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Australia's First Aboriginal Record Label Opens in Sydney

Australia's first urban Aboriginal record label has been established in Sydney. Its founders say there is a great untapped market for Aboriginal hip-hop and rap music that deals with drugs, violence, poor health and racism. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, where Redfern Records has released its first album, Beats from Tha (sic) Streets.

Aboriginal hip-hop is a gritty look at life in Australia's major cities, which are home to most of the country's indigenous citizens.

Redfern Records aims to bring these distinctive flavors to a mainstream audience. The label, based in a tough indigenous Sydney district of the same name, was founded by a brother and sister, Stephen and Nikita Ridgeway.

The Ridgeways, themselves Aborigines, see their move into the music industry as a mission: allowing Aboriginal voices to be heard - and to challenge the stereotypical views held by non-indigenous society.

"You know, most commonly when you think of indigenous music, people tend to think of traditional Aboriginal people like from Arnhem Land - Yothu Yindi," Nikita says. "They always automatically assume something political, but where we come in as an urban label, we want to portray other issues - what it's like for an urban Aboriginal to live in urban society, what we go through in comparison to people that live out in remote communities. It's very different."

"There has not been a vehicle for Aboriginal people to voice their aspirations, dreams and so forth to the rest of the world," adds Stephen.

There is also a lighter side to Aboriginal hip-hop. "We Love To Party" by Pott Street, a four-member band from the northern city of Darwin, speaks for itself.

But beyond these hedonistic beats lies a serious social conscience.

O'Zee, one of Pott Street's singers, says his group hopes to set a positive example for indigenous people in the North.

"One of the visions we have is helping the indigenous youth throughout Darwin and the Northern Territory, so I think that'll be a big thing to get into next year," O'Zee says. "There is a lot of talent in the indigenous youth and we want to try to show them that you can get noticed and you can get your music recorded like we've done."

Australian rap - especially when it is fortified with a strong Aboriginal flavor - is unlike its international cousins. Gusto, another of the members of Pott Street, says his brand of hip-hop tells a very different story than that articulated by rappers in the United States.

American rap often talks of crime, and life on the mean streets of America's urban ghettoes. Gusto says Aboriginal rap talks about unemployment, ill health and racism, but also about the positive side of life: close family ties, appreciation of indigenous culture, and having a good time.

"With the Americans it's very gangster-fied. It's very thug. It's reality to them. You can't knock it. That's the one thing about hip hop - it's a clichéd thing to say, but keeping it real is the backbone of hip hop," Gusto says. "If you're going to rap you need to rap about yourself, where you're from and what's real to you…I mean, hey, we're not all gangsters. We've got families, we've got jobs, we're at home, you know, we're going to Uni [university], we're doing all sorts of different things, so you've got to rap about your own life."

Despite all this enthusiasm, hip-hop remains on the fringes of Australian pop music.

Few Aboriginal rappers have dipped their toes into the big time, but industry observers like radio DJ Robbie Buck believe their unique insight can illuminate the many facets of indigenous Australia.

"It's got a traditional kind of facet but it's also got its contemporary reflection, and that is something that is really exciting because, you know, contemporary Aboriginal society and politics is a very controversial, a very interesting, a very dynamic place," he explains, "and finally having people using a really contemporary form like hip-hop to express that makes it a really exciting form."

And one that in many ways carries on the age-old Aboriginal custom of storytelling. Indigenous history is not written. It has been passed down over thousands of years through song and dance.

Hip-hop music maintains that oral tradition - and it might help young Aborigines gain new respect for their ancient culture.