged group in Australian society. WE LIVE IT EVERY DAMN DAY!!! Personally, I believe that it is hard to build anything positive from a foundation where you want to push the disadvantage aspect so damn hard!!! Don’t sugar coat it, don’t over look it. Recognise it. Don’t harp on it. And don’t you dare exploit it so that you can get funding, build a profile for yourself, or make yourself sleep easier at night because you’re ticking off your good deed. Like Tina Turner said, we don’t need another hero. We don’t need saviours. There are many programs out there that have been designed WITH Indigenous people, not FOR us. We don’t need you to tell us HOW to turn our lives around. The biggest thing is for you to recognise and try to understand our story. Most importantly, YOU CANNOT HAVE EMPOWERMENT THROUGH REINFORCING DISADVANTAGE.
At risk youth: if you don’t have the skills to work with at-risk kids, you can do more harm than if you had done nothing. Someone else then has to deal with the aftermath and most often it is not the fly-by-night program providers. I’m not even going to try and delve into diversionary programs at this time.
Paternalism: If you don’t know what this word means, look it up. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that paternalism underlies just about every government policy to date. It’s why they are guaranteed to fail so miserably. If you want a current example of paternalism, look at the NT Intervention. Many of these hip hop programs are done without ANY consultation or involvement from Indigenous people. Put simply, they are done FOR us. We don’t need you to tell us how to improve our lives. That is paternalism. If you have skills that would be of benefit to pass on, work WITH us. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions don’t make a program right. Not by a long stretch. I have often asked people involved in workshop programs a very simple question as to their interest in this work, and that question is: why? There are not many that can answer this question in a way that is not intrinsically paternalistic. When people can’t recognise that, and try to address it, then there is a problem.
Let’s think for a minute, lets imagine that I decide one day, with no experience or background in the religion, that I had a vision for lets say Jewish kids. So I decided that they should do hip hop and off I go. I identify that there’s targeted funding for programs with these kids, which I promptly apply for, I might have a meeting over coffee with a few Jewish friends of friends, and off I go running my workshops. Hey, some kids might not engage, but I’ve got this one that will and I’m going to push them. Got their track, got their picture, I’m going to use it to push my program… Can you imagine the outrage if I started going into the Jewish community with my vision for their kids!! Let’s also say that I am from a different religious group, let’s say I’m catholic, which I never openly declare in my promotional material, but you know, I have some words to the kids about how great my religion is while I work with them and ‘gently encourage’ to consider conversion. This happens with some programs with Aboriginal kids!! Do you know why people can get away with this? Because you are dealing with one of the most disadvantaged group in society!!! Funders very rarely want to fund culturally appropriate programs with long term sustainable outcomes because they rely on quantitative outcomes over a short term.
Mob!! We need to stop making it so easy for just any program to have access to our kids! Exercise some quality control and guidance. Instead of us bitching about this provider and that provider on the quiet. Lets start pulling them up and making them accountable! If they don’t have a reasonable number of Aboriginal employees with a reasonable level of training and experience, and if they don’t have meaningful cosultation processes: don’t support them. It is that simple.
Self-determination: Said it before, I’ll say it again (and again, and again) you have NO place in Indigenous issues if you do not have an understanding of self-determination. Contrary to what many governments would have us believe, self determination is NOT a dirty word. It is the only way to achieve sustainable, long-term change. Many of these programs have NO understanding of self-determination, let alone know how to incorporate it into their programs. Go do some research on it and then come back and see me.
Skills: Seriously, how many ‘never were’s’ are we going to keep sustaining through these programs? There are quite a few artists that basically only have a name through riding off their ‘Indigenous workshops’ portfolio. They have no respect within the scene that they claim to have mad skills in! So what skills are you passing on again??
Relevance: believe it or not, not every Indigenous kid is into hip hop. Nor are they all at risk. Nor are they all into sports. We’re a diverse mob, with diverse interests, including musically. Needs also change geographically. One size does not fit all. How do you know what the community you’re working with needs? YOU WORK WITH IT!!! You don’t take a program to a community, you develop one WITH them!
