A Proud Difference
It's an exciting time to be alive as more and more diverse voices are finding their way on to our TV's, radio's, stages and online platforms around Australia. On such act that is bringing the hype to a city near you is True Vibenation - a combination of hip hop, horns and conscious afro-beat.
Against the backdrop of white Australian mainstream media and black American conscious hip-hop, twin brothers Vuli & Bheki (aka Moody), along with their friend Klue clasp difference like a badge of honour, constantly growing and redefining what is means to be present, proud, gifted and black.
MEET VULI, MOODY & KLUE of TRUE VIBENATION.
THE PIN. Can you tell us the story of where you grew up and what you childhood was like?
VULI. Bheki (Moody) and I were born in Zimbabwe. Our father was Zimbabwean and our mother was Australian, both political activists fighting against the apartheid in South Africa. Our mother was heavily involved in the women's liberation movement in Australia, they both worked as printers and so were able to print leaflets and posters for demonstrations. We came to Australia at about age 3, and at that time I remember our house hosting a lot of exiled ANC (African National Congress) members.
One of my earliest memories as a kid is shaking Nelson Mandela's hand when he visited Australia, and we grew up hearing stories of what apartheid was like in Southern Africa at that time.
After that we lost both our parents in an accident, and we were raised by our step-mum from that point. She made sure we were connected to our family in Zimbabwe, and she took us there as often as possible to reconnect. It wasn’t always easy living in a single parent household in the Glebe [NSW] housing commission as kids, with such a different background and history, but our step-mum was really amazing and supportive. We eventually moved to Campbelltown during high school. Our step-mum was best friends with our biological mum, and was an also an activist in the women's liberation movement as well as campaigning for LGBT rights; taking us to protests as children. I think this definitely planted the seeds for how think about music who we are now, as adults.
KLUE. I grew up in a small coastal town called Coledale down near Wollongong with my mother, brother and step-father. I had a pretty enjoyable childhood, spending lots of time exploring bushland and playing sport with friends, many of which I’m still close with today. When I was growing up there were very few people of African background, so being half Eritrean, I was usually considered the black kid, which definitely led to a slightly different experience to everyone else around me.
Did your family have on culture within your household that was different to the culture of where you grew up in general?
VULI. I feel like it was definitely an Australian upbringing, we grew up in multicultural neighbourhoods but I feel like, day to day, it was a very Australian upbringing that we experienced. My step-mother was dating a Ghanaian musician for a long time, and so we spent a lot of time with the Ghanaian community, and had a lot of Ghanaian music and food as well. Culturally It was generally white Australian. Musically I think we listened to soul, protest music, and a pretty broad variety of tunes, we missed the rock and roll boat somewhat!
KLUE. I was raised by my mother, who is a Kiwi of Caucasian descent, so my cultural experience at home was probably not hugely different from what they would have called an 'Aussie' upbringing at the time. That said, I think there are some significant differences between New Zealand and Australia, particularly in music which is important to me. Soul, reggae, and other ‘black’ music had been popular in New Zealand during [my mother’s] youth on a scale that it never was here. As a result, I was raised on Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, where a lot other kids around me would have had Jimmy Barnes and ACDC. She played us music from all over the world growing up, and this has had a huge influence as a musician.
When did you become aware of race?
VULI. As with a lot of immigrants, for me, it was in primary school when I got called out. I think I was about 6 years old. Until then I knew that I was mixed race but, I was under the impression that everyone knew and no one cared.
There was a kid I was rivals with and he called me a 'black n*gger'... and I didn’t know what to say...I stood there and went through all the things in my head, looking for an equivalent insult to throw back, and realised there was none. So I said (in a panic) ‘yeah well you’re a white banana!’ (for some reason I thought the of a peeled banana and realised how stupid saying that was as it came out of my mouth! Lol).
I remember in that moment and afterwards thinking, why is there no word for white people as harsh as the 'n' word? How do we come to learn what those insults mean and how do we change that? And why is it even an insult at all to point out someone's background? From that point on I’ve been interested in trying to dissect those ideas and try to work out what to do about them.
KLUE. I don’t think there would have been a single day in my school life where someone didn’t make a point of pointing out that I was different. I was completely unaware of the concept [of race] until the first time someone called me a 'n*gger' in kindergarten. This was pretty confusing, it didn’t make much sense, and I had to ask my mum at home what it meant. To be honest, it still doesn’t make much sense!
Who were the role models (known or unknown) that you looked up to as you were figuring yourself out?
VULI. There was a lot in the hip-hop and the conscious hip-hop movement artists, as well as artists and activists of colour that I turned to. I don’t think it was entirely conscious to choose artists of colour, it was more that I didn’t relate in the same way to stories often depicted in Australian media. Although I saw myself in their emotions and ideas, I didn’t see myself in their upbringing and sense of identity. If I had to name a few I would say: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Basquiat, Hugh Masakela, Fela Kuti and Steve Biko. These were the people that I saw something that I wanted to aspire to within.
