Baker Boy: “I wanna show little kids they can be a voice for their community all around Australia – even the world”

On his debut album ‘Gela’, Yolngu hip-hop phenomenon Danzal Baker continues to tread his path of positivity – even as he delivers some of his most pointedly political songs yet

Three years ago, Baker Boy was basking in the midnight sun. In July 2018, the Yolngu dancer, rapper and singer also known as Danzal Baker flew to Norway for his very first international performance as Baker Boy. He was performing at the Riddu Riđđu Festival that for 30 years has showcased the culture of the Sámi people and other Indigenous peoples from around the world.

“It was really cool – apart from the weird sun thing they have over there, where it was sunny for the whole week we were there,” Baker exclaims. “It was just crazy. It didn’t even get dark at all. It was just sunny – it was like midnight sun.”

Surrounded by panoramic fjords, Baker and his crew lost all sense of time as they ventured out. “We were skipping rocks and hanging out and then playing music – and this lady comes out and starts yelling at us in Norwegian language,” Baker recalls. She was trying to sleep, and the group discovered it was 4am. “We thought it was around afternoon or something,” he cracks up. “We’re all freaking out. It was crazy. So much fun, though. So. Much. Fun.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

Between bringing Yolngu culture through his music to the world and finding joy in disorientation, Baker Boy’s tale of misadventure in Norway is an unexpectedly potent summary of his ethos as an artist. It’s these two goals Baker aims to kick on his debut album, ‘Gela’, one of the year’s most hotly anticipated records.

When NME speaks to Baker over Zoom, he’s sporting a red beanie, exuberant if a little nervous, his back to drawn curtains. During the promotional whirlwind for ‘Gela’, he’s been training for a long-distance run on a beach in his base on Wadawurrung Country – Ocean Grove on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. Famed for dynamic live shows – in which he raps, plays yidaki (didgeridoo) and pulls off high-energy dance moves – that have been sidelined in the pandemic, Baker is still determined to stay fit. Running has taught him to pace himself.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

Titled after a shortened version of his skin name and pronounced ‘GE-lah’, ‘Gela’ will finally touch down October 15, five days after his 25th birthday. It chronicles Baker’s odyssey from remote North East Arnhem Land to Naarm, the Kulin Nation’s name for Melbourne, and is a full-length articulation of Baker Boy’s artistic philosophy – offering proactive, positive messages of knowledge, understanding and unity. The cover is a symbolic portrait by local street artist Adnate depicting the two sides to the man: Danzal Baker and Baker Boy.

It’s easy to overlook that Danzal Baker has only been Baker Boy for five years now. He didn’t even intend to be a MC in the first place: in 2016, a recent transplant to Melbourne, Baker was a professional dancer, influenced by his father and uncle – hip-hoppers active as the original Baker Boys in the ’80s – in addition to traditional culture. A member of the dance troupe Djuki Mala, Baker mentored for the outreach program Indigenous Hip Hop Projects. He has never forgotten his experience as a role model to Aboriginal youth, especially those from remote communities: “I wanna show those kids that they can come out of community and feel strong and empowered.”

“I’m really glad that I took time to finish it and see what I actually want and how I wanted to paint a picture and tell my story”

Baker penned 2017’s surprise hit ‘Cloud 9’ in Yolngu Matha and English. His rapping in language felt unprecedented, Baker flexing, “Step back, feel the power of my Blakness.” He’d subsequently scoop the triple j Unearthed NIMA (National Indigenous Music Awards) competition, the first of many accolades. But, Baker maintains, this career transition into the ‘Fresh Prince Of Arnhem Land’ wasn’t instantaneous. “It took a few years to get into music. I’d been doing a lot of dancing and then there were a few music projects that I was in. Then, from that, I just started to learn how to make music.”

Baker was musically motivated by friends such as Dallas Woods, whom he bonded with while in Indigenous Hip Hop Projects and now frequently collaborates with. “I was just hanging out with a lot of the fellas that I was around with more – like they love freestyling, they love rapping and all that. I didn’t know how to do that,” Baker remembers.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Baker Boy on the cover of NME Australia #22

“I just went, ‘You know what, I’m gonna write something and I’ll come back to you mob.’ I wrote something, came back and then they said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing – you rap in English and language!’ So we went into the studio and then recorded it, which ended up being ‘Cloud 9’.” Baker then promptly turned out another hit, ‘Marryuna’ (meaning ‘to dance for joy’), featuring the vocalist (and Baker’s cousin) Yirrmal, which made number 17 in 2017’s triple j Hottest 100. The following year, he was tapped by none other than Yothu Yindi and the Treaty Project to update the historic song ‘Treaty’, and was warming stages for 50 Cent and Dizzee Rascal.

