Ziggy Ramo is the Indigenous rapper who made 2020’s most important Australian album – five years ago

The Sydney-via-Arnhem Land artist asks big questions about Australia’s Black history on ‘Black Thoughts’, an album of reckoning and renewal

Five years ago, Ziggy Ramo Burrmuruk Fatnowna completed his debut album. It should have been a big moment for the poet, MC and producer, but he wasn’t so sure.

Fatnowna, a proud Indigenous Australian man, had recorded ‘Black Thoughts’ – an album that incisively addressed colonial dispossession, systemic racism and intergenerational trauma via “pure expression”. Yet he worried that non-Indigenous Australia wasn’t ready to engage with his truth-telling, so he shelved the album.

But after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 prompted global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, Fatnowna decided to “rush release” the album on June 5. “It was just still so relevant,” he says. With Australia facing its own reckoning, Fatnowna felt he had to use his voice, presenting ‘Black Thoughts’ as “a learning resource” and calling on allies to support First Nations people by listening.

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Fatnowna explained the circumstances in which ‘Black Thoughts’ was created in a candid Instagram post: “I wrote this album 5 years ago while I was hospitalized. I was in a dark space and on suicide watch. It was my obituary. I wanted to document my thoughts so that our stories could be heard after I was gone.”

The record is unsettlingly raw, but richly crafted. It weaves in other voices to create dialogue and establish setting; the starkly topical, 18-minute outro ‘Final Thoughts’ is based on a conversation between Fatnowna and ABC Radio National presenter Daniel Browning. Previously circulated songs like ‘Black Face’ sound even more compelling within the album’s arc.

Recording ‘Black Thoughts’ five years ago helped Fatnowna heal. Marching with protesters in his current hometown of Sydney in 2020, though, was disquieting – and “one of the loneliest experiences”, he says. “To be in a sea of people who support you but, at the same time, cannot access your trauma – not that I want them to – it’s very alienating to feel the blatant disconnect of my understanding of the complexities of what’s going on, not only through my lived experience, but through the emotional labour that I’ve invested in understanding why we are where we are – versus some people, [who are] really only starting to be a part of this dialogue for the last week.”

Fatnowna considers himself a communicator as much as a creative. On the phone, he’s talkative, thoughtful and – to this writer – unjustifiably self-critical. Above all, Fatnowna cares – deeply. “I try and come from a place of love,” he says, “because if I’m constantly coming from a place of anger and hatred, that’s what I have to carry around with myself every day – and that becomes all-consuming and very toxic.”

“If I’m constantly coming from a place of anger and hatred, that’s what I have to carry around with myself every day”

The photo on the cover of ‘Black Thoughts’ is personal and symbolic: Fatnowna reproduced a photograph of his parents on their wedding day. Educators, they met in teachers college, later heading to Gapuwiyak in North-East Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal community granted the couple a rare traditional marriage ceremony (Fatnowna’s Indigenous father actually has familial ties to Far North Queensland).

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“I just remember growing up and seeing that photo and always wishing I was there for it,” the rapper sighs. “That’s the starting point for these stories – that whole moment… It comes from Dad’s stories, from his experience; from his father’s stories. This album is Culture. Yes, it’s dynamic, it’s a different form, but it’s Songline. We’re an oral culture, we share stories; knowledge through stories… For me, it was really important that this album was framed in that context.”

Ziggy Ramo new album Black Thoughts
Credit: Emma Pegrum

Fatnowna moved to Perth at six years old. He began pursuing music in his mid-teens, the social messaging of classic US hip-hop resonating with him. Still, after graduating from school, Fatnowna embarked on a Pre-Medicine degree, determined to advocate for Indigenous health. Eventually, he switched back to music, aiming to represent Indigenous Australian perspectives in rap. “I’m trying to be the artist that I needed when I was a kid,” he says. Working alongside Perth producer JCAL, Fatnowna generated buzz in 2016 with his first EP, ‘Black Thoughts’ – a precursor to an album that he’d cast aside.

