Most people fear fire, but Jimblah embraces it. The element flares up again and again in the rapper's searingly original work - from his first album, Face The Fire, to the one that rose from its ashes, Phoenix.
"It's just a mad metaphor for me," says the proud Larrakia man. "With Face The Fire it was all about facing the struggle. The fire is that fierce thing and people are usually like, 'Oh, it's really hot' - and they turn away from it.
"Phoenix was coming up out of the flames, out of the ashes, out of the turmoil, out of the hardship and struggle, coming back. It's like, they can throw a lot of stuff at me - I'm not going to give up, I'm going to keep going."
Jimblah is going strong. We are sitting in the office of Elefant Traks - the leading independent hip-hop label that recently signed him - on a scorching Sydney Saturday afternoon. We've come out of the burning hot courtyard where his label-mates continue to meet and greet fans at a birthday barbecue to mark Elefant Traks' 15th year. The various musicians are sizzling snags and scribbling signatures under a broiling sun that could peel paint.
The previous night, Jimblah beckoned a blazing cake on stage at a sold-out Metro Theatre and got the audience of 1500 to sing happy birthday. The crowd, rocking every style from high-tops to hijabs, gamely played along, high on five hours of relentless entertainment that included singing "77% of Aussies are racist" along with label leaders The Herd.
However, Jimblah's willingness to hold racists' feet to the fire means he is constantly under fire - and from all angles. Yeats said education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Yet Jimblah's attempts to kindle conversation among his followers' often end up with him being dragged over hot coals. One day the emcee is being accused of racism against whites, the next he is being roasted for "sucking white dick" in lauding the label that signed him. Jimblah's face lights up with a lopsided, goofy grin at the memory of that particular insult, his big eyes displaying a candid openness.
"I'm conscious that when you're speaking on this stuff, I realise why so many people don't speak on it in a public forum, because it's hard," says the rapper, his grin snuffed out. "It's a lot of weight to carry. It's really easy to let the bitterness get control of you and then you get angry and say some dumb shit that you don't really mean. You can't think properly when you're angry and bitter - it's not you with a level head.
"Around the same time I signed with Elefant Traks, I stopped speaking on a lot of stuff - and it wasn't that I'd stopped being about the cause, it was just that I started realising how detrimental my bitterness was to myself. Like I was letting a lot of hate and bitterness eat me up."
It's an emotion African-American author Maya Angelou is all too familiar with. "Bitterness is like cancer - it eats upon the host," she once said. Then she added: "But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean."
Jimblah's latest clip, for his song "Fireproof", razes rival rappers like a flamethrower fired in anger. Smoke smoulders from the incendiary emcee's charred hoodie as bursts of flame crackle around him. The juddering footage shakes with his stuttering snares as he spits staccato lines over illuminating flashes of "Fire" by Yothu Yindi:
Story telling in my blood
I feel the presence of 60,000 plus years
My ancestors roamed this desert landscape
From the tropics up north to a snow-capped mountain peak
I'm mentally scarred from the blood shed in the past
But I been fighting fire with fire since the day I was born...
Who's gonna put out my fire?
"'We backburn' was kind of like that saying 'you can't fight fire with fire'," says Jimblah. "I always thought that was funny. So it's something to do with that and it's about dealing with issues before they get too far out of hand."
It's a lesson Australia needs to learn - and not just metaphorically. In the physical realm, there are compelling arguments to continue backburning. The evidence suggests the whole country was farmed with fire before colonisation. The scientific proof has slowly grown, like the undergrowth that now clogs country once described by countless settlers as "park-like".
Just days after Phoenix was released, "unprecedented" bushfires destroyed hundreds of homes in Sydney's Blue Mountains as other blazes raged throughout New South Wales. Jimblah grimaces at the memory. "I know, I know," he says, as if flinching at the unfortunate timing.
At the time, Elefant Traks had released only a short promo video for the album's opener "Save My Soul", featuring Jimblah's haunting intro, "Wake up bro, I think your fire's going out." The label waited a respectable couple of months before putting out the clip to "Fireproof" in the same week that Elefant Traks' Blue Mountains-raised label boss, Urthboy, played a benefit concert for the bushfire victims.
Given the pre-colonial history of fire-management, news images of water-bombing helicopters must conjour up mixed emotions in Indigenous people. But when asked about such practices, Jimblah's response is relaxed.
