Written by Nicola Kalmar Photography by Genelle Harris
Forget Kanye, Nicki Minaj and Drake, a new generation of aspiring young hip hop artists are making waves in Australia by using music as a catalyst for positive change in remote Aboriginal communities.
These artists are not manufactured Hollywood stars, or offspring of the rich and famous or even the latest protégés of a reality TV show.
In fact, many hail from some of the most isolated areas in the country; their communities located far from the public eye.
Yet these youths are already emerging as role models and form part of a revolution that is happening right now on Australia’s doorstep.
They are stars of Indigenous Hip Hop Projects (IHHP) – a program that uses hip hop to ignite positive change in young people.
It was founded by Dion Brownfield in 2006, who had a vision to share his passion, to inspire and engage youths through the arts.
Growing up in the Victorian town of Echuca on Yorta Yorta country, Dion always harboured a deep respect for Indigenous people and culture.
“I was lucky to grow up with many Aboriginal mates and loved schooling, playing sport and spending time down the River.”
In his teens, he excelled in performing arts, theatre, dancing and acting.
He finished high school in 1996 and studied a BA major in dance and drama at Deakin University’s Rusden campus.
But after engaging in countless contemporary dance classes, Dion found himself hankering for something “a little more masculine” and entertaining.
“It was perfect timing when I met George Awad, Archie Alias and Deon Nuku from Wicked Force Breakers where I was inspired and consumed by the BBoy scene and the hip hop scene at large.”
It wasn’t long before Dion was hooked and quickly discovered the positive influence hip hop was having on life and those around him.
“Hip Hop provides the tools and the creative process to explore and express yourself,” he said.
“It’s an emotional outlet and a creative outlet…it is a powerful phenomenon that has transcended and remained a relevant genre.”
The spark for IHHP came when Dion’s next door neighbour, Kate Gillespe, who had seen his work with Switch Breakdance School and at local youth events, told him about the kids from the Yiyili Aboriginal community, how they were “rad” dancers who would benefit from his mentoring.
His interest piqued, Dion travelled to Yiyili community, located about 110km west of Halls Creek in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in late 2005.
It turned out to be a life-changing trip and the place where Dion would find his calling.
“It was so magical and the culture just blew me away,” he said.
“I had the privilege working on Gooniyandi country, with Uncle Mervin Street and collaborated with Combat Wombat, Shannon from the Herd, Sarah Cook from Movement Zone and the school to create a show for Croc Festival which was going to be held in Halls Creek.
“We received a Dreamtime story from Uncle Mervin and translated the story into an eight minute showcase using a fusion of culture and hip hop.
“The whole community was just buzzing from the creative process and word spread really fast.”
Encouraged by the tremendous success of the Yiyili project and its positive impacts, Dion accepted an invitation to return to the community and went back on several occasions.
The following year, he visited other Kimberley communities, which naturally opened up more opportunities, more projects and more collaboration.
Not only was he astounded by the level of talent that existed among the youths, devastatingly, his eyes were also opened to some shocking realities.
“I could see a huge gap of disadvantage, living conditions were shocking, truly third world, health and education wasn’t equal to other schools down south, the justice system was failing, racism was an everyday struggle, and people had been oppressed,” he said.
“It was Uncle Mervin Street and the teachers from Yiyili who encouraged me and gave me the belief that I had to keep going and using hip hop dance and music to engage and create positive community-driven projects.”
Unable to shake off these experiences, Dion quit his day job in 2006 and promptly started the small business Indigenous Hip Hop Projects, determined to use the arts and his own gifts to cultivate change.
Coincidentally, that year, he met fellow dance mentor Michael Farah at a Croc Festival in Moree who would become the future co-director of his company, IHHP Pty Ltd.
“We were situated at Crocfest next to each other delivering the same style of breakdance and hip hop workshops,” he said.
“We worked out that we had heaps in common and were both close mates with the Wicked Force Crew.
“I thought he was awesome and we both had heaps of energy in our workshops.”
Meanwhile, Dion’s progress with developing IHHP went from strength to strength.
His goal was to use the arts for change, focusing on Indigenous young people’s strengths to develop their skills and attitudes while working closely with local partners to support community development.
In 2007, Dion prepared to undertake a mammoth tour around Aboriginal communities in the East Kimberley with the Wunan Foundation.
The idea was to bring along some of the best artists in Australia who shared his passion and energy to give young students access to a high calibre of outstanding role models.
