Content warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains names and descriptions of deceased persons, which have been published here with permission.
Danzal Baker picks up a yidaki (didgeridoo), one of several he keeps at his home studio in Ocean Grove, a small town on Victoria’s surf coast, and studies it. He’s wearing a bright orange Champion hoodie, beige cords, socks with slides, and his hair is tied up in a neat bun.
Our conversation dances back and forth between Danzal’s interests. He tells me how much he loves anime and manga, which he was introduced to by his friend and mentor, rapper and Noongar man Dallas Woods. One Piece—a series about a boy whose body gains the properties of rubber and who searches the world for the “ultimate treasure”—is his favourite. “Anime will make you cry if you see the sad parts,” says Danzal. “Oh my god. I’ve cried so many times.”
Danzal puts the first yidaki down and picks up another. “This one’s the first didge I got,” he says, with a hint of pride. “I got this one for free, at a didgeridoo festival. I saw heaps of didge at the shop, walked over, and [the owner] said: ‘This is the shittiest one here. If you can play it real good, you can have it.’ So I played it, and he was like: ‘It’s all yours now man!’”
Now 24, Danzal learned to play yidaki as a kid (although the electronic keyboard and bass were the first instruments he remembers playing). He and his friends would sneak into the local plumber’s yard and pinch pipes from the back of his ute. The pipes would make for pretty good makeshift yidaki, Danzal reckons, and the friends would spend hours having didgeridoo battles. “We’d see who’d come up with a really good rhythm,” he reminisces.
Aurie Spencer-Gill, Danzal’s partner and stylist-slash-creative director—who works with him on the public, vibrant Baker Boy image (“She basically brought colours to my life,” he says)—brings in a plate of cured meats, cheese, and grapes, and places it on his desk. The couple are proud parents to a British bulldog named Djapa—a Yolŋu term for the feeling you get when you watch the sunset—who is chubby and friendly, and apparently has a keen interest in salami.
Three of Danzal’s NIMA plaques from 2020 (Artist of the Year, Film Clip of the Year, Song of the Year) hang above his desk, while the bookshelf beside it labours under the weight of his other myriad trophies, including the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) he was awarded in 2021. For some of Danzal’s supporters, the announcement of his 2019 Young Australian of the Year award and his OAM on January 26—a day that marks the beginning of colonisation in what is now known as Australia—was a point of contention.
Danzal took to Instagram to address his followers at the time, writing: “When it was announced on Jan 26th that I was receiving this honour, it felt conflicting to me, challenging to be recognised for my work on a day that causes so much pain for my people. […] I accepted this honour just like I accepted my Young Australian of the Year Award, because I want to show that kid in community who has huge dreams that they can do it. They can make it, and even more, that they have the power to create change.”
When Danzal was around 11 years old, he entered a dance tournament with his cousin. It was something they did whenever they had the opportunity in Maningrida, the remote northeast Arnhem Land town where they grew up. The Maningrida town hall was full of people from the community who’d come out to watch the tournament, but Danzal had no fear. Not when it came to dancing.
The two boys danced their socks off (except they didn’t wear shoes, much less socks) and came second in the competition. The prize for second place was either a DVD player or an MP3 player (the first-place prize was a bicycle). Danzal already owned a DVD player, so he told his cousin that he’d prefer the latter. The MP3 player came preloaded with music—around 500 tracks of mostly R&B and hip-hop (although there was some Dolly Parton on there, too).
Danzal listened to the MP3 player so much that he knew exactly how many times he had to hit the skip button to get through the non-hip-hop tracks. One of the songs he couldn’t get enough of was “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake. He would often listen to that song and picture himself on stage, illuminated by spotlights, dancing in front of a huge crowd.
