"Can you hook us up with an Adidas sponsorship?"
"Is there pepperoni?"
"I don't want to eat the 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'."
"What kind of shoes are you wearing?"
"Is this a pizza shop? Because if it is, you don't have many pizzas."
It's 4PM at Lazer Pig, a bar/pizza restaurant in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, and for a mid-week afternoon things are getting rowdy. I'm with Girl Zone, a local five-piece, hip-hop and R&B group that brim with energy, confidence, and cheek. The average age of Achol, Atong, Nyawech, Zoe, and Akuech is 11. In a few weeks they'll be making their debut public performance down the street at the inaugural Peel Street Festival. But for now the focus is what to order and what's playing on the Lazer Pig stereo system.
"Can we change it?" Atong asks wait staff as she points to her phone.
Next minute, thanks to the staff, and to the girls delight, the sounds of Girl Zone's track "Skating 4 Eva" is playing through the restaurant speakers. All the girls, with the exception of Zoe, who is Vietnamese/Australian, have South Sudanese backgrounds and most have known each other since the beginning of primary school. With their friendly arguing and competitive spirit they seem more like sisters than bandmates.
Like many 11 and 12 year-olds, Girl Zone dig the sounds of Rihanna, Fifth Harmony, Taylor Girlz, Cardi B, and Princess Nokia. They play basketball and are big into making Slime too. "Every time I let them in the kitchen they try to make it," explains their mentor and producer Alex Last. "I'll turn my back for 30 seconds and suddenly there's flour, water and cocoa powder everywhere."
When our Margheritas and Tropical pizzas arrive we start a proper talk about music. Girl Zone's earliest track "Waking Up," recorded with older boy Rieth, was produced two years ago and features their day-to-day activities. Achol, barely nine at the time, raps about school and her mum's chicken dish and Akuech spits some lines about playing basketball.
Their break out "Skating 4 Eva" was recorded early last year but it was the accompanying video of the girls tearing up a rollerblade/skate alley, that helped them gain attention including that of the Peel Street Festival programmers. Over woozy vocals, they sing about skating and offer some classic playground disses such as, "Don't hang around with us because you'll get destroyed" and "Yeah you owe me money, I need to buy this skate, so I can skate up in your face."
The girls meet two or three times a week at Fitzroy Clubhouse where Alex and their music mentor Christobel help them with lyrics and arrangement. Like many inner urban areas, Fitzroy and Collingwood have seen extraordinary development and gentrification in recent years and the Clubhouse is part of a local organization (Fitzroy Learning Network) which provides support for refugees, asylum seekers, and those living in inner Melbourne's public housing estates.
Tracks are created from freestyles over a beat and then ideas come from this to make verses. Atong explains that they have about five other tracks almost finished including "Boss Song" with the line, "You better watch out because I rap like fire, chilli noodles are what I desire."
Each have an active social media presence and the biggest and loudest reaction comes when I ask who has the most Instagram followers.
The Peel Street Festival includes another rising hip hop star Sophie Grophy. I ask them what they think of Sophie. "She's pretty and has better fashion than Alex (laughter) and she has even more purple hair than Atong," explains Akuech. I ask them if they feel any nerves or butterflies ahead of the upcoming festival. "I don't get butterflies" says Zoe. "I don't get them ever."
And what about outfits?
"Maybe black and white. We want to wear Adidas. Can you get us a sponsorship?"
Girl Zone perform at Peel Street Festival, a free community festival celebrating the diversity and culture of Collingwood taking place on Saturday November 11.