Sydney-based musician Ziggy Ramo, aged 25, released his debut album Black Thoughts on June 6. It was the day that huge protests took place across Australia in response to Indigenous deaths in custody, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. In Sydney, the protest was ruled legal only after it began. By then, roughly 20,000 people had gathered at Town Hall.
In a context where the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated global inequalities of race – African-American people have died from the disease at twice the rate of white Americans, while in Australia, police have issued public health fines at a disproportionately high rate in rural towns with large Indigenous communities – protests against police brutality have gained a new momentum. This is not to suggest that racism has suddenly been revealed as a new phenomenon, and certainly not in Australia. Racism is the foundational logic of colonisation: dispossess people of their land so that the land can be turned into private property; justify that dispossession by conceiving of those people subject to it as less than human. Part of Ramo’s achievement on Black Thoughts is to make this history palpable in sound: to trace in his songs the continuity of racist governance and belief, but also the unbroken lineage of Indigenous resistance.
“Knock knock, standing at your door like Jehovah Witness,” he raps on “Stand for Something”, which arrives near the album’s mid-point. “I could be the greatest just like Hova spittin’ / But I ain’t give a fuck if you ain’t ready to listen / ’Cause our people losin’ lives, yeah / Fuck the system.” Behind his voice there moves a slow, spare beat and a jazzish, ruminative piano part. The unhurried pace of the music combined with the vehemence of Ramo’s delivery makes “Stand for Something” feel both considered and spontaneous: the heat of a moment, the work of a lifetime. The same could be said of Black Thoughts as a whole. Ramo surrounds his own urgent enquiries into Australian history with a meticulous collage of voices, from news reports and other sources. Each element speaks to the other, so that the whole assemblage becomes something greater than its parts.
Sometimes those voices are rousing in their sorrow, as in the late Rob Riley’s poem “At the White Man’s School”, a reading of which, by journalist John Pilger, opens “Stand for Something”. “At the white man’s school, what are the children taught?” asked Riley. “Are they told of the battles our people fought?” Riley, a member of the Stolen Generations, helped to found the activist group Black Action in the late 1970s in Perth, and was involved in the blockade of Noonkanbah Station on Yungngora land in the Kimberley in 1980, which prevented oil drilling by the American mining company AMAX. Among Riley’s other achievements, he founded the Perth Aboriginal Medical Service and the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, and served as the chief executive of the Western Australian Aboriginal Legal Service from 1990 to 1995. He took his own life in 1996. In a better country we might raise a statue to Riley, but perhaps the inclusion of his words on Black Thoughts might prompt listeners to wonder why such lacunae exist in Australia’s official history.
This is Ramo’s intention: he places Black Thoughts within a hip-hop tradition of alternative media and pedagogy. “Hip-hop is birthed from oppression,” he tells me, and part of the role of the MC has been to report on the news from below, news “that wasn’t making television, that wasn’t making mainstream media”. His comments echo Chuck D of Public Enemy, who once observed that “rap is black America’s TV station”. As with other protest albums in this tradition, from Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) to Solange’s A Seat at the Table (2016) – the latter is not strictly a hip-hop record, but wouldn’t exist without hip-hop – Black Thoughts is designed to provoke questions, not to provide answers. Its rhetorical register moves from direct challenge, as on “Black Face”, originally released in 2016 (“You paint your skin black but you don’t wear it as your own / Australia, grow a fucking backbone”), through to songs that turn the triumphalist language of colonisation against itself. “Empire, empire / We an empire,” Ramo raps on the hook of “Empire”, in celebration of Indigenous civilisation and its unparalleled longevity in this land. His wordplay is wrought on the largest historical canvas.