"Ah, well, they're just trying to save lives, you know," he says, as a sweating Urthboy passes between us to get a much-needed drink from the office water cooler. "Where I live in the Adelaide Hills, a couple of months back there was a huge fire just in the valley over from us, so we had heaps of planes, water-bombers, coming over - and I was pretty cool. I wasn't like, 'What are they doing?' I was, like, 'Glad they're doing it'."
But other television news is not so well received. On his song "TV", Jimblah raps:
Turn your motherfuckin' TV off
See this ain't part of the program
They got you transfixed now
So turn your motherfuckin' TV off
Claimin' that that's the way it is
They talkin' shit now
So turn your motherfuckin' TV off
The song ends with a sample from a newsreader: "It's believed all six males are from Redfern in Sydney."
It's the kind of glib line that would not make white audiences bat an eyelid - but would have black audiences raising suspicious eyebrows. "Hell yeah," says Jimblah. "That's your people, that's your everything that's being cut down and questioned.
"For years, I remember growing up and the older I got, I would be watching TV and my mind started realising how I was perceived just walking out in the street. We don't turn on Home and Away and see blackfellas. We don't turn on any TV sitcom and see blackfellas doing 'normal' things - a doctor, or anything 'normal'. And if the only time we're going to see them is when the media's glorifying crime and shit - if that's all we're seeing of ourselves, if society views us as that, all of a sudden we're going to fucking take that on, which we have. A lot of kids have. I've spent the last three years working in a high school. A lot of kids talk to me and say, 'How the fuck am I going to be anything? I'm black.' And, you know, they believe it."
The ABC's critically-acclaimed drama series Redfern Now, produced by Aboriginal writers, directors and actors, has made an effort to present black people in more "normal" roles - yet it is not without its critics. In a series of articulate Facebook posts, Sydney-based Aboriginal rapper Felon has dismantled such portrayals as unrealistic. It's a reminder that whoever addresses Aboriginal affairs, no matter their race or background, is playing with fire. It's a minefield.
"Totally," says Jimblah. "It's a hard thing to deal with, hard thing to talk about. As a people, I see how much of a divide is within our own community. I see how detrimental it is towards us moving forward. And there's a big thing when blackfellas are doing well. Back home, there's a lot of blackfellas who think if you're successful in a white man's world, if you've got a good job, if you've got money, then you're a whitefella or you're a coconut, which is messed up. It's like divide and conquer.
"But the other thing as well is, as an Indigenous person who has experienced what I've experienced, I feel like I'm in a better position to break down stuff but approach it in a smarter manner and not just go, 'All white people are racist.' I feel like I can get a lot more out of what I want to see happen if I approach it level-headed. I don't want to create a bigger divide, you know.
"I appreciate people's views and blackfellas' views in terms of what they want to see done. But I don't see everyone packing up their bags and going home and we're running this shit - or that white people in general are bad. I basically want all of us to get along.
"When I look at our plight and our struggle I think we, as a people and as a community, in terms of Indigenous mob, we've got a lot to bring to the table - but at the same time, so does the wider community of Australia. And I feel that a lot of this stuff can't be completely dealt with until we meet in the middle and we both come correct on either side. I think we're all here together now - the best thing we can do is work together."
Working together is the ethos of the ethnically-eclectic Elefant Traks. It is why Aboriginal rappers The Last Kinection signed with the label, rather than an exclusively black one. For Jimblah, it's a way to move on from attitudes that have often been formed for heartfelt reasons. Such reasons are vividly illustrated by the sample of his Nanna on Phoenix:
We had a wonderful lot of children, Billy and I, beautiful-looking children. I wanted an Aboriginal man, I didn't want a white man... A white man used my dear mother for his purpose and then didn't give me any name, so I always said I never want to marry a white man or have anything to do with a white man.
"The thing was, she had time for anyone," says Jimblah, who also has Yanuwa, Wardaman and Bardi blood. "She was a beautiful soul and she wouldn't meet you and go 'Ah, here we go, another whitefella.' She would genuinely be accepting of you, whoever you were. Whether you were white or whatever.
"That little bit that she says can very much come across like she hates white people. I was in very much two minds about it. But I definitely wanted to show how it was so raw and so blatantly honest how she says that, and how she speaks of her kids. It really touched me and I thought, 'I think people need to hear that.'