Exploitation: if you are using the workshops & kids to promote your name: you’re being exploitive. If you don’t have a reputation except for pushing these workshops: you’re being exploitive. If you take usage of the products of the workshop and it’s easier to find out your name than the name of the kids that actually did it: that’s exploitation. If you’re in it purely for the money and access to grants: that’s exploitation. If you push ‘them’ to promote ‘you’: that’s exploitation. If you take intellectual property rights: that’s exploitation. If you don’t follow protocols around Indigenous culture: that’s exploitation. If your program isn’t giving something back to the community: that’s exploitation. If you undercut Indigenous artists: that’s exploitation. If you’re taking money away from properly constructed programs: THAT’S FUCKED!!!
Also, do not put the terms ‘Indigenous’, ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Mob’ etc in your name unless you actually are an Indigenous business (looking at you Indigenous Hip Hop Projects). If you are a religious based or funded program, be up front about it so Indigenous parents can make an informed decision as to what they are exposing their children to.
Gatekeepers: These organisations/individuals often become gatekeepers for the broader community wanting to access Indigenous music and musicians. Whether it’s intentional or not, these organizations usually focus on forging a profile for themselves, rather than an outcome for others. When non-Indigenous Australians want to access Indigenous musicians, because they don’t know any better themselves, and because of the number of issues associated with the profile of Indigenous music (which is a whole other post) they will often go to these groups in the first instance as that’s what they are aware of. How many Indigenous music panels/forums will have 1 indigenous artist, and then the rest of the panel members made up of Non-Indigenous (including ‘migrant “Indigenous”’ people as well), talking about Indigenous music!!! This has GOT TO STOP!! Two big issues that arise out of this is that often, these groups will only recommend artists that they work with. Secondly, if they do youth work, they often push these kids forward too fast. This can actually hamper, rather than develop, a musical career (again, a whole other post). It perpetuates the stereotype that Indigenous music is underdeveloped and childlike. It also means that upcoming Indigenous musicians get looked over yet again for gigs.
Indigenous music: Often these groups get a lot of media attention for the kids tracks. After all, this is the ‘easy’, ‘cute’ ‘soft and fluffy’ stuff that media is willing to cover when it comes to Indigenous issues. Not entirely bad in itself, but the kids aren’t necessary trying to have a career in the music industry and, generally, this is their first (and often last) track. Can you imagine if you had heard your favourite muso from their very first attempt at music? So let’s take it further, if said producer is pretty crap, as can often be the case, and/or they don’t have the skills to develop the kids lyricism… I hope you get the picture of where this can leave the final product, which is then promoted by the workshop providers. It’s often treated as a gimic, and the attention that it is given creates the impression that this is where Indigenous hip hop is at. There are many Indigenous hip hop artists who are dope, there have been for YEARS, but they often get overlooked because these organisations are acting as the gatekeepers and/or ‘experts’ of Indigenous music.
Finally, NO-ONE should have a vision for Indigenous kids but those kids themselves. To make your vision their vision is paternalism and it is not addressing disadvantage. Instead, support these kids to believe in themselves. Provide a safe space for them to be themselves. Help support them to deal with the racism that we face each and every damn day!!! Help make those opportunities to develop further if that’s what’s wanted. Train them to be a trainer themselves if that’s what they want. Provide opportunities, including employment, for Indigenous musicians who are often overlooked and ostracised from the industries. Most importantly, do not be so arrogant as to presume that you know better than Indigenous communities themselves.
No program working with Indigenous communities should dare even consider itself legitimate without real input and inclusion of Indigenous people themselves. Otherwise it’s just a case of history repeating itself.
*I welcome comments and discussion on this post. I take ownership over any structural, spelling or grammar issues so please do not engage if that is going to be your only contribution. Thanks to those that contributed, you know who you are.*