Most rappers use their publicity photos to show off their bling, but Nathan Bird uses his to show off something a little more challenging - his books.
The emcee, who is known as Birdz, has released an EP full of knowledge while completing honours in Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University. But his love of literature blossomed while studying further north, under a well-known Murri activist and author.
"When I first started studying undergrad at the University of Queensland, I was lucky enough to be taught by Uncle Sam Watson," he says." As a result, poetry and novels by prominent black Australian authors continue to be a major source of inspiration for my studies as well as the content in my music."
Chief among those inspiring authors is Watson, whose novel Kadaitcha Sung explores mythology and sorcery alongside hard-hitting social commentary.
"To be perfectly honest, I had no interest whatsoever in literature before I met Uncle Sam," says Birdz. "Let alone had I heard of a Black Power movement in Australia and activists who were part of that movement delivering powerful messages through the arts.
"I think the year I took Aboriginal Politics, taught by Uncle Sam, would have to be my most memorable year at university. Kadaitcha Sung was the first novel that I had read front to back since high school. While it can be read as a fictional tale, it's also instrumental in highlighting ongoing issues Indigenous people continue to face."
"In my opinion, the two popular parties, Labor and Liberal, are pretty much the same thing at the end of the day," he says. "The only difference is one evil is obviously smarter than the other. I don’t think I have to point out which one I think is smarter - do I?"
His literary hero, Watson, has stood many times as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance. But for Birdz, it is the writers who can put it all into poetry that would get his vote, given the chance. Asked to elect his top tomes, he brings up one by Bobbi Sykes - a poet and land rights campaigner who is also cited as a heroine by infamous female Aboriginal rapper Sky'high.
"I constantly refer back to Sykes's Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions," says Birdz. "Sykes’s words continue to inspire me today, to be informed in the earlier years of the Black Australian struggle - in particular the era of the civil rights movement in Australia, from an Indigenous woman’s perspective, which sadly I think gets overlooked sometimes and isn’t afforded the attention it rightly deserves."
Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse, is another poet he puts on a pedestal.
"Pretty much everything by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, but the poem 'Black Commandments' is a personal favourite," says Birdz. "I remember reading this, and being introduced to Aunty Oodgeroo’s work by Uncle Sam, during my time at the University of Queensland. I just love the power and strength of it. This is probably one of the first pieces of poetry - apart from Hip-Hop - that really stuck with me, because I could directly relate to it. I continue to be inspired by black activism that is demonstrated through artistic expression, and this poem, along with Uncle Sam’s influence, was the initial spark for that inspiration."
It appears the rapper's study of "black activism through artistic expression" has helped him vault what many emcees see as an insurmountable hurdle - how to get across an intelligent message without disrupting the flow of the lyrics.
"That’s something that I think is hard to do - to have something to say and at the same time make it sound cool," he says. "In my opinion, it’s a lot easier to rap about nothing and be pleasing to the ear. That may be due to the fact that most consumers don’t want to hear about the reality. Ignorance is bliss. But that’s also where I believe the distinction is evident between an emcee who's reppin' for where they come from, and someone that raps just for the sake of rapping."
Another of his favourite poets, Kevin Gilbert, truly represented his land and people. Gilbert was - like Oodgeroo Noonuccal - an activist and artist as well as a poet.
"Whenever you hear or talk about poetry written by Indigenous Australians, Kevin Gilbert is bound to come up," says Birdz. "He’s a legend. In my book, he’s an icon not just for Indigenous people, but Australia overall. Black Side: People are Legends And Other Poems in particular, I think, addresses so many different aspects of the Indigenous Australian experience. Gilbert was one of the first authors - together with Noonuccal - that I was able to really engage with. This was the first book of his I read, and then I went back and did my research."
As Birdz talks about his books, the widely held image of rappers as bling-loving boneheads seems to melt away. His persona is not so much "safe for white consumption", but more like, "danger - educated black man". PhD-holding black woman Anita Heiss is best known as a novelist, but it is her poetry collection I'm Not Racist, But... that Birdz picks as a favourite.
"I had the privilege of meeting Anita in New York once, at her book launch for Manhattan Dreaming," he says. "I was already amazed by the fact that I had made it overseas to study Aboriginal Studies in Toronto, Canada. When visiting New York and meeting Anita at her launch, I remember thinking, 'This is crazy - blackfellas can do this? Go international with it? Mad!' I was inspired by my first introduction in I'm not Racist, But…; I was inspired in New York, and I continue to be inspired by the work Anita does in Australia. Anita's definitely someone that I can say is actually out there doing it and not just sitting back identifying issues, but also tackling them head on. I mean, just look what happened to Andrew Bolt - too deadly."
In 2011, Heiss and eight other applicants sued Murdoch columnist Bolt after he wrote an article titled "White is the new black" accusing them of choosing to identify as Aboriginal for personal or professional gain. The judge ruled that Bolt had contravened the Racial Discrimination Act. Birdz can relate to Heiss’s indignation.