He enlisted the support of talented teens Jerome Farah, the son of Michael Farah, and Lukas Wildrok Bellesini.
As Jerome was only 14 years old at the time, Dion asked Michael’s permission to take his son on the tour with him.
Michael agreed, provided he could come along and act as a chaperone.
What unfolded was not only a unique learning and cultural adventure of a lifetime but also the start of a dynamic partnership between Dion and Michael.
The delivery of hip hop workshops also started an exciting ripple effect that was keenly felt through the communities.
“So many communities who we visited and continued to re-visit would tell mob and family from all over the country and it was all word of mouth and overachieving with the deliverables,” he said.
“Listening to exactly what the community wanted for their young people and for the community.”
It enabled the mentors to use the art form to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, encourage self-respect, re-engage them in and create linkages with traditional culture.
By creating dynamic music videos with the students, they were able to raise awareness of important issues affecting youths such as anxiety and depression, and encourage participants to talk about their problems as well as promote active, healthy lifestyles.
It wasn’t long before IHHP was in demand, with schools, festivals, community organisations, Aboriginal community-run corporations, health services, philanthropic agencies and local shires getting in touch.
That same year, Indigenous Hip Hop Projects Pty Ltd was established as a national company comprising a unique team of artists who travelled to regional, remote and urban Indigenous communities around Australia to conduct week-long workshops.
Dion and Michael, together with their crew were approached by youth beyondblue to help engage young people at a time when youth suicide was at a high level.
They were tasked with taking youth beyondblue’s Look, Listen, Talk, Seek Help campaign to an average of 35-40 communities in a week-long capacity over five years.
In 2009, IHHP strengthened its partnership with the Wunan Foundation and organisations to deliver a week-long program to 25 communities in the Kimberley including Kununurra, Kalumburu, Oombulgurri, Wyndham, Warmun, Derby, Broome, Bidgydanga, Beagle Bay, Lombadina and One Arm Point.
During that time, Dion and Michael proudly worked alongside a host of artists including Peter Sette, Dallas Woods, Matty Presley, Jerome Farah, Jacob Farah, Megan Ibrahim, Kevin Nugara, Alex Nuguchi, Jacinda Richards, Demi Sorono, and Lukas Bellesini on that tour.
Fast forward seven years, and IHHP’s footprint has expanded significantly across Australia.
“Over the past 10 years, we have engaged thousands of youth across 28 communities in the Kimberley,” Dion said.
“We have worked with over 250 communities across every state and territory in Australia.
“I have just this year visited Yiyili for the 11th year and I have long lasting friendships and family and connection to that place. It is incredible; I love it. I just love the Kimberley.”
Looking back over the years, Dion said he has been amazed at the success of IHHP and the incredible experiences and insights he has had as a result of working with Indigenous Australians.
“Hip hop has enabled me the privilege to visit and work with hundreds of thousands of people and visit, share and absorb some of the most sacred and special country on this planet,” he said.
“I am the luckiest person alive.”
On a national level, Dion said there was a lot for non-Indigenous Australians to learn.
“The traditional culture, stories, ceremony, knowledge and dreaming of the true Australia – our Indigenous Australia – is the most powerful and sacred,” he said.
“We have so much to learn about taking care of Country and the spirit behind the identity of Australia – we ignore their knowledge, lore and ceremony at our peril.”
Since its inception, Dion said IHHP had evolved in many ways including becoming more culturally aware and more respectful and understanding of all the various tribes, clans and Traditional Owners.
“We have an emphasis towards creating powerful, award-winning super high-quality content created ‘for the community by the community’ to be spread and shared throughout the mighty social media network,” he said.
“We have super high expectations on our service delivery. We employ over 40 different artists with a high representation of the leading Indigenous role models and artists. We have many different project that we tailor to suit communities’ needs.”
While it has evolved over the years, Dion said the core message and purpose of IHHP remained the same – to provide the best artists, to bring hope, promote self-esteem, give communities a voice, focus on strengths, help create healing and ensure participants had fun along the way.
Although there is much left to achieve, Dion said he was excited about the future and continuing to drive the IHHP revolution in the hope of expanding it to all 200 communities.
In the meantime, Dion said he was enjoying living out his dream of using hip hop to help empower youths.
“It enables young people and communities /countries to express themselves and create their own contemporary modern dreaming,” he said.
“It’s about sharing stories and knowledge, it’s about healing yourself, it’s about sharing your stories of survival, it’s about identity and feeling powerful and happy in your own skin.”
For more information about Indigenous Hip Hop Projects click here.