Powerful messages in Australian music
Music can be a salve and an escape. Surely this is a primary reason for its consumption: how it can help to detach you from the everyday world for a time, for four minutes or 40. Despite the escapist pleasures of music, though, to say it can, or should, remove us from our current tumultuous moment – one in which Black and Blak people the world over are fighting for collective liberation, and are being met with even more senseless violence from authorities – would be misguided.
The musical landscape would be bereft of its richness and depth without the generations of Black musicians who shaped it through the genesis of rock and jazz, R&B and rap. To ignore that fact when treating music as an escape would be to misunderstand the ways non-Black listeners are complicit in upholding the systems currently being pulled down, and to ignore the fact many of the Black innovators whose music we turn to in crisis cannot choose to simply look away.
Similarly, the current moment should be one in which non-Blak Australians seek to consider, deeply, the ways in which we use and profit off this land. The Australian music industry, specifically, is one that has been cold towards non-white artists, tokenising or outright ignoring many of them. This moment should be one in which the music industry considers its relationship to First Nations artists beyond platitudes.
I’ve chosen to highlight two songs and one slightly shorter-than-average album this week that are each richly evocative and, in my experience, emotionally transporting. From the lush, emotionally clarifying pastures of Miiesha’s Nyaaringu to the twilit camp of Cool Sounds’ “Vice” and BBG Smokey’s frenetic inner-city ambition on “Guidance,” these recent Australian releases speak to their own distinctive scenes and cultural moments and, hopefully, take you with them.
The records have some political resonance in the current moment but are, first and foremost, striking technical and emotional achievements, songs that represent three very different sides of a new Australian vanguard.
Nyaaringu, the debut album from 20-year-old Pitjantjatjara/Torres Strait Islander musician Miiesha Young, known mononymously as Miiesha, is one of the more arresting pieces of R&B to emerge from Australia in a long time.
A short, poised document, Nyaaringu is a collection of Miiesha’s stories about herself and her home of Woorabinda in central Queensland, threaded together by spoken word interludes recited by her grandmother. Warm and fluid, Nyaaringu possesses the same quiet grandeur of SZA’s Ctrl, a watershed pop–R&B album released three years ago. Miiesha writes her lyrics with a similar internal view, turning small moments into sprawling, fully realised worlds unto themselves.
Despite the album’s brevity – Nyaaringu clocks in at just 29 minutes – Miiesha still finds room to explore various shades of the pop and soul she grew up listening to, dipping into full-throated funk on old-school highlight “Twisting Words” and dark, abrasive electronics on “Blood Cells”. The record’s highlight remains “Black Privilege,” Miiesha’s 2019 debut single and a marvellous, miraculous pop track. Percussive and warm, the song’s lyrics speak a quiet, devastating story of a life undermined by systemic injustices:
It’s the way they know me
Before they have asked my name
It’s having skin like armour
Thick enough to hold the pain
It’s the way that this grief
Made me stronger ’til I cannot break.
This kind of storytelling – dynamic and casually wise, plain-spoken but hard-hitting – is difficult to cultivate, and marks Miiesha as a bright, bold talent. Nyaaringu is a celebration of tradition that is steeped in modernity, an admission of pain characterised by strength – a singular, stylish and powerful debut.
Melbourne band Cool Sounds are a testament to the power of doing one thing exceptionally well. A five-piece led by producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dainis Lacey, Cool Sounds have been slowly but surely refining and reinventing their urbane, surreal take on ’70s and ’80s soft rock for the past five-odd years, amassing a small but adoring following in Australia and abroad off the back of their superlative-but-underrated 2018 and 2019 records Cactus Country and More To Enjoy. “Vice”, the band’s first new music since More To Enjoy, deepens their sound further, dimming the brightness of their previous music in favour of a perverse, neon-lit sleaze.
A conceptual reimagining of The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” “Vice” imagines a supposed dystopia in which love has been supplanted by capitalist greed and power hungriness. This reimagining places “Vice” in a new, slowly emerging canon of pop music that subtly pushes against the suffocation of the neoliberal order, one spearheaded by Weyes Blood’s romantic, anticapitalist manifesto Titanic Rising, and expanded by songs such as U.S. Girls’ “4 American Dollars” and Primo!’s “Best and Fairest”. It is perfect that Cool Sounds would utilise a sound adjacent to Steely Dan’s 1980 record Gaucho – an album typified by uncanny, big-budget excess, gluttonous usage of cocaine and heroin, and a detached, abject sadness – for their take on the concept; few other moments in pop have been defined by such tangible manifestations of accelerated capitalism. The timeliness of this admittedly heady concept means that “Vice” is not just one of Cool Sounds’ best songs, but one of their most plangent, a note of political dissonance right when it’s needed.
Western Sydney is often noted as the nexus of Australia’s new wave of underground rap music, but to focus on the region as Australia’s only rap hub would mean ignoring the various idiosyncratic scenes cropping up around the country. At the heart of Melbourne’s burgeoning rap scene is 66Records, a collective seeking to platform and elevate voices of the African diaspora across Australia.
Describing themselves as Australia’s answer to Quality Control Music – the American label and management group that helped kick off the careers of wildly popular rappers Cardi B, Migos and City Girls, among others – 66Records is perhaps best typified by the work of BBG Smokey, a founding member of the collective whose sharp, electrifying songs traverse disparate styles and textures with ease and are heavily inspired by the harassment and abuse African Australians face at the hands of the Australian judicial system and the Australian people.
Smokey’s latest single, “Guidance”, is an impassioned diatribe against the racially prejudiced police state and a tribute to Smokey’s friends and peers who have been locked up: “The current situation I face in life is when one brother goes in, another brother comes out; that’s the pattern,” Smokey wrote in a statement about the song. “[If only] all my brothers was out at the same time […] Anyways I’m now locked up so free me.” Finding the 18-year-old transplanting his melodic, Future-indebted flow into the song’s dancehall-inspired YoungNato beat, “Guidance” is a far cry from the industrial grind of his last single, the 66Records posse cut “Devil Persona,” but also strikes as his most focused statement yet, a distillation of the emotional forces that propel his music and his work with 66Records. “Guidance”, if anything, feels like a distinct beginning, the introduction of an ambitious and talented insurgent to the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "Listening to now".
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