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Encore: Tasman Keith didn't come here to point fingers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In rural eastern Australia along a winding river is a tiny town with a hard history and a thriving hip-hop scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASMAN KEITH SONG, "SHARKS")

CHANG: Bowraville is a mission, an Indigenous community established in the 19th century to be deliberately separate from the white population.

TASMAN KEITH: Post-colonization, government and, you know, churches used missions as a place to segregate and try to whitewash our history.

CHANG: Tasman Keith grew up in Bowraville. He's a rapper, just like his dad before him. And his music tries to make sense of the history wrapped around his home and his community.

TASMAN KEITH: Over time, the place that is the mission is now a place of pride and something that we've kind of claimed as, like - you know, all of our family's here, so let's enjoy that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARKS")

TASMAN KEITH: (Rapping) Jump out. Look by - whole world on fire, the thought, the tide, remorse, desire.

CHANG: Our cohost Ari Shapiro spoke with Keith back in July about his new album, "A Colour Undone."

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What role does hip-hop play in turning a place of oppression and division into a place of community and pride?

TASMAN KEITH: I think it just has the role of giving us a voice in a country where we were pretty much voiceless for the longest amount of time. I think that's definitely why a lot of us turn to hip-hop or music in general - because it's really just our way of, I guess, speaking our opinion and changing what needs to be changed through music.

SHAPIRO: There's a track on this album called "Proud."

(SOUNDBITE OF TASMAN KEITH SONG, "PROUD")

SHAPIRO: Does that speak to some of what we're talking about here?

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah, for sure. And it also just speaks on - you know, sometimes I feel like being born as a person of color and Indigenous, there's this pressure of you to do it for many reasons that, you know, you kind of just get thrown into. And I feel like before you do that, it is very important just to make sure inside yourself that you're OK to do that. So for me, it's like making sure that I'm good and I'm in a position where I'm understanding of my things personally, understanding of my community and also understanding of the outside world and the lack of knowledge that I have and coming to it with that point of view.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD")

TASMAN KEITH: (Rapping) You too proud, too loud, too nice. Move out. See life. Do it now, or be quiet and cool down - too proud, too loud, too nice. Move out. See life. Do it now. Be quiet. Cool down.

SHAPIRO: This is your inheritance. And when I say that, I don't just mean the history you're inheriting. I also mean you're the son of a rapper.

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah. Yep, I am. It's wild. It's something that I grew up thinking was totally normal, to be honest.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TASMAN KEITH: It was just a normal thing for me. You know, I would grow up at 8, 9, 10 years old, being on stage with my father.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B.L.A.C.K.")

WIRE MC: (Rapping) Hold my head high even though I want to cry.

TASMAN KEITH: You know, him and my mom were split for quite a few years, so he'd have us every second weekend. And sometimes he'd have shows at the same time, and he'd be like, OK, well, I've got to put my sons on stage with me. And that's how he would take care of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B.L.A.C.K.")

WIRE MC: (Rapping) But how many more tears must a brother shed before I get this message going right through your head? Black - what does it mean for me to be Black? How does it feel for me? Black.

SHAPIRO: What role did you see that playing in his life that you thought later, well, maybe this could do the same thing for me?

TASMAN KEITH: I think it was, you know, again, just the freedom of having a voice and doing what you love. And, you know, my dad was doing it in a time where I think Australia wasn't necessarily ready for some of the things he was saying. Therefore, I did see him, you know, being quite broke and in poverty. And then some weeks it would be the complete opposite because of a payday from a show. But regardless, he still did it for the love of music and creativity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASMAN KEITH SONG, "TREAD LIGHT")

SHAPIRO: Do you think Australia is ready for the things that you're saying now, a generation later?

TASMAN KEITH: I believe so. I think, you know, what my father has taught me was, like, I don't tend to point the finger. It's from a place of understanding or from a place that - you know, at the end of the day, everybody is all human. And we all do have a lack of knowledge that we can, you know, expand on.