"You know, people can look at our issues and not think about the deep-rooted causes. All they see is, 'Oh, he's alcoholic.' They don't go, 'Why? Why is he always turning to grog? Why are there so many blackfellas turning to crime?' They go, 'Oh, that's just them, just because they're good for nothing.' It's like, 'Hold up, let's be smart and ask ourselves why.'"
Fittingly, the sample is laid over Jimblah playing piano - an instrument he turns to when the pain starts to burn. Nick Cave has talked of how when playing the piano "you sort of push it away". Rufus Wainwright has described playing it as "a kind of therapeutic process". Chopin talked of playing it to pour out his despair.
"It's a beautiful instrument," says Jimblah. "Sometimes I'm really messed up about something or I try and make a beat or I try to write and it's not happening and I'm so frustrated with music, but then I can just jump on the piano and just jam - and feel amazing."
The instrument crops up again and again on Phoenix, whose purity of sound suggests Jimblah has benefited from sharing tips with Elefant Traks' stable of producers.
"I wouldn't say that's anyone at Elefant Traks," he laughs, prompting Herd bassist Dale Harrison - standing nearby - to join in the laughter. "I still produced the whole thing," says Jimblah. "But the thing that we did different was I mixed the album with someone else. And then we mastered the album with someone else."
The fact that he is now able to dedicate all his time to his intricate, intelligent, individualistic music - rather than the work for prisons, schools and communities that has dominated his adult life - means he is already working on his third album.
"For ages music's always been the last thing that I've been doing," he says. "It's always been my community work that's kind of been at the forefront and I've put in the majority of my time there."
If Jimblah hadn't discovered hip-hop, he could well have ended up serving time in prison. Instead, he ended up serving prisoners in prison - by teaching them.
"In my early teens, I just wanted a place to fit and I looked up to the older lads who were [committing crimes]," he says.
“They showed leadership and a courage that I really admired when I was younger. I would’ve done anything to gain their acceptance. Sadly, for many of the younger generation, this is how it starts for them. Then, before they know it, it’s all they know and it becomes a very hard cycle to break.”
For close to a decade, Jimblah helped break that cycle by running hip-hop workshops in detention centres across the country.
“Hip-hop has changed my life in such a positive way - it got me away from the streets, it got me away from getting into the wrong things," he says.
“It’s such an incredible medium to express yourself through and I just want to pass that on to anyone else who is willing enough to open up their minds to it.
“Many people still think it’s all about cars, drugs and 'gangsta rap’. They don’t know about its humble beginnings, the four elements [rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti] and how it was born out of struggle and oppression. It was only a matter of time before I would step into a detention centre and run some workshops on hip-hop and its positive benefits.”
A positive role model like Jimblah - who was signed up by Elefant Traks a year after releasing his self-produced debut album - is sorely needed.
"From my experiences, our younger fellas don't have many fatherly figures or decent role models," he says.
“Society doesn’t accept them and they often come from broken down families, suffering from drug abuse and neglect. Usually the only place they feel comfortable and actually a part of something is with their 'boys’ or ‘brothers’, their friends. This becomes like a family to them. Many feel angry at the world and feel like they can’t get jobs or a decent education and so on. They see crime as an option for an easy income and many of their friends are also offenders.”
The fact Australia jails Aboriginal men at a rate far higher than apartheid South Africa jailed black citizens does not help. Jimblah also helped stop juveniles falling victim to the criminal justice system early on, through his work as an Aboriginal Community Education Officer at Woodville High School, where he was "a mentor as well as a friend".
“I’ve always enjoyed working with our youth. They’re our future. We need to instill within them the confidence and knowledge to know that they can make a difference for our people, that they can be successful with whatever they decide to do with their lives.”
Hip-hop’s connection to youth work is nothing new in Australia - acts from such workshops get lots of radio airplay - but it is not without its critics. Indigenous rapper Nooky has dissed the practice of hiring non-Indigenous facilitators to work with Aboriginal youth.
In a scathing invective, Sydney blogger Ren Won claimed some projects were paternalistic, unsustainable, exploited young people and their focus on juveniles continued to portray Aboriginal Australians in a childlike way. What does Jimblah make of her analysis?
“Ren Won hit it on the head,” he says.
“I feel exactly the same way. I would like to see more programs being run by Aboriginal artists. This will empower the younger generation even more so. Many of these organisations and workshop tutors are only in it for a quick buck. Funding will be much better suited going back into the communities, rather than out of it. This will be much more sustainable.
