Drop the Mic.
MzRizk is a Melbourne based DJ, event curator and radio presenter with a music knowledge that could make your eyes water. After years on the local and international music scene supporting acts such as Common, Mos Def, Public Enemy, Remi, Jill Scott and Hiatus Kaiyote, and a few sets at Glastonbury Music Festival, MzRizk has rightly earned her place as one of Melbourne’s greatest soul, jazz, funk, disco and hip-hop DJ’s.
The Pin met with MzRizk to talk DJ’ing, the Australian music scene and the bugbears that come with being a DJ who happens to be female.
THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood?
MZ RIZK. The things I remember most from my childhood are mostly music related. I have an older brother and sister, and older cousins, so most of my childhood was listening to what they listened to and really embracing music. Pop music then was really varied, so I was listening to everything from A-ha to Michael Jackson and Europe [the band].
I had a pretty strict upbringing, you know, with my Lebanese background. I come from quite a patriarchal culture where men and women play particular roles. I was very lucky that my parents were cool with me being me. I never played with barbies, I was always playing with my Ninja Turtles, and my dad was cool with that.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Victoria. I was born in Preston. Until about the age of five I grew up in Thornbury, but then we moved Westside. Most of my life has been in St. Albans. Someone asked me where I lived the other day and when I told them they responded with, ‘That’s why you are so down to earth’. I thought that was nice because usually I get, ‘Oh, St.Albans, is it safe?’…
Was there a large Lebanese population in the area you grew up in?
M. Not really. There were heaps of Greeks and Maltese people from memory. Italians and some Lebanese families, not like the population in Coburg or Brunswick… Nowadays it’s mostly Vietnamese. I’d say in the last fifteen to twenty years it has changed dramatically, and it’s been a quick change. I think it’s wonderful, I love the food.
Was race and culture something you discussed with your family?
M. Not at all. Most of my friends in primary school weren’t ‘Australian’, they were either Romanian, Macedonian or Vietnamese. We knew Australians were different to us. There was a lot of commentary about the way Australians eat compared to how we did...you know, ‘You’re not Australian, you can’t live on toast for the rest of your life,’ as we were told by our elders. Food is a really important part of our culture. I guess that’s why it’s always the first point of reference when comparing us to them. I remember I was misbehaving with my cousin once and my uncle looked at me and said, ‘You aren’t Aussie’. I knew what he meant by that…
It was almost like the show Heartbreak High - actually, it was exactly that. My friends and I would laugh about it and say, ‘They’re Aussie, their parents let them do whatever they want’. We knew there were huge cultural differences, in terms of flexibility and trust. We knew that their parents would make them pay board, whereas we’d always be taken care of. The Aussies would be like, ‘You wogs aren’t allowed out of the house…’. There was a lot of that banter in high school and it was all verbal, no violence, like in the show.
Was there a specific song or genre that got you hooked on music?
M. Michael Jackson as a genre. Michael Jackson for me has always been an influence, he came before Prince for me. When I was growing up, my mum put me into a dance school and after a few lessons the lady told my mum, ‘Your daughter is not suited for our dance class, she doesn’t want to listen to me, she just wants to dance to Michael Jackson’. So I was kicked out of dance school.
In high school I really embraced Prince, heavy metal, hip hop...and my music teacher introduced me to Nina Simone. I’ve been very lucky to have an open mind with music.
Would you say you have role models?
M. Role models change. My influences and the people I really admire and have since my early days are Nina Simone, Prince, and Michael Jackson. Their music is timeless, they all fought for what they believed in, some struggled more than others. Nina Simone and Prince are my number ones, though. She’s an amazing woman who was all about pushing the envelope and she didn’t care what people thought. She just said it. Prince was the same. I am pretty sure Nina would be livid at how little things have changed. She was good friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and performed at his rallies. It’s really weird to watch stuff from the ‘60s and think, ‘Wow, nothing has changed...it’s possibly gotten worse’.
How are we going backwards?! It’s absolutely horrifying. The U.S just voted for a TV personality that has been making racist comments throughout the entire election. The good thing is, people are now speaking up and fighting back. There is a ruckus on the internet and that is a positive for this movement that is currently happening. A good example is The Pin.
Do you think R&B, hip-hop and soul is adequately represented in Australian media?
