REMI and SENSIBLE J: Identity Built with Music
The Australian music scene is forever evolving. Much like the society we live in, we are seeing the effects of diversity in our music genres with new and enigmatic musicians breaking out onto the scene, and bringing with them a richness of new sounds and ideas.
Since the release of their first album Raw x Infinity, Remi and Sensible J have worked hard on their sophomore album, Divas and Demons, bringing to light their experience of love, loss, substance abuse and the struggles of being black men in Australia.
MEET DYNAMIC DUO REMI AND SENSIBLE J.
THE PIN. How did your parents meet?
REMI KOLAWOLE. My parents met when my pops flew from Nigeria to Australia to study in the 80s’. He’s a very smart man and had a bunch of different university offers from all over the place, he saw Tasmania and was like, ‘aw shit, Tasmania, it’s an island, they’ll be tight’. He must have been the first black man in Tasmania since the genocide. He went down there and met mum in Tassie, they pretty much fell in love straight away.
SENSIBLE J, aka JUSTIN SMITH. I don’t know the specifics. Dad’s mum passed away when he was fourteen. He got taken in by a lady on Tali Road in Cape Town – her house was the hangout house. While my dad was jamming, he was a guitarist, my mum used to go to the house and she ended up singing backup in his band. That’s how they met.
What was your childhood in Australia like?
R. I was born in Canberra and moved to Melbourne in ‘92 with my parents. We’ve been living in Moorabbin ever since.
What was it like living in Moorabbin?
R. It was actually pretty dope, it was very different to where I went to school. Where I went to school was very white Australian, whereas in my neighborhood we had Lebanese and Islamic people. Across the road we had some Indian cats, it was a mad cultural hub, which was really dope.
What culture dominated your household?
R. Aussie culture, 100%. My pops never taught me Yoruba [language spoken in West Africa] because he didn’t want to make mum feel excluded.
J. Some of the decorations are from the motherland, as mum and dad say. They used to speak Afrikaans – myself and my brother weren’t allowed to know what they were talking about. I knew they were trying to say something privately. I used to try and copy Afrikaans at family gatherings just because I knew everyone was laughing at me. I was the idiot in the family.
Do you identify with one culture over another?
J. I identify as an Aussie, but I’m very mixed up, as in I look like I could be from anywhere. I always have since I was as a kid, I’ve had people asking me ‘where are you from?’ My girlfriend got me a National Geographic DNA test about two years ago, I did it and was literally from everywhere: 20% Southern African, 20% Southern European, 20% Northern European, 20% Southwest Asian, 15% Southeast Asian and 5% Polynesian.
When did you first become aware of race? How did that realisation come about?
R. I think it was when I was in prep and this kid said I was the colour of shit. I was four years old and that was the first moment I knew I was black. It was pretty fucked up. I think it was my first or second day of school. That same kid told me Santa wasn’t real as well, he was the fucking devil. [laughs]
J. It wasn’t a conscious thought, there were always little jabs but I had really protective friends. I reckon maybe prep or grade one. I’d get asked, ‘why are you a lot browner than everyone else?’ I didn’t really understand it.
What does music mean to you and how has it impacted your identity?
R. It means freedom and community. I feel like as soon as I found music and left school, that was when I started really coming into my own. I think as soon as you find your calling, that thing that makes you really happy, then everything else comes with it. You stick by that, if someone else comes at you with some other shit you’re like, ‘nah’. If it’s something you love, you’ve always got that certainty.
Do you feel that the music you make reflects your identity?
R. Yeah, 100%. I think because rap is all about authenticity. If you’re not being real to yourself in the music you make then you’ll get called out. It 100% reflects who I am.
J. Definitely, definitely. Me and Remi just sit at my house talking about pretty much the same question you’re asking. All of our music, expression, lyrics are based on chats we’ve had, and beat wise, that’s the music I listen to and borrow from.
What misconceptions have been made about you based on your music and identity?
R. I’ve had a lot of people cross the road on me because of my identity. I’ve had cops pull me over for no reason. As for hip hop, people just say dumb shit at me. I actually like when people do that because I immediately know what type of person they are.
J. It’s more the beard for me. People see I have a beard and they think I’m a terrorist but music wise, I think we’re being genuine to ourselves. We don’t talk about any gangsta attitudes and if we did and someone called us out, we’d have to take that.
How do you feel about terms like mixed race, biracial, bicultural, multicultural?
R. I think people will always try and put you in a box. We say white people, everybody says white people. It’s just human nature to just do that. It would be better if we didn’t have to categorise ourselves because more categorization means more segregation. At the same time, that’s not going to change. I’m not really mad at that, because it’s pretty PC.
J. It’s easy to put labels on people. I just look at people and if someone’s cool, they’re cool and if they’re not, they’re not. I don’t care what colour they are, how they look. That’s just it.
How often do you get asked where you’re from?
R. If I’m home all week, not at all, but if I leave the house and walk down the street... [laughs] To be fair, music changes a lot of people's minds. By putting in your lyrics that you’re from Canberra or you live in Brunswick, people stop asking you that question.
J. [laughs] Maybe three times a week.
How do you respond to that question?
R. It’s been ingrained in me to tell people that I’m Nigerian. Nigerian - Australian. It’s mad ignorant but I’m just conditioned. You spend so much time saying that shit that you just get conditioned to just be like, ‘right, I know what you’re asking’. I could play this game but that means I have to talk to you for longer than I want to talk to you. I just say it and let them know. If they have a tone, or some sort of aggression behind, then I’ll come at them. Apart from that, I just say it.
J. I say, ‘I’m Dando-nese’ [laughs]. I say I was born in Dandenong and they say, ‘but where are you really from?’, I say, ‘what do you mean?’ Then, hopefully, they say, ‘where are your family from?’ Which I don’t mind answering. I’m curious too, everyone has their interesting story. It all depends on the tone of the question.
Do you have role models and where did you find them?
R. Definitely. My little brother is definitely a role model. For so long I always thought I was the one showing him what was up, which I don’t think I ever was [laughs]. As an adult he’s just really shown me a lot about life and being really comfortable with yourself. I think that’s something we’ve both struggled with our whole life, being comfortable in your own skin. He’s gay and when he came out it’s like his whole world just seemed to be aligned. Seeing so much self confidence and self awareness in a member of your family who’s younger than you, it makes me question where I’m at. Apart from him, I have a whole stack of other role models in the music industry and both of my parents are strong role models. My mum more directly and my pops indirectly. My mum has always been the one to drop lessons and knowledge. Whereas my pops through his actions and just being a black man in Australia. I’ve got a lot of role models, I’m pretty lucky.
J. My dad is my role model. Remi is my role model, he’s younger than me but we have to be able to learn off everyone.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
REMI KOLAWOLE. I would say don’t worry about what people think. I would say hang out with all the arty-nerdy motherfuckers. Don’t worry about the jocks because they’re not cool and they’ll peak at the end of highschool.
SENSIBLE J aka JUSTIN SMITH. So many things. I was such a timid little kid. Not to worry about not looking like everyone else. I had a lot of hang-ups because I didn’t look similar to any of the other people I used to hang out with. When you’re young there’s a lot of things you get hung-up on. The older you get the more you notice it doesn’t matter. It’s what’s in people’s brains that matters.
- This interview has been edited and condensed