December 2021 – January 2022

Arts & Letters

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

By Osman Faruqi

© Jerritt Clark / Getty Images for Interscope Records

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

In May 2021, tech billionaire and space cowboy Elon Musk took to the main stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City to host America’s long-running and bewilderingly influential variety show, Saturday Night Live. Musk’s performance, which consisted of a gruelling and deeply unfunny monologue as well as sketches parodying the 2015 Ridley Scott film The Martian and a mock trial where Musk plays videogame villain Wario, was widely regarded as SNL’s worst episode since Donald Trump took the reins six years prior.

The most significant consequence of Musk’s appearance, according to most write-ups of the show, was the plummeting in value of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency Musk described as a “hustle”. Musk’s antics were disappointing, not only because they were cartoonishly immature, but because they overshadowed a genuinely historic moment for the show, and art and popular culture more broadly: the SNL debut of a young musician called The Kid Laroi, who performed one of his biggest hits live.

It was easy to read articles and reviews about this episode without fully understanding the significance of The Kid Laroi’s presence on that stage. The ABC’s response was titled “Elon Musk opens up about Asperger’s syndrome in Saturday Night Live, dogecoin plugged in skit”. The Kid Laroi’s appearance was only mentioned in a single sentence.

Fair enough, you might say. Elon Musk is one of the most high-profile and powerful people in the world, why shouldn’t the national broadcaster focus on his appearance, instead of highlighting a musician most people haven’t heard of?

Here’s why: the artist in question was a 17-year-old Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter, his music was breaking chart records in Australia and the United States, he was accompanied onstage by superstar Miley Cyrus, he was fresh off a collaboration with Justin Bieber, he had just become the first Australian to perform on SNL since the Grammy-nominated Courtney Barnett in 2016, and he was about to be signed by the biggest manager in the world, Scooter Braun.

His performance, and the relatively muted reaction to it in his home country, demonstrated two things. The first was that he had become one of the most popular artists in the world, while still not legally an adult. The second? Mainstream Australia was deeply confused about how to react to the country’s biggest contemporary cultural export, especially one who came from the hip-hop scene.

Australia has had a rich and diverse hip-hop and rap scene. Since it emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it consisted of young artists, from a range of cultural backgrounds, often living in lower-income suburbs and public-housing estates, drawing inspiration from the hip-hop coming out of New York City and Los Angeles.

The streetwise realism of the likes of rappers Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy struck a chord with groups such as South West Syndicate, whose members included Indigenous, Pacific Islander, Lebanese and Eastern European rappers from Sydney’s western suburbs. The music and stories they were hearing from rappers in the US felt more familiar to them than traditional Anglo-dominated rock music, and more in keeping with their experiences of growing up in highly policed, economically disadvantaged areas.

These kinds of artists laid the foundations for what would eventually become Australian hip-hop, fusing the culture, sound and lyrical style of the US scene with Australian accents and Australian stories. But as the scene grew and became more mainstream, achieving recognition by the Australian Recording Industry Association in 2004 (albeit with the bizarre label of “urban music”), the artists who got major label record deals, radio and video airplay, and touring deals looked less and less like the pioneers.

The first ARIA award for Best Urban Release was won by Koolism, a hip-hop duo fronted by Hau Latukefu, a Tongan Australian, who had been working to build up the hip-hop community for more than a decade. Koolism’s critical success felt reflective of where Australian hip-hop had come from. But it wasn’t reflective of where it was going.

Over the next 12 years, the award was won consecutively by white artists. It wasn’t until 2017, when A.B. Original won the last-ever “Urban” award, that Australia’s peak music industry body again thought non-white rappers deserved to be lauded for the scene they had built. It was an extraordinary statement given not only the cultural origins of hip-hop in the US, but also its diverse origins in Australia.

Throughout that period, the most commercially and critically successful Australian hip-hop was represented by acts such as the Hilltop Hoods, Drapht, Illy, Bliss n Eso and 360: largely white and middle-class artists rapping about white and middle-class topics, largely devoid of the social, political and racial critique that had traditionally defined hip-hop.

How exactly this came to happen is complicated, but it has much to do with the gatekeepers who have decided who gets signed and who gets played, and what is considered marketable. Australian hip-hop had been seen as a risky proposition for the music industry from the start, so the safest and most lucrative path seemed to be giving record deals and airplay to white rappers who could rap about beer at events such as the Big Day Out. The idea of seriously investing in the kinds of artists who had built the scene, and had arguably more compelling stories to tell, was not a priority for major record labels at the time.

