Elizabeth’s second reign

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in Swampland Magazine #2, April 2017

The quiet monotony of suburbia can be a fertile medium for creativity, and there’s no shortage of the stuff among the vast tracts of urban sprawl to the north of Adelaide. 22 years old and hungry, Gabriel Akon found himself here largely by accident. The rapper, poet and aspiring mogul behind artist collective slash label Playback 808 has spent the past few years assembling his own community of artists intent on building their own hip hop scene from scratch.

The area has form for nurturing fierce musical talent out of young migrants transplanted from the other side of the world. Jimmy Barnes grew up in Elizabeth after his family left Glasgow in 1962. Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson, the late Belfast-born frontman of The Angels, made a similar move as a child, as did Little River Band co-founder Glenn Shorrock and guitarist of The Sports Martin Armiger. Akon lives a bit further out west in Golden Grove, a town that didn’t actually exist back then. Since sprouting out of rolling farmland in the mid-1980s, it’s perhaps best-known for being home to Guy Sebastian during his pre-Idol super-church days.

In Barnes’ time, the then-fledgling region was driven by an influx of English and European migrants and the promise of abundant employment thanks to a manufacturing boom and big players like Holden, the Cold War-era weapons research industry and, later, denim giants Levi-Strauss. At its heart was Elizabeth, a satellite town 26 kilometres north of Adelaide, built from the ground up by the South Australian Housing Trust, and the centrepiece of post-war efforts to rapidly industrialise the state. Barnes and shiploads of other new arrivals were met with streets lined with boxy, semi-detached redbrick homes built by the Trust. Along with new shopping centres, schools and theatres, it offered a readymade stake of the then-viable Australian dream to workers from far and wide.

These days, things are a little less optimistic. “Elizabeth is one of the most disenfranchised locales in South Australia, maybe Australia,” Akon says. With a high unemployment rate that reliably doubles the national average, and a gloomy economic mood in the shadow of the nearby Holden plant’s imminent closure (Levi-Strauss left in 2003), this cluster of northern suburbs marks the frontline in a battle against statewide unemployment. But for Akon and his friends, there are reasons to be hopeful. Efforts by multiple levels of government to alleviate cycles of youth unemployment and socio-economic disadvantage have manifested themselves in Northern Sound System, a community space and outreach program with a unique focus on music. 

This is where we meet Akon, Eman (Akon’s right hand man and first Playback 808 signing) and their producer JC. It’s essentially a well-appointed youth centre, with freshly painted walls and a gumleaf-strewn concrete skate bowl. But it’s the novel addition of several recording booths that is making Northern Sound System so significant.

It’s hard to picture the local council hatching a crack plan to take on the international rap scene, but as far as policy outcomes go it’s been surprisingly successful. Just look at its first and biggest alumni. Tkay Maidza spent 2016 trading fire verses with Killer Mike, monstering Australia’s biggest festival stages and releasing her debut LP through major labels around the globe. Four years ago she was in the same room we’re sitting in now, releasing her first track Brontosaurus through the centre’s mentoring program slash record label.

“It’s crazy, Tkay is a mate of ours,” says Akon. “The African community is very small in Australia, especially Adelaide, so just coming up and watching her do her thing was amazing. Seeing her end up here, then use it as a platform to take it to the next level, to have a viable product that’s killing it internationally… it gave this place more credibility and clout. It gave a lot of people that come here a push. As an artist you see Tkay’s poster when you come in and think, ‘Oh sweet, that could happen for me too’. It’s just about having access to resources and working the talent you have to its highest potential.”

Akon’s earliest musical experiences were quite different. “At the age of seven I recorded my first song on a tape recorder in the middle of some desert country,” he explains. The Kenyan desert to be specific, in Kakuma, site of the world’s third largest refugee camp. Having left his home country of South Sudan as an infant, Akon went on to spend six years in the camp before making his way to Australia. “Growing up in an environment with so many different people who don’t necessarily all speak the same language, you have to find a way to communicate. Being thrown into that environment was amazing training for future oral practices like rhyming and poetry.”

