-By Patrick Smith
Beni Bjah is seeking recognition. For his music, for his story, and most importantly for his culture.
The 35 year old indigenous rapper was born in Adelaide but has been in Perth “since the Dockers started up”, in 1995. He was the student at “about 14 or 15 different schools, but Belmont for the longest. That’s my hood”.
Beni Bjah, AKA Benjamin Hassler, has been dabbling in musical endeavours since about 2003, rapping over beats and “running amok for a while”.
“We didn’t have dad’s, we were raised by hi hop. Tupac was my dad!”
Now, he is married with kids and has admittedly settled down quite a bit, which means his music comes “from a different perspective”. Now, he is just trying to “keep it real and express myself, I’ve come full circle now so it’s good to have a rounded view on things. I’m definitely telling a more complete story now.”
Beni’s quest for the proper recognition of Australia’s dark past is exactly what got him the recognition of WAMi, the states musical body. His song Survivors won WAMi’s Song of the Year Award making him the first indigenous winner to take out the grand prize, something he is immensely proud of. “Yeh getting the call from WAMi was amazing, just to perform at their show was cool but winning the award was a real honour”.
The song is a very confrontational, emotive track, perpetuating the idea that Australian’s continue to sweep our history under the rug and take away avenues to indigenous culture from it’s people. The accompanying film clip, shot by Perth director Dave Vincent-Smith, pairs with the song to create a stunningly challenging viewing experience.
“Dave came to us with a great script, the metaphors for whipping away the pain and pursuing empowerment through other cultures was perfect for the song.”
Beni’s always thought his values and beliefs might be a bit too harsh for some, “but to have them stamped and approved is massive”. And it really is massive. The state funded musical body recognised Beni’s song Survivor as the best song of the year from a Western Australian artist. A song that includes the lyrics “fuck Barnett, the government system”, that really is a big deal.
Beni is taking hip-hop back to its roots. For a genre that seems all too content with rapping about holidays in Bali and pseudo-personalities, it is refreshing to hear someone with a relevant message. “Hip Hop is all about the struggle, it has just been lost a little bit to the champagne and money”. Says Beni “Hip Hop in Australia has a certain stigma, which isn’t what it’s supposed to be”. This listener for one is glad to see relevant socio-political topics being discussed over some pretty dope beats.
Beni’s album, Survivor, is a biographical account of his growing up with racism and also experiencing it from a mature perspective, with some bravado tracks in there as well so the album “doesn’t sound too emo.” The album carries one clear message; Australia needs to fully appreciate the extent of damage our dark history carries so that we can move forward.
And why is the message so important to Beni? “Australia is full of good people, we just need to break down a few barriers. Baby boomers may be hesitant to change, but I think the younger generation understand more. They just need to feel safe understanding, need to be able to stand up for racism, not heroically or anything, just make their stance known without being thrown into the marginal pool to”.
Our chat lead us to the whole Adam Goodes booing saga from last year. We talked about racism being a big exercise in social-collectivism, people were booing because the person next to them was doing it.
“Australian people love telling people what is racist and what isn’t, especially when they form part of the majority”.
Beni, who describes himself as “a fair-coloured noongar myself” believes there is never a time for racism, whether meant in jest or not. Unfortunately, whilst our neighbours across the Tasman celebrate their indigenous culture before every national sporting game, we boo our Australian of the Year.
“16, 17, 18 year-old kids see the indigenous Australian Of the Year being booed on national T.V and they think ‘what hope is there for me then?’. If we can’t idolise our indigenous champions in sport then the country is further behind than we thought.”
The real problem? “Australia doesn’t think there is a problem, but people are hurting and we need to recognise that. There are generations of pain stemming from our history, but it will take generations to fix”.
Beni is a fan of positivity when it comes to tackling the problems Australia faces, saying “there’s no point blaming anyone or pointing fingers, we just need to educate people on our history so that they can appreciate what has happened and the nation can move forward together”.
And Beni thinks the arts is a great way of doing that. “What Briggs and Thelma Plum have been doing lately, publicly standing up to racism, I think that’s great. I want to express myself through hip-hop, because that is what the art form is there for and that’s how I can send my messages.” Beni says although it’s good to have indigenous people in sport, he would love to see more indigenous musicians recognised, and see more indigenous CEO’s and “important powerful people”.
Beni thinks the future is definitely brighter. Last year saw the highest rate of indigenous people graduating high school, something that is really important to him. He is studying youth work and plans to create programs to educate indigenous kids through music. “I really want to get through to the kids and if they have a story to tell we will give them an avenue, and teach them the culture of hip-hop”.
All of the sales from Beni’s debut album will go towards educational programs for indigenous youth.
Photo Credit: Beni Bjah