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Snoee Badman – the first Australian to release an EP from inside a maximum-security prison – embodies a punk defiance to institutional brutality. “I have a lot of violence to write about. Jail is not good for anyone … Prison gives you a lot of hatred.” By Mahmood Fazal.

Drill rapper Snoee Badman

Drill rapper Snoee Badman.
Credit: Supplied

In the Islander yard of Goulburn prison, Snoee Badman waits by the phone. In and out of jail from the age of 13, Snoee is at the tail end of this sentence – a brick, or 10 years served straight.

A towel is draped over his head and tight braids frame his chiselled face. He picks up the phone, tightens the towel across his head, places an earbud in one ear and clicks “play” on his Discman to hear 21 Savage’s Savage Mode. “I block out his lyrics in my head and rap over the beat,” Snoee says. On the other end of the line is a producer, recording. Snoee has one shot to nail his verse before his phone credits run out.

“Got shit to prove / Got shit to lose / See me on street / What the fuck would ya do? / I put my gang on the map / Free all my gang out the max / Jail phone six-minute calls / Ni*** still doing them raps.”

Snoee, who is Jamaican Australian, is the first Australian rapper to record an entire EP, #3badman (Trackwork), from behind the walls of a maximum-security corrections centre. From within the prison system, Snoee has become an underground icon of the Australian drill scene – a nihilistic genre that offers listeners a front-row experience of violent crime.

When Snoee calls, a fight has broken out in another yard. “The bone-yarders had a crack. I can taste the tear gas in the building.” It’s just part of the routine since his transfer to Long Bay Correctional Complex, where he is undertaking a violent offenders’ program.

Snoee spent the bulk of his time in segregation across Lithgow, Goulburn and Wellington prisons. “It’s all segregated by nationalities,” he tells me. “In Goulburn, there’s a wing and at 9am you’re let out of your cell, it’s straight in the yard. And you’re just in the yard all day. The shower’s in the yard. The phone’s in the yard. Everything’s in the yard. Two pm, you’re back in your cell. And that’s it. You come back the next day.”

Since drill’s inception on the streets of Chicago in 2010, the genre has hijacked the rags-to-riches cliché of hip-hop glamour in favour of vivid tales of gang life on the streets. Drill spread rapidly across Britain when gang-affiliated artists began sending cryptic messages to one another, wearing their violent résumés in their lyrics like a badge of honour. The drama of drill music was heightened by its real-life connotations and consequences.

Just as gangster rap rocked America in the ’90s, drill has been targeted by the New South Wales Police Force, whose censorship of artists such as OneFour transformed the genre into a voice for the oppressed. Earlier this year in Sydney, life began imitating art when an Australian drill artist was charged with the attempted murder of another rapper. Even so, Bennett Kleinberg, a researcher at University College London, says “there is currently no direct evidence indicating a relationship between drill music lyrics and gang violence”.

In Australia, hierarchical power relations have positioned people of colour as lesser. Marginalised men often wear performative masculinity as a psychological mask. As Damien Arthur writes in a research paper on hip-hop and masculinity, “Gangster rap is often consumed as a fantasy in which teenage males can forge strong masculine gender identities, gender identities that they find difficult to assume at school, at work, or in a family context.”

In a prison context, writes Kate Seymour of Flinders University, “the performance of hegemonic masculinity is central to the hierarchical dynamics of prisons … The ‘homosocial prison culture’ … is one that values ‘emotional stoicism’, dominance, and ‘stratification’. It is not, however, exclusive to the prison but rather is a culture shared – indeed, generated – by broader society.”

I ask Snoee why millions of people in different cultures around the world find expressions of violence so compelling today.

The line drops to silence as he searches for answers. “I have a lot of violence to write about,” he says finally. “Jail is not good for anyone. It’s not good. From a young age, you’re just exposed to serious violence. It makes you bitter and hate everything. Hatred. Prison gives you a lot of hatred.”

In prison, violence has become a language. It’s a language generated by state punishment, a voice for hatred that’s disguised as power.

When I ask during a video call what his mother thinks of his music, Snoee smiles nervously. “She obviously doesn’t like the content. But she’s happy that I’m putting my time into something. Something that’s not bad.”

In the same way Expressionist painters used their brushes to impulsively attack the canvas, Snoee’s lyrics burst from his memories, unvarnished and without premeditation. The result is something like a musical crime of passion.

“In prison you get used to violence,” Snoee says. “These things happen, whether you like it or not. If you live with murderers every day, minor things become big dramas. Once certain words are said, there’s no going back. It could be as little as, ‘I was on the phone next’. Boom. That can have ripple effects that goes on for years. And then mates get involved. And it becomes a never-ending thing.

“Before drill, I would worry about wordplay and being technical lyrically. It was later I realised people want to know more about me than the technique.” Snoee pauses, as inmates shout in the background. “I had to break myself down and start from scratch. I had to say simple stuff that came to me. I had to make it clear.”

Through performance, Snoee discovered the means to detachment. In the spiritual exercise of making music, he found peace. With the prospect of a career, he discovered hope.

