July 2016

Arts & Letters

Smart black man with a plan

By Anwen Crawford

Briggs. Photo by Ben THSLFE

Briggs on hip-hop, humour and a new generation of Aboriginal leaders

Adam Briggs – better known simply as Briggs – is a rapper, writer, performer and record label owner. As a rapper he has released two solo albums, The Blacklist (2010) and Sheplife (2014), and is working on a third. He acts in Cleverman, the dystopian drama screening on the ABC, and co-wrote the show’s theme song. He was a performer and scriptwriter during the second season of ABC sketch show Black Comedy, which aired earlier this year. And he has formed a musical duo called A.B. Original alongside fellow Aboriginal rapper and producer Daniel Rankine, aka Trials; their debut album is due in September.

“I’m not good at time off,” Briggs tells me. It’s hardly a surprise. “This” – his formidable spread of creativity – “is my job, so I just try to work all the time. I’ve been afforded a platform and I don’t feel like wasting it.”

It’s no exaggeration to describe Briggs, a Yorta Yorta man from Shepparton in Victoria, as the nation’s most prominent Aboriginal rapper. In 2014 he was named Best New Talent at the National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs), and at the 2015 NIMAs he won Film Clip of the Year for ‘Bad Apples’ and Album of the Year for Sheplife. His solo albums are released on Golden Era, a label run by Adelaide hip-hop stars Hilltop Hoods, while A.B. Original recently supported the Hoods on a national tour. (“We played to ten thousand plus, every night.”)

A.B. Original came out of Briggs’ longstanding friendship with Trials, a Ngarrindjeri man from country along the Murray River in South Australia.

“We want to be the rappers that we wish we’d had when we were forming our styles,” Briggs says. “We had Ice-T and Ice Cube, 2Pac and Snoop, written all over our pencil cases. But we thought it would be so dope if young black kids in Australia could have their own people to write on their pencil case. You know what I mean?”

Briggs asks this question a lot, as if checking to see whether you follow him. It can give the impression of hesitancy, though his sense of purpose is clear. “The whole thing that we wanted to do with A.B. Original, Briggs and Trials, is to make being black – and being Aboriginal – cool.” He describes A.B. Original as deliberately brash, and more aggressive than his solo work. Hard beats provide the framework for their uncompromising lyrics. “It’s meant to make people uncomfortable,” he says. “If it doesn’t make people uncomfortable, we’re not doing it correct.”

“They want me out the way / In the grave or the prison,” the two men rap on ‘Dead in a Minute’. The song’s combination of serious subject matter and a slightly screwball mood (a cheeky blurting horn line and exaggerated vocal style) is typical of Briggs’ philosophy. Without humour, “you’re going to be consumed by the darkness”.

“I could be at a funeral and I’d have a laugh,” he says. “It’s my favourite thing in the world.” One of his sketches on Black Comedy – a three-part Mob parody in the spirit of Goodfellas and The Godfather called ‘The Elders’ – opens at a funeral, where rival factions are led by Aunty Mary (Leah Purcell) and Aunty Joycie (Deborah Mailman). The two women battle for the right to conduct official ceremonies. “Competition was fierce,” narrates Briggs, in voiceover. “Welcome to Country’s charged by the syllable. You want the smoking ceremony? That’s extra.”

His involvement in comedy, Briggs says, “has freed my music up again”. He feels newly emboldened to speak bluntly on difficult subjects without worrying “if I’m coming across too hard. I’ve got a whole season of comedy dedicated to the fact that I have a sense of humour.”

The hardness and the humour can go together, as they did in ‘Aamer and Briggs vs. Australia Day’, a video published earlier this year to music and culture website Vice. Sitting in the pub, Briggs and stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman discussed their views.

“The national anthem sucks,” opened Briggs. He recalled occasions at school when he was reprimanded for refusing to stand when it was played, and outlined the reasons why. “Number one, it doesn’t represent me or my people, it doesn’t pay respect to my people. Number two, I’m mad lazy.”

“Do you consider yourself Australian?” Briggs asked Rahman, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, later in the video.

“No,” Rahman replied.

“No, me neither,” said Briggs.

The disgruntled reception to their video was probably predictable. It doesn’t take much to stir a defensive, wounded nationalism in this country. When Rahman described Australia Day as a “collective exercise in trying to forget” the nation’s colonial past, he was also pointing to a wider refusal by some, particularly white Australians, to come to terms with the most difficult aspects of the nation’s history, including the persecution of, and continued discrimination against, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The ongoing racism and hostility directed at former AFL player Adam Goodes (whom Briggs described in the Vice video as one of his heroes) is one particularly prominent example of this, and Briggs himself has faced aggressive online reactions for his persistent criticism of Australians who don blackface.

“When you challenge the Australian way, the response is generally a negative one,” he observes during our conversation. And yet he remains optimistic about the readiness of Australian audiences to engage with indigenous performers and stories, particularly through hip-hop. “There’s always been a presence of black rappers [in Australia],” he says, “but in the mainstream it’s been a different story.” Pioneering Aboriginal rappers like BrothaBlack, who featured on Briggs’ first album, and Newcastle’s Local Knowledge have only received limited recognition. But Briggs believes this is changing. “The quality’s there, it’s not a question of quality. Everyone’s on the level. It’s a question of when, and who.”

And he is not afraid of challenging his own audience, describing his onstage persona as “all the biggest parts of my personality turned up to 11”.

“I don’t want indifference,” he declares. “I want you to either hate me or love me. I really try to make my audience pick a side.” On ‘Firing Squad’, he and Trials, with guest vocalist Hau, lay down a blunt message for any listeners who may be tempted by methamphetamine. “Jesus Christ, put down the pipe / Acting like Björk from the land of ice.”

Does he worry that, despite the jokes, the duo’s audience might feel as if they’re being lectured to?

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” he says. “We’re not saying ‘Don’t drink’. We’re saying ‘Meth is shit’. No one ever looked cool with a crack pipe in their mouth.”

Briggs’ pastoral interests extend beyond his listeners. His label, Bad Apples Music, which launched last year, aims to nurture a new generation of Aboriginal role models. Its first three signings – Northern Territory rapper Birdz, Mildura artist Philly and Nowra-born Nooky – are “not just rappers”, says Briggs. “They’re leaders. And it was important to pick leaders because this isn’t just about music. It’s about having a legacy.”

This idea is important to Briggs. He wants Bad Apples Music to provide a support structure, both financial and emotional, for young up-and-comers, and to stand as an inspiration for Aboriginal artists who might dream of starting their own label. “Make your own,” he says. “Change things, change it all.”

“Smart black man with a plan / Nothing scarier,” rap Briggs and Trials on ‘2 Black 2 Strong’, which Briggs describes as A.B. Original’s “anthem”. The song’s mood is uproarious, celebratory and splenetic all at once. An electric guitar drily sketches a riff. The horn section sallies forth again. “Once ya see the dorsal / It’s too late / That’s your torso.”

Is humour, I ask Briggs, a survival strategy for Aboriginal people in Australia?

“Yeah,” he replies, and his tone becomes serious. “If you’re not laughing, what else are you gonna do?”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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