The term that Ramo uses repeatedly in conversation – and he is an eloquent, roaming conversationalist – is “critical thinking”. “I’m not trying to build a dependency on my voice,” he says, and though Black Thoughts has the impetus of a record propelled by righteous anger, in no need of interlocutors, Ramo nevertheless invites listeners to step up and reply to it. He conceives of the album as the starting point for a conversation that must go far beyond his own artistry. “Because the real conversation that I want to have isn’t in this record,” he says. “This is not where I’m trying to get us to. We need to develop a country of critical thinkers, who can think for themselves.”
He relates an exchange with another protester at the June 6 march in Sydney, a white man who was more determined to provoke police than to reflect on whom his provocation might impact. “He’s not bringing change to the root of the problem,” Ramo says of this kind of self-aggrandising stance. As for police brutality, Ramo poses the question: “Is that the problem or a symptom of a problem?”
Black Thoughts names many “symptoms”, from the racist vilification of Adam Goodes (“That shit is a disgrace,” Ramo sums up, on the album’s title track) to, on “April 25th”, ANZAC mythology and its role in nationalism. But the real task that Ramo identifies is a reckoning with the invasion that began the construction of Australia – as a nation, as an identity – in the first place. “The problem is sovereignty never ceded, a war still going on,” he says. “The symptoms will keep rearing their head until we deal with the issue that no one [who is non-Indigenous] has claim to this land, because we never gave it to you.”
My conversation with Ramo lasts more than two hours. In that time we discuss everything from the invention of the nation-state to the limits of protest music, his passion for New York hip-hop, especially Nas and Jay Z (aka Hova), to his doubts about the music industry. “How is that any different to what’s happened to my land?” he queries, with regard to his reluctance to sign a record contract. (Black Thoughts is released independently.) “To give up ownership of my intellectual property and stories?” The question is his favourite mode of discourse.
It seems no accident in this respect that both of Ramo’s parents are educators. His mother is an assistant school principal, his father a principal. His father, whom he clearly reveres, is of Wik and Solomon Islands heritage: his Islander ancestors were forcibly transported here to work in the Queensland sugarcane fields, in a system of slavery that several politicians, past and present, have lately been keen to deny was slavery at all. Ramo’s mother is of Scottish descent, and on “Black Thoughts” he brings his whole history together in a tumbling run of words. “My people in the death bed by preventable heart disease / Served through rations brought from overseas / On ships full of convicts and common thieves / Same ships the one that brought my mother’s genes.” The striking cover photograph of Black Thoughts – an Indigenous man and a white woman standing side-by-side in ceremonial dress and body paint – is of his parents on their wedding day.
When Ramo was a child – he is the youngest of four children – his parents worked at a school in Gapuwiyak, in north-east Arnhem Land. The family subsequently moved to Perth, and then to Sydney, where Ramo studied at university before returning for a time to Arnhem Land to work in public-health projects.
“Music is 50,000 years inside me,” he says, when asked about his early exposure to it. He also points to his encounter with Kanye West’s The College Dropout (2004), which he first heard at the age of six or seven, as galvanising. Specifically, he recalls his realisation that West’s song “All Falls Down” referenced Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity”; he recognised Hill’s melody because his dad had often played that record. That realisation set off his interest in sampling, which he compares to songlines: “It’s tracing it back, and finding the original story, and seeing what other stories have been told through that.” The power of sampling lies partly in its collapse of linear time; audio samples can bring the historical past directly into a song’s present, which is what the collaged voices on Black Thoughts do.
Ramo also credits his older brother with helping him to hone his craft. His brother would send the teenage Ramo lyric prompts and challenges to write to, and the pair would dissect canonical hip-hop recordings: Nas’s Illmatic (1994), Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt (1996). Black Thought’s mix of supple instrumentation, intricate lyricism and combative vocal delivery recalls those two New York titans, but it doesn’t mimic them, and that’s in part because Ramo recognises that there’s no real way to graft American hip-hop onto his own experience. “They’re not my stories,” he says. Instead, he wants to give young Indigenous listeners a way to hear themselves. Much as he wrote the record in order to question white Australia’s complacency, he also wrote it “for my people. It’s so important to me that we feel seen.”