It was a paradoxical period for Australian hip-hop. On paper, it had never been more successful. These artists were popular, they won awards, sold plenty of records and headlined the biggest festivals in the country. But the music, the sound, the production style, the lyrics, the stories and the themes provided little inspiration to a new generation of rappers, who looked much more like the first wave of Australian hip-hop artists: Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Lebanese Australians and African Australians. Their experiences of growing up as people of colour in the lower-income suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne was a world away from the stories of getting shitfaced in Bondi told by rappers like 360.

So, they did what the first wave of Australian rappers did. They looked at the Anglo music scene, decided it wasn’t for them and cast their eyes back to the US. That decision, to react against what was popular, mainstream Australian hip-hop, is ultimately what gave birth to a new golden age of local rappers and allowed a young artist like The Kid Laroi to conquer the world.

Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard was born on August 13, 2003, in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Waterloo, next to Redfern, a year before Koolism made history by winning their ARIA award.

When Howard was six months and one day old, TJ Hickey, a 17-year-old Indigenous boy, was riding his bike through Waterloo. After drawing the attention of police, Hickey rode away. He crashed and was impaled on a fence, and later died. Hickey’s death sparked 2004’s Redfern riots, with locals from Waterloo and Redfern hurling Molotov cocktails, fireworks and bricks at police, whom they accused of being responsible for Hickey’s death.

A month after the riots, Howard’s mother, Sloane, a Kamilaroi woman whose great-grandfather was part of the Stolen Generations, approached TJ Hickey’s girlfriend, 14-year-old April Ceissman. Sloane worked as a music manager and wanted to help kickstart Ceissman’s career, after hearing about how devastated she was following Hickey’s death.

“A lot of rappers come out of Harlem and have real stories to tell,” Sloane said at the time. “In Australia they are mostly just copycats. April, on the other hand, has a story to tell from the heart.”

Sloane Howard had both a passion for her community and a sophisticated understanding of what was missing from Australian hip-hop. Her comments also foreshadowed the crucial role she would play in helping her son, Charlton, morph into The Kid Laroi.

Charlton’s parents separated when he was four, and he was raised by Sloane and schooled in Broken Hill, Adelaide and Sydney. It was in Adelaide where he first started recording music seriously, collaborating with a local DJ called Marcus. The two would record and perform at shows together, with Charlton Howard adopting the name The Kid Laroi, a tribute to his Kamilaroi heritage.

The early influences on Laroi’s music were evident when he was barely 12 years old. Eschewing the laconic rapping style and sample-heavy, accessible beats preferred by the biggest local acts at the time, Laroi’s early tracks were more like what would come to be known as SoundCloud rap. In the US, a new generation of rappers, such as Juice Wrld, was making music with gritty, personal and often melancholy lyrics on top of trap beats, full of snares and hi-hats, and uploading it to the online audio platform SoundCloud.

By rapping in an American accent, and referencing American rappers and basketball stars, Laroi made it clear from where he drew inspiration. His rapping was rapid-fire but sharp and articulate. He had stories to tell about his life, including his childhood, his parents’ separation and living in Waterloo. He also built a reputation as someone with a solid work ethic, juggling school and rapping.

Though his time in Adelaide was crucial in learning the basics of rapping, recording and performing, it wasn’t until Laroi moved back to Sydney, and into a scene that was emerging rapidly in reaction to mainstream Australian hip-hop, that his artistry really developed. He linked up the other emerging stars of the new generation and started to perfect the sound that would define the first phase of his career.

Emmanuel Adu was 12 when his parents moved from Ghana to Australia, settling in the western suburbs of Sydney. He went to school in Parramatta and started producing his own hip-hop music, rapping under the alias Manu Crooks. James Iheakanwa, a Nigerian Australian born in Liverpool, south-west Sydney, got his head start as a rapper a couple of years before Adu, releasing music as B Wise. Samson Andah, better known as Miracle, was another Ghanian-born Australian rapper who grew up in Sydney’s suburbs, and was also releasing music around the same time.

Manu Crooks, B Wise and Miracle were crucial in defining what was about to become the future of Australian hip-hop. Like The Kid Laroi, they were more influenced by American music than what was coming out of Australia at the time. But they weren’t copycats. To borrow from Sloane Howard, they had stories to tell about the suburbs they grew up in and the lives they had lived. Their emergence coincided with a structural shift in how the music industry worked and who was allowed to make music.

