In 2009, Australia saw ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’ host a 6-piece act called the Jackson Jive, as part of their ‘Red Faces’ segment. They performed a Jackson 5 tribute in full blackface. The host, judges and audience laughed and cheered, while guest judge, Harry Connick Jr. sat back in shock. What followed was a global discussion about Australia, blackface, and this show of blatant racism. There were people in Australia who couldn’t quite grasp that blackface wasn’t just an American issue, but a racial issue. We should be able to say we’ve come so far since then, but instances like Chris Lilley’s recent blackface post on Instagram make you question otherwise. If you take a second to look past the most blatant cases of blackface from Australian entertainers, you’ll see that there’s still an underlying culture of fetishising and parodying black culture at play.
In spite of learning from history, turn on Australian radio and you’ll find the most recent trend on any station is playing ‘90s hip-hop and R&B. It’s all fun and games until you stay on the station long enough to hear the DJ co-opt a fake American accent as they introduce your fave 50 Cent bop, making you wonder if that's how Iggy Azalea was born. The thing is DJs, radio and TV hosts aren’t squirming uncomfortably around hip-hop, rappers and R&B songs but taking on a more exploitative ownership of it – and at its worst, turning it into a joke. Why would they be uncomfortable when their audiences are validating their exploits with laughter? The ripple effect is blatantly clear, from radio to TV down into the clubs, in this country, hip-hop and its culture is so often met with mockery.
Last week, Craig David made an appearance on morning show Sunrise to talk about his upcoming tour. The interview was all of about five minutes long and yet there was enough time for it to turn into an uncomfortable conversation about his “8 pack”. The interviewer giggled as David looked confused about explaining his gym routine. When they finally wrapped it up, he grunted to signal the end of the interview, an appropriate response to being totally sexualised for laughs on breakfast TV.
Nova 96.9 breakfast show hosts, Fitzy and Wippa recently launched one of their most successful segments aptly titled, ‘Rap Battles’. The self-proclaimed “nice guys of Sydney” write raps about meat pies and AFL, while throwing up gang signs and dabbing in between bars. Their guests are daytime TV hosts, athletes, pop star and their own spouses. Watching two “down to earth” white men giggle through rhymes as they mechanically milly rock is admittedly something a lot of people in Australia enjoy watching. So why aren’t they inviting rappers on the show?
There are of course always exceptions to the rule, and the one rapper they have had on the show was Australian rapper, Illy– but it’d be irresponsible to not point out that he is white. These same radio hosts interviewed Ice Cube in 2015, prior to the launch of their Rap Battles segment. During the interview they smile and asked if the NWA rapper does things like stub his toe before writing a rhyme to put him in an angry headspace. In this same interview they ask about ‘Fuck The Police’; a song that details pained resentment and anger against a system that has continued to target, kill and oppress black people. To liken that anger to stubbing one’s toe is astonishing.
On June 26th, after the continued success of Rap Battles, Michael “Wippa” Wipfli took to the stage in a suburban Sydney mall to perform his “debut single”, ‘Born To Rap’. Wearing a gold tracksuit, a large plastic gold chain, and a trucker cap embellished with a crown, the radio host ‘performed’ an uncomfortably out of breath rendition of his song. He threw his hands about as he rapped alongside 3 uncredited women of colour. "What is rap, a way of life? Day by day on the edge of a knife?” is a less than interesting thought from someone who couldn’t fathom Ice Cube’s anger past stubbing his toe.
The shopping centre show was a “hit”, or at least it would seem that way with The Daily Telegraph publishing an interview with Wippa, where he jokingly requests to work with Kanye West in the future. Doesn’t comedy like this at the expense of black people and black art, while using people of colour as props in a performance seem inherently exploitative?
In a country where platforms for musicians are few and far between, and gatekeepers are unwilling to take chances on indie artists, seeing someone mock rap can feel hopeless. If you didn’t already know, hip hop’s roots are in the beginnings of the civil rights movement. It was created to provide a source of comfort, a way of storytelling and it ultimately characterised a revolution – what’s so funny about that? Yet, here is a group of people who don’t have a voice in this country having their anger silenced and cast aside as hysteria.
Even the other “fair dinkum” good boys of radio, Hamish and Andy, on the rival Hit Network have been guilty of this. In February of last year, Hamish released a parody of Rihanna’s ‘Work’ on the show, which aired nationally. He mumbles in between stifled laughter, to emulate the “gibberish” of the original song. Like many others he remained ignorant of the fact that the lyrics were in another language – Jamaican Patois. While people may find it hard to grasp why this is a big deal, it’s even more difficult to understand why people want to protect their right to mock an entire culture that has been historically disadvantaged.
Chris Lilley, a mainstay in Australia’s comedy circle, recently shared his 2012 music video Squashed N***a on Instagram, featuring his Angry Boys character S.Mouse. In the post, he’s in full blackface. The backlash was immense; especially in light of the fact that his #TBT came days after the man who ran over 14 year old indigenous boy, Elijah Doughty was found not guilty of manslaughter. Lilley’s apology was half-baked, writing the misstep off to having little control over his social media team. But why did we allow Chris Lilley to perform blackface for years and only get angry about it now? We laughed, clicked and shared it in 2012. You can dress up racism as a joke, but it’s still racism. Reinforcing stereotypes through parodies isn’t something we should cling on to and protect. And even when blackface isn’t as overt as Chris Lilley’s, it is still just as harmful, and it’s often much more sinister.
Australia has the reputation of being “very white” (see: the cast of any series of 'The Bachelor') and if you look at the country objectively it’s easy to see why. If we focused on imploring our media to hire people of colour, we could see authentic celebration of hip-hop rather than cringey bastardisations of the culture for daytime shopping centre crowds. I’d love to see a rap battle segment hosted by Remi or A.B. Original – who wouldn’t? Imagine tuning into a radio show hosted by a black person with a love for the culture, not a white person saying “yo” and cos-playing as one for the day. We have a bubbling underground hip hop scene just ready to burst and opening the gates for those artists is an exciting prospect – so let’s hurry up and do it.