He is fiercely ambitious. “I want to be the biggest artist in the world,” he declares, “because I want to ask these questions to the world.” As he says this, I think how much ambition has mattered to me as a listener, and what a thrill it is to find it. A musician who sets the bar as high as changing the world – whether that be Janet Jackson or Joe Strummer – is offering that ambition to their audience, too, which I take to be an act of generosity, a great gift. Once I’ve heard the challenge, how will I return it? Our own conversation, Ramo observes, is a corollary of his aims: “This album fails if you’re dependent on me to give you the answers.”
The record’s timeliness is, in its own way, an indictment of intransigence when it comes to ending racism, stopping deaths in custody, recognising Indigenous sovereignty – all of it – because Black Thoughts wasn’t recorded this year or even last year, but in 2015. “I wish it was dated,” Ramo wrote in an Instagram post that accompanied the album’s surprise release in June. “But unfortunately, it’s more relevant than ever and I refuse to wait any longer.” In his post, Ramo referred to the fact that he wrote the album during a period of psychiatric hospitalisation, and he’s frank in discussing the circumstances of the album’s recording.
Ramo was 20; his producer, Jack Calneggia, aka JCAL, was 19. They met for their first recording session just after Ramo had told a counsellor that he planned to kill himself. His counsellor rang his sister, who came and sat in the studio with him while Ramo recorded “Black Thoughts”. Then he was taken straight to hospital. While he was there, Calneggia continued to send him beats, for which Ramo wrote verses; the entire album was completed in three studio sessions, one of which took place while Ramo was on day release from the hospital ward. The urgency of the album’s recording was fuelled by Ramo’s sense that it would be his last testament. “Once I got it out – and this is quite dark – I felt a certain sense of relief, like, I can go now, and know that at least I captured this moment.”
As for why he shelved the album until now, there are a couple of reasons, the first of which was Ramo’s doubt that the local music industry – and by extension, the nation – was ready to listen. “I showed this record to executives,” he says. “I played a bunch of these songs at [music industry conference] Big Sound in 2017, and a lot of the comments were, ‘Why are you so angry?’” There was also the fact that he wanted to build his musical profile, and his public platform, “so that when I did put it out, it would be heard”. But after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the insistence by various journalists, commentators and politicians – including Prime Minister Scott Morrison – that Australia didn’t have any comparable problem with police violence or systemic racism, Ramo decided that the time was now. “The realisation that I had is that the platform is the record,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s already finished writing a second one.
Black Thoughts concludes with an 18-minute track called “Final Thoughts”, which consists of an interview between Ramo and Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye! program, set to music. Anyone listening to it will come away with a vivid sense of Ramo’s enthusiasms, and of his outrage. The anger in his songs, he says, is reflected in this conversation with Browning, but the fact that it is a conversation – not a monologue, or a manifesto – is equally important. There follows a silence of nearly two minutes: the track keeps running, but no sound is heard.
And what is silence, in this context? It’s time for me to answer. In that silence, I think of who is silenced, and how much of the irreplaceable knowledge of country, language, law and all the rest has been destroyed – how it continues to be destroyed – in this nation. I think of the fiction of the nation: Australia is an invention as much as terra nullius is. Like racism itself, the ideology of nationhood produces the world that we live in, and live in unequally. I think of how the fight to end racism and to end the structures that produce it is not a struggle that I can wage on someone else’s behalf, for someone else’s benefit. No: the struggle is for my own soul, in order to arrive at a humanity that has been otherwise distorted and diminished by the lie of race.
“Ending with silence is really important to me,” reflects Ramo. “It represents a couple of things. It represents the silence in which we’ve been complicit, as a country, the fact that we’ve let this silence fester from a root that we’ve never answered [to]. But what do you do in that silence? It can also be positive. Can you reflect, can you start asking yourself why? Can you start critically thinking? It was really important to me that silence was where we ended, because that, to me, is where I’m leaving the conversation in your hands.”
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