Since the viral sensation of Bangs with his song and video clip, Take U To Da Movies, a slew of African youth living in Melbourne have taken to rapping as a transformative mode of expression. Ezu, William 2k, Garang Garang, Clik Fablice/Flybz, D KAYZ, Prince Jay and Abiel are some of the names of the solo performers and acts that are dispelling their experiences as urban refugees and migrants. One of the most interesting writers and musicians to come out of this scene is Riak; a pre-eminent voice steeped in the cup of a rap that is completely his own.
Most of these outfits adhere to an unabashedly DIY ethos—all writing, playing, recording and making their videos themselves—which in turn has created an enigmatic genre of experimental diasporic rap. Despite its expressive originality and experimentation, the work of these artists has been largely laughed at and ‘hated’ for its surface-level B-grade-ness. Consequently, the movement has been shrugged off and pushed out to where most of this work is made: on the margins.
Helplessly scattered and broken both on the page and when performed, Riak’s flow sits outside most rap styles—including those of his contemporaries. This leaves him in a tenuous and perplexing position: on the periphery of a peripheral culture.
I try to contact Riak through numerous pages on Facebook for an interview. It proves fruitless: most of the pages are piss-takes seemingly not run by the rapper himself. I eventually get in touch with Jon Staley. Jon is the manager and producer of YouthWorx: a community services production company where Riak studied a film and radio short course some years ago.
I meet Riak at YouthWorx in Brunswick. He goes into their studios every Friday to write, rehearse and record. He’s at work in the recording booth. He’s looping the hook from 2Pac’s California Love on GarageBand. He’s laid percussive scat-fricatives of his own moans and grunts beneath the beat. He steps out and greets me warmly. He speaks softly. He smiles and shakes my hand, immediately devoid of the usual bombastic ego of rappers.
He tells me of how he grew up in a large family who shifted between Khartoum and all over what is now South Sudan: the world’s newest country after gaining independence in 2011. The family moved around for work and so that the children could learn English. ‘In Khartoum there’s no English primary school. You have to do Arabic from when you are four. They don’t have English until you finish high school…and my family were like nah, they want me to learn how to speak some, do some English or something like that, you know, and so I moved to South.’
When he was 12, Riak left Sudan while it was in the throes of its second civil war. He moved to Cairo for a year where he worked as a cleaner in a restaurant. In 2004, Riak and his older brother migrated to Australia after claiming refugee status. He was 13 years old. ‘I was what we call a human trade or something like that. Refugee. Yeah. Sometimes we have to talk about Sudan. War. Sudan was in war, you know? And you have to write something about that, you know? If they, if Australia accept that, you know?’
Riak went to Dandenong High School where a teacher encouraged him to lift his songwriting from paper to music.
A large plastic packet sits on the table before him, stuffed with countless drafts of songs. They catch my eye for their bizarre use of punctuation and almost concrete presence on the page. I pick out a draft. He offers me to keep it. It’s the lyrics to his song, Life is River:
toss ground and put in jail
trust son this is turn don,t feel
i see alife from different angle
don,t from god is shallows, i,m
his angle i was born shine
down and all best weed, and i
going zon when i high here
go low they bring all trick and
smoken i sit only in room i
drink it baby girl I’m soldiers
The text is interspersed with a chorus:
life is river bittersweet life
believe me life is bittersweet,
everywhere gs up by shadow,
believe me life is bittersweet
The way the words are strewn about is baffling. The grammar, syntax, punctuation and structure are a mess; however, the writing strangely has glimmers of pure imagery and poetry, while also being wayward and incomprehensible.
I’m reminded of his track, Do For Love, which has the infamous, searing refrain: ‘Don Die on Me’. It’s straight-up and engaging…raw and passionate; which is refreshing, given that much local abstract music seems to focus on exposition, rather than expression.
The underlining Riak’s made on his prose is also bizarre. I go to remove it in Word, but then I learn that in Dinka—Riak’s first language and the official language of South Sudan—letters are underlined in a word to dictate a hard intonation; which will inevitably shift the meaning of a word completely. Given that it is all underlined in a different language from Dinka, a bunch of curious linguistic implications come up for question…Is it all a bunch of poor literacy and writing, or is it his own delivery cue to spit these words out hard and aggressively? Could it even be some bent miasma of code-words to riff and submerge two languages into each other?
