How R&B and Hip-Hop Changed the Face of Australian Music

"There was always the outline – here's what it can be – but it was never coloured in."

A few years ago, it wasn’t surprising to see the Australian music scene dominated by indie rock bands that reflected the beach culture of the island nation. Bands like DZ Deathrays, Sticky Fingers, Tame Impala, and The Jungle Giants filled the festival circuits, taking top priority on radio stations like Triple J and encapsulating what became known as the homogenous “Triple J sound”. 

While those bands still have large followings – a reflection of the immense talent that comes from the industry – the last few years has seen an exponential rise in artists flirting with the sounds of R&B and hip hop. First in the United States and now in Australia, a new and diverse pool of artists entered the mainstream, reflecting the stories of the truer make-up of the country.

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At Splendour in the Grass, some of the top-billed acts fell into the hip-hop category. From big artists like Tyler the Creator, Tierra Whack, JPEGMAFIA and Aitch, to homegrown talent like Baker Boy, Genesis Owusu, Triple One, Hooligan Hefs, Chillinit, Miiesha, Tasman Keith and Elsy Wameyo. It was a nod to the changing norm of Australian music, but one that’s been years in the making.

Since the rise of a new wave of American R&B in the mid 2010s, beginning with artists like The Weeknd, Daniel Caesar, Jazmine Sullivan and even Kanye West, and the drill scene which exploded out of the Chicago streets around the same time – It was only a matter of when, not if, the popularisation of the genres would seep into Australian shores.

The genres themselves, especially R&B, are known to have originated from the oppression of minority cultures, giving artists a means to express themselves in an authentic way. In the ‘90s, a wave of black artists, once tolerated, were instead celebrated for their unique cultural differences without being whitewashed.

Today, in Australia, the music acts much the same way – giving voice to those once seen as living on the fringes of society. Instead, it presents the diversity of the communities that now live here, with artists using it as a vehicle to tell their stories whether it be around identity, oppression or simply their lives.

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In 2019, the ARIAs introduced two new awards for best R&B/ Soul release and best Hip Hop release. The first winners were Kaiit and Sampa The Great, respectively. At the most recent 2021 awards, rapper and artist Genesis Owusu took home four ARIA’s – including Best Independent Release, Best Hip Hop Release, Album of the Year and Best Cover Art. He was the first hip-hop artist to ever take home Album of the Year.

“As of a few years ago, and especially today, I feel like I was lucky enough to be a part of a massive cultural change, part of the same peerage as Sampa the great, Tkay Maidza, Kwame,” Genesis Owusu told VICE.

“I feel like we, as a group, whether we were doing it intentionally or not, have been the pioneers to break the mould of what was conventionally known in the Australian music industry.”

Though hip-hop artists and rappers have come before – Hilltop Hoods, Kerser and Remi – the music industry has strayed away from bubblegum rap and into a new era of authenticity. 

One part of that can be attributed to the rising hip-hop scene in Western Sydney, where artists like ONEFOUR, A.GIRL, Hooligan Hefs and Youngn Lipz have taken their music to the world. Global superstar Kid Laroi, though his music strays into pop, is one of the poster children of the movement. 

“When we were growing up it was a very ‘barbecue rap’ scene, but when we were coming through we wanted to change the sound and the dynamic of it,” Obi Ill Terrors, from Western Sydney group Triple One, told VICE.

In 2020, the group said that they wanted to change how people saw Australian rap – and it’d be hard to disagree with their success.

“It has really pushed those boundaries,” Marty Bugatti, also from Triple One, told VICE. “A lot of artists have come up since we said that, and they’re doing the exact same thing that we set out to do. It’s good to see the scene grow like that.”

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“They are the mainstream, there’s no doubt about it, Western Sydney is the mainstream.”

Aside from Western Sydney artists, First nation rappers have long been coming into the fold: acts like Barkaa, Miiesha, Ziggy Ramo, Drmngnow and Baker Boy. Gumbaynggirr man and all-around musical talent Tasmin Keith has also noticed the shift. 

“There’s just a lot more colour, to be honest,” he told VICE.

“There was always the outline – here's what it can be – but it was never coloured in. Now that we have a bit of colour in the picture, it's like, ‘okay, there’s a lot of stories and a lot of voices that represent a lot of people in this country’. Because it is a very diverse country. And I think with that you're finding people connect to it more.

“I definitely understand where it was at. And we couldn't have gotten to where we are now without realising what that was. So I think everything has its place and purpose. But where it's at now is definitely important.”

Recently, calls for an all hip-hop line-up in Australia has resulted in a groundbreaking festival to be held on the Gold Coast later this year – Promise Land Festival – that would intertwine genres like reggae, afrobeats and R&B. It’ll be headed by artists like Burna Boy and Wyclef Jean but also Australian acts like Youngn Lipz and HP Boyz. 

It’s a move that couldn’t be conceptualised a few years ago. And though much of the change is due to the changing perception of rap and hip-hop around the world, the growing popularity of the scene also reflects the changing experiences of the average Australian as the nation slowly becomes more multicultural.

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For hip-hop and soul artist, Elsy Wameyo, music in Australia has been a ticket to understanding her own identity on Australian shores. Wameyo moved to Australia from Nairobi, Kenya when she was 7-years-old, her music acting much in the same way as R&B originally did when it was born in the pre-civil war era and through to the 1900’s: as a vehicle for telling stories of culture.

For her, music has been a way to solidify who she is, even when told “you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t look like this, you shouldn’t dress like this, you should talk like this.”

“You’re constantly having to fight,” she told VICE.

Her new album, while celebrating her Kenyan background, talks of the struggles of coming to terms with her identity in Australia.

“Releasing it was good, because I’ve lived with all of these emotions for so long and all these thoughts and all these words and it was good to release it to the world and go, ‘Now I’m done, I’m done crying about it, I’m done yelling about it so here it is, let’s move on,” she said.

In the end, the Australian music scene has changed for the better, introducing a new collection of voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard, with the authenticity that reflects the growing diversity of Australia. It’s an exciting movement that is only growing stronger, and though it has a long way to go, there’s no going back now.

Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more from VICE Australia and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, This Week Online

Tagged:

Music, Australia, Rap, r&b, Genesis Owusu

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