KLUE. Looking back I would say most of my role models were people who identified with in terms of physical appearance. Shaquille O’Neal when I was a basketball obsessed kid. In my teenage years, it would have mostly been rappers, and probably all American, who were the most visible people that I identified with, in terms of appearance. Even though in a cultural and life experience sense i was quite removed from them.
It was kind of confusing growing up constantly seeing pretty much every person who looked like me in the media actually existed in such a different world to the one I did. The projects of New York don’t look much like Coledale!
At time I felt like that was what I had to be, and even stranger, most people most people that I met expected me to be like that too. I think things have improved now, because there is a much greater range of different black personalities in public media who provide an alternative to the old stereotypes (Neil deGrasse Tyson for example), and also the existence of African-Australians visible in popular culture. People like REMI and Sampa The Great provide a good example of how you can be African and Australian for people now and I think this is something that would have been really helpful for me when I was growing up.
What does it mean to be a man of colour in modern society right now?
VULI. There’s a lot more work to be done, but I think it’s a really exciting time. More people are actively searching for more diverse and inclusive narratives, and the internet has allowed new ways to connect and share our stories.
Musically, we are seeing the rise of new sounds and images everyday, and I think this is leading to a less rigid and discriminative Australia. I feel so glad to have such unlimited access to genres and sounds that I may never had access to growing up. Bringing that influence into my music has been incredibly exciting.
The first song we had on rotation at Triple J with True Vibenation was an Afrobeat tune, which we never thought would float with them to be honest. The fact that it did was a big sign to us that at least some aspects of Australian media were interested in stepping outside of the formula and hearing other sounds and stories.
On the flip side, it's not a time to sit back and relax at all, it’s a time to really work with this shift and make it work for us. To avoid falling into tokenistic or temporary fads, we have to try and establish difference as the norm - rather than the exception. How to do this is where the true challenge really lies.
What are some beliefs you held as a child that have changed or been confirmed as you've grown older?
VULI. I feel that my journey has been from a blind optimist to a cautious skeptic. The more I learn about the realities of the world and issues of race, identity, colonialism and disempowerment of people of colour, the more I’ve found that, in the context we live in today, we still have a such a long, long way to go.
Before I first went to visit my family living in Zambia, I remember thinking, there’s no racism in Zambia !! But what I found was that discrimination exists no matter where you go, and most human beings aren’t great at dealing with change without exposure to other ways of thinking, especially when the majority of people around them share similar appearances and identities.
Being a mix of dark-skinned African and light-skinned Australian also means that there is literally nowhere in the planet where the majority of people look like me. So, I can never entirely blend into any national identity. The silver lining in this, is that as a means of survival I tended to search for parts of myself in everyone, rather than see myself in no-one. This is what has lead me to feel a little more connected to the world as I move through it.
Do you think people of colour have enough representation in mainstream media? Do you think that is important
KLUE. In the mainstream, definitely not! I’ve met quite a few people overseas whose main understanding of Australian culture comes from TV exports like Home and Away who were genuinely surprised that people of colour exist in Australia! I think it’s starting to change but for a long time, every time I left the country I’d always be surprised by how diverse the range of models used in advertisements were. This was quite a few years back but when I first went travelling seeing ads in the UK (and most other places) with models of all sorts of appearances made me realise that I had never seen a non-white model featured in an ad here.
MOODY. Definitely not.
Growing up in Australia pretty much the only black people you would see on tv or in the media were American. As a teenager that can give you a really warped view of what it means to be a black man, it’s so different to what life is like here. I think having more black cultures and voices in the media would also go a long way in educating people so that they understand there shouldn’t be fear in difference.
What has been something about your identity that you have always be proud of?
VULI. I’ve always been proud to be African for so many reasons. To come from the land that all people who walk this planet came from, despite the many attempts to have parts of its history rewritten or erased, is the origins of everything it is to be human. To come from such a rich history of thinkers and creative people who laid the foundations for human culture today, I have so much pride! The story of the all of us started with Africa, and the complexity of cultures, diversity and people that come from the continent is profoundly under appreciated. So, to be lucky enough to be so intricately tied to such an infinitely beautiful place has always made me proud!
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?
That it's not your shame-it's your pride, and that it's not your burden, it's your strength. No matter who you are, accepting, embracing and owning your own history and self is one of the most important tasks you can ever learn to do in your life. Otherwise, you’re constantly aspiring to illusions and impossibilities.
What makes you different is what makes you interesting, unique and gives you the powerful advantage to add your own experience to what is. If you look at anyone in history that stands out, it's their difference not their similarity that got them there.
You are who you are, be proud of that, be yourself, enjoy it, and the people who matter will respect you for it!
There is power in your name. Be proud of who you are and don’t be scared to be different.
This interview has been edited and condensed.