I ask him what his songs and writings are about. Two words spill quick: love and war. Grand themes that are uncommon in an at times dull silken vault of an over-theoretical and referential music scene. Riak’s songwriting is as confusing as it is honest, and this is how the songs and the genre make people sit up and listen.
‘War can’t trust how I feel, but I have to…I have to do what I do…I ain’t got nothing…[but] I ain’t got no problem, or any personal problem with anybody or country or something like that…If you want to listen to what I did: listen—go and get it, you know? If you wanna talk to me talk to me, you know?’
The geography of his childhood now exists very much in an emotive, creative place. His unknowingly complex and recondite phrase—‘War can’t trust how I feel’—speaks of how his life has been conditioned and haunted by the closeness of war. He can almost see it as a ghost that’s familiar, but as impossible to describe as a colour.
The residue of Riak’s verse sings of dislocation—partly from a Sudan that is now divided into two, and partly from language. Riak is between a number of languages: Dinka, which he speaks fluently; Arabic, in which he has a street-level proficiency; and English, which he has absorbed (to an extent) into his own twisted mélange of words. This English is the language he predominantly writes and sings in…a language that is the flesh of his imagination.
Riak’s writing and singing are an emancipatory declaration of his life: the words in his pockets and his dreams of being in the rap game. He is documenting these interstices of languages, to himself and to an audience. It may be preposterous to think that he is aware of this, but this is not so important. Whether or not his writing and songs are good is kind of a redundant consideration. What’s more important is that as Riak is coming into a language, he is also coming into being. He is magically drowning in disjunctive nonsense: an anti-metre of poetry.
We recall the radical first verse of Jamaican dub-poet Michael Smith’s performance poem/song, Mi Cyaan Believe It (1982):
Me seh me cyaan believe it
me seh me cyaan believe it
Room dem a rent
me apply widdin
but as me go een
cockroch rat an scorpion
also come een
nose haffi run
but me naw go siddung pon high wal
like Humpty Dumpty m
e a face me reality
One little bwoy come blow im horn
an me look pon im wid scorn
an me realize how me five bwoy-picni
was a victim of de trick
dem call partisan politricks
an me ban me belly
an me bawl
an me ban me belly
an me bawl
me cyaan believe it
me seh me cyaan believe it
Smith phonetically wrote the street speak of Kingston. Reading some of the sentences is difficult and distancing. This rectifies the at times bewildering experience of having to write, speak and sing in a language that is not your own. Smith’s work has been poorly (if at all) canonised, because (as is the case with Riak, Bangs, etc.) the work is too subversive to homogenise. Tragically, Smith was eventually stoned to death in 1983 for his cultural activism.
Riak’s life and writing give insight into another cadence and hustle, entangled beneath the verse of this community. This music is not wholly representative of the community, but it is an undeniably alive part of it. What is doubly interesting is that the community is a re-settlement of a country, South Sudan, which was established after these rappers had already been exiled from the root. As portrayed in Riak’s journals, identity is just as imagined and felt as it is located—and complicated too:
When I heard black I feel
When I heard my black I’m still
Atmosphere and feeling are in the blood of this music. It is not without antecedents: in 1994, Triple 6 Mafia self-released the cassette, Smoked Out Loced Out. A dazzling evocation of blackness, the album utilises avant-garde techniques of repetition and analogue tape-loops: imagine Terry Riley and Lil Wayne staying up all night free-basing in a room full of candles and pentagrams and trying to make a rap record. The song ‘Niggaz Aint Barin’ Dat’ is structured around a homily of sorts:
North Memphis South Memphis
Westwood Orange Mound North
Memphis South Memphis Westwood
Orange Mound North Memphis South
Memphis Westwood Orange Mound
North Memphis South Memphis
Westwood Orange Mound.
Orange Mound is a neighbourhood in south-eastern Memphis, Tennessee that was the first African-American neighbourhood in the United States to be constructed and controlled by African-Americans. Triple 6 Mafia, along with other acts that were also part of the horrorcore movement, were some of the first rappers to come out of Memphis and black communities built on former slave plantations. On top of this, many rappers were satanists, which only added to the confusion and complexity of a people figuring out who they were/are. While stylistically very different, Riak and his community are doing a similar thing.
Akin to the emerging communities before them, Riak and his fellow artists are starting up an original game and a noble sound that details an immanent identity. This is not easily understandable from the outside, but, as Riak writes, when god lived on earth people broke his windows.
Scott McCulloch is a writer, musician and literary studies teacher.