Portrait

Filipino Wiradjuri musician Mojo Juju talks about her new project Native Tongue and getting ahead in a homogenous industry.

By Ellen van Neerven.

Musician Mojo Juju

“No whitefellas, really?” I tease her. “Not even one? How did you get rid of them?” She makes a thinking face. “Um… there’s maybe a few behind the scenes.”

She’s sitting opposite me, in a slouchy navy blue hoodie, rolled up over her elbows to reveal storied tatts, with a bright red T-shirt underneath.

She’s talking about the make-up of the ensemble for her upcoming show Native Tongue, where she will be live-testing her soon-to-be released album of the same name. An impressive list of people of colour and First Nations collaborators feature, each own a part of the story, a personal, compelling one. It’s impossible not to lean in when Mojo Juju speaks. 

We’re taking shelter from the rain at Sonido! in Fitzroy, waiting for our crispy arepas to arrive. “Love this place,” we sigh on a number of occasions.

Whites in the industry told Mojo when she was just starting out in her late teens that she was too political. Now there’s a feeling she’s coming full circle – the 35-year-old blues-soul-funk dynamo’s new music is a homage to her identity as a Filipino Wiradjuri angel.

I can feel her excitement. “I don’t think I know a song until I’ve played it live; I don’t know the personality of it yet. It’s shaped on stage,” she says. The Arts Centre shows in August will be a testing ground for what has been building over several years.

The questions, of herself, and of her family, wanting to know more about who she was, became a personal, political and creative reach. And with this growth and self-knowledge came new expressions and a hybrid album with many layers. Spoken word tracks stitch the songs together. A diverse range of guest artists include Mirrah Fay-Parker, Joshua Tavares, Ileini Kabalan and the Pasefika Vitoria Choir. Yolngu dance group Djuki Mala from Elcho Island feature in the promotional video.

“I grew up identifying mostly as Filipino–Australian, as our Wiradjuri history and culture felt slightly removed from us. We’ve had to fight to learn it,” Mojo tells me, cutting to the core of what this album means to her. “It’s important to me that I am not misunderstood or seen to be taking away the spotlight from anyone who has grown up deeply connected to their culture. I want to be respectful of other Indigenous voices.”

Through representing the dual experience of her paternal and matriarchal lineage, Mojo offers insights into what it means to live in a reactionary and racially oppressive Australia, with her lead track “Think Twice” sending a clear political message to those in power. The song has an electronica vibe, and was produced by Jamieson Shaw, of Netflix series The Get Down fame, one of several producers Mojo worked with to complete the album. When Mojo hits a block, she draws confidence from her strength as a storyteller. This helps her navigate new collaborations, technologies and ways of working.

Mojo has a big voice and a big heart. She sees the world through big eyes. She’s known for her androgynous voice, and her androgynous style; full, deep vocals and stinging lyrics of love, longing and pain. Her live performances have been celebrated since she entered the Australian touring circuit in the late 2000s. This is the third solo album by the singer-songwriter and guitarist. She released her previous two albums with her band, Mojo Juju and the Snake Oil Merchants.

Her childhood was spent moving around rural New South Wales. She lived in Newcastle as an adult, where she made formative relationships with supporters such as close friend Kira Puru, an Australian-born Māori. She now comfortably calls Melbourne home.

“Love this place!” Mojo’s side of chicken arrives. Cheese melts over the arepas. Coffee warms our throats. Mojo has spent time in the Philippines with family. From her father, who comes from Bacolod City, she learns more about the local languages, stories and culture, and this makes her feel closer to the Pacific. There’s enough material for several more albums. We slip easily back and forth in talking about gender and queerness, to tonight’s FIFA World Cup matches and our favourite teams. But Mojo’s happiest when we talk about music, and we list our favourite Indigenous acts at the moment: DRMNGNOW, Thelma Plum, Birdz. NAIDOC week is drawing to an end, and while this offers platforms for blackfella artists, a seasonal abundance of gigs and interviews, what is crucial is to have and hold the spotlight all year round. And although bursting with love and pride for her POC and First Nations music community, Mojo’s reluctant to say it has become any easier being a diverse artist in Australia.

“Love this place!” We walk out into the rain, waving goodbye, making plans to continue what we started.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Through big eyes". Subscribe here.

Ellen van Neerven
is a Yugambeh writer​. Her books include Heat and Light and Comfort Food.

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