“I would like to see more workshops that teach some of the older generations, within the community, to be able to run their own workshops, so that when us city folk leave, the positive benefits are ongoing.”
Jimblah knows all about the city-outback divide, having been born in the West Australian pearling port of Broome and raised in the Northern Territory town of Katherine.
"Broome is a beautiful place," he says.
“I only stayed there for a couple of years after I was born, so I don't have many memories growing up there. I have been back only once since, on a holiday with my family when I was seven or eight. I am lucky enough to be going there to run workshops, with [Aboriginal events management agency] Vibe.
“I remember Katherine being kind of tough. At such a young age you are kind of oblivious to the racism and the hardship of growing up in the smaller outback communities. I remember being very puzzled as to why other kids would call me half-caste or quarter-caste and other names I hadn’t heard before. So I would ask, what’s a half-caste? After finding out what it meant, I started calling myself 'half-caste’. It wasn’t until my mother told me off for using it, so I stopped saying it.
“From what I remember of Katherine, it seems to be like a lot of small rural towns - very divided, racism is everywhere and there is a lot of hate within the community. I used to get teased for being Aboriginal at school - not a lot by the younger kids my age, more so by the older kids. It’s not until I go back there now that I see what it’s really like.”
He retraces his steps, all the way from Broome to Adelaide, in the rolling, laid-back narrative of “My Life”, the song that opened his debut album.
“'My Life’ is a story of my journey from when I was born, up until the present day,” he says.
“The feel I was going for was a dark kind of vibe, and very raw. It highlights some of my struggles, ups, downs, and is pretty much an insight to what I’m about and where I have come from.”
In 2007, Jimblah won a $5000 grant in an initiative set up by veteran Adelaide rappers the Hilltop Hoods. He went on to work in remote communities in a broad sweep north of Adelaide, from the barren and beautiful Flinders Ranges to Ceduna, Leigh Creek, Marree, Copley, Iga Warta, Swan Hill, Port Lincoln and Port Augusta.
“I have been to many different and wonderful places and feel very privileged to be able to do so,” he says.
When asked to describe each place individually, he replies: “Out of all of the rural remote towns I have visited, one thing they all have in common is the high level of racism within the community. Not all, but the majority of outback towns are very divided, with racism being very out in the open. In the city it is more swept under the rug and you don’t see it that often, whereas out there, it’s a different story altogether.”
No-one needs to be sensitive to see that, but Jimblah’s sensitivity is like a sixth sense. In his music, his antennae seem to pick up on the nuances of everyone and everything around him and tune in to his deepest emotions. If, as film director Anthony Minghella once put it, “there’s one prison you can’t escape from, and that’s the prison of your own mind”, then Jimblah is freeing himself, bit by bit. His debut album’s title track, “Face The Fire”, perfectly embodies his quest to reveal the most fragile and fraught feelings of himself and others as he pours the pathos onto the page and breathes raw emotion into the mic.
"'Face the Fire' was written for one of my close friends who took his own life," he says.
“After I found out, I just began writing, as If I were writing a letter, and it really helped in coping with the situation. The verses are pretty much directed to him, but the chorus is directed more at myself and other people who are struggling with situations in their life, especially the young Indigenous youth out there.
“Suicide is such a huge issue within the Indigenous community. It’s for the times when you just feel like giving up, and it feels like there’s nowhere to turn. You’ve just got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and deal with your problems and issues head on. Giving up is not an option.
“After I wrote and recorded everything, I got in contact with some of the family of my friend and I caught up with them. I showed them the demo version and they were really moved and touched, so I asked my friend’s sister, Rhanee Lester, if she wanted to write something for the track, like a spoken word piece. She was all for it. It was a very moving time during the recording process, as you could only imagine.”
Such unvarnished intensity is matched by Face The Fire’s artwork - a perfect counterpoint to the ethereal, swirling flames of Phoenix, it is a gritty, charcoal portrait of the unshaven musician fixing the onlooker with his gaze.
“My friend, Sebastian Humphreys, did the artwork,” says Jimblah.
“Seb and myself have been close friends since primary school and street art is his passion. It felt only right to get him on board my first project. The theme for the artwork was, obviously, 'Face The Fire’. I wanted something very rough and not too flashy.”