Just as the 18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi etched Imaginary Prisons to capture the fantasy of illogical and endless oppression, the persona of Snoee Badman distils the cycle of penal violence. His music is unique in drill because the drama doesn’t spring from street violence between warring gangs: rather, it embodies institutional violence.

“I’m just telling my story,” he says. “I’ve got younger brothers. I don’t want them to go pick up a knife and slash someone. But all I’m doing is telling my story.” He says that rappers who romanticise violence haven’t lived the street life. “Authenticity matters. It matters to me. It matters to people who listen to drill.” In the prison yard, your word is all you’re good for.

“I’ve only ever driven a stolen car in my life,” he says, laughing. “If I’m going to rap about fancy restaurants and hotel rooms, I’d be lying. I’m going to talk about selling caps in the flats, driving a hottie, doing armed robberies, punching on and seeing stabbings in jail. That’s my life. It’s reality. We can’t run away from it.”

Snoee was raised in Prahran, Melbourne. In the late ’90s his family travelled to Britain before resettling in different suburbs throughout inner-city Sydney. While living in Marrickville, Snoee was kicked out of high school. “We bashed some kids from another school and my mate took the guy’s phone,” he says. “It was one of the first camera phones. We got charged for robbery.” Being a thief – or “searcher” – would soon become his identity.

Australian drill music is entwined with the “searcher” or “earcher” subculture – now called “lads” or “eshays” – that originated in Sydney in suburbs such as Waterloo, Redfern and Woolloomooloo.

Searching is a way of life obsessed with making money. Searchers speak in pig Latin slang, graffiti, carry boxcutter blades and dress in a distinctive mix of shoplifted Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Nike Air Max trainers. The scene offered teenagers on the margins an identity. In prison, Snoee wears a Ralph Lauren cap.

Originally searching was a strictly inner-city Sydney phenomenon. “In the west, the crimes were more drug-related, like bikies, big Lebo boys with pot runs, and all that,” Snoee explains. “In the city, it’s not like that. Everyone was a thief. At school we would just go out stealing. And the lingo, the pig Latin, the way that we dress, started in the city. All these guys out west now, they’re wearing Air Maxes and speaking pig Latin. But when I was a kid, even in juvie, they used to wear Chuck Taylors and bandanas.”

While studying in a juvenile justice centre, Snoee began to make sense of violence as a survival mechanism, where it quickly became another form of imprisonment.

“Back then, you could wear your own clothes,” he says. “Because I was an earcher I always had the freshest clothes. So when I came into juvie, I had brand new white [Nike] TNs and a Sergio Tacchini tracksuit. But I was small and skinny.” Snoee was approached by one of the older inmates. “He was like, ‘When you come back from lunch, make sure you fucking give it to me.’ And I was scared. I was scared to death. I was 13. One of the boys from Waterloo told me, ‘No matter what, just hit him. It doesn’t matter if you lose.’ So I hit him. I got pumped. But I hit him and he didn’t take my shit.”

Snoee bounced in and out of juvie for bail and curfew breaches. “Then it was just full-time thievery. I just stole, broke into houses, broke into cars, whatever. I was just a little shit. I was just bad.” In 2010, his offences cost him a six-year sentence. “I got done for an armed robbery with a Taser. And I crashed a car.”

Because he ran from police as a teenager, Snoee is classified as an escapee. This meant that when he transitioned into adult jails, he was in maximum security. “When I was 18, [adult] jail was fucking scary. It was at the ass end of a lot of wars.”

In 2015 his cellmate Spanian, an eccentric inner-city Sydney rapper, encouraged Snoee to focus on writing. “Spanian used to tell me, ‘What’s wrong with you? You can rap, why don’t you write it?’ He is one of the smartest people I know. He could tell you about the moon and the stars. And he actually knows what he’s on about.”

While listening to the Hip Hop Show on Triple J, he heard a British drill track, the 67 song “Take It There”. “It blew my mind,” he says. “Everything around me just made sense. I was like, ‘What the fuck was that.’ Wow! This was hectic. I couldn’t believe it.” 67, a pioneering drill group, have been classed as a criminal gang by British police, and their first tour was shut down after it sold out.

On another prisoner’s smuggled mobile phone, Snoee started flexing his bars over the 67 instrumental “Lock Arff”. “I worked out a way where I can play the beat, because I had a radio with an auxiliary cord that plugs into a phone, so the beat was going in the background and then, bang, I started recording videos. And then I got sent to segregation.” Spanian published the video on his YouTube channel and the myth of Snoee Badman began to spread.

“The prison didn’t have any formal chats with me, but last year, when videos of me started popping up on the internet, they transferred me from Wellington to Goulburn. And they were running in on me all the time. The third time they ran in on me, one of them said, ‘You want to put videos on YouTube, this is what happens.’ ”

This week Snoee released “Shabba”, the final video for his trilogy with his producer Utility. For Utility, the project is more than simply an expression of violence. “A record like #3badman seems to make sense against a backdrop of our nation’s backwards approach to punishment and imprisonment,” he tells me. “Drill music on the surface seems to be an expression of just violence, but there’s a deeper level to it, an expression of resistance. What he’s doing is more punk than anything.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Imaginary prisons".

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Mahmood Fazal is a writer and filmmaker.