"The sad thing is that not a lot of non-Indigenous people know the history and why some Indigenous people with mixed heritage choose to represent in the ways that they do," he says.
"For example, it was common practice for white Australians, and so-called 'protectors’ to rape Indigenous women. In some cases these women would fall pregnant and the white perpetrators would walk off scot-free, leaving Indigenous women and their children to fend for themselves. On the other hand, there are people such as myself with one black parent and one white parent that just happened to fall in love. Again, not every Indigenous person has the same story. So I think Australians who pre-judge Indigenous people of mixed heritage should take a minute to check themselves before opening their mouth. This is a big reason why I chose to include a song like ‘We Still Strive’ on my first release. I’ve always represented both sides, black and white."
On "We Still Strive", Birdz samples his father talking to him about his life. Over emotive piano and strings, his father says: "I never thought there was a contest or a battle with your mum’s family. It was frustrating and all I was concentrating on was - I had to make sure that I had to work hard to not be dependent on them. And we never were from the day one we left. Never asked them for anything. I think my focus was on - I always wanted to do twice as good as anyone else because as an Indigenous person I believed that not only was I as good as anyone else, but I was even better."
On the hook, Birdz sings:
Which way is wrong and which way is right?
Get stabbed by a sword and live through the night
Our culture's all gone, but we still strive
Yeah, we still strive
"I grew up with a solid foundation and a mother and father always telling me to be proud of who I was," says Birdz.
"Sadly some people didn’t have what I did and it can be difficult to cope with the pressure coming from outsiders who assume you have to be one way or the other. You’re either good and white, or you’re bad and black, and the ‘half-castes’ are trapped in the middle, with some of us meeting ‘white approval’ and some not.
"People always get it twisted and think that I only rep black, or I only rep white. However, the reality is that people are always coming at me with their own preconceived notions of what I’m supposed to be, and if I don’t satisfy their ‘selection criteria’ then somehow I’m the one that fucked up. White people and other non-Indigenous people will say to me, 'Oh, you’re not a real Aboriginal! You’re only a "half-caste",' or 'You’re not like them other ones, you’re better,' meaning that I’m closer to white, therefore I should denounce my Indigenous heritage in order to reassure them and make them feel more comfortable.
"Another one I constantly get is, 'You're not Aboriginal - you act white!' - as if they’re the official overseer of cultural identity. The people that say this to me have no idea of where I come from, or where my parents come from and what they were forced to endure - let alone have any idea of Australian history and the struggles my father went through in order to maintain a strong sense of pride in being Indigenous."
In a revealing exchange on Twitter, Birdz tweeted that probably the "best one" he'd got when telling someone he was Aboriginal was when they responded by laughing at him and saying: "No you're not. I reckon you're Indian!"
The constant need to categorize can start to grate. The rapper is strong in his Aboriginal culture and Hip-Hop heritage, but this is one Bird that doesn't like to be pigeonholed.
"I want to make something clear from the jump," he says. "I make Hip-Hop music. I’m a Hip-Hop artist. I’m Indigenous. Facts. But don’t exclude me from the conversation of Hip-Hop in Australia and try and force me into a paternalistic sub-genre. I can rap with the best of them, and so can my Impossible Odds Records crew. We’re just making music that’s real to us, and talking about issues that we can relate to.
"A lot of Australian Hip-Hop fans, and some artists, continue to pigeonhole artists that are Indigenous. Just because we're voicing our story and our struggles, which is what I believe Hip-Hop originated from, a percentage of white Australians place us into a 'sub-genre' and therefore try to segregate Indigenous people from Australia's mainstream Hip-Hop market and community. I think people try to place artists like myself - Indigenous and sharing our respective history and stories - into a box because it's somehow easier for them to cope with what we represent.
"Don’t try to put us in that box that makes you feel safe and satisfies your ideal perception of Indigenous people. It won’t work, and it’s not about to stop us from doing what we do - which is bringing something that I believe the Australian music scene is sorely missing - raw and uncut Hip-Hop with substance and a message."
On "Pigeonhole" he raps:
I ain't got a problem with you, dog
So why the hell you keep messing with me for?
Trying to put me in that box
In a cell with that lock
Acting like you got the drop
Like I'm Hip but no Hop
However, when it’s done right - such as on the Indigenous Hip-Hop Radio show, founded by Munk - it can be empowering, says Birdz. "If it wasn't for shows like the Indij Hip Hop show, I believe artists who are Indigenous would be at even more of a disadvantage, having to rely on the mainstream media outlets to take our music seriously," he says.
"Also, I think it's important to realise and acknowledge that as Indigenous people, I believe we want to showcase our talents and speak our truths through mediums that are our own because, on top of representing for our people, we know if we get our music to Indigenous mediums such as Munk and the Indij Hip Hop show, we as artists and people will be represented how we want, and deserve, to be - as talented and strong artists. There's a level of trust there that is sometimes missing when you deal with the mainstream. Having said that, I do believe that the doors are starting to open and the mainstream media and consumer is becoming informed and aware."
