When rapper Matthew Craig showed a record label executive a song by his Kenyan-Australian friend, the response he got was a gut punch.
"Australian hip hop doesn't look or sound like this."
Craig laughed and replied, "I'll see you in five years.
Five years later, like clockwork, Sampa The Great became the first black woman to win an ARIA for Best Hip-Hop Release.
Craig, who is of mixed Sri Lankan and Italian descent, has been grinding in the rap scene for a decade, and in that time, he's seen big transformations. When he started out, labelheads and booking agents were mostly signing "blonde-haired and blue-eyed white boys". But in 2021, intersectionality has emerged as the new cool.
"The same institutions that were blocking us five years ago are now sending press releases about new artists and making it clear that they are a South Asian or a Polynesian artist," says Craig.
While diverse representation has improved at the artist level, the top of the pyramid remains unchanged. Craig believes the labels are simply commodifying what's trending.
"When more women of colour, and people from First Nations and African backgrounds are making decisions at the major labels, then I will accept that the industry has done a 180 over the last decade," says Craig.
Craig has now taken on a leading role in nurturing a rap ecosystem that reflects the diversity of Australia. He's started his own label, R.E.A.L Music, which has an eclectic roster of rappers whose origins range from Hackney, Chennai, and Polynesia. He’s also started AUD’$, a media company that spotlights diverse local artists and helps them reach broader audiences.
'The Pursuit' - R.E.A.L Music's promotional video and manifesto.
Craig's stature in the industry has grown steady and he was recently anointed a guest host on Triple J's hallowed 'Hip-Hop Show'. He completed a run of it in July, hosting with his brother, Junor, his co-founder at RMF and AUD’$. Their playlist had two guiding principles:
At least 50% representation from domestic artists.
Appearances don’t matter. If it "pushes boundaries" and is "dope", it gets a spin.
The resulting mix reflects the geographic, ethnic and gender diversity within Australian hip-hop. Included on there is Jamarz on Marz - a Kenyan-Sri Lankan-Australian queer rapper, and a burgeoning Punjabi MC (not named Panjabi MC), Simar Gill. Check out the playlist here.
"South Asians are doing it at a top tier," says Craig. "To play a Punjabi artist [Simar Gill] on national radio for the first time is only going to continue to break down doors."
Hip-hop is a historically African-American art form, which crossed over to dominate mainstream music in the 21st century. Almost none of the artists during hip-hop’s formative years were South Asian, yet South Asian diasporas have a well-known affinity for the genre. Craig says this is because brown people are not embraced nor represented by white culture.
"It was the whites and the fobs growing up in Australia. So it didn't matter if you were Asian, or if you were African, you were still just a fob."
Feeling like an outsider is an experience shared by diasporic communities, and hip-hop is an inclusive space that expresses that experience, says Craig.
"Assimilation requires you to change yourself, perform whiteness, and even change your name," says Craig, who's birth name is Matthew Ondaatje.
"But hip hop allows an avenue to be fully yourself. And perhaps more so than other arts because of its peacocking nature."
"All the colour and brightness and bravado I've had to hide away under a rock to get by, I can now do."
Despite being an unapologetically grandiose genre, in the early 2000s, Australian rap was dominated by what underground rappers called mild, inoffensive "barbecue raps". It's a pejorative term for rap songs targeted to a mass audience. These songs have poppy choruses and largely abandon the gritty realism, global samples and complex rhyme schemes that make rap a unique genre. Barbecue raps seamlessly insert themselves into a weekend barbecue playlist, and aim to avoid offending or distracting from your regular sips of a cold VB.
The ascendency of barbecue raps in Australia not only reflected labelheads’ fear that artists needed to be white and mild to be profitable, but also their stigma against rappers from diverse backgrounds who were perceived as being too 'street' or ‘criminal’ to be reliable collaborators.
During his hosting stint on Triple J, Craig invited artists from 66 Records, the first African owned Hip Hop record label in Australia. 66 Records was founded in the Housing Commission projects of Collingwood. They don’t have the regular Aussie-twang of early 2000s rappers, and that's partly because some of their members have faced difficult journeys of international displacement, including feeling civil wars in Sudan and Liberia. Their sound would have likely been dismissed by label executives ten years ago. Today, Melbourne's thriving African diaspora rap scene is undeniable, and in 2020, Warner Music Australia signed a joint-deal with 66 Records to boost their reach - the first time Warner has partnered with an African Australian label.
Lil Jaye, a rapper signed to 66 Records has moved between Cameroon, France and Australia.
Artists from diverse backgrounds no longer need to rely on the major record labels to find their audience. Digital technology and the internet has democratised music production and distribution, and intersectionality has become the new cool. Craig, who has been hustling for his stake of the rap game for a decade, is starting to see his vision become a reality. The journey hasn’t been without its sacrifices though. He has a law degree, but chose to trade the security and income of that career for the personal authenticity brought by music. On a recent single cover, he’s standing at the graduation podium, brandishing a gold mic. In real life, Craig did not attend his law school graduation.
"Probably up until last year I was still getting comments [from my parents]: "How long's this music thing going for? What's Plan B looking like? I see Akshay is a partner at their law firm now," says Craig.
Over the years, tangible signs of success have been easing his family’s concern, including being played on MTV, and more recently hosting on Triple J. These successes are more visible, and easier to communicate to friends and family. But these days, Craig values success behind the limelight. The aim for him now is to help promote a more diverse set of rap 'superheroes' to inspire the next generation.
"I want to be able to show kids, get in the studio, and you can be as good as The Kid Laroi, who is one of the biggest stars in the world, and he’s an indigenous kid from Waterloo."
"The mission is to empower artists - not just for creativity and entertainment - but economic empowerment."