M. No. When we talk about this you have to delve deeper. Are we talking about white people who do funk and soul or are we talking about the three brown kids that do it who maybe get some love? Are we talking about Aboriginal artists who get almost zero love unless they’re pushed through Indigenous stations? Australian media and the Australian music scene needs help. Australian hip hop is divided and it’s really nice seeing a change slowly come through with artists such as Remi, L-Fresh, Baro and Sampa The Great. This is a huge topic where race and culture is concerned. Commercial radio has no interest in those artists, they don’t really support hip-hop. Triple J has a particular fan base, but can and should do better in terms of representing Australian hip-hop acts. It definitely needs diversity. The RnB and Soul scene has a wonderful community that most people don’t even know about, unless they are a part of it. It’s like our little secret. Most people think Hiatus Kaiyote are from the U.S, and I saw Kylie Auldist get interviewed on Channel 9 for a track she did with Cookin’ on 3 Burners that went to no.1 in France after a producer remixed it. Kylie has performed with The Bamboos and released a number of albums. It is really bizarre how detached the commercial world of Australian media is to what is actually going on in our scene.
I think everyone needs to be fired. We need a refresh. When I’m driving on the freeway and I see massive billboards with radio presenters faces, none of the photos on those billboards represent me. I usually drive past five or six billboards advertising major radio stations and none of those people represent me, or my friends, or what we listen to and appreciate. It wouldn’t hurt them to get a bit of diversity. RnB Fridays on FOX FM is the most diverse these stations have been since Stick Moreebo was hosting. Who knows, maybe they are doing more but I wouldn’t know; they lost me as a listener a long time ago and their advertising doesn’t really show a change.
Do you think our geographical isolation has affected how we have evolved musically and culturally?
M. Yes, but also there is a massive shift. Australia will always be known and associated with pubs and pub rock. Because we’re so far away and we get tall poppy syndrome, and people aren’t very open minded. The audience gets what it is given, and if they want new stuff they have to actively search for it. That’s the beauty of the internet I guess. We are so far away from the places that started most of the musical cultures we have adapted, so how we relate to each style differs greatly. A good example is when I spin certain music and the dancefloor takes a while to warm up. If I was doing the same thing overseas, the dancefloor begins within minutes. Our relationship to music is really different. I also think our phone attachment is also an issue on dancefloors, and ours is more of a ‘have a few drinks’ culture. Overseas, good music is good music, alcohol isn’t a priority. I am speaking from the places and spaces I have visited. From Europe to the US, the festivals and clubs are pumpin’… We do have some amazing parties here but it isn’t everywhere, all the time. We are evolving quite slowly and we do have some amazing artists and producers that are killin’ it in their scenes here and traveling overseas for shows. People just assume those acts are American.
Would you say you have a different identity when you’re on stage DJ’ing?
M. I am most happiest and my true self when I am playing the music I want to play, and there are people in front of me who are willing to embrace the music and dance. That’s my happy place. I am MzRizk on and off the stage, my identity doesn’t change. Music has played a huge part of my identity so I can’t really split the two. I have friends that work corporate by day and become superstar DJs at night. That ain’t me.
It’s complicated being a female DJ. We have a lot issues as women, even amongst each other. There are so many female DJ’s who talk about sisterhood, but they wouldn’t know sisterhood if it smashed them in the face with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book. It brings you down a bit. There is already a minimal amount of us, and that’s our disadvantage. You can’t say in one breath that you want to support the sisterhood, but behind that curtain in your own mind you are actually really competitive because there are minimal women, and you think that by being supportive it allows them to take your work. Most of the men support one another and that is really obvious, they don’t see it as it isn’t their lived experience. I have had many discussions with them, followed by headaches. And of course, many of the men I work with within my scene are quite supportive, but there is a real obvious dominance of men in this industry and when they have women on their line up it is usually one or two, not the majority. It’s all mathematics.
Do you get asked where you are from?
M. Yeah! [laughs]
How do you respond?
M. The Rizky stare. That’s how I respond. I don’t understand, what a stupid question. Why does it matter? Actually, I don’t really mind the question, but it’s how a person asks and when they ask. If it’s one of the first questions they ask, then I find them really annoying straight away. I disagree with the “They are just being friendly/curious/insert excuse here”. Luckily, I don’t get asked this question as often as some of my close friends do.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
M. Think about your future more. That’s probably what I would tell myself. When I was younger I didn’t know that my goals would be most likely unattainable, because I don’t fit the “Aussie” mould. I know I would be a lot more successful if I looked different and played shittier music. I have no interest in playing music that is soulless and spending most of my day taking selfies while pouting in toilet mirrors. I am glad my younger self was stubborn and my older self has continued with that path.
In terms of what we’ve been discussing, I’d say it’s definitely harder if you’re ethnic/not white. I’m in my thirties and people still look at me like I’m going to rob them just because I wear my hat tilted. And if they hear I’m Lebanese...forget about it. That’s when they start holding their bag and running, asking me about terrorism, asking me if I eat pork. I’m very lucky that’s all it is for me. People of colour…they have it much worse. If you don’t fit the Australian mould, you have to work fifty times harder and it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you may or may not get there. I think that’s the earnest truth.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Nicola Dracoulis