Baker Boy was crowned artist of the year at the 2019 National Indigenous Music Awards. (Supplied: Getty/Cole Bennetts)
When Yolngu rapper and dancer Baker Boy accepted the Young Australian of the Year award last year, he delivered a clear message to all young Australians: “It’s important that no matter the struggles and the pressure society puts on you, stay strong, stay healthy, stay positive, you will get through.”
“Every single one of us matters. Our stories, our voices, matters. With love and respect we have the power to shape the future and make Australia a place where we’re all proud, where we all belong and where we stand united.”
His acceptance speech was delivered in both Yolngu Matha and English.
As Baker Boy’s tenure as Young Australian of the Year comes to a close, he told RN’s Stop Everything! that he sees the award as an acknowledgement of his work in remote communities.
Baker Boy, also known as Danzal Baker, is based in Melbourne but was born and raised in Milingimbi and Maningrida — two remote communities in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land.
He says that winning the award showed young people that “it’s not impossible to take your goals and dreams, and you can do that [achieve them], but also you can come back and give back to the community as well”.
Baker has had an incredible year: crowned the 2019 National Indigenous Music Awards’ artist of the year, nominated for three ARIA awards, and making his feature film debut — all while continuing to work with young people across Australia.
Baker recently played to huge audiences at Falls Festival. (Supplied: Getty Images/Matt Jelonek)
Inspiring young people
Alongside his continued work in remote communities and with Melbourne’s Real Youth Music Studios, in 2019 Baker Boy took his music and positive message to new places.
“I did a gig in New Caledonia and that was pretty cool, and I worked with a lot of the kids over there, and talked about my culture and dancing,” says Baker.
He was also awed by the experience of meeting with the First Nations communities of the South Pacific islands.
“[A lot of] young men and young women there were rappers and they were rapping in French, and there was this one point where I was playing yidaki [didgeridoo] and one of the guys was rapping really fast and we were just we’re going back and forward,” Baker recalls.
In 2019, Baker also became an ambassador for the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation. As part of that role he travelled to Alice Springs to perform and read books to children in schools.
“I showed them [the children] one of my favourite books, and it was cool to see all the young kids relate to that [and say] ‘Yes that’s my favourite, I read that in my class’,” he says.
“Seeing young people have a big smile on their face while I’m there, and making them feel happy and enjoy that moment and inspire them, that is what I’m passionate about.”
And his work with and for young people didn’t end there. In 2019 Baker Boy also appeared on Play School’s NAIDOC week episode (making Hickory Dickory Dock cool again) and his single In Control featured a choir from Melbourne’s Thornbury Primary School.
The year of Indigenous languages
Baker raps in Yolngu Matha as well as English. The popularity of his music was a powerful way to spread language across the airwaves in 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Baker has three songs in contention for the Triple J Hottest 100 this weekend that are sung in both English and Yolngu Matha: In Control, Meditjin and Cool as Hell.
In 2019 his track Mr La Di Da Di reached #51 on the chart, and in 2018 he had two singles make the cut: Marryuna (#17 — the first track featuring Indigenous language to get into the top 20) and Cloud 9 (#76).
He says rapping language was always a no-brainer.
“It’s who I am and it’s my identity to speak in Yolngu Matha,” he explains.
“It was my first language that I’ve learned to speak, and then it was my mother’s tongue which is Burarra.”
“For me it was kinda easy to come up with [the raps] but with more of the common language that we speak back in Arnhem Land.”
He’s also one of a number of newer artists (including Yirrmal Marika) who are following in the footsteps of major artists like Yothu Yindi and Gurrumul, who also sung in Yolngu Matha.
“They inspired us to go out and sing in language as well,” says Baker.
Baker Boy is looking forward to passing on the mantle of Young Australian of the Year. (ABC Arts: Hannah Reich)
Last year, he told RN Drive that it was important for him to promote Yolngu Matha because “everyone knows about all the other languages like Spanish and Italian and all that stuff [but] it would be really cool for people to learn some Indigenous languages from Australia”.
And back home, where they play his tracks in the halftime break during every youth football game, hearing Yolngu Matha has a powerful impact.
“Especially back home, where most of the kids don’t even speak English as much, for me to rap in Yolngu Matha and teach them to be proud and strong and not be ashamed and keep moving forward and chase your dreams and goals, to teach them through music, it’s like an awesome way to go,” says Baker.
“Because they actually listen to the track and repeat it and actually sing along and some of them start understanding what it means.”
Baker is nonplussed by what some see as the pressure of being Young Australian of the Year.
“Basically I just don’t have any [feeling like it’s a] burden, I just grew up with something like that and it’s a little pressure, but not really because I’ve kind of got used to it,” he says.
That’s because he comes from generations of Indigenous talent and leadership. In fact his stage name is a homage to his father and uncle’s dance duo The Baker Boys (both appear in the video clip for Marryuna).
“The Baker Boys introduced hip hop to the whole Arnhem Land back in the 80s,” says Baker.
Seeing Baker Boy on stage, it’s clear that he grew up surrounded by a family that danced and performed.
“Everyone always talked to me [and said]: ‘That’s the Baker Boys, the Baker Boys are always dancing, always entertaining the communities’,” he recalls.
Baker teaches hip hop to children during a break in the inaugural National Indigenous Tennis Carnival in Darwin in 2018. (ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)
His musical upbringing was diverse: alongside Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Andre 3000, Michael Jackson and Akon, he grew up listening to Dolly Parton.
As a teenager, Baker studied dance — and went on to train in ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip hop and tap dancing at Brisbane’s Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, before joining Elcho Island’s Djuki Mala dance troupe.
Part of Baker Boy’s message as Young Australian of the Year was that “you will get through”, and he says that one way he deals with challenging times is by reconnecting with his family back home — whether that’s by travelling home, having his family visit him in Melbourne, or by calling them up and speaking for “five days straight”.
“There’s not many Yolngu people doing what I’m doing … [so when I call them up they say] ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, do not stop, because you’re making us proud, you’re putting us on the map and showing a way for the next generation’.”
Taking over galleries and screens
Alongside awards and gigs across Australia and beyond, Baker took his music to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2019.
He shot the video clip for Meditjin (which features New Zealand rapper JessB) in front of the gallery’s main collection and the gallery’s famous water wall — in what feels like an affectionate homage to The Carters’ Apes**t (which was shot in The Louvre).
“It was crazy,” Baker says of the experience.
He also recently made his feature film debut in True History Of The Kelly Gang which streams from January 26 on Stan.
He says he’s looking forward to passing on the mantle of Young Australian of the Year this weekend as well as performing at the Fire Fight Australia concert in February to raise money for national bushfire relief.
“The achievements that I would love to see [this year] is album out, a new single out before the album and … there’s quite a lot I can think of.”
Fire Fight is on at Sydney’s Stadium Australia on February 16.
Some quotes in this article have been edited for clarity.
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