A decade or so later, in 2018, Danzal—more widely known by then as Baker Boy, one of Australia’s fastest-rising hip-hop talents—supported 50 Cent on the Australian leg of his Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ anniversary tour. For the then-21-year-old, the experience was uncanny. “When [‘Ayo Technology’] came up, straight away, I flicked back to that memory, and my whole body just shook,” he recalls to me over a Zoom call. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this feeling?’ I got so scared, like, ‘Wow, did I see the future? What happened there?’”
Danzal had only self-released his debut single “Cloud 9” one year prior, in 2017. And he’d never planned for any of this. That song—which put him on the radar of almost every single hip-hop fan and music exec in the country—was recorded for fun, in an attempt to entertain Dallas Woods. The verse he wrote for it, a seamless fusion of his native Yolŋu Matha and English, was the first he’d ever committed to paper.
At the time, Dallas and Danzal were working with a Melbourne-based dance group that hosts dance, music, film, and art projects in remote Indigenous communities. Dallas, impressed by Danzal’s verse, suggested they get in the studio and record it. So they did. And with the addition of a hook from then-14-year-old vocalist KIAN—who wrote and recorded said hook in the time it took Danzal to go out and get some lunch—“Cloud 9” was complete.
The following week, Danzal had to head back to Arnhem Land for a three-week dance tour. He filmed a video clip for “Cloud 9” during breaks he had from performing and released the finished clip to his community via YouTube. The response, both from his community and the Australian music industry, was instant.
“It was just for community, just for us mob to listen to,” Danzal says. “And then crazy stuff happens. Phone calls from left, right, and centre. And it’s all just interview after interview, and I’m on tour trying to do some dance classes, but I’ve got all this time booked in just to do interviews. […] For the next couple of weeks I just had this butterfly in my stomach. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’, ‘What’s happening?’”
Danzal decided to double down on his surprise success, and went back into the studio to record more songs. He played a BIGSOUND showcase in 2017 with just three tracks to his name: “Cloud 9”, “Marryuna” and his remix of Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty”. The venue was packed wall-to-wall, and the crowd was in a frenzy. “I don’t know why people thought I would have more songs,” says Danzal, laughing. “They started calling for an encore, so we played ‘Marryuna’ again. And it was literally just an iPod and a drummer. It was fun.”
Over the next three years, more singles followed, and with them more buzz, more media, bigger shows, over 25 awards (including six NIMAs—three for Artist of the Year) and a slew of award nominations. Danzal’s trajectory would have been remarkable for any Australian artist or rapper—let alone one who was performing partly in a language spoken only by a tiny fraction of the Australian population. But while non-Indigenous Australians might not have understood all the words, this young Yolŋu rapper—with his funk-fused beats, infectious energy, rapid-fire flow, and predominantly positive lyrics—was experiencing a level of commercial success that took everyone, including himself, by surprise.
“I think everybody is realising that every story is worth being told,” says Dallas on the success of his “little bro” (he refuses to use the word “friend” to describe Danzal). “Danzal’s strength has been bridging the gap between the everyday Aussie and community, by just saying: ‘Come and dance with me, then we’ll talk about it. But first of all, let’s just realise we’re human’.”
“Danzal’s strength has been bridging the gap between the everyday Aussie and community, by just saying: ‘Come and dance with me, then we’ll talk about it.”
Of all the awards and accolades, perhaps the most public testament to Danzal’s cross-cultural impact came in February 2019, when he was awarded Young Australian of the Year. He accepted his award from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and delivered his speech in English and Yolŋu Matha.
“I started rapping in language because my ancestors are not the last Australians, they are the first Australians,” he said. “[…] This goes out to my fellow young Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, girls and boys, in every corner of this country. It’s important that no matter the struggles and the pressure society puts on you, stay strong, stay healthy, and stay positive. You will get through. Every single one of us matters. Our stories, our voices, matter.”
Born in Darwin in 1996 to parents Josiah and Sabrina, young Danzal split his time between the remote northeast Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi (or Yurruwi) and Maningrida (or Manayingkarirra/Manawukan). His mother had family in both communities, while his father had family in Milingimbi. The towns lie some 440 and 500 kilometres east of Darwin and, according to the 2016 Census, have populations of 1,225 and 2,308 people, respectively.
