By Donal Shiel
When Wol Riak migrated to Australia from Sudan in 2009, he could never have comprehended how hip-hop music would change his life. “One word can change a whole story,” he says. “One word.”
The 18-year-old has lived in Melbourne since 2014. Since arriving, Wol has been able to refine his lyricism by participating in Dig Deep, a privately-funded free weekly program. Dig Deep is run by some of Australia’s most renowned Hip-Hop artists, seeking to nurture and transform both the musical ability and confidence of its students.
“There’s never a boring story, it just depends how you tell it,” says Wol.
Tucked away from the main entrance of the Victorian Art Centre on the bank of the Yarra River sits The Channel, the Art Centre’s multimedia classrooms. Upon entering, a performing space greets you on the right, with a black stage and fluorescent lighting equipped to stage impromptu performances. Straight ahead you’ll find a professionally-fitted recording studio, offering students free recording time to kick-start their musical careers. Wedged in-between the two are the more conventional classrooms, home to rows of computers fitted with beat-making programs and microphones for easy, on-the-fly recording.
Overlooking today’s class is Rob Tremlett, better known as his stage name Mantra. Mentoring at Dig Deep since its inception in 2008, the experienced artist hopes Hip-Hop can touch the lives of his students just as it did for him. “It’s not going to work for everybody, but for that one person, it’s going to completely change their entire life,” he says. “It helps lead to an entire new direction and purpose for some of these peeps, which is exactly what happened to me.”
One of Australian Hip-Hop’s most respected and beloved artists, Mantra says this “family with a focus” is just as much about self-development as it is about music. “We go, ‘Okay guys we’re going to help you make music,’ but through that, things can develop like self-confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills,” he says. “These things are so crucial to everybody.”
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Mantra: Got Me Wrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgfa8YpE5x8
“I feel like art is influenced by the person. The time I see people developing in their own life I feel like that’s when their art develops,” says Mantra. “The art reflects the kind of development that they’re feeling as humans.”
Wol first began participating in Dig Deep in early 2015, performing under the name Krown. Possessing visible talent but lacking the fundamentals of the art form, Wol would soon receive invaluable mentorship from Mantra. “When I went in, I was really good with lyrics but I didn’t know how to count bars,” Wol explains. “It shocked Mantra. He sat me down…he said ‘You don’t know the basics, so I’m going to teach you’…It was too important…I can’t even put it into words.”
Krown: Words: https://soundcloud.com/krownzmusic/krown-words
Before moving to Melbourne in 2014, Wol spent five years living in the outer-Perth suburb of Clarkson, where he first traced pen with paper and started rapping. While he found his transition into Australian society easy, Wol would eventually become involved in petty crime. “I was a bit into crime. I almost got locked up,” he says. “Just like anywhere you can get lost easily in terms of where your life is going.”
Wol eventually saw a number of his friends incarcerated.
“It starts small. It just starts growing the more you get into it. It’s like the devils pulling you in a bit more every single time,” he says.
Ditching a life of misbehavior upon arrival in Melbourne, Wol has since taken control of his life. “Coming here just gave me the opportunity to get away from friends, they’re a major influence,” says Wol. “As soon as I got here I was like, ‘I’ve got no friends here, who’s going to influence me except myself’.”
Nearing the end of their third term, Dig Deep students pile into The Channel’s performing space to meet with one of Australia’s most lionized Hip-Hop artists, L-Fresh the Lion. In the midst of a two month long national tour, L-Fresh takes the time out of his busy schedule to mentor Dig Deep’s students.
As Australian Hip-Hop’s only major artist from a Punjabi Shaikh background, L-Fresh knows first-hand how powerful Hip-Hop can be as a tool for community engagement. “Hip-Hop is one of those spaces where it has at it’s roots this cultural aspect to it, which is so entrenched in community,” he says. “We adopted Hip-Hop here in Australia, separate to a community movement. But we should take advantage of that community aspect and apply it as much as possible, because that’s where the heart and soul of Hip-Hop is.”
L-Fresh The Lion: 1 in 100,000: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwwtoAzIAWc
Mohamed Komba has also been a mentor at Dig Deep since its seminal years. Komba – who is one half of renowned Hip-Hop duo Diafrix – uses his years of experience to guide Dig Deep’s students. “One of the lessons that I carry over is dropping your guard down,” he says. “Being creative is being a bit crazy.”
“I try to encourage people to treat themselves like an instrument and be vocal,” Komba says. “It’s about environment. Everyone who comes in here, from mentors to participants, they create the environment.”
Diafrix: Concrete Jungle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_24EpLOQOmM
It’s now the last day of Dig Deep’s third term. A student vehemently beat-boxes into his microphone at a computer while a classmate helps him record. Just a few metres away Natasha Anderson quietly works on her own music.
The burgeoning songwriter’s self-expression and confidence has been transformed by music. “If I hadn’t found music when I was young then I doubt I would be able to be here participating in this program,” she says. “That’s what I really want to do, give people songs that they can relate to and feel like they can actually get something out of it.”
In the coming weeks Wol will sit his VCE exams, completed in a language he seldom spoke before coming to Australia. With aspirations to study business at University, Wol refuses to let the past define him and his friends.
Wol’s friend, Riz, recently moved to Melbourne following his release from prison. Upon arrival Wol pleaded with Riz to give up crime and turn to Hip-Hop instead. ‘Talk with a Friend’ is the resulting track, filled with pleas to transform one’s past and “make a change for the better”.
Talk with a Friend adheres to the roots of Hip-Hop; to turn negative energy into a positive force, something every member of Dig Deep works tirelessly to maintain and develop.
“As an artist being based in Sydney who’s worked in community, I continue to look at Dig Deep as setting the example for community programs,” says L-Fresh the Lion.
“There’s never a boring story,” Wol says. “It just depends how you tell it.”
Krown: Talk with a Friend: https://soundcloud.com/krownzmusic/krown-had-a-talk-feat-riz