I ARRIVE one song late to Baker Boy’s BIGSOUND show and barely squeeze in. Onstage, the 20-year-old Arnhem Land-via-Melbourne rapper – real name Danzal Baker – is jumping like his body weighs nothing, collaborator Dallas Woods at his side. To live hip-hop drums (played by Benny Clark) they rap in tandem: “You are now witnessing the power of black magic!”
Witnessing is the wrong word. I feel like I’ve arrived an hour deep into a show people bought tickets to six months ago. It’s a triple j Unearthed gig, and the national broadcaster is indeed enamoured of the young rapper’s blend of English and his first language, Yolngu Matha, but that only explains why the room is full. The energy in it is all down to Danzal.
When he bounds off stage, he’s swamped by crew. High fives and hugs fly everywhere. People are grinning, shaking their heads. “What’s next?” is the unspoken question hanging in the air.
“Why, when people come from overseas do they not see Australians talking in their own language?
DANZAL released his second single, ‘Marryuna’, earlier this month. Marryuna means to dance purely for the fun of it – as opposed to ceremonial or celebratory dance.
“Imma proud black Yolngu boy listen to the yidaki listen to it blow,” he raps. The song features Baker’s poison cousin, songwriter Yirrmal Marika, also from northeast Arnhem Land. Yirrmal’s singing in the chorus is an infectious tumble of vowels and consonants. A few listens in you’re singing along – in Yolngu Matha.
The BIGSOUND show was Danzal’s first full set, though he played a few songs at the National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) in Darwin in August. There, he won the triple j Unearthed Award, the Northern Territory (NT) Hip Hop Song of the Year, and the Native Tongue Award for his debut single, ‘Cloud 9’.
While his sound is still raw, Danzal has confidence in spades. In fact, the kid they call the “fresh young prince” in Arnhem Land has exactly what you want from a rapper: ego, and a turn of phrase to set it off.
“Offstage, I am Danzal,” he says when we meet the next day. “Danzal is a quiet, humble kid who loves to talk to people. Onstage, I am Baker Boy: crazy on the mic, confident and proud with energy and dancing. I show my power and if I make a strong connection with people, they’ll feel it.
“When I performed last night I could feel everyone’s attention … I was interacting with the whole room. It made the night go on fire.”
Danzal started rapping late last year, inspired by Woods. “He’s my brother boy, my brother man. He’s Noongar but he grew up in Wyndham, East Kimberleys. When I moved to Melbourne he took me under his wing … he knows what it’s like coming from community to the city. They’re different worlds, it’s hard to fit in, so he guided me through that.”
‘Be Yourself, Be Who You Are’
DANZAL may be new to the music scene but he’s an experienced performer. He moved to Melbourne three years ago from the remote NT community of Milingimbi to pursue a career in dance and has performed at festivals in Australia and abroad as a member of Yolngu dance troupe, Djuki Mala.
Danzal’s day job is performative too. He’s a teacher at Indigenous Hip Hop Projects where he’s honed his desire to be a long-term role model and inspiration for kids going “off track”.
“I love how my aunties talk about their history, like ‘Back in old days we used to do this and that’. But young kids in remote communities are starting to fade away from listening to culture stuff. They’re trying to be someone they’re not. Everyone wants to dress the same, have the same clothes, look fresh. I’m trying to tell them ‘Be yourself, be who you are’.”
But do they listen? “Yes,” he says. “Everyone just says ‘I really like you. You’re very lifted, spiritual, positive. You’re strong, you’re humble, you make me feel special around you’. I have this energy that attracts people to come and listen to me. I would love to make a difference in this world.”
I can attest to the good energy. After last night’s show, Danzal’s interviews have multiplied. I am his sixth and the only place we find to speak is beneath some wooden stairs with people thundering up and down. It’s hard going but Baker is unperturbed. “It’s OK,” he says. He seems centred; his dancer’s body strong and straight. His likeability is a bit overwhelming.
Thus far, Baker’s songs have come with a political message but it’s delivered with a light hand. Marryuna’s pulse is the sunshiney bush reggae guitar ubiquitous in many NT communities. It’s worlds away from the hard-hitting political rap of A.B Original but there is a similar sense that Australia, black and white, has been waiting for Baker Boy, just as it was for A.B Original, whose song ‘January 26’ kicked the “change the date” debate into fifth gear. “Great songs are released all the time. Great songs that come at the right time? Those make history.”
“Everyone wants to dress the same, have the same clothes, look fresh. I’m trying to tell them ‘Be yourself, be who you are’.”
Danzal, meanwhile, is enjoying being part of the broader movement of non-English rap. “I heard rapping in Spanish and I’m like ‘That’s sick’. Rapping [in Yolngu Matha] is totally different, it changes the beat. The pronunciations, the sounds, there are different flows” – he demonstrates some “n” and “ng” sounds – “When I speak in language I’m crazy fluent. It’s easier for me to write songs in language than in English.”
How would he feel if, in a year’s time, he looked out to see only white faces. “If I’m seeing people like that, it means I’m actually doing my job. Which is to get everyone together with my music. I would feel blessed because then I have to talk about my culture and be a teacher for a bit. Tell them, ‘If you don’t believe me you can go to Arnhem Land yourself and check it out’.”
All Eyes On Me
IT’S all happening fast for Danzal. But his family – and their pride – keep him grounded. His face lights up when he talks about them. “My family? They think it’s pretty cool to see a really young man step up for his community. My family talking to me on the phone, they say they’re really proud of me and stuff, seeing me as a role model for not only indigenous kids, also to invite non-indigenous kids, and the two worlds collide into one.”
He takes his job seriously. “It’s a good choice for me to not drink and not do bad things. Young kids are looking up to me, they think ‘He’s cool, if I do that, I’ll look cool too’.”
Keeping busy is the trick. “Hard work is pretty much my middle name, I’m a workaholic or something like that. I’d rather be occupied than being lazy, sleeping, playing games. Every time when I have spare time, I write songs.”
Melbourne is too noisy, he says, but he loves to go to the rainforest nearby. “I’m listening to a different type of nature sound: the quietness and the air. Arnhem Land is salty, fresh ocean breeze, all different birds. In the Melbourne rainforest, I hear some noises I’ve never heard before. Makes me feel like I’m getting connected.”
I ask about his totem animal, the olive python. His totem comes through his father’s side – just like his love for Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and a bunch of other golden era hip-hop artists. “When you go to the bush and you see an animal and it’s playing around with you, you know it’s your totem. And if you hit it with something and you get sick you know it’s your totem and next time, you won’t do that.
“It’s people’s lack of education in schools that no one knows about totems. It’s weird they’re not teaching that in school. And Australian native language. When I’m 30 or 35 I’ll go to university and jump into being a professor. I’ll preach and teach about Yolgnu Matha language, and pronunciations and all the symbols. It’s my other option, anyway.
“Why, when people come from overseas do they not see Australians talking in their own language? It would be amazing to see that.” He pauses. “They don’t even know that … we’re here. They don’t know about Indigenous Australians. I think they should be interested because it’s the most beautiful thing.”