Without doubt one of the most thought-provoking artists in the land at the moment, First Nations, Yorta Yorta artist DRMNGNOW is absolutely electrifying. Packing content exploring Indigenous rights and culture in a hip hop sound that fuses with experimental electronic elements and indigenous language use, he’ll be bringing it all to the forefront in the beautiful Grampians National Park in February as part of the Grampians Music Festival. We chat to DRMNGNOW (aka Neil Morris) ahead of the festival.
Congrats on being included on the Grampians Music Festival lineup. Have you ever visited the Grampians (Gariwerd) before and/or the festival?
Yes, I first visited Gariwerd in 2012. It was a very special experience and left a lasting impression with me in terms of the power of the place. It’s a place of high significance on so many levels for first nations peoples. A place that has powerful links far beyond its own physical location in its connectedness to far more than meets the eye.
You will be performing alongside Julia Jacklin, Ecca Vandal, These New South Whales, Maddy Jane, Elizabeth, Clypso and many more. Any artists, in particular, that you’d like to see/or that you have seen and recommend punters check out?
Miiesha is one of my favourite artists ever to come out of this land. Everything she has released so far, from the audio to visual aspects, has been alongside the most fulfilling music I have ever heard. That all from an artist that is only 12 months deep into releasing and two singles. Truly special and a must-see act at the Grampians for all.
You’ve landed on a tonne of festival lineups in recent times – Land of Plenty, Live N Local, What do you like about performing at festivals (vibe, crowd, set etc.)? On the other hand, is there anything you perhaps don’t particularly love about festivals as well?
One thing about festivals is, for the most part, they are outdoors, and out on country. For me, that in itself heightens the stakes immediately for festivals. The way I feel and interact with a space at the festival immediately takes on extra layers and much more raw experience, potentially one of a deep spirituality and sense of exchange that can occur in all settings, but being on country, makes it different and so it should feel different. That said, a sense of being responsible to and being plugged into very powerful things is clearly apparent for me at festivals. First Nations artists truly are integral to the cultural fabric and integrity of festivals, and I’ve been very grateful above all to continue sowing seeds of songlines on every single festival I have played at. What an honour.
I don’t resonate with festivals being constructed as purely monetarily focused ventures. I find it appalling that the world of music which has long proclaimed its ability to liberate, still plays into capitalism as much as the worst capitalists out there. That’s effectively exploitation of Indigenous lands, which in effect is no better than the Liberal government’s actions on that front, given expansion rights to mining companies. Using sacred Indigenous lands (which is the site of all festivals) as a playground for privileged debauchery is horrendous to me. I don’t resonate with festivals that don’t bother to do some due diligence in acquainting themselves with the custodians of the lands their event is held upon. I don’t like that festivals continue to not make it a critical priority to book indigenous acts. We are not just another artist. First Nations artists add an element to festivals that just can’t exist without First Nations artists.
It’s been two years now since you launched DRMNGNOW with the song ‘Australia Does Not Exist’. Looking back now, how have you evolved as an artist in that time?
I would say that my evolution has been largely in the sphere of live performance. Before ‘Australia Does Not Exist’, I hadn’t performed hip hop in any kind of way remotely like I have in the past two years. I went from pure instrumentalism, and minimal singing as an artist, to performing at festivals at large scale festivals and such as a hip hop artist within 12 months. It is a trip, but it’s ultimately meant as a performer, my energy has evolved drastically needing to be a much more of an outward artist. In the past, I had been incredibly inwards facing, and very much for deep reasons that meant a lot and still mean a lot to me. So taking on that change which is nigh on inevitable to one degree or another within hip hop has definitely been a process that I’m still adjusting to with every single performance. It’s a precious balance. And really beyond this, there are things about doing this work that have changed me as a person forevermore. You just can’t write and release the songs that I do and have that not change you… it runs deeper than I can put into words here. My work is for more than we can see and feel.
More on that, how have you seen the music industry evolve in terms of bringing attention to the importance of country and indigenous platform? What would you like to see next?
I feel like a lot of people’s are currently listening and taking action in terms of grasping the full sense of importance country and necessity of Indigenous platform. Next, I would like to see more indigenous-led initiatives and the whole music industry getting behind that to ensure it happens. Back in relation to festivals, it makes no sense there are countless festivals every summer and there’s next to nothing in terms of Indigenous-led. It’s got to change. I’d like to see companies that run music businesses in this land work with a diversity of First Nations peoples to contribute to the supporting of building of Indigenous music industry (whatever that can look like). Indigenous song was a critical part of lore and responsibility on this land for 60,000 plus years. We never ceded that. If you acknowledge country, you’re also acknowledging this. We need action now to be put to this from everyone. We are not an add on extra on our own lands. Our people’s voices are of sacred spiritual significance.
You’ve since followed up that track with five other singles surrounding Indigenous culture, including the recent single ‘Survive’. What does creating music mean to you? Is advocating a major driver in the creation of these songs?
Before stepping into releasing music I had worked in spaces of advocacy and implementation of cultural programs on many levels from work with youth to protecting some of the sacred sights on my ancestral country of Yorta Yorta. For me, this music is but a continuum of that but to a different demographic. But above that, advocacy is not even a thought process for me so much as it is merely the compass that guides me as directed by ancestors. What I’m doing is not a new thing for Yorta Yorta peoples. We have known no way other than to stand up and fight since day dot of colonisation setting in here. So advocacy is in the creative process, but I guess, it’s always about that feeling that comes to me, that I take as deep responsibility with every single piece I put together. It needs to have the particular feel for me to know its right to develop a particular piece.
You’ve made a name for yourself as someone crafting a dynamic intersection of sounds fusing indigenous singing, live instrumentation, hip hop, paradigm challenging poetry and ambient electronic textures. What are some of your thought processes that go into creating a song?
For me, there are so many elements to be expressed in a piece. Singing in language though I haven’t done as much of that recently, when I do, that fulfills a very sacred element that this hard to otherwise which I have done more so with spoken word in language in my sets in recent times. Instrumentation, that is key to me as someone who really started with music more as an instrumentalist than a singer or MC. Something that many people may not be aware of is my first 10 years of playing music my focus was very much on being a proficient instrumentalist.
In terms of my live show, it does include all of these elements as they all have strength in expressing the narratives of my work. They all show shades of what I am as an Indigenous man. My identity is complex. It was always destined to be as a deeply spiritual person more tied to my land and ancestors than the modern western world.
Your music is very cerebral, emotive and spiritual. Who are some of your major influences in terms of music?
Field recordings of Indigenous music’s the world over really evokes me as much as any. The energy I feel in these kinds of songs makes my being feel full like nothing else. There’s more well-known artists like Mos Def, Andre 3000, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, as contemporary artists who have managed to hold a high level of soulfulness and intellect has been a big inspiration to me to witness how they have managed and juggled that. And pretty much every single indigenous artist inspires me in some kind of way. The complexity of these things of intellect, emotiveness and spiritual is a fine balance for all first nations peoples and I’m truly in awe of so many First Nations Musicians for those reasons. One whom I am very blessed to be supporting very soon, Buffy Saint Marie.
If you could collaborate with any other person for your next track, who would it be?
I’d love to do something with Miiesha, Thelma Plum, Jimblah, Zach from Electric fields, the Merindas’ Kee’ahn on her solo work, Bumpy on her solo work – many First Nations artists from different places as well. The list is long!
Catch DRMNGNOW at the Grampians Music Festival on February 28 & 29. Visit grampiansmusicfestival.com to secure your tickets.