At the Deadly Awards, an annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, all eyes were on one of the fastest rising stars in Aboriginal music.
Nooky did not even have an album out, but the radical rookie rapper from country New South Wales had already been flown out to Los Angeles to record a track with emcee Taboo from hip hop heavyweights The Black Eyed Peas.
"Taboo and I clicked instantly as we shared a lot of commonalities," says Nooky, also known as Corey Webster. He met the Native American musician when the pair took part in a music and reconciliation program at Redfern Community Centre in Sydney. Webster was just 19.
“Yes our cultural heritage shared a common bond, but it goes so much deeper in the sense that our life stories are similar,” says Webster, who was nominated for Most Promising New Talent in Music in the Deadlys.
“I think he was shocked to hear my struggles as an Aboriginal kid and what I had endured, and how I turned to music to release the anger that was building up inside.
“Music was an outlet to pour my soul into, creating socially conscious lyrics, often singing about my story and about the injustices my people face on an everyday basis.
“When you listen to some of the Black Eyed Peas' music, you hear about their struggles and you hear about their cause for human rights, in particular the songs 'Where is the Love’ and ‘One Tribe’.
“However, when two Indigenous groups come together there comes straight up some kind of brotherhood, especially when both Indigenous groups such as ours - Indigenous Australian and Shoshone Native American - have suffered and share similar injustices and disparities.
"I did see some similarities between our Aboriginal cultures, such as a deep respect for elders and the importance of maintaining the richness and diversity of culture. Even their artwork is similar in maintaining songlines and dreaming stories.
“There were also similarities in social influences and over-representation in the welfare and criminal justice system, but they are more advanced than we are in the human rights aspect when it comes to preserving language and education.
"During my stay over there I met a lot of people in the industry and chatted with a lot of corporates that showed a genuine interest in my music, mainly because of its contents of Aboriginal Australia and my identity as a fair-skinned Aboriginal. Many assume we are all dark skinned, living in the bush and can speak in language and all that kind of stuff - a misconception often depicted in films such as Crocodile Dundee.
“So in terms of getting our music over there, it teaches them about our culture and our history. Our music is unique and getting the opportunity to showcase it in the USA would only offer us more support in the industry that we are so desperately trying to get in our own country, through mainstream Australia and record labels.
"If we didn’t get out there and promote ourselves, we would basically be an underground culture, but we’re not - we are out there being creative, being loud.”
However, his trip stateside wasn't all about educating the locals. He also got a priceless education himself, from Taboo and fellow Black Eyed Peas member Keith Harris. The band’s drummer, Harris is also a super-producer who has penned and produced hits for some of the biggest names in music including Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige, Christina Aguilera and Michael Jackson.
"It was an amazing experience to be able to record with an artist of such a calibre as Taboo," says Webster.
“It doesn’t happen very often and when I had this opportunity I embraced it with my heart and soul, listening intently to everything he had to say and teach me within his studio, alongside Keith Harris. I can’t talk too much about the song because I signed a non-disclosure document until its release, but I can say it is going to be a hit with Keith Harris as the producer.”
The track is called “2 Worlds” and is set to be released on Taboo’s solo album. In the meantime, the curious can get a taste of Webster’s highbrow hip-hop on his debut EP, Resistance.
The politically punchy short-player was produced by veteran Aussie hip hop head Ozi Batla from The Herd, who took up Webster's musical mentoring where Taboo and Harris left off. Ozi even battles with Webster on one of the tracks - a slice of strutting, staccato snares and militaristic muscle aptly named “Salute”.
“It was good working with Ozi,” says Webster.
“He is a legend in the Australian hip-hop scene and I felt privileged to be able to work with him and collaborate with him on 'Salute’. I learnt how to switch my styles and how to hit certain lines and rock a crowd. He is a great support and mentor as well as being inspiring. He’s been in the industry for such a long time, and just to have him on my [EP] is a great privilege.”
Webster says the title of the record, “Resistance” is all about battlers and battles.
“'It’s a warrior’s dream, it’s a warrior’s battle’ were lyrics used in my first song I wrote,” he says.
“It reflected on the struggles Aboriginal warriors endured and survived like genocide and invasion. It was also about my mentality as a young leader, ‘waking up every day and I’m ready for war', this is how I felt every day when I was at school. So I became my own resistance leader and I guess dedicated the album to all the struggles that I endured over the years as a way of acknowledging my achievements.
