In the crowded and thriving field of Australian rap, BARKAA is a fresh but singularly unignorable voice. The 26-year-old’s debut EP ‘Blak Matriarchy’, released earlier this month, is a manifesto of staunch, unapologetic Blakness – but with a cheeky disposition. Born Chloe Quayle, the Malyangapa, Barkindji woman gets emotional when asked who she writes for.
“I think: little me,” says BARKAA, whose stage name comes from the Barkindji word for the Darling River that flows through her Country.
“As well as my daughter and my mum and the representation we didn’t have. It’s reaching back and being like: ‘you needed to hear how powerful you were or you needed to know how strong you were and how amazing you are as a person and how proud you should be of your culture’.”
BARKAA’s mission to uplift and empower is twinned with a determination to tell unvarnished and uncomfortable truths – whether she’s rapping about overcoming addiction and when she was incarcerated, or setting the record straight on the past of so-called Australia.
In the video for title track ‘Blak Matriarchy’, BARKAA stands strong in the power of her culture. She’s joined by her daughter and mother, as well as women dancing while adorned in traditional dress, ochre and the colours of the Aboriginal flag.
Over an underbelly of eerie strings and hard-hitting bass, BARKAA raps: “Can’t colonise my Blak mind / I’m from the Dreamtime, I go back / They committed genocide through my tracks / They raped our mothers, lessened my Blak / They brought the violence when they attacked / I ain’t here to start trouble, I’m just here to state facts.”
Asked about the striking video, BARKAA laughs: “It’ll probably get under people’s skin, but nobody apologised for what we went through so it’s about being unapologetically true to who you are.”
Produced by jayteehazard, the EP was titled ‘Blak Matriarchy’ as an homage to the “very matriarchal culture” BARKAA comes from and that is integral to many First Nations cultures across the country.
“I grew up with a single mother and grew up looking up to the amazing Blak women in my life who inspired me,” she says. “These women are queens, I put these women on a pedestal, rightfully so, because they’re matriarchs, they’re changemakers and trailblazers.”
Her song ‘King Brown’ was one that many Blak women embraced as their own. It could have sounded very different, BARKAA says, as the track “started off kinda angry”, adding with a laugh, “like most of my music”.
“I looked up some dark, boom bap instrumental at first and wrote the song just to get things off my chest. At the time I was going through a break-up and just dealing with shit exes. Then I sent it to jaytee, he thought it was a vibe and said we could have fun with this and he changed the beat.”
‘King Brown’ ended up a groovy, hip-shaking track with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that did numbers on TikTok: “I don’t even speak Spanish but they all call me mami / I’m not cryin’ over budoo unless that budoo make me money”. “When I wrote it, I was like: ‘the sisters are gonna love this,’” BARKAA says, laughing.
BARKAA’s journey with rap and writing lyrics began in high school, but she only started to take it seriously after her last stint in prison five years ago, where she gave birth to her son (her third child).
“I didn’t really have any counsellors or therapists in prison and so [rap] was my way of escaping that reality I was in at the time,” she says. “When I started getting clean and sober, I started writing a lot more. [It was] like [my] love came back for music.”
Now five years sober – a milestone she celebrated on Instagram in October – BARKAA freely admits that it wasn’t all smooth sailing when she rediscovered her love for music.
“It was a hard writing process, it’s never easy talking about this stuff,” she says. “My music can heal me, but sometimes my music can trigger me where I’m kind of reminded of these painful moments.”
“We get called angry Blak women all the time but there’s a reason for that anger”
In a melodious and soulful track called ‘Come Back’, featuring Darumbal Murri and Tongan artist Mi-Kaisha, BARKAA reflects on where she was and where she wants to be: “I started looking in the mirror, face my own demons / Had every right to be mad, I had my own reasons / But to take it out on family was a bad feelin’ / I just wanna pay back my mob with what I was gifted / I just wanna be a good mummy, build my babies a home.”
BARKAA says she goes back to that song when she feels down, so she can remind herself of how far she’s come. “It’s a really personal track. It brought a lot of healing for our family. Mum loves that song and it’s one of my daughter’s favourites, so that one is really special.”
The ‘Blak Matriarchy’ EP begins with a sampled, impassioned plea from actress Shareena Clanton: “I am tired of begging and asking for our humanity. When is it enough?”
But the project ends with BARKAA’s triumphant laughter – on ‘Groovy Remix’, a posse cut rework of BARKAA’s 2020 single that unites her with other luminaries on the Bad Apples label roster: Nooky, Kobie Dee, Birdz and founder Briggs.
“There’s more to me than this stereotype,” says BARKAA. “We get called angry Blak women all the time but there’s a reason for that anger. I wanted to express my Blak joy and my Blak pride and my cheekiness. I wanted to express who I am as a person but also get a lot of things off my chest.”
With ‘Blak Matriarchy’ landing in the top 10 of ARIA’s hip-hop and R&B charts, it seems that BARKAA is a world away from her life in the system. She’s been on billboards in Times Square, London and Los Angeles, but says what’s more important is what her music does for her people.
“It’s been really emotional, especially seeing my mob feeling empowered by it and sister girls sharing with me that they got clean off drugs and got their kids back,” she says.
“I think that’s the biggest payment of it all is being able to inspire other people to be like, ‘[if] she can make it happen then I can make it happen’.”
BARKAA’s ‘Blak Matriarchy’ is out now via Bad Apples