His music also unfolds like a loose sketch drawn by an expert hand. The sparse soul of Jimblah’s measured, moving productions has seduced listeners. His tempered boom-bap clap and rolling funk snares interplay with hooks as big as a butcher’s that have gained him plenty of airplay. His songs retain a live, improvised feel, no doubt captured through his method of working. A mesmerising YouTube clip shows him burning the midnight oil in his dimly lit studio. The camera is focused on his slender fingers, which work the sampler’s pads live with the dexterity of a touch typist. The loops roll out with a looseness that might be lost in the clinical, linear sequencing of a computer screen.
Jimblah's fearless zeal for that human touch also sees him striving to go places lyrically that many would avoid like a fire hazard.
"'Left Me Here’ is very deep and emotional," he says.
"It’s about the relationship I have with my father. Growing up I saw my father abuse my mother and abuse myself. My father was a very good father, but when I was about 12, something dramatically changed within his life - he lost my uncle, his brother, to a drug overdose. This began a downward spiral. It pretty much sums up my feelings toward him. I still love him, but I needed to express the hurt and pain he has left me with. The feeling of abandonment."
As Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver put it: “In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all.”
However, for much of Jimblah’s music, the personal gives way to the political.
“'Just Another Day’ is something I wrote about Indigenous issues and the things we face as a community,” he says. “The pain, the struggle. I also wanted to express how many Australians say this and that, and express how Indigenous people should do [things] or behave a certain way. I wanted to express that, from where I’m standing, it’s a completely different view from where you’re standing. It’s easy to judge and say whatever, but at the end of the day, you have no idea, because in reality, you have never experienced or gone through a day in our lives, you have never walked in my shoes.
“I am reminded every day of the society I face, the struggles I have to go through being a young Indigenous man in this country. I’m constantly feeling like I have to prove my worth, that I have to prove that I am a decent person, that I don’t do drugs, that I am not a criminal and so on, and I’m constantly trying to break down the barriers and the negative stereotypes that hold my people back.”
Such stereotypes are amplified by the mainstream media. Jimblah recalls with distaste how a fan approached him after a gig and asked the rapper if he was a member of the so-called "Gang of 49". The mythical, supposedly all-Aboriginal criminal gang was invented by South Australia's biggest newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s Advertiser, after it got hold of a list of 49 separate offenders wanted by the police. The 49 people on the list, not all of whom were Aboriginal, were lumped together in headlines as a fearsome Aboriginal “gang”. The stories ran and ran.
“It seems mainstream media would rather portray Indigenous people in a negative light, from my point of view,” says Jimblah.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people in Australia would rather view us in that manner, also. The 'Gang of 49’ is a perfect example. It’s conditioning at its worst. We have young kids who now want to be a part of the so-called gang."
Jimblah is also dismayed at the media manipulation of programs such as the federal government’s Close The Gap or billionaire miner Andrew Forrest’s Generation One.
“Things like Generation One are doing more damage than good,” says Jimblah. “They might have good intentions, but when I turn on the TV it’s telling me I won’t live until 50, that I’ll drop out of school by 15, statistics telling me I’m three times more likely to be unemployed.
“Living on and growing up on the missions, I would get teased by other darker skinned kids for being ‘pink’, or ‘white’. Moving to the city I would get teased for being ‘black’. I always remember thinking, who am I, where do I fit? A big issue within our community is identity, and a lot of our culture has been lost. So when society treats us a certain way and the media pushes the negative issues to the forefront, many of our youth will become confused about who they are and how they should act.
“Instead of empowering our people, we’re going backwards, because programs like Generation One and Close The Gap are claiming and teaching us that we need help and that we can’t do it on our own. They’re teaching dependency, practising paternalism rather than teaching about self-determination. The media need to stop thinking about what’s going to sell and start pushing the positive stories within our community - they’re everywhere.”
Jimblah is just one of those stories - and telling his story has the power to light fires and change lives.
"On this last tour I really realised how powerful music can be to break down barriers," he says. "I've always known it, but I didn't realise exactly - it blew my mind how powerful it can be. So I think I really want to focus on my music and just focus on me. It's like a weird thing that I feel - it's almost become addictive, that I feel that I need to be in the studio. It's been like, OK let's look after you for a bit, you know? The rest will follow."
Then he steps back out under that burning ball of fire to greet his sunburnt fans - adding more fuel to the fire, getting synapses firing, that fire in his belly burning ever stronger.