"It also served as a personal dedication to my hero, the first resistance fighter, Pemulwuy, the Rainbow Warrior.”
Like Pemulwuy, who waged war against Australia's white invaders until he was shot dead and decapitated in 1802, Webster has had to fight his own battles. His home town of Nowra on NSW’s south coast is known for the glistening, jewel-like beauty of nearby Jervis Bay - but it also has an ugly side.
"Yes, Jervis Bay is extremely beautiful and rich with culture," says Webster.
“I have a very deep connection to it as it is the birthplace of my great grandfather Richard Campbell on my mother’s side. I never got to meet him as he died the night my parents met, but it is through my visits and through shared stories I feel his spirit when I have performed as a dancer there.
“Nowra is slow-paced and peaceful, especially Jervis and Honeymoon Bay. You’re taken back in time and you appreciate the village/country lifestyle. Growing up in Nowra and the surrounding area has had a twofold effect on who I am now. In one sense I loved it because it provided me with my cultural identity and yet at times I couldn’t wait to leave as there is a lot of racism there, which I have suffered a lot of.
"I was always into hip-hop, but actually finding my passion came at a later age when I was having some troubles in my senior years at high school. I wrote my first song about it when I was about 16, which was never sent to the Board of Studies to be marked with the rest of my Aboriginal Studies classmates for my HSC because the school were intimidated by the truth in my lyrics.”
That wall of willful ignorance has been a constant hurdle. As the late Canadian historian Pierre Berton put it: “Racism is a refuge for the ignorant.” If Berton were still around today, he might add that there is no scientific basis for it. Skin Deep, a 2011 documentary on the genetic evolution of skin colour, noted: “A study of the human genome has revealed that, of the estimated 25,000 human genes, only about 50 are involved in determining skin colour. This means that, no matter what colour our skin, people the world over are, genetically speaking, almost identical.”
But in Australia, ignorance can still crop up in the unlikeliest places. The Deadlys website describes Webster as coming from “the Niara tribe, part of the Yuin Nation”.
But when Webster is asked to describe the idiosyncrasies of the hitherto unknown Niara tribe, he replies: "I just need to clear up the typo, there is no Niara tribe, there was a misunderstanding in LA.
"I told them I lived in Nowra which is a part of the Yuin Nation. I am actually from the Wandiwandian, Walbunga and Thunghutti tribes.
“As the Yuin Nation is very big, I will just focus on my local knowledge and that passed on to me by members of my family. We have a very strong connection to the sea and still practise our customs through my Dad and Uncle Ron's Men’s Group, Yuin Doolaghals culture camps, which are held a couple of times a year in partnership with National Parks.
“The aim of the camps is to engage the male youth, encourage community involvement, and reconnect to country by reliving our old cultural traditions of living off the land and caring for country, thus enhancing our understanding that it takes a community to rear an Aboriginal child.
"It is through that belief that I had the privilege to learn to sing and dance in language, and have such a great in-depth knowledge of my culture. I’ll sincerely pass that on to the next generation who want to learn, as long as they show that passion and respect in maintaining culture."
Webster has clearly learnt a lot from his family.
“My mum would drive me all over the state to attend cultural festivals, which had a huge cultural influence,” he says.
“Like the Dreaming, Croc Fests and Vibe 3on3, just to be further inspired - and that started at a very young age.”
It was during such trips that his love of hip-hop grew.
“We would often drive to visit mob in Bellbrook or Bermagui, with the stereo pumped to the max, just singing to the likes of Mase, Nelly, Afro Men, Ja Rule, Snoop, T-Pain, Eminem and 50 [Cent]. Then we would listen to whatever was on Koori radio when we had reception, because we would listen to the lyrics and compare Australian hip-hop culture to American hip-hop culture, and that would be turned into an educational lesson for us.
"Such performers as Archie Roach, Local Knowledge, Wire MC, Radical Son, Brothablack and Munkimuk got me hooked as I related to them in culture and struggles. Now that I’ve moved to Sydney and work on my music, I can call upon these guys for their experience and support, and appreciate all their expertise.
“We would even listen to soulful and country music as mum has a great appreciation for all music, as she grew up around it all her life. But it would be late at night that mum and I would listen to music and dance, and she would teach me some old school moves.
"Boy, they were the days. My dad was a bit of a karaoke freak in his heyday and I got my first mic at a few months old, so I guess my parents saw my love for music at a young age.”