For Akon, language runs deeper than even his earliest memories. “We’re from an oral tradition,” he says. “I’m from South Sudan and it’s one of the oldest cultures—human civilisation as we know it started on the Nile river, and that’s where my people are from. There’s a great grasp of spoken language, and through that a lot of our culture is passed down orally, a lot of our traditions are celebrated orally, so song and words are a massive part of our culture because they’re a big uniting force.”

Back in South Australia those words and songs have proved just as important in knitting a community together. “Basically when you come here, you don’t really choose the area you go to; you come with nothing so you take what you’re given, and a lot of the newer communities get posted to certain areas,” he explains. “So a lot of us found ourselves congregated in the north, which brought us all together—we could all connect with each other, a five minute walk or a bus ride away. It was an amazing thing in terms of incubating the talent and having access to different resources. Me and my brother here are cousins,” he says, gesturing to Eman. “But besides that, most of the boys are drawn together by the music, spending countless hours together in the home studio.”

From bedroom experiments with garage band and guitar hero microphones to an ever-swelling roster that currently includes eight MCs and producers, the output of Akon’s crew is polished and varied. Despite a sound that at times hews closer to that being churned out of hip hop’s American heartland, Playback 808 have been steadily chipping away at the scene’s fringes, rarely embraced by the local cliques that exist in the main CBD while coming up against many of the hurdles faced by migrant communities across the board. They’ve been matching MCs with producers, cutting tracks, filming and releasing videos and organising showcase shows of their own to build a fanbase outside of any established avenues.

“I doubt the industry here could really do that for us, just looking at the scene… they call it ‘skip hop’, it’s very inward-looking—made in Australia for ‘Australians’,” he says. “So if we haven’t even gotten past the conversation of whether we’re considered ‘real Australians’ or not, how can we expect longevity in an industry? So we have to create our own, and be that change we want to see.”

I mention that one of my earliest exposures to Playback 808 was in a Facebook post, which included an incredulous commenter confused by the lack of those broad accents we’ve come to expect from ‘Aussie hip hop’ acts. He failed to recognise that for some local artists, adopting the broad drawl regularly found on our airwaves is as contrived as any Kendrick imitator. Akon remembers the thread well.

“A wise man told me that ‘when a sentence is followed by a ‘but’, it’s not really a compliment’,” he laughs. “After I saw that comment I actually followed up and went on to explain to him why we don’t sound ‘Aussie’. How can you expect a ten-year-old kid to come out of South Sudan or Kenya and come here and sound that way? I’ve lived here for thirteen years, for me to just shed that ten years just to satisfy your sound palate, that’s not right. I’ve lived here ten more years than I lived in Africa, I understand you ten thousand times times better than you understand me. That’s by me having to live among whatever people consider ‘real Australians’.”

Chipping away at preconceptions is, alongside some of the fare you’d expect from any group of young men, a recurring theme in the work of Playback 808. Take youngest member E L K, a seventeen year old MC whose rhymes crackle with wit over breezy jazz beats, touching on race and assimilation with a twinkle in his eye.

“Even for the people that don’t want to have the conversation we make sure we make music that is conversational. One of my favourite songs at the moment is E L K’s Dreaming. He sampled Martin Luther King at the start, and this kid for literally the whole verse is rapping that ‘being black has its benefits, foolin’ people saying you killed lions and walk with elephants’,” Akon recounts, beaming when talking about his fellow artists’ work. “Through his music he’s breaking down one of the biggest stereotypes, that we’re just walking the jungle with lions.”

Those conversations are growing, and just as Adam Briggs has joked that A.B. Original’s Australia Day protest anthem January 26 was penned to save him the arduous task of providing the same quotes for journalists every time the date rolled around, for Akon and co. broaching such messages through music is far more efficient than endless Facebook messenger chats with ignorant randoms. But the need to even have those conversations is partly what makes Akon’s work with Playback 808 so important to him.

“Time is a motherfucker, it doesn’t wait for anybody. I would love to wait five years for when the environment is right, and maybe Sony would put in a decent budget to record an artist from the south of Sudan, but it’s not going to be now. We have to be realistic, so why don’t we do it? The barriers of entry to the industry are getting lower and lower.”

