Corroboree in the computer age

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The dreamtime is still here and now. We have survived.

Music is how Indigenous hip-hop musician Wire MC flies his flag and shouts this sentiment, but he does not consider himself an artist. In a raw interview with Alt Artist he said, “Art is born of the word artificial, I’d rather be a realist.”

Wire My Cousin, his take on the iconic moniker for rappers, typifies both Aboriginal culture’s embrace of a movement born on the streets of the United States and the adaptation of hip-hop to the point where “it was a natural evolution for me to move into hip-hop and continue the corroboree, but with the modern day aspect.”

Local Noise, an Australian Research Council funded project, has been focused on how hip-hop is appropriated and adapted in localised environments since 2005.

“Hip-hop has been indigenised by Aboriginal people. It’s frequently combined with traditional aspects of Aboriginal culture and is [in] some ways seen as a modern version of Aboriginal storytelling,” Local Noise’s director and author, Dr Tony Mitchel explained.

“It has, in a sense, replaced the corroboree for contemporary Aboriginal youth and elders are increasingly coming to accept hip-hop as a way in which young Aboriginal people express themselves.”

In the traditional culture of Sydney’s Dharawal people the carribberie, rebranded corroboree by European settlers, was part religious ceremony, lesson and art form bound with music and dance. The first Australians used these intricate ceremonies to pass down stories of the Dream Time.

Indigenous artists, however begrudgingly they accept the title, have brought the Dreaming into their contemporary culture through hip-hop workshops and tours. These have been particularly useful in reaching young Aboriginals in prison or well on their way.

Professor Shane Homan of Monash University surveyed similar efforts in the United Kingdom and North America incorporating hip-hop in youth rehabilitation. He found participants acquired “concrete vocational skills”, became less inclined to break institutional rules, and had relatively low levels of recidivism.

These findings mirror the experiences of those undertaking similar, albeit inconsistent, programs in Australian juvenile gaols. Big Air School, founded in 2012, is one such program touring regional towns and urban centres conducting integrated action sports and arts workshops to engage youngsters.

Jaimi Starr, the school’s turntable tutor, standing five-foot-nothing with bleached blonde hair, is far from the usual suspect for such an endeavour. But their reception at a recent visit to one of the largest juvenile gaols in Australia, the ACT’s Bimberi Youth Justice Centre, blew Ms Starr away.

Mute MC's partner in rhyme Morganics (above) coaches isolated youth in the art of the modern day corroboree

Mute MC’s partner in rhyme Morganics (above) coaches isolated youth in the art of the modern day corroboree

Bimberi houses a majority of 16 to 19 year olds, roughly 80 per cent of whom are Indigenous. Staunch security measures mean the whole centre is thrown into lockdown if just one inmate snubs organised activities. Because of this, “other groups going in there had not lasted more than fifteen minutes,” said Ms Starr. “We weren’t expecting much but they hadn’t really had anything heavily involving music before.”

But the spin-doctor could only describe security at the centre housing rapists and murderers as relaxed an hour after Big Air School’s arrival. “Everything went so well after an hour the guards opened the grounds to the group,” she said.

A good percentage of the young men took this rare breath of fresh air to run amok on bmx bikes and skateboards they had not seen for years. Ms Starr, with the girth of dental floss, looked up to find herself alone, encircled by inmates far from juvenile in both stature and conviction. But “all of them were so enthused and asking how to get into [music] after they left detention … a lot of them had incredible talent but just not the motivation to follow it”.

With ninety five percent of the boys repeat offenders; a tougher crowd could not be found this side of the fence. It took speaking their own language to bring the youngsters out of their shell. Nonetheless, the potential of the contemporary corroboree for social justice continues to fall on deaf ears.

As then-treasurer Peter Costello made clear on talkback radio in 2004, some among Australia’s governing generation “are worried about the kind of values that their children are growing up with, some of this gangsta rap that you hear mindlessly over and over on television and radio”.

Dr Mitchell believes this shows “[the government] is deeply suspicious of hip-hop, but if they actually understood it and observed it closely they would understand it’s an empowering thing”.