Webster’s reverence for his relatives runs deep.
“Respect is instilled in us at a very young age, and our elders are at the forefront of those teachings along with our parents and community,” he says.
“However, when we look at the social issues surrounding my people we are over-represented in unemployment, the welfare system, child protection, homelessness, health systems, juvenile and criminal justice, poor education, racism.
“Drug and alcohol influences also impact on our cultural teachings and therefore they are being forgotten about. Unfortunately, some of the younger generation are losing their respect not only for their elders but for society as well. There are too many social influences that are damaging our culture and at many times the media play a big part in that, by always portraying the negatives of our culture and deliberately leaving out some of the positives.
“Having respect for my elders plays an integral part in my cultural identity and the relationship I had with my great grandfather, Ruben Brown, was with the utmost highest respect; for he shared his life story to me at a very young age and taught me some very valuable lessons about life.
"What saddens me is that some of the youth [would] rather go off track and not take some time to sit down and listen to the stories of their elders and therefore are missing out on their cultural teachings - and that’s when they lose respect.”
Webster shows his respect in the best way he knows how. His song “Clouds” is a skygazing, semi-acoustic dedication to the departed Brown.
Ruben Brown was a proud Yuin man
He brought his family up right, living off the land
If anybody needed help he always lent a hand
When it comes to elders, he was one of the wisest
Now I’m talking to your spirit in the clouds for guidance
In our community, you were the leading light
Now you’re a star in the night and you’re shining so bright
We had a lot of good times, never a bad one
I’m really proud to be your grandson
We all miss you but we know you’re in a better place
You were the stone in the family, you held us all in place
We won’t forget that smile on your face
When we used to yarn, you taught me a lot
The lessons I learnt will never be forgot
I carry your heritage and I’m so proud
When I need you now, I’ll look to the clouds
I’ve got my head to the clouds
Looking for some guidance
I’ve got my head to the clouds...
...I've got my head to the clouds
Hoping I can find it
I’ve got my head to the clouds
"The concept and title for the song came from a spiritual sense of my Aboriginal spirituality and believing in my Dreaming that after death our spirit returns to the dreaming pool awaiting for our rebirth," he says.
“We learn to care and talk to our environment as it is there our spirits flow and that the elements of mother earth, the sun, sky, moon and water give life. Metaphorically, the clouds look down at us as they float softly across the sky. I look for guidance as if my great grandfather is looking down at me, so I guess you can say I have personified the clouds.
"Beyond the mist, I see my great grandfather's eyes peering through, offering me guidance and reassurance that he is still with me and all I have to do is look to the clouds.”
However, there’s more to Webster than dour deference and political posturing. He also knows when to lighten up - and “Resistance” has some rousing, rollicking, rolling moments. “Good Times” bumps along with an irrepressible optimism and “Come Dance For Me” is guaranteed to get hips winding to its eastern-flavoured, snaking synths. The sensitive, sensuous song is an obvious love letter to Webster’s Deadly Award-nominated girlfriend, Rarriwuy Hick.
“Rarriwuy is my partner of three years and we both share a passion for the arts,” he says.
“We started off as dancers but discovered we had other talents within the performing arts. Rarriwuy is a very strong Yolngu girl from North East Arnhem Land, and her achievements have somewhat gone under the radar. Her big break in acting came along last year when she was cast for Nigel Jamieson’s play Wrong Skin with the Chooky Dancers - and because of their huge YouTube popularity, Rarriwuy never got the full extent of recognition that she deserved.”
It is for this reason that he has been urging everyone he can to vote for her in the Deadlys, in which she has been nominated for best female actor.
"Rarriwuy just needs her big break and to be recognised as a very talented force to be reckoned with," he says.
“Rarriwuy serves as a very positive female role model for her community, especially as she was under the Northern Territory intervention and had suffered from its implementation, struggling to live and support herself under the income management scheme.
"Rarriwuy is my soulmate and I support her in everything that she does. Together we are achieving our dreams and inspiring the next generation through our passion for the arts.”
And when it comes for advice future hopefuls, the free-flowing freestyler is characteristically verbose.
“You might find yourself struggling with school or life in general, but never lose faith in your abilities,“ he says.
“Because no matter where you come from or the struggles you face, you can still have dreams. All it takes is hard work, sweat and tears, but most of all self-belief. You can do it - we all can - just never give up on yourself. Stay STRONG, BLACK and DEADLY.”