JK-47 is gazing at his future. When NME reaches the Indigenous Australian dancer, charismatic rap phenomenon and community hero born Jacob Paulson, he’s at his Tweed Heads home in Bundjalung country on the north coast of New South Wales, minding baby son Zuriel as he naps early in the afternoon. Fatherhood reminds Paulson of his own turbulent upbringing, but it has been both awakening and inspiring. “It’s a big level up,” he says.
This year has already proven momentous for the easygoing star who’s content to be called either JK-47 or Jacob. In May, he unleashed a swaggering anthem, ‘The Recipe’. In July, Paulson won the triple j Unearthed National Indigenous Music Awards competition. Now he’s promoting his restorative solo debut, ‘Made For This’ – a triple j Feature Album. Along the way, Paulson attracted a champion in Ziggy Ramo. “That was a big lift for me,” he declares. Significantly, too, Paulson married his girlfriend Lauren and became a father. “It’s surreal, aye.”
Paulson, a proud Gudjinburra man of the Bundjalung nation, is a truth-teller who nonetheless believes in music’s transformative power. On ‘Made For This’, he analyses the legacy of colonisation, racial inequality and intergenerational trauma for First Nations people. But the album is also a celebration of identity, community and resistance. Paulson is gratified by the response, given that in commercial hip-hop “there’s a certain criteria you have to rap about to be dope.”
Above all, the 23-year-old extols authenticity. “I was just trying to be real with myself,” Paulson explains of ‘Made For This’. “You know, when you make music, the evidence of what you do it for is in the lyrics you say. So I don’t wanna go off saying something that I didn’t really mean. So everything I say on my album, I really meant it. If I was on there talking about stuff that didn’t even matter – like spitting nonsense about how I just want the money, I just want the women, I just wanna look fly, rah, rah, putting on a big act – it might have blown up a bit more, but I wouldn’t have been real with myself, because this is really what I wanted to say.”
“I was a bit iffy before I dropped the album,” he confesses. “I wondered if people would dig it, if triple j would even take it, because I go into depths about some issues on it that people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about. But I did it, anyways.”
Paulson is no overnight success story, having honed his skills for a decade in trying circumstances. He was raised as one of ten kids in a “dysfunctional family” in Tweed Heads South. Growing up around abuse and alcoholism “had an effect on me,” he says, “but in a good way, because that kinda stuff always made me uncomfortable.”
Located on the Queensland border, “The Tweed” offers disadvantaged youth few opportunities – youth join suburban gangs to cope with domestic situations and escape the ennui, leading to further alienation through moral panic.
“In this community that I live in, it’s hard to find out what you really wanna do,” Paulson says. “You get stuck into running amok and doing whatever.” He recalls his peers’ disengagement: “We’re just stoked that we didn’t get caught up in anything too serious, ’cause there’s a lot of ways you can get caught up around here and get yourself locked up or even killed.”
“If I was on there talking about stuff that didn’t even matter, it might have blown up a bit more, but I wouldn’t have been real with myself”
Fortunately, as a teen, Paulson discovered an outlet in hip-hop, initially emulating American rap idols as he contemplated his identity. “It was just about sounding cool and rapping bars with the punchlines and the rhyming.” Paulson also learnt traditional dance – and has visited the United States as part of the Bundjalung Kunjiel troupe, actually performing at The Steve Irwin Gala Dinner in Los Angeles.
During his travels, Paulson experimented with some Californian beatmakers. Back home, he befriended Brisbane grime don Nerve after entering a contest sponsored by the Body Bag Media online platform, and in 2019 they exchanged collaborations: Nerve appeared on Paulson’s ‘Came For The Lot’, and Paulson impressed with his bars on Nerve’s ‘Sunday Roast’.
A hip-hop wave unto himself, Paulson has rapped in various groups – including ECB (East Coast Brotherhood) with his siblings, and The Kinship Collective, a band combining hip-hop, soul and Indigenous culture. He also anchors the underground supergroup Gratis Minds with old pal Jay Orient and Jon Do£ – together they released the mini-album ‘Driven’ last December.
In September, Paulson released ‘Made For This’. His solo debut is expansive sonically and expressive lyrically: The music, which Jay Orient primarily helmed, isn’t trap, grime or drill, but jazz-hop – comparable to the sounds of neo-classicists Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Mac Miller. As an MC, Paulson goes deeper than before in chronicling First Nations experience. In the autobiographical ‘Outta Time (1-Take)’, he illustrates how cyclical racism impacts family structures.
“As an artist, I can rap about struggles and pain because I felt it growing up and being in a broken home and stuff like that,” he says. “Hopefully, I can relate to other people that go through it; worries at home or whatever it is, just get on that level with them.”
On the single ‘I Am Here (Trust Me)’, elevated by Melbourne soul singer Phoebe Jacobs, Paulson addresses cultural erasure and institutional violence. He knows the importance of Indigenous youth feeling like they’ve finally been heard – and acknowledged. Yet Paulson wants listeners to interact positively with his music, approaching it as a conduit for healing, understanding and change.
Still, just as he flexed on ‘The Recipe’, Paulson delivers a fresh banger in ‘Guess Again’ – which features DREDUB and production by Nerve (who himself lets rip alongside Chiggz and Nate G on the ECB posse-cut ‘On One’). The rapper reasons that if hip-hop fans hear such heaters on playlists, they’ll “suss out” his album, encountering that “truthful side”. “I just think this music industry is sort of like a game – you gotta know how to play it.”
Since supporting Adrian Eagle in Brisbane over summer, Paulson’s live activity has been limited due to COVID-19, though he has played a virtual show hosted by the University of Melbourne Student Union. “It was heaps good,” Paulson enthuses. “It was good to be performing again, on stage with the crew. My son was there. It was just a good time.” His next major gig will be January’s sold-out Yours and Owls festival in Wollongong, ahead of a national tour – restrictions permitting.
“I just think this music industry is sort of like a game – you gotta know how to play it”
The Kid LAROI, another Indigenous rap prodigy, has recently broken further ground for Australian hip-hop, moving to LA and cracking the US charts. But Paulson is settled in Tweed Heads. “I think I’ll stay here because, anytime I go somewhere else, I just wanna get back home. Like Tweed – you’ve got the rivers and you’ve got the beaches. It’s beautiful country here; my grandfather’s country. Anywhere I go – like America or down the coast or up the coast, I feel like I just wanna be back home, here where I belong, my community.”
Paulson’s great plan is to serve The Tweed’s Indigenous youth. “I think there’s some work to be done in the community,” he ponders. “I feel like I can help being out here.” Paulson hopes to open a well-resourced youth centre that isn’t dependent on precarious government funding.
It’d be “a safe place for kids”, a stress-free environment where they can explore their options recreationally and chase their artistic passions. “We’re just stuck in this mindstate that nothing is better out there – and I kinda wanna show them that better stuff is out there.” Arguably, on ‘Made For This’, JK-47 is already doing just that.
JK-47’s ‘Made For This’ is out now