Birdz: “In hip-hop there’s a lot of braggadocio… It doesn’t give me any fulfilment to do that”

The rapper, father and proud Butchulla man levels up on his second album ‘Legacy’, which has First Nations’ Sovereignty at its fiery core

Earlier this year, the world’s largest sand island, K’gari, was fully returned to its proper Butchulla name after decades known as Fraser Island. When the process was completed in late September, Birdz found himself yearning to return to Country.

“I knew the final part of the name return was in the works, but when that kind of thing actually happens and you see it, it’s a pretty big moment,” the rapper, also known as Nathan Bird, tells NME. “I wanted to go back to Country, to get the fuck out of Melbourne. I seen it on the news, sitting on my balcony with winter and the lockdown dragging on and I just wanted to get back there.”

It was during that 262-day maelstrom that was Melbourne’s world-record lockdown that Birdz forged his sophomore album, ‘Legacy’. It was a dark, disturbed and – frankly – terrifying time in the Grand Old Lady of Melbourne town, particularly for Blackfullas. We don’t do well in confinement (look it up), but are also drastically more susceptible to all the afflictions COVID-19 can mete out.

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But ‘Legacy’ is more than an album developed as the walls closed in and a death plague proliferated in the corridor beyond the threshold. At its core is the concept of First Nations’ Sovereignty. It is a work about connection – familial, community, culture, Country – and is both two years of work and a “lifetime in the making”.

‘Legacy’ is also at least three generations in the making – namely his son, Birdz himself, and his father. It’s there on the album cover. Composed to the thematic specs of the album by Jack Tierney of Listen To The Graphics, the image depicts three iterations of Birdz. Also significant is that it is closely inspired by the coloured sand art that’s practiced on K’gari – the embodiment of the triumvirate of the Bird family’s spiritual homelands, traditional Butchulla nation, and sovereign Country.

Birdz fired the first salvo for ‘Legacy’ in August 2020, in the form of single ‘Bagi La-M Bargan’ (featuring Butchulla cultural man and cousin Fred Leone) that now sits proud and defiant as the album’s closing track. This is a song that recalls the British Royal Navy’s Lieutenant James Cook sailing the Empire’s ‘research’ vessel the HMS Endeavour close to a K’gari headland for a stickybeak in 1770. Standing atop the rocky cliff, a band of well-armed Butchulla warriors observe the sinister progress of these white interlopers along their Country’s shoreline:

Any white devil wanna test my will
Then he finna get burnt by the fire I feel
Look ’em in the eye and hold his spirit still
He’s hopin’ I won’t catch him, but I know I will

Birdz regards ‘Bagi La-M Bargan’ as one of his favourite works. Its story – which is a direct rejoinder to “dominant narratives of Australian history [that] neglect the fact that there was an active Aboriginal resistance against European invasion”, according to a title card that begins its music video – has resonated strongly with his son, too, who at six years old is “overtly proud” of his heritage, Birdz says.

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“He’ll see an Aboriginal flag when we’re out and about and he’ll point it out. Or if he hears the word ‘Aboriginal’ being said, he’ll pipe up and tell them that he’s Aboriginal. Just letting everybody in the room know he is Blak.”

“This record’s not about running laps and competing in a race where the grand prize is a pat on the back and a sick handshake from the lads”

The 10 songs on ‘Legacy’ have lost none of the lyrical agility, emotion, caustic reportage, wit and political edge that was so blistering on Birdz’s previous work. ‘Bagi La-M Bargan’ in particular sits alongside earlier Birdz tracks like 2019’s ‘Black Child’ and 2016’s ‘Black Lives Matter’. Birdz released the latter single following the chilling death of 14-year-old Aboriginal teen Elijah Doherty in a West Australian mining district after he was deliberately run down while riding a 70cc motorcycle by middle-aged white man driving a two-tonne 4WD ute (which echoed the 2004 death of 17-year-old TJ Hickey in Waterloo).

But ‘Legacy’ feels more situated, conceptually and thematically. ‘Legacy’ producer, the Ngarrindjeri rapper and songwriter, trials (Funkoars, A.B. Originals) thinks “Birdy is in the comfortable zone it takes some MCs forever to find.”

Over email, he elaborates: “This record’s not about running laps and competing in a race where the grand prize is a pat on the back and a sick handshake from the lads. This record is a legacy piece for his son, for fathers, for parents, for mob, for people who need to know we’re here.”

The tracks released in 2021 to hype ‘Legacy’ feature guest collaborators, each imbued with broad audience appeal. There’s the reggaeton-inflected lively summer-pop of ‘They Don’t Know’ which features Thom Crawford; the hazy EDM-swirling synth-trails of ‘Fly’, featuring future-soul singer Ngaiire; and most recently, the second part of the titular track(s) ‘Legacy’ which features the familiar accent and honeyed timbre of Missy Higgins.

One new track is ‘Highs and Lows’, a standout which further articulates Birdz’s artistic trajectory. Where lines like:

Back when I gave a fuck though,
I was banging on their front door like,
let me in and I can get it jumping off the table,
flip this mothafucker and see what’s up then,
birds of a feather mine be ruffling…

Whip-crack into: “a bird in the hand is worth more than your favours.”

Birdz airs similar sentiments in other ‘Legacy’ cut ‘Play The Game’. And indeed, he has never been comfortable, nor interested, in participating in the self-aggrandisement that is so rife within hip-hop.

“In hip-hop – as a sport or game – there’s a lot of braggadocio and talking about what you’ve got and just being flashy with words,” he says. “I feel like I can do that flash technically, but I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t give me any fulfilment to do that. The best songs I’ve written, like ‘Black Child’, I wrote that in 45 minutes after going to my grandmother’s funeral. Those real situations that I know I’m not the only one going through, I prefer that to talking shit.”

Birdz album Legacy Bagi-la-m Bargan
Credit: Marcus Coblyn

Giving shit is another matter entirely though, which the third track ‘Aussie Aussie’ does with biting wit. It starts out with a trappy feel before transmogrifying into a caustic nursery-rhyme and delivering a lethal lullaby-barb at the tail. It really is the ideal ham steak for January’s triple j Hottest 100 barbecue:

Oooooh, we just want our fucken land back
Oooooh, we still living, they can’t stand that
Oooooh, yeah they kill you if you Blak, Jack
AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE what we call that

“When I first started out I never really viewed my work as political,” Birdz says. “I would never give it that label myself. It was always just about sharing my story and my family’s story. I don’t set out to be an activist or, like, wanna do this or that with my music. It’s always about what feels natural.”

‘Legacy’ is out now via Bad Apples Music

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