Despite a wealth of research supporting the pedagogical value of the arts, hip-hop in particular, governments across Australia do not see integrated rap music and dance programs as “evidence informed” outreach programs.

But the stereotypically unsavoury rapping ruining the ex-treasurer’s drive home would make chalk and cheese look like twins when considering its roots in hip-hop culture.

The genre of music, oft-lampooned for introducing bling to the English lexicon and forever mutilating a generation’s understanding of the term jolly swagman, is actually a by-product of African-American Islamic culture.

This gritty musical urchin was birthed in the 1980s by the “Five Percent” sect of the Nation of Islam on the streets of New York City. Worshiping at a street academy in the predominately poor and dark Harlem, these radical “Muslims” reject most commonly accepted concepts of history and organised religion.

Their name stems from the belief that its followers are the five percent of humanity living with a truly righteous understanding of their world, while eighty five percent are the deaf and blind, living lives of ignorant servitude. The remainder are Jay-Z’s “D’Evils”, those with knowledge intentionally keeping the rest in ignorance.

Robert Diggs, the grandmaster of hip-hop more widely know as The RZA, has been vocal about hip-hop’s inherent religious footing. “About 80 percent of hip-hop comes from the Five Percent,” said the abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan in his self-published book.

You have to look no further than clichéd hip-hop slang to see the connection. Dropping science, break it down, and even the expression word are all born in African-American Islam. Even the greeting peace is a direct translation from Arabic.

With its foundation as a form of unorthodox pseudo-spiritual teaching, hip-hop’s pedagogical value should come as no surprise. Mix the literacy benefits of creating abstract poetry with the empowerment of self-expression and you have an educative force to be reckoned with.

Pioneer Afrika Bambaata believed this principal to be a foundation of hip-hop. “We want to deal with the fifth element of hip-hop — which is knowledge, culture and overstanding — to get people back out there thinking, reading again and researching, because too many of us have gotten too relaxed,” said the cultural movement’s founding member in an interview with Amazon.co.uk.

Hip-hop’s documented value in outreach programs is a product of its inherent scholastic strength and popularity working in concert. In fact, academics believe implicitly learnt lessons of subversive arts programs may be more effective than traditional teaching techniques.

Internationally regarded Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire, cannot stress enough the value of critical learning in his writing. Dr Freire suggested the “predetermined knowledge” underpinning traditional education “works to reinforce the status quo binary of powerful and disempowered”.

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In a country with a national school curriculum and a status quo described by the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, as “both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law”, cultural outreach programs may be the only way forward.

The doctrine of disempowerment in place only pushes Indigenous youth further from the establishment’s helping hand and creates the perfect launch pad for anti-social behaviour down the track.

A survey conducted by the federal Department of Family and Community Services found young people from east to west voicing their boredom at not having “anything to do”. Arts-based education programs could be the weapon perfectly suited to combating this ennui epidemic fuelling kids behaving badly.

Benjamin Grant witnessed this first hand teaching turntablism as part of a behavioral psychology program based in the central NSW town of Bathurst. “Not all kids can play sport at a decent level and enjoy it,” he said. Music offers a similar release that requires “focus, attention and time out of the day to reach to a high level”.

By channeling students’ energy towards positive, constructive activities Mr Grant is able to literally keep his charges off the street and help them pull away from the myriad of pitfalls faced by youth today.

Dr Mitchell is just one expert calling to consistently apply this model in isolated Indigenous communities. “In a lot of remote Aboriginal communities kids sniff petrol and get onto drugs because they really have no motivation,” said Local Noise’s director.

“I think hip-hop is something that gives them motivation because it allows them to express themselves… but it’s a problem that involves money and the need for funding to keep these programs going on a more permanent basis.”

The clearly visible “communication gap between politicians and the grass roots”, as it is termed by Dr Mitchell, is symptomatic of the “ongoing injustice” of the Australian Government’s ineffective community consultation processes.

Indigenous Australians and academics agree; a corroboree of liquid swords may be a legitimate step towards Aboriginal self-determination. Considering the nightmarish history of Australian race relations, governments could well learn a few lessons from Darryl Kerrigan and aid the contemporary continuation of dreaming.