SHAPIRO: Is there some place on this album that you can point to where we see you taking that approach - less the finger-point, more the shared humanity?

TASMAN KEITH: I'd say "Tread Light." I'd say the last song, where it's speaking on a topic that everybody experiences, you know, without even saying, which is death. And it's me just speaking on death through the scope of my experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREAD LIGHT")

TASMAN KEITH: (Rapping) Did I envision my demise every time I thought of death? I know my mama worried. I know my father distressed. But I just need a reason, see, see with a level head. At times I look to you in these moments that I neglect.

SHAPIRO: If you don't mind my asking, you've had a lot of experience with death. I mean, like, you've lost a lot of people close to you.

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah, there's...

SHAPIRO: That's got to be a burden to carry.

TASMAN KEITH: It is a lot. You know, there's been a stage where, in one year of my life, it's been, like, 13 family members. The gift and the curse of being from such a small and connected community but a big family is just that. There's definitely still issues of, you know, health issues, heart issues that we face as a community. And for me, I was always kind of pushing it to the side with work, work, work. And it wasn't until I, I guess, sat with myself and gained clarity on myself that I was able to see what I haven't dealt with just yet.

SHAPIRO: Is rapping kind of a coping mechanism in a way?

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah, definitely, rapping and songwriting. But sometimes I think me always relying on that can be quite detrimental and thinking that, you know, that's the only way to deal with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASMAN KEITH SONG, "TREAD LIGHT")

SHAPIRO: So much of what you're talking about in the context of a First Nations experience in Australia seems to echo what American rappers have been doing from, like, the earliest days of hip-hop - using their art to confront struggle and trauma and racism. How connected do you feel to that history on the other side of the world?

TASMAN KEITH: I feel so connected, man. I grew up listening to all of that, you know what I mean? Like, me, my cousins, my dad, my uncles - I remember growing up, and the first hip-hop joint I heard was Eazy-E. And I was in the car with my uncles. Like, we have Tupac CDs literally on, you know, my uncle's gravesite. Like, it is a lot in our community.

SHAPIRO: And so what's it like, having made it big in Australia, now to have these tracks heard by an American audience, by the American hip-hop fans who are listening to the same albums you were listening to when you were a kid?

TASMAN KEITH: It's beautiful because, like, it's the mecca of hip-hop, you know what I mean? Like, New York - like, it's somewhere where, for a lot of my life, I've definitely gained everything that I have and I've grown to have through hip-hop. And I'm definitely aware and thankful of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDK")

PHIL FRESH: (Singing) I don't know. I don't know. Coming back to you, it's like I'm coming home.

SHAPIRO: Knowing that your uncle, who is such a big hip-hop fan, did not survive, knowing that your father as a rapper never made it to the level that you've now made it, do you feel a pressure? Does the success that you're experiencing come with sort of - I don't know - people hovering over your shoulders?

TASMAN KEITH: No, I think I feel the pride instead. And I definitely feel it when I go back home. And, you know, they just say to me, keep going. Like, you're representing us. And they don't even put the pressure on like, you need to do this for us. They're just like, be yourself and, you know, everything else will follow. It grounds me for a second. You know, I can go back and see my 12-year-old sister, and she doesn't care about music I'm making, you know what I mean? So, like...

SHAPIRO: They're taking you down a notch. They're not carrying you...

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...On their shoulders. They are bringing you down to size.

TASMAN KEITH: Yeah. They're like, just remember you ain't no different. And I strongly agree.

SHAPIRO: Tasman Keith's new album is called "A Colour Undone." Congratulations. It's been great talking to you.

TASMAN KEITH: Thank you, man. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDK")

FRESH: Yeah.

(Singing) I don't know. I don't know. Coming back to you, it's like I'm coming home. Falling into you is like some dominoes. I don't even know. I'm trying to let you go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.