Despite his rapid ascent, Baker took time on his debut – its cruisy lead single, ‘Cool As Hell’, first aired in 2019 (and went ARIA Gold last May). He primarily cut ‘Gela’ with producer Pip Norman, the former TZU member who’s also guided Troye Sivan. The album reasserts Baker’s affinity with a feel-good, pluralistic hip-hop, spanning electro-funk, house and trap. He vibes off guest vocalists, too: G Flip (the romantic ‘My Mind’), R&B newcomer Lara Andallo, and neo-soul singer Thando. But ‘Gela’ is, first and foremost, Baker Boy’s vision. “I’m really glad that I took time to finish it and see what I actually want and how I wanted to paint a picture and tell my story.” By making ‘Gela’, Baker has grown. “It’s really interesting how I could kind of see myself mature, I think?”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

Crucially, on ‘Gela’, Baker imparts his most directly political missives. Late last year, he rapped about the expectations he faces as a young, prominent First Nations artist in the smooth R&B standalone single ‘Better Days’ alongside Woods and Sampa The Great: “Stressful, yeah, you know the drill / Getting told you got shoes to fill / Lately don’t know how to feel / Don’t know what’s fake or real.”

‘Better Days’ ends on an sanguine and encouraging note, its artists pledging to “stand strong through dark times”. “I grew up as a positive man,” Baker explains. “And, for me, going about all this – [I realised] I could share my story and my culture in a positive way where it empowers a lot of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous to listen to this story and get to know my story a little bit better.”

Baker seeks to connect – and engage. “I want everyone to feel safe when they listen to my song and not feel threatened – and [I] don’t wanna make it look like that I’m pointing at people or anything, but more about acknowledging the fact that we went through hardship. So it’s really important that I get to share my story and how we can evolve as a nation – and, well, as an Australian.”

“Are balanda allies being asked to speak up against racial injustices? And if not, then why is that pressure being put onto me and other Blak artists?”

Baker is a self-professed optimist, but on ‘Gela’, he serves sharp reminders that he isn’t naive. After first track ‘Announcing The Journey’, distinguished by Glen Gurruwiwi’s singing and Kevin Gurruwiwi’s yidaki, Baker delivers the defiant anthem ‘Survive’, on which he raps:

“When the hunters become hunted
Poverty line becomes funded
Billionaires with a million shares
Market crash they redundant
Top floor to the dungeon
Wouldn’t last a day in our shoes
What you know about living off the land?
Talking oceans and harpoons
Not fast cars not cartoons
Need to slow down on that fast food.”

His message is bolstered by feted actor, musician and Elder Uncle Jack Charles, who in his gravelly monologue talks of surviving “against the enormous odds of the vicious cycle / the merry-go-round of prisoners / In and out of prison / The perpetual journey of going from one addiction to another.” Asked about the collaboration, Baker speaks in awed tones. “We just really wanted a little 10-second clip of him saying these words, but then he ended up talking for three hours,” he recalls. “Listening to his story really inspired me.”

For the Bob Marley-esque ‘Somewhere Deep’, Baker reunites with Yirrmal to decry climate change and mining practices. “It’s really important to give back to the Country and then the Country will give back to you,” Baker says. He wrote ‘Somewhere Deep’ years ago, on the tail of ‘Cloud 9’, in response to controversial fracking in the Northern Territory, when he felt “sad to see all the Elders get upset about it and not be able to do anything about it.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

On ‘Somewhere Deep’, Baker lambasts the greed of the resources sector, rapping, “They want minerals / Thoughts of future minimal / Stealing nature’s medicine / Fingerprints of criminals / Making more than needed / Money what they seeking.” With its tropical sounds, ‘Somewhere Deep’ is a deceptively soothing listen. “Island songs” are popular in Milingimbi, one of the two Northern Territory communities Baker was raised in, he says. “My family can enjoy it and kind of feel good. It’s like, ‘I’m on an island, sitting down, having coconut and all that.’”

