Neil Morris is sitting by the bank of Merri Creek in Melbourne's north, his current home nearby, as are the studios for community radio station 3RRR, where he presents the Indigenous-focused program Still Here. The natural setting – or at least an inner-suburb version of a natural setting – complements the themes explored by Morris's musical project Drmngnow, detailing a reverence for land and country.
Through the release of three songs over the past year, including the just-released Ancestors, Morris has established Drmngnow as a captivating blend of forward-thinking hip-hop production, R&B fundamentals, and resolute messaging regarding Australia's Indigenous history, and Indigenous future.
Ancestors follows well-received tracks Indigenous Land and the soulful Australia Does Not Exist, forming a triptych of works exploring Morris's identity as an Indigenous artist, exploring issues and culture with an approach that's both introspective and universally-minded.
Tell us about how the video for Ancestors was realised.
Neil Morris: It was a beautiful experience. The whole intention behind it was to film a large quantity of it back on my country, which is Yorta Yorta country, specifically the townships of Shepparton and Mooroopna, a lot of spots within town and along the rivers and wetlands. It was a really wholesome experience. I look at my art as responsibility, to create these types of songs which are very cultural in content. I felt there was a duty to record back home for this particular clip. It was something that felt right and just. In doing that, I was also able to have family participate in the filming of it. Everyone bar the singer who collaborates with me on the song, Kee’ahn, is all Yorta Yorta people from back home. It was a really beautiful thing to be able to bring that into what I’m doing. Community is a vital part of everything that I do. Not only as an artist, but as a person.
The sense of land and country is vivid throughout your three songs released so far. You can so visual depictions of land through music videos, but how do you channel land in a musical sense?
In terms of portraying country accurately, there are a range of things to consider. Firstly, country is a pure thing, so to speak. Acknowledging that as a reality for us as Indigenous people, the pure spirituality we have as a people will always be there as a connection to country. Country is everywhere still. Representing the purity of country is something I’m passionate about in my work. I love to take photos of nature and share that with people. It’s totally crucial to me. When people see that, it speaks for itself. The transformative effect that can have is one of the most powerful tools we have in this incredible land we all live upon. Particularly in this track, there is plenty of imagery of what now is put-upon country, to have that contrast was crucial as well.
It’s beautiful when it does become an educational tool, an empowering tool. It does become medicine.
With the right piece of work, to show the changes that have been made. Let people work out for themselves if it would be more beautiful if we were living on nothing but country. Certainly from my perspective, I’m not opposed to growth in terms of human existence and how that occurs. But I am opposed to exploitation and oppression of Indigenous peoples and how that flows on to everybody. In terms of making sure land is represented in that bigger picture around A) where we all once were as humans, and B) where we all currently are. What looks right as a world?
Do you see your songs as protest songs?
The songs don’t start as protest songs. Coming back to responsibility, when things are not good on this country, particularly back home, for Indigenous people, I often get a strong emotional reaction. It’s very internal, it’s very affecting on my whole being. Songwriting and creating music has always been the most powerful way that I can process that information of injustices that I’ve been exposed to. First and foremost, it’s a mechanism I use to solidify my being and then represent that back into the world. It’s medicine I can use on myself. When I put it out there, given there’s a lot of work put into it, it’s beautiful when it does become an educational tool, an empowering tool. It does become medicine.
They’re the first three things that I hope come with my work. That people can feel healed a little bit, that people can be empowered a little bit, and for people who might not be aware beforehand what my lyrical content contains, that it can raise their awareness to further understand the things I’m talking about. In terms of is it a protest, it’s never set out as a protest against those who are negatively affecting things, but by default it certainly can act as that. When I put the work out, I realise people can feel there’s that intent behind it. It’s an element of my responsibility as an Indigenous person, it’s a responsibility to my connection with ancestors and the warrior spirit they carry through me, that they are standing up and protesting.
You mention your responsibility as an Indigenous person, but you’re also an emerging artist. Do you feel like you have to balance that sense responsibility along with your growth as an artist, or do they feed into each other?
It’s an interesting thing, and I’ve thought about this a little bit in terms of what is seen as a pathway of growth for people and their art. There’s all this ticking of boxes that can be expected of people in the music industry in what’s seen as a logical procedure to grow their market, to have a sustainable career within their art. That’s something with the content of the work I’ve wanted to put out there. In one sense, I’ve not been able to adhere to what another artist might do in terms of their growth because of the content of my work. In order to give the work the full integrity, the message the full integrity, I’ve had to do the work in a way that is a true representation of how it came to me, and honour that by putting it out there, and honouring my ancestors. If that can impact on Indigenous communities, that’s certainly the foremost thing.
In doing this kind of art, you can think about how it might affect multiple groups of people, and you can polish your art to be more attractive to more people. It really depends on your priorities and where you want your work to end up. In terms of career, whatever the future holds will be based on the integrity of my work. If people want that in their lives, I accept that’s what will happen.
