PHILLY: We Are Still Here
The way that Australian colonial history is taught in our schools makes us come to the assumption that our treatment of the Indigenous people of Australia happened hundreds of years ago. The reality is that colonial Australia is very young and the acts of our nation's past realistically took place one lifetime away from our own.
Philly is a young Indigenous rapper making a name for himself around the nation. During this interview we talked about how being an Aboriginal in Australia is a statement, whether you want it to be or not.
'My mother was born before the Australian Referendum (1967). So, she spent 8 years of her life labelled as "Flora and Fauna" before Aboriginals became citizens to Australia - that blows my mind. Australians love saying all this stuff happened so long ago but it didn’t. All this stuff happened one generation ago.'
THE PIN. What mob do you belong to and where is your country?
PHILLY. Wamba Wamba Mob. That’s Swan Hill, Lake Boma way in Victoria.
What was your childhood like?
P. My childhood was cool. Being born into a family of a single mother, my father was never around. We were in Nowra, New South Wales and they had threatened to have us taken off her. So we went to Mildura, Victoria, because that’s where my mum grew up. There it got to the point where she realised it was going to be too hard to keep us, so she called Aunty Bev Peters.
Aunty Bev is a well respected Elder in Mildura. She had a hand in helping raise my mother and uncles, so my mum called her and asked her to take us in. During her time as a foster parent she had taken in a thousand children and my sister and myself were her last. In the household she left her door open to anyone that needed a place to stay.
Growing up with the foster family taught me social skills early on, learning people are different in terms of stories and backgrounds.
Growing up, were their any values around race and culture that were instilled in you?
P. Aunty Bev was a well respected Elder in the community. She had met the Prime Minister and travelled all over Australia. She was really relevant in community, speaking up for blackfellas. I was surrounded by really strong aunties who were activists protesting and that was a very powerful thing for me to be a part of. It’s why I am super proud of who I am.
Was there a time when you became aware of race?
P. Pretty early on. A lot of the older foster brothers were getting mistreated by police and weren’t able to acquire jobs because they were black - that’s just the reality. I saw my brothers being held while being pepper sprayed. I saw that early on. One thing that I thought happened to every kid was being pulled up by the police to do their little check-ups. That happened to me 3-4 times a day. It happened so much that I thought it was normal.
Once me and my boys had a couple of white mates with us and we got pulled over by the police 5 times during the day. My mate freaked out (one of my white mates) and he told his mum. She went down to the police station and gave them a new one. I was 13 when that happened and it was then that I realised that’s not normal, that’s not supposed to be happening.
Do you feel that being on stage is a statement for you?
P. I think that anything you do as a black person is a statement, whether you want it to be or not. It’s a gift and a curse. You feel proud standing for something that is going to help the next generation of young Aboriginal people, at the same time everything you do is going to be looked at as a statement because you’re black, no matter what it is that you say. I am happy to speak out on things, and I definitely have, but I'm not looking for that label of activist. I am not an activist. What music is supposed to do, what art is supposed to do is reflect self and educate.
One thing you have to understand is that Aboriginal people were never in Australia’s future plans when they arrived. We were meant to be wiped off the face of the earth. I am not supposed to be here, I am supposed to be dead. I am proud of all the things we have overcome and accomplished over the years but still we’re getting pushed down.
What does it mean to be a modern day Indigenous man in Australia?
P. I was fourteen years old when I decided not to smoke or drink, for a couple of reasons. One, was that I was playing basketball and I wanted to play for the NBA. Two, I saw what it did to people growing up. What I saw was always negative.
I chose not to cuss in my music because I knew I was going to be put in that role model category and put out into communities where there are children and Elders. Sometimes swearing in music is relevant when you want to get your point across but I don’t need it.
I just wanted to be a young black fella that can hopefully inspire the next generation. That’s how our culture survives. That how we’ve been living for many, many years; passing on knowledge to the next generation and teaching them so they can pass it on.
Is being a role model also about being able to create an image of a strong Indigenous man and give a positive representation for Indigenous people to see as opposed to what’s out there in mainstream media?
P. It was a choice I made from a young age because I never had that growing up. All my aunties provided a strong female influence but I never had a positive male influence of my life - black males anyway. I had teachers at school but they were all white. I liked them but at the end of they day they can learn but they can’t fully understand and relate to what’s going on in our lives. I never had that male influence so I decided to be one.
Uncle Jack Charles says that Australia is uniquely racist towards its Indigenous people. Do you agree from your experience and, how does Australia treat it’s Indigenous people?
P. Australia was built on racism and white supremacy. Aboriginal people were not in Australia’s plans and now they don’t know what to do with us. People love to say that Australia is the most diverse country in the world - we are not racist! I’m like, really?! It’s white privilege when it comes down to it. Australians like telling people what’s racist and what’s not. If it’s what they’re saying, it’s right because that’s what they have been taught.
I think if whitefellas learned about their white privilege we could start moving forward together. They might not feel superior to me on a personal sense, just that they’re in a better position to me when they’re born and throughout life and that’s all it is. A lot of whitefellas don’t understand because they haven’t been through it.
Along with other artists, you used social media to highlight your disapproval of the blackface that happened this Australia Day/Invasion Day. As an artist, how do you get taken seriously and find a platforms to address issues? Also, how do you deal with the backlash of the nation’s ignorance?
P. It’s never easy to point out anything. With the blackface of course we’re going to get attacked, especially on social media. That’s where people feel safe attacking from behind their screens. Australians don’t like being told they’re wrong when they are. They don’t like being disciplined and when they are outed, they rebel.
One argument people love using is that Australia doesn’t have a history of blackface and that definitely is not true. Chris Lilley is black faced in his T.V. series (2007) and he drops the “n” word here and there, like it’s an ok thing to do. He's not bringing a positive message, painting himself black and making stupid music and speaking about stupid things - you don’t think there are subliminal messages there? He couldn’t have done that without painting himself black?
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self on piece of advice about the skin you’re in, what would it be?PHILLY. I am content with my life and have enjoyed my journey. Even though it was pretty crappy, it’s made me who I was today. I’d just let myself be. Just enjoy your life little man - that’s it.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Anne Moffat