Releases like the rapper's Birdz Eye View EP will certainly help. On "Dreamtime" he raps in lingo:
Wadjala yuloi doongoi?
Wadjala yuloi doongoi?
It means ‘where you from?’, yo, in the Butchulla language
First thing said when the white man landed
Now we ask that question to ourselves, stranded
Looking for the answers
The hurt, the pain, hard to imagine
Something that you can’t fathom
Gotsa keep it moving, some act like it never happened
He closes the song with the words, "Ngay yaa-la-m Butchulla" - "I am speaking Butchulla" - and “Nga Dju yaa-m Dhanawu-na” - "I am speaking to everyone".
"It’s basically me reclaiming my language and my birthright," says Birdz. "Learning the Butchulla language has been a special experience. I’ve only just started, so there’s a long way to go before I’d be confident enough to have a fluent conversation in Butchulla, although I’m also conscious of how lucky I am to even have access to it in some way or another, considering that a lot of Indigenous languages in this country aren’t spoken any more due to the continuing force of colonisation.
"My cousin Fred Leone - also known as Rival MC of Impossible Odds and CEO of Impossible Odds Records - he actually found a Butchulla dictionary somehow and made a copy for me. Fred’s the big brother when it comes to things like that; he’s definitely someone that I can say continues to practise what he preaches, making sure Butchulla culture plays an integral role in our family’s future.
"Speaking for myself, I think language and knowledge preservation is a big issue and is something that needs more attention. Since Indigenous culture has always been an oral tradition passed down from elder to youth by speaking the knowledge and experiencing it on country - apart from painting, which in itself is a method of documenting knowledge - nothing was ever actually 'written' down. Our ancestors didn’t need to write it down because they lived on the land and would show each other. As a result, the knowledge could be absorbed there and then through actual practice.
"But once again, the dispossession and dispersing of Indigenous people meant that we not only lost our land but we lost our connection to self. Our knowledge of self was stolen from us. This is cultural genocide. This is why people like myself have to go back and search long and hard for our respective mobs’ languages.
"Moreover, sometimes it’s difficult to find elders who are still around and willing to teach us. In my experience, it’s been difficult approaching some of my elders, some of which I’m only just meeting for the first time due to my family’s history of dispossession. Asking them to teach me things that I’ve missed out on is sometimes a sensitive topic because of the trauma they’ve experienced.
"Growing up in the Northern Territory and having a father heavily involved in the various Indigenous communities in and around the Katherine region, I'd see a lot of whitefella anthropologists come and go as they please, researching and what have you. I remember thinking, 'When they - the anthropologists - leave, what happens to all the knowledge that they’ve collected?' I know for my family, this is where a major distrust in ‘researchers’ developed."
As Maori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith says in her book Decolonizing Methodologies, "'research' is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary".
Says Birdz: "The word ‘research’ definitely has a stigma attached to it in some Indigenous communities, due to experiences with the outside world coming in, objectifying and exploiting Indigenous people. The practice of gatekeeping Indigenous knowledge is a big issue - non-Indigenous researchers taking what they want and placing it into a Western framework so they can attempt to understand it for their own personal gain. Consequently, this process also creates a distance between the knowledge and the actual people whose birthright it is.
"Also, it’s unfortunate, but this is where I believe a lot of ill-informed notions of Indigenous culture come from. Because when people try to transfer the knowledge from its existing framework into one that’s foreign and has completely different levels and ways of knowing, the knowledge can end up distorted. Sometimes it’s like trying to fit a square into a circle - it’s not going to work, so you’re best off leaving it where it was in the first place. But some researchers don’t get that because they refuse to genuinely engage with a different way of thinking.
"I think a possible solution would be to have more Indigenous people doing the research and developing Indigenous methodologies that ensure the knowledge stays within an Indigenous framework. Therefore, hopefully Indigenous youth can access it without having to wait until university."
Even if they get to university, the pain of learning their people's brutal history can be too much for some.
"When I first started learning about the specifics and the documented histories I had been denied as a youth - that was the hardest thing," says Birdz. "Sitting in a classroom, within an institution that I had always been inadvertently - and sometimes directly - told to be exclusively for privileged white Australians, learning about massacres, protectionist policies and the brutal extent of successive Australian government attempts to eradicate my people - that was a really hard experience. Being Indigenous I found it impossible to emotionally detach myself from what I was hearing and seeing for the first time. For some of my fellow Indigenous students it was too much, so they dropped Australian Indigenous Studies and majored in something else.
"I can understand and empathise with why some of my friends chose to discontinue Indigenous studies. Everything that you learn in the classroom either still has a strong presence or is actually still happening today. But for me personally, I felt it was something I had to do, not just for myself, but also for my family."
In that context, Birdz's books are not only weapons of knowledge, but scars of battle and badges of honour. Little wonder he wants to flaunt them so proudly.