The gatekeepers, while not gone, had become far less powerful. SoundCloud, YouTube and TikTok had started to level the playing field. Now artists could release their music themselves, generate their own buzz and get the attention of tastemakers. The same labels that for decades had turned their backs on artists such as Miracle became desperate to sign them up after seeing their music go viral.

It was a perfect storm, and The Kid Laroi landed smack bang in the middle.

In 2018 he released his first EP, 14 with a Dream, which featured collaborations with Manu Crooks, B Wise and Miracle. The same year, his track “Blessings” got him into the finals for Triple J’s Unearthed High competition, the station’s search for the best high-school talent. It was all coming together: his natural talent, his dedication and a community around him who could inspire and motivate him to create a new kind of sound. From there, his career exploded.

Later that year, when he was still just 15, Laroi’s career came full circle when he booked a gig supporting his idol, Juice Wrld, on the American’s first Australian tour. Juice Wrld then took Laroi to Los Angeles and introduced him to producers, sound engineers and music-video directors, propelling his young protégé’s career.

In LA, Laroi signed to Juice Wrld’s management team, Grade A Productions, but in December 2019, Juice Wrld died after overdosing on oxycodone and codeine. Unsurprisingly, the loss had a big impact on Laroi, who paid tribute to Juice Wrld on a number of melancholic tracks. But it didn’t send his career off track.

His mother and younger brother relocated to LA, and The Kid Laroi started pumping out hit after hit. His first major single in the US, “Diva”, featuring another up-and-coming rap sensation, Lil Tecca, was certified platinum. The follow up, “Addison Rae”, went viral on TikTok (the song itself is an ode to one of TikTok’s biggest stars).

In the middle of 2020, at just 16, Laroi heralded his status as arguably the most successful Australian rapper in history when he dropped his first multi-track commercial release: a mixtape called F*ck Love. It was produced by some of the biggest names in the business including Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, and featured a guest verse from the late Juice Wrld. It debuted at number eight on the US Billboard charts, an extraordinary achievement for an Australian artist. But that was still just the beginning of a record-breaking run.

Over the next few months, Laroi released deluxe editions of the mixtape, adding bonus tracks including “Without You” (the track he performed on SNL with Miley Cyrus) and “Stay”, featuring the biggest pop sensation of the past decade, Justin Bieber.

Both “Without You” and “Stay” hit number one on the ARIA charts, but the latter also went to number one in the US, making Laroi the first Australian since Sia in 2016 to reach the top of the Billboard charts. It also made him the first Indigenous solo artist to reach number one in the US. The deluxe editions of F*ck Love propelled the mixtape to number one in the album charts as well, making Laroi the youngest Australian artist ever to have a bestselling US album.

His age, his background, his collaborations with the biggest artists of this generation and his commercial success left the industry gobsmacked. Producers, labels and agencies scrambled to attach themselves. Despite the success, Laroi’s relationship with Grade A had soured. In interviews Laroi has refused to answer questions about the breakdown, but it was a peculiar end to what had clearly been a lucrative partnership for both parties.

Laroi was promptly approached by Scooter Braun, the superstar manager whose roster includes Bieber and Ariana Grande. And Braun seemed like the right fit for an artist whose first project had put him on the map, and who now needed a steady hand to help sustain the momentum. But just three months later, Laroi dropped him. Those close to Laroi say that while Braun promised a personal, hands-on touch, he was spread too thin amongst his high-profile clients and Laroi wasn’t getting the attention he thought he deserved.

A few months ago, Laroi settled on Adam Leber, Miley Cyrus’s former manager, whom he had spent time with in the lead-up to SNL, and who also manages Lil Nas X, another wildly successful young rap sensation.

As hard as it is to believe, considering all the commercial and critical success Laroi achieved before even reaching the age of 18, it still feels like the boy from Waterloo is only just getting started.

With Leber by his side, a solid record deal with Columbia, his family around him, what seems to be limitless creative drive, and some of the biggest artists in the world eager to work with him, The Kid Laroi appears poised to dominate the industry. In 2022, he’ll embark on a 27-date North American tour, before heading to Europe and then returning to Australia mid year. The last time he was in the country he had only a handful of singles and was still an unknown and untested proposition – the biggest feather in his cap being his run to the finals for a radio competition aimed at high-school students. Now he will return as the most successful Australian musician of his generation, and currently one of the most popular in the world.

That deserves a bit more attention than Elon Musk’s bad comedy, right?

Osman Faruqi

Osman Faruqi is a political journalist. He was the host of Schwartz Media's The Culture podcast and the editor of 7am until early 2022.

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