By all accounts, Danzal—who’s named after Denzel Washington—was a good kid, and rarely got in trouble, which was “a bit strange” for a Yolŋu boy, according to his Uncle Jeremiah. Danzal remembers playing games of ‘Predator’: a massive, community-wide game (a hybrid of hide-and-seek and ‘it’) for hours on end. He says his late cousin, Clinton ‘Shaun’ Wauchope—who was fast, strong and knew all the best hiding places—was particularly good at the game. Danzal would often follow Shaun’s lead.
Danzal would also spend a lot of time following his grandfather, Robert ‘Bob’ Baker, while he was gardening. Bob is a white Australian from Newcastle, who moved to community to be with Danzal’s late grandmother, Djandjay (or Daisy) Baker and has remained there for most of his life—picking up the language, managing the local store, and embracing Yolŋu culture. Bob even wrote a book, The Spear and The Gun, on the wartime history of Milingimbi and the Japanese attacks on Arnhem Land in World War II.
Growing up, Danzal—who speaks five languages and dialects in total, including English—had a loving and stable family who, according to Uncle Jeremiah, were able to balance both the Yolŋu and Western worlds. “That’s what the Baker family is about,” Uncle Jeremiah tells me over the phone from Darwin. “Being good at both, and showing everybody on both sides that you can be good at both.”
In Milingimbi, when it was hot enough, Danzal and his friends would go swimming in the ocean after school, a memory that now gives Danzal pause for thought. “Now I think about it, it was the scariest thing I could ever think of,” he says, in reference to the fact that Milingimbi is part of the Crocodile Islands. “It’s croc-infested waters. I don’t know why we’d always go swimming.”
Young Danzal enjoyed fishing, and would often wake up early and walk two or three kilometres to fish with his little brother, Adam. He recalls one occasion when the fishing was particularly good, and he and Adam brought home a bounty of fish, mud crab, and stingray. “That was the first time I felt a little bit proud of me and my brother,” he says. “The aunties and uncles came over and grabbed us, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, look! The two hunters are here! We got food!”
While growing up in remote communities had its challenges, Danzal doesn’t remember his childhood as one of great difficulty, and cites his culture and community as a source of enduring strength and comfort. “We never really struggled,” he says. “The sea was right there, we know how to go hunting and fishing. […] The best part is because everyone’s family, community, if you’re starving and you’re tired, you just have to walk around each house, and someone will go, ‘Hey, come sit out here, I’ll make something for us’, and you’d go and eat.”
Back in his home studio, Danzal is taking me deep into a YouTube rabbit hole. He’s looking for mangrove worms, one of the foods he misses most from back home. “They’re really good,” he says, excited. “I’ll show you what they look like.” He begins typing into the YouTube search bar, and the search auto-populates for him. “There you go! Already searched. Mangrove worms. I’ve already been looking at it.”
He scrolls down the page, looking for the right clip. “Let’s go with these boys. Black As,” he says. The video shows the Black As crew hacking at the dead roots of mangroves, pulling large, white worms (a type of mollusc, named latjin in Yolŋu Matha) from the roots and eating them whole. “You know the smell of mangroves? It tastes like that, with sweet tanginess,” says Danzal.
A couple of weeks earlier, during one of our Zoom conversations, Danzal had told me that he couldn’t wait to get back to Sydney so he could have another meal at Chin Chin, one of his favourite restaurants. I ask him how he balances the two worlds that he’s now a part of. “It’s just a simple thing as a phone call, and hearing my family supporting me, telling me to keep going,” he says. “They always tell me, ‘Doesn’t matter where you go, home will be home, and you can come back at any time’. That made me feel a lot better.” He also plays online video games like Fortnite and Apex with his friends and cousins back home as a way to keep in touch