At that time, even mainstream news coverage revealed Australia’s deep racial inequalities – the AFL champion Adam Goodes was subjected to relentless abuse; the Western Australian Government callously threatened to close remote Aboriginal communities because of Federal funding cuts; and the death of the Aboriginal teen Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie exposed the imbalances within the justice system.

Fatnowna grew increasingly despondent over the indifference of non-Indigenous Australians. “It wasn’t so much a society that made me feel very safe in expressing what I felt about everything.” He encountered intransigence in the music industry, too. “I had a bunch of meetings with different label execs, I did a showcase at [2017’s] BIGSOUND, and a lot of the response that I got from people was like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ I had people around me kinda encouraging me to maybe go a different direction – and I understood as well, because they weren’t Indigenous and they didn’t understand the importance of what I was trying to say; because they hadn’t lived what I’d lived.”

“I had a bunch of meetings with different label execs, I did a showcase at BIGSOUND, and a lot of the response that I got from people was ‘Why are you so angry?’”

Fatnowna occasionally revisited ‘Black Thoughts’, feeling restored by hearing his own “strength” put to sound. Nevertheless, he only resolved to release the album as Black Lives Matter regained momentum this year. “I realised I just had to leave my pride and ego at the door,” Fatnowna explains. “As much as I wanted my debut album to be this really big commercial success, and building this really big platform, the other thing that I was shockingly awakened to was how relevant this still was.

“It wasn’t about how many streams I could get; if it was gonna get a Feature Album on triple j, or if it was gonna do this as my debut album… It was like, ‘This needs to be out now because, whether or not people are ready to listen, I can’t control that. But, the sooner the album’s out, the longer people will have time to spend with it as a resource. So, whether or not you discover it today or in a year from now, it’s out there.’”

Ziggy Ramo new album Black Thoughts
Credit: Emma Pegrum

Fatnowna is heartened by the reception to ‘Black Thoughts’ from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous listeners. “It’s genuinely been amazing – honestly,” he admits. “I do think it is important to recognise when things happen that are positive. It is so easy to get drowned in the overwhelming sense of just heaviness.”

He also believes that Australia’s Black Lives Matter movement is at a pivotal juncture – and, as ‘Black Thoughts’ underscores, structural change requires a process. “This album is hoping to ask questions,” he says. “It’s hoping to be a part of the conversation, rather than provide answers… But, until we all hold ourselves accountable and become critical thinkers about what is going on in our country, if we don’t understand our stake and our own motivation in driving change, then we’re not gonna be in it for the long haul.”

Throughout everything, the quietly ambitious Fatnowna has continued to build his career. He appeared at 2018’s Splendour In The Grass, which was headlined by Kendrick Lamar. And he’s continued to develop as a songwriter/producer, embarking on a writing trip to Los Angeles where he befriended R&B singer Kehlani. “I have no regrets in the way that this played out because, even though [‘Black Thoughts’ has] been sitting there, I haven’t been.”

“This album is hoping to ask questions – to be a part of the conversation, rather than provide answers”

Along the way, Fatnowna relocated to Sydney to network with the likes of Spotify – a connection which helped when he needed to release ‘Black Thoughts’ within 48 hours. He has an eponymous label, Ramo Records (“Ramo means warrior,” Fatnowna shares, the name derived from his dad’s Solomon Islands ancestry), and values being an independent MC.

“Self-determination is so important for me, because I wanna be able to follow my instinct,” Fatnowna says. “I know the industry doesn’t understand my instinct, ’cause they haven’t lived my experience. I’m pretty over trying to fit into the system that was never supposed to have space for me.”

Last year, Fatnowna released ‘Pretty Boy’ – a song, inspired by a compliment from his pal Kwame, challenging toxic masculinity and extolling gender fluidity. He has ‘Smile’, an upbeat single dedicated to his partner, waiting in the wings: it was due for release in early June, but had been postponed. “I’ve basically already finished my second album – because I didn’t really have plans of putting this one out,” Fatnowna laughs. “So I’ve been locked down for the last 18 months, two years, working on another project that I’m really proud of.”

Ziggy Ramo’s ‘Black Thoughts’ is out now.

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