Mau Power's new album takes listeners through the big changes in his life - and the first of those came when he was jailed. 

"In 2001, I got incarcerated," says the Torres Strait Islands rapper. "And that time I was in lock-up for nine months."

Mau Power, also known as Patrick Mau, was put away for grievous bodily harm after a street fight in the southern Queensland country town of Toowoomba.

"The fight - it was a series of fights really," he says. 

"From back up home all leading up to one particular fight, which I got charged for and they just looked at my whole history and my rap sheet and then said it's time for you to go."

Looking at Mau Power now, quietly sipping on a glass of water in the bar of Sydney's Metro Hotel just hours before he performs a show, it's hard to believe he's the same person. He's warm, accommodating, softly-spoken and laughs easily. There are no hard edges. He says it was prison that changed him.

"It took away a time of my life that I won't get back, but the positive thing was it actually gave me that time to sit down and reflect and think about where I was heading, what I was doing, where I wanted to be, how I was going to get there, what would happen if I was to continue down the road that I was on. And I made that choice when I was locked up that music is my outlet, that's where I've got to go."

On his song "Transitions Of Life" he raps:

I've been through many stages in my life
Seen so many changes, day and night

Comparing Mau Power's past with his present is like comparing night and day.

"Most of us were always fighting," he says. "People would get in blues all the time where I come from. The areas that I was living in in the Torres Strait, there are areas like that everywhere in Australia. In places similar to where I lived, in the low socio-economic areas - you know, crowded houses, everywhere similar to this - this is where you get what poverty breeds. When you're not having much opportunity, this is what happens."

It can also be a way for people to gain status when they cannot do it through money.

"Absolutely," says Mau Power. 

"We would actually boast about people we knew who we'd call 'the hit men' - the hot ones who were always good at fighting. We'd watch all this violent stuff all the time and it was entertainment for us.

"And, you know, with the prison system - well, we can go for days about the prison system - that's big business. I know from being incarcerated that I was reduced to a statistic, a number. But I came with a package, they had money around to house me, so these corporations, they thrive off this. So now the legislation and laws that bring in corporations and the private sector prisons, they put so much around where it's so easy to get pinched these days. And for Indigenous culture - which is one of the sad things about it - through generations, it then becomes a view that it's a rite of passage."

It's an attitude that can prove fatal. The hip-hop group that Mau Power formed after he left prison went on to release "Tell Me Why", a song dedicated to a band member's brother who was killed in an interaction with police.

"That was one of our first songs," says Mau Power. "One of the members, Josh Mills, his older brother Nathan, he passed away by an accident that happened in a cop chase. A car chase. Everybody in the community of Thursday Island was affected by that.

"In hip-hop or in that lifestyle, when someone passes on, you let the memory live on and the way we do that is we have the shirts printed up with their names on, we tag their names up on the walls and we make music that reflects our hurt but also keeps their name alive. It was a loss, a heavy loss, so we made that song in his memory."

Mau Power: "I know from being incarcerated that I was reduced to a statistic, a number."

Mau Power has had his fair share of traumatic transitions, but a far larger one looms for his people. The seafaring Torres Strait Islanders are now threatened by rising sea levels amid increasing coal exports. As Mau Power speaks, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is planning to expand Abbot Point coal terminal into the biggest coal port in the world and dump silt on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef, the world's biggest living structure, starts at Murray Island in the Torres Strait's north. When Mau Power is asked what he thinks of the Prime Minister being given such permission, he looks nonplussed, then asks: "Permission from who?"

From the Marine Park Authority, I say.

"No," he says, as if I haven't understood. "Permission from who? That area's traditionally owned by people who are the original owners of Australia, so they didn't get permission.

"For him to do that, I mean, the government is always one of the strongest structures or bodies that will always be doing what they think is best for the people, but doing it their own way, at the expense of the future of our natural park, an icon that predominantly identifies Australia. You know when you speak of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is what it is.

"Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters here in Australia have their connection to the land, we have our connection to the sea, it's our way and our life, we were seafaring people from the beginning, we have Melanesian roots, we identify our existence by the way of sea, our totems come from the sea. The Great Barrier Reef BEGINS with Murray Island, so what's happening is very disappointing. It's like, here we go again - another form of pillage that's going to happen to the country."

Mau Power has a better understanding of the Torres Strait than most people. It was first gained when he made the transition to crayfishing company owner at the tender age of 13. When he later transitioned to the Sea Swift freight company, he visited every one of the Torres Strait's 17 inhabited islands. He still travels throughout the islands in his work for remote services provider My Pathway. His song "My Blood My People" declares:

The knowledge of our ancestors 
Fans the flames of our cultural fires 
The culture gave our people strength in the past 
And will do so today and in the times to come 
This is our culture 
It is our life, our strength
Lyrics and video: "My Blood My People" by Mau Power

Asked what his main observation was when he began visiting all the islands, the rapper replies: "My main observation was the family, kinship, the connection. 

"It opened up my mind to the fact that I could travel to all these islands and I would never be lost, because I have family everywhere, I always have a home. And that's the Indigenous culture as a whole. If there's anybody from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, wherever they travel, they always have a home.

"The other was the remote struggles that we live in. Where I was on Horn Island and Thursday Island, that was considered the harbour to Torres Strait, we were facing a lot of problems, but it would be five to 10 times worse in the outer islands, because of the lack of resources and so on."

