Tasman Keith – the mercurial rapper, musical polymath and rising star from Bowraville on New South Wales’ mid-north coast – likes to keep people guessing.
It’s a strategy the Gumbaynggirr man learned from his father, the trailblazing Wire MC. “He told me, ‘Never show your full hand,’” Tasman says. “‘Never let people know everything you’ve got going on, never let them know everything – always keep some things to yourself, just in case you need it.’”
But Tasman doesn’t second guess himself. His career has followed a riveting trajectory – the result of a formidable work ethic and pride in both his expansiveness and Black excellence. Creatively restless and determined to disrupt cultural codes, Tasman is competitive with the game – and himself. If he talks big, it’s about self-realisation as much as self-belief: “Honestly, I felt like people have been sleeping on me and my ability.”
These days Tasman lives in Sydney but, chatting to NME on a Monday, he’s back in Bowraville, “just chillin’”. “It’s mad – nobody ever really knows where I am,” he laughs. “It’s cool to keep it that way.” In fact, Tasman now works out of a local studio. “I like to come home and be grounded when it’s time to do that.”
It was here he partly cut his first official mixtape, ‘To Whom It May Concern’, which dropped earlier this month. Tasman writes about coming from Bowraville Mission – a symbol of Australia’s racial divide. Tasman spent his first seven years in Bowraville before moving to Sydney, as Wire MC pursued a hip-hop vocation. The family visited the hinterland township on holidays, returning permanently when Tasman was 14.
Bowraville has a tragic media profile – in the early ’90s, three Indigenous children were murdered, the police investigation impeded by systemic racism. Yet Tasman has idyllic tales. “What I remember is literally just going to the river… It felt like we had all the time in the world and very little to do, but the little things that we had to do felt like enough; just a bunch of cousins swimming or playing guns in the bush – really small-town stuff.
“I think, if it wasn’t for Bowraville and having this sense of community and just being able to tap into somewhere when I wanna be humble – or be humbled – I don’t know who I’d be as a person, let alone a rapper, today.”
As a kid, Tasman joined his dad on stage. “I’ve always said I thought everybody’s father rapped!” And Dad aside, Tasman didn’t tune into Australian rap. “Growing up on Bowraville Mission, and as an Indigenous kid, we couldn’t relate to what white Australia was saying 10 years ago, because it just did not connect in any way,” he explains. “That’s why we always were influenced by American rap – because our stories of struggle and trauma and racism are very similar.”
Tasman has consistently experimented sonically, personalising classic hip-hop, G-funk, R&B and trap – very post-genre Kanye West. “I feel like I’m always evolving – so I actually don’t know if I ever wanna ‘find’ my sound and get stuck there.”
Tasman is also resolute that he not be put in the “box” of “Indigenous Australian hip-hop artist” – which he’s been open about on social media. “I was like, ‘Ah, I’m not rocking with that! I need to make music that is beyond my family and the three per cent of Australia that we make up to really make a difference for us.’” Tasman worries that “Indigenous hip-hop” has become a “sub-genre” within “Australian hip-hop”. “To me, it’s a modern form of segregation,” he explains.
Tasman suggests that, while some Indigenous acts embrace the descriptor, it has conceivably limited his exposure – and chance to shine. “I believe I’m better than a lot of MCs in Australia getting more recognition.” Besides, he wants to go global. “I’ve got full faith and belief that my stuff is gonna do that.”
And Tasman has reason to be sanguine. This year, The Kid LAROI, a Kamilaroi prodigy from Sydney, smashed the US charts, demonstrating the huge potential of homegrown hip-hop – and how Indigenous Australian voices might reach audiences worldwide. “He’s shown what a lot of us believe in ourselves, anyway – it’s just hard work and perseverance can get you those things. If the music’s good, it’ll relate to somebody.”
Tasman points to ‘Evenings’, a conceptual mini-album released with Territorian indie singer/songwriter Stevie Jean in 2019, as an important milestone. “I really think that that project helped me get away from the ‘Indigenous hip-hop’ box, because we went from [his debut EP] ‘Mission Famous’ to, ‘Oh, OK, now it’s about some love shit and heartbreak’.”
“Growing up on Bowraville Mission, and as an Indigenous kid, we couldn’t relate to what white Australia was saying… it just did not connect in any way
Recently, Tasman was heard on Midnight Oil’s ‘First Nation’ (alongside Jessica Mauboy), the opener of the band’s chart-topping comeback ‘The Makarrata Project’. “It didn’t really hit me at first – it wasn’t until three weeks later when I was just laying in bed and I was like, ‘Man, what the fuck, I’ve got a song with The Oils and Jessica Mauboy, who are greats’.” Tasman also reunited with James Mangohig, who records as Kuya James, for ‘No Country’, which is about the loss of Gumbaynggirr initiation traditions. “People were telling me that they shed tears over this song.”
In contrast, Tasman brands his fresh ‘To Whom It May Concern’ mixtape – led by the Papertoy-helmed beat-swerving single ‘Confident’ – as “hard rap shit”. “I always like to switch it up.” He’s secured strong guests: ‘65’ is an intergenerational banger, prefaced by Wire MC himself and featuring Brisbane new waver Gamirez, while elsewhere Vallis Alps singer Parissa Tosif elevates the electronica-leaning ‘Answer’.
But ‘To Whom It May Concern’ bears another more poignant presence. The mixtape is a tribute to his rapper cousin Knox, who died last winter at 27. Tasman recalls how, around two weeks after his passing, he collected the keys for his new Bowraville space. “We went to start cleaning up and there’s a tag on the front door that says ‘Knoxy 2007’,” he reveals. “So, to me, that was just like a sign – yeah, he’s here with me. He’s in this room.”
Tasman raps of his grief in ‘These Devils’, its dramatic soundscape co-produced by his brother (and DJ) Kapital J, and Kwame. “I go through so much shit, so much trauma, I see so much death – and thankfully I know how to channel it and use it in a way that is constructive, rather than destructive. But, for a moment, I just thought, ‘OK, what if it was destructive?’”
“People have been sleeping on me and my ability”
Tasman continues to build. Currently, he’s unsigned, affording him creative control. The MC isn’t opposed to inking a deal – he’s simply methodical. “I don’t wanna rush into anything unless it can change me and my family’s life,” he stresses. “I understand that that is 80 per cent on me – or even 100 per cent on me – and the label can only help out so much if I ain’t doing the work. But, also, I’m not gonna rush into something so soon just to be like, ‘Ah, I’ve signed a deal – I’ve made it!’”
An energetic performer, Tasman has already staged COVID-safe gigs during the mixtape’s roll-out. In 2021, he anticipates touring behind “possibly” a second EP – teasing that ‘To Whom It May Concern’ is only “a precursor”.
Tasman has major plans for his music career. But he also aspires to act. Again, Tasman will study the game first. “I understand how much of a craft that is,” he says. “You see people that don’t respect that craft and don’t do a good job of it so, when it is time to do that, I’ll put as much work in and focus in as I do on music.”
A future superstar and game-changer in the making, Tasman Keith really is holding all the cards.
Tasman Keith’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’ is out now