Baker is a household name for his music, though he’s explored other facets of his creativity. He branched out early into acting, cameoing in Jennifer Kent’s 2018 Australian Western film The Nightingale. (“Hopefully, one day I get to do more.”) Earlier this year, Baker starred in a viral LEGO ad, dancing to ‘New Sensation’ with members of INXS. But, outside music, he’s mostly refrained from politicising his platform. As 2019’s Young Australian of the Year, Baker appeared apprehensive and uncomfortable when interviewed on The Project. Events in the last two years have only deepened Baker’s hyper-awareness of his “celebrity” status and the scrutiny he is now subject to.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

In June 2020, amid the global Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Baker found himself “called out” for his seeming silence, for not expressing his “rage” in solidarity. On Instagram, he issued a statement that was firm about how he had decided to use his profile.

“As my Baker Boy persona I choose a path of positivity and light and choose not to speak politically with this platform,” Baker wrote. “I’m also unsure that I have anything new or insightful to say. I don’t feel like it is anyone’s place to push guilt or question the activism of a First Nations person during this traumatising time.”

After openly giving voice to his emotional state – “I am angry. I am scared. I feel every negative emotion that there is to feel about what happened to George Floyd. I feel these emotions EVERY DAMN DAY not just right now when it’s big on the news or trending on Twitter and Instagram” – Baker challenged non-Indigenous readers to wake up to the racist realities of so-called Australia.

“As your eyes open and you slowly awaken to the realities of what it is like to be a Person of Colour, an African American, an Indigenous Australian, I truly hope your activism goes further than your social media. Activism starts at home, with hard conversations.”

“People should take away the positivity that’s in the story”

Asked how he feels about the situation now, Baker begins to answer, but later sends a longer email via his team. “It was a hard time for me, and it felt really crazy that during that time people who would say they are allies were messaging me, asking what I thought and why I hadn’t said anything about it publicly,” he says. “So then I kind of felt pressured into posting something. After the post I got nothing but support which was nice.

“But yeah it can be really hard, not just at times where something like BLM is in the news, but just on the everyday. Even in interviews I am expected to talk about race just because I’m Blak, and for the most part that is fine, but it’s kind of like: are balanda [non-Indigenous] allies being asked the same questions? Are they being asked to speak up against racial injustices? And if not, then why is that pressure being put onto me and other Blak artists?”

On January 26 – contentiously designated “Australia Day” and observed to mark the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 – Baker was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his “service to the performing arts as a singer and musician”. Baker accepted the honour, posting on social media a black-and-white image of him serenely wrapped in an Australian Aboriginal flag. In its caption, he expressed his gratitude for the recognition, but said he did not want to comment on it “as I am in mourning for Invasion Day”. He had spent the day marching in peaceful protest, he added, and again threw his support behind the campaign to change the date: “I look forward to a time where we celebrate our country, our people and their achievements on a different day out of respect for all of my First Nations brothers and sisters.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Baker Boy
Credit: Charlie Ashfield

Baker believes that generational consensus for that change is progressing, but “little by little”. As for the OAM, he returns to the theme of inclusion: “I want to accept that award, because I wanna show that little kid from a community that they can do it and they can be a voice for their community all around Australia – even the world.”

The bold, prismatic ‘Gela’ will go a long way in that mission – and it should also establish Baker Boy as a festival headliner. Baker has ambitiously announced a national tour to launch in November, though he’s still cautious: “It’s really hard to think of how it’s gonna go after the COVID outbreak.” He’s particularly eager to return overseas, to make good on the lost year of 2020 (when he was supposed to perform in the US and UK) and to experience more surreal ‘midnight sun’ moments. At any rate, ‘Gela’ will provide listeners with a spirited soundtrack as they ease out of lockdown into a new world in need of change, empathy and healing. “I think that people should take away the positivity that’s in the story and inspiration,” Baker says. “And I guess just dance – a lot of dancing.”

Baker Boy’s album ‘Gela’ is out October 15

CREDITS

Creative direction and styling by Aurie Indianna
Hair and makeup by Xeneb Allen
Photographer assistance by Taylor Hine