MELBOURNE (Billboard) - A new generation of hip-hop acts is emerging from a community ravaged by poverty, drugs, alcohol and education problems and struggling with a lack of opportunities: Australia's indigenous peoples.
The country's 200 indigenous tribes make up 2.4% of Australia's 21 million population -- but 22% of its prison population. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show their life expectancy is 17 years less than the national average, with adults two-and-a-half times more likely to be unemployed than their nonindigenous counterparts.
That grim picture invites comparison to the social conditions that spawned the American hip-hop scene. However, rather than promoting a "gangsta" lifestyle, Australia's indigenous rappers' lyrics are concerned with racism, alcoholism and violence in their ghettoes -- as well as celebrating family/tribal ties and ancient folklore.
Acts such as Tjimba & the Yung Warriors, Indigenous Intrudaz, Konect-a-Dot, Pott Street, and Tha Deadly Boys -- singing in English or local dialects -- are selling out clubs across Australia.
"CD sales are still minimal," says Universal Music Australia managing director George Ash, who is negotiating to sign an undisclosed act, "but (indigenous hip-hop) is a sizable proposition when you factor in income from merchandising and touring."
Tjimba & the Yung Warriors released their debut album, "Warrior 4 Life," on Melbourne-based Blackwing Productions in August 2007. Blackwing managing director Rich Micallef reckons 70% of the act's income comes from live performances, with the remainder split between merchandising and record sales.
There aren't any accurate data on indigenous hip-hop sales, with illegal downloading/copying among fans prevalent. However, the market for home-grown hip-hop was illustrated by the crossover success of white rap trio Hilltop Hoods in 2006.
Having built a sizable fan base though constant touring, the Adelaide act went to No. 1 with its fourth album "The Hard Road." Its Obese Records label says sales have passed 70,000 units. That success paved the way for such names as the Herd, Downsyde and Koolism to pick up some mainstream radio play.
Indigenous hip-hop regularly airs on national youth radio network Triple J, college radio and indigenous network Koori Radio. However, Maya Jupiter, host of Triple J's weekly hip-hop show, says mainstream radio "has a problem with records with a strong Australian accent."
While the majors sniff around the indigenous scene, the independent sector has been capturing its key acts on record.
Micallef set up Blackwing Productions in 2007 to provide management, production and touring services for indigenous acts, and "Warrior 4 Life" was its first release. "Our aim is to license individual recordings to majors here and overseas," he says. "There's a lot of interest in Aboriginal music from European and U.S. labels and festivals."
Another company focusing on indigenous hip-hop/urban acts, Redfern Records Entertainment, was launched last October in Redfern, the Sydney black ghetto where its co-founding siblings Stephen and Nikita Ridgeway grew up.
"We want to show there are indigenous hip-hop acts that are better than Hilltop Hoods," Stephen Ridgeway says.
Redfern's first album, released January 15, is the compilation "Beats From Tha Street," featuring such acts as Pott Street and rappers Task and Konect-a-Dot.
Ridgeway wants to stage an indigenous hip-hop awards ceremony in June in Sydney, alongside a national multi-artist tour. Redfern's mission, he says, is to "put nonindigenous people in our shoes so they understand the issues we face."