And as their ability to do more increases, so does the size of their family. “Once the first two artists came along it was a snowball effect, everybody wants to feel like they’re part of something. A lot of the boys started coming in, young boys in the community. AJAK, he’s one of the best performers I’ve seen, doing incredible things in the local scene but he’s not getting shows in town. What’s up with that?”

They’re now bridging beyond Adelaide, with Akon bristling with excitement as he describes a potential new recruit living in Melbourne. The internet, and hip hop, is slowly bringing parts of that diaspora together. “He was this kid, fourteen or fifteen at the time, when I was really pushing my YouTube videos, and a lot of the kids in the Sudanese community were watching. So he reached out and was like ‘I like what you’re doing, could you tell me the steps?’

“When I first heard him I just thought ‘Biggie Smalls died and was reincarnated as a South Sudanese kid from Latuko tribe and somehow ended up in a place like Australia’. Anytime you see a Biggie reincarnation, you want to be involved. [But] he’s isolated, he’s on his own, so he needs something he can belong to – he definitely won’t feel like he’s part of the wider Australian hip hop community.”

With all that on his plate, it’s little surprise Akon has taken a while to complete a new record of his own, with his first official mixtape under the DyspOra banner landing in late-March. An “emotional”, socio-politically minded work, Rebelution was borne of an ill-fated pilgrimage back home.

“It’s about everyone finding their inner revolution, and is inspired by my journey to Africa; I went back after 12 years to reunite with my old man in South Sudan. Some things happened and I couldn’t reunite with him—I was one country over for two months. So a lot of the music comes from a place of finding yourself, [and] having too much time on your hands, in a place that’s not really your home anymore.

“Based on how we identify what home is, my home is South Sudan and I left it as a two-month-old baby. I spent most of my childhood in Kenya, but to go back and not have access to home as I envisioned it, to be so close but so far, that really messes with you. Also the situation going on in Africa, with all the economic exploitation by the rest of the world, to see a sixty year old grandmother get up at 6am in the morning and come back at 7pm to make cents… then you hear people complaining about the things they get here.”

“The wi-fi’s not working?” I offer.

“Exactly. Where’s the equality? If wealth was a result of direct hard work, a lot of the women in Africa would be millionaires. With the whole emotional stuff and socio-political stuff, I had a lot of things stirring in my mind at that particular time, that’s where DyspOra was created, I had to find a way to channel it.”

They might not draw cues from Billy Thorpe or Buddy Holly, or aspire to pub rock royalty like Elizabeth’s first generation, but in some ways, the world that has grown around Northern Sound System isn’t so far removed from that early wave. Along with all the boring if essential stuff you need to make a town viable—police stations, bus depots—the Housing Trust also left another, perhaps unintended gift for the youth of the region: The Octagon. This multi-purpose theatre venue built by the local council was designed to host theatrical performances and community events, but also doubled as a music venue. There, the likes of Barnes could slip out at night to be inspired by local success stories the Masters Apprentices and interstate visitors like Billy Thorpe and even the early, pre-disco Bee Gees. Shorrock’s own pre-Little River Band group The Twilights also performed on the stage.

At that time—along with well-attended dances at the youth centre in neighbouring Salisbury—a strong appetite for rock’n’roll was bubbling away amongst the northern youth at an entirely different pace to their counterparts in metropolitan Adelaide. The Octagon is now a public library, but on some weekends you’ll find Northern Sound System’s stage packed with teenager performers and fans, creating an electric atmosphere that the rest of Adelaide is largely oblivious to. For now.

Today, northern Adelaide might be reduced to another footnote in a national conversation about how Australia doesn’t “make” things like we used to. But Akon, Eman and their Playback 808 crew are one very strong sign that there’s still plenty of creation going on. Internet-savvy communities of enterprising, hip-hop loving Sudanese refugees might be a world away from what the architects of this postcard of 1950s suburbia envisioned, but it’s something. And it has potential.