Mau Power has highlighted that lack of resources by also making the transition from musician to broadcaster. In an eye-opening interview on his radio show, the rapper tackled the Liberal Member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch, on the lack of resources to build sea walls amid rising king tides. Mau Power sighs at the enormity of the transition.

"The effect that it's having is erosion's happening on these islands, you know. There was a movement back in the 1950s, people and families from Saibai Island moved to the tip of Australia to a community called Bamaga. The Saibai people moved there because at that time they predicted that tides would inundate this island and it would affect our way of living - it would affect our water resources.

"Today, the sea levels are still rising, islands are getting inundated. On Saibai it actually flooded the whole cemetery, so we could actually pick up the whole cemetery. That's a whole health issue in itself. Not last year, the year before, it was recorded that the highest tide fell 30cm short of their main water supply. Had it come 30cm more, it would have contaminated that water, so they wouldn't have a water supply.

"Those are the things that we face up there, a lot of health issues, the dangers of having the main water resource contaminated, and people getting their whole islands washed away. I mean, families have been talking about that, to relocate - but that now is a very sensitive area to discuss, simply because people are connected to that area now. Family, heritage, bloodlines, blood ties, it's like a whole removal of a culture from a place that is vital.

"The local Torres Strait Island regional council has been lobbying for the past three, four years for the government to get them to commit to the $26 million that they promised in the beginning to do this sea wall project, which it looks like they will be doing, so there's a positive outcome with that. But the thing is, the $26 million is only probably enough to do one of the islands."

Mau Power: "Erosion's happening on these islands."

For future generations, the outlook is bleak, as Mau Power is all too aware. The rapper says the other big change in his life, apart from prison, was the recent birth of his two daughters - but hip-hop could prove the ideal conduit to pass knowledge on to them.

"When you look at the connection that hip-hop has as a culture, you have to understand that it came from Jamaican roots as well, but it was also a culture that derived from a lot of Indigenous cultures," he says. "And this is why it fuses so well.

"The core of what hip-hop started out as was to be a vessel for 'the fifth element', which is knowledge. Everything that you did was to gain knowledge and everything that you did was to pass on a story, capture a piece of time and educate, re-educate future generations to come. You transfer that over to an Indigenous culture - Torres Strait culture - we document and keep stories and time pieces through songs and dance, artwork, capture these stories. The similarities are there - and that's why hip-hop fuses so well. As a medium to reach the younger generation, it only makes sense that it fits perfectly."

Mau Power is also making the transition from the rock and reggae that has spearheaded Australia's Indigenous music scene, to the hip-hop that so many Aboriginal artists now choose as a mode of expression and protest. On his song "Freedom", he has bridged the genre and generational gap by collaborating with Aboriginal country music legend Archie Roach. The result recalls the 1980s anthem "We Have Survived" by fabled Aboriginal rock band No Fixed Address.

"I'm a huge fan of No Fixed Address and everybody knows 'We Have Survived'," says Mau Power. 

"'Freedom', with the line 'we have survived' does pay homage to all the people like No Fixed Address, Bart Willoughby, Archie Roach and the ones that were the pioneers that started the whole Indigenous music movement, back with rock, rock-reggae. These are the people that made it possible for people like me to do what I'm doing. So it really was an honour to be able to work with Archie Roach on this song."

Patriots who proudly call Australia "the lucky country" are easily mocked because they are taking social critic Donald Horne's original quote out of context: "Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck." 

However, Roach says Australia truly is a lucky country, since it has not one but two Indigenous cultures - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander - and his collaboration with Mau Power shows "they can come together in powerful union".

Mau Power has also formed a powerful union with album producer Mike Justice, forgoing his own formidable production skills that are based on the mechanical engineering Mau Power learnt at the University of Southern Queensland just before he was jailed.

"It's all mathematics," says Mau Power. "But for this particular album I stepped away from sound engineering completely so I could just focus on being an artist and write. Mike is a great producer and the music that he built around me is all me, he just found the elements to be able to fuse it together. And between him and Ben from Beat Tank productions it worked well.

"If you have a really good team and a formula that works then that's when it clicks. And we spent a lot of time on this album - the longest I ever spent on a project - and the sound was very important because I wanted to have something that would resonate 20, 30 years after."

The album is a high-quality piece of work that should easily make the transition from generation to generation. It also shows the huge transition Mau Power has made, from street-fighting felon to a role model for his people. Music therapist Michael Viega says hip-hop has the ability to transform suckers into successes by taking them on a "hero's journey". In the classic narrative of "the hero's journey" a protagonist who is somehow lacking is equipped with special weapons and embarks on a journey of transformation, conquering their demons and emerging a superhero.

"It's funny you say that, because that's what hip-hop DOES," says Mau Power, who has run hip-hop workshops with disadvantaged youths across the country.

"It gives you that sense of certainty, where you go from having nothing to being high off everything: 'I AM Mau Power.' It gives me a definite purpose. That's what it does. It's like, someone, it could be Jack Smith, John Smith, and then all of a sudden they're like emcee-something and it allows you to be whoever you want to be."

From that perspective, the biggest change in Mau Power's life may well have been hip-hop.

Video: "Freedom" by Mau Power featuring Archie Roach