Your music is a blend of hip-hop and classic R&B. How do you go about putting those elements together?
I was blessed to be raised on some really good hip-hop. A lot of that was sample-based hip-hop. It laid out a pathway of learning which was quite extensive. My exploration of the world of music is quite broad, going into many different genres. There’s elements of that, elements of having a blessed ear to be nourished by an amazing array of what I see as dope hip-hop – artists like Nas, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, right back to 2Pac, RUN DMC, Slick Rick, the list goes on. As I got older, I wanted to explore a lot more, particularly Indigenous music. I began singing in language a few years ago, and before hip-hop work, most of my work was singing in language. That had become predominant in my music.
The special thing about bringing that into my music, there’s a certain sense of feel and transformation that I get from singing in language. What I feel that’s done, is when I do other music there is something there that’s influenced by the touch I get from singing in language. It’s interesting in how that has such a powerful influence, especially in such an afro-centric artform out of The Bronx, Harlem, all around New York back in the ‘80s. I feel like it was a natural fit between hip-hop and Indigenous people here for very strong reasons.
You stated community is important to you. Let’s talk about the community of artists you’ve collaborated with.
Every single situation is unique. The dynamics for me change a lot from person to person in a working, creative environment. This track was one that I wanted to work with a dynamic of Indigenous artists. It’s something I take with the utmost seriousness in how I go about collaborating. I don’t see collaboration as the first step with my work. The first step is the message of the work, how I can represent that message truly to people. When the opportunity for collaboration can come, a really significant part of that is what do they stand for as people? What do they represent? What do they want to see in the world? And what is their energy like as a person. Do I feel that they respect all of the things that I stand for, and vice versa. That’s generally the very first rule about the work that I want to do: That we stand passionately in terms of the respect we have for things.
That’s why it’s important for me to collaborate with Indigenous people, because of the shared experiences we have as a people. It’s impossible to have that feeling with a non-Indigenous person. In terms of collaborating with other people, it remains to be seen how much of that I would do. I’m very open to it, but every single reason why we come together needs to make sense. It needs to be an incredibly deep reverence for what out journeys have been as people, and where we plan to go. Whatever messages we’re putting out there, we need to be able to stand and honour that message once the track has gone out to the world.
Where I’m at now, I feel like I’m in a place where I can move forward with my art
Collaboration also extends beyond music for you, with illustrator Charlotte Allingham creating the artwork for Indigenous Land. Did you seek her out for the cover?
That was really a blessing. I’m extremely grateful not only that Charlotte provided the artwork for that particular piece, but that she was extremely into it as well. I’d not interacted with Charlotte personally before that, but I knew about the amazing work she put out and was astounded, not surprised, by how incredible her work was. I’m certainly appreciative of this young woman who is creating artwork that’s affecting a cultural change through the power of her artwork. There’s a rewriting of history, a revisualisation of history, a revisualisation of the now through her artwork that a lot of people are now aware of.
When it came to releasing Indigenous Land, I thought about Charlotte, she was the first person I thought about with artwork that could capture the essence of the track. I reached out to Charlotte as soon as I thought about it. I was absolutely floored that it was a matter of minutes before Charlotte got back to me and said she was one-hundred percent down to be a part of it. It was an amazing experience working with her. There’s something in her work that represents the power of the spirit of our people, and where that can go in the future. The track Indigenous Land was intended to do something like that, which is what the project Drmngnow is essentially about.
You’ve begun 2019 releasing Ancestors, what does the rest of the year hold?
It’s going to be an interesting year ahead. I’m really excited about releasing this track. It’s really come together in a way that there’s a growth within myself, how I go about hip-hop, particularly from a vocal perspective. I’m still quite new to it as an artform, at least as a recording artist. There’s a really special feeling in terms of what I could achieve in that track that is very much about providing medicine to myself, and to others. It’s been the only thing on my mind: How this music can act as a tool to provide healing to all living beings on this land, anybody who is Indigenous, anybody who isn’t Indigenous.
I feel this track has something special about it, and it does raise the element of not knowing what the response will be and how that will unfold for the year ahead. The thing I’m most excited about this year, as a person, and by default as an artist, is to continually hold onto the feeling that we can have healing, a sense of growth on this sacred land that our 25 million people live upon. As an Indigenous person, that is my highest responsibility, to participate in that healing. Where I’m at now, I feel like I’m in a place where I can move forward with my art, and potentially lead down different paths with my exploration of music. Which means I will bring singing into my work, my production as well. I do have more releases coming, an album is definitely coming, and possibly an EP in the next 12 months.
I’m excited about giving people a great understanding of the journey that’s required in this land for all peoples to get a proper sense of healing. . We do need it. We need leadership. I’m excited to see what Indigenous leadership looks like in this country this year. If I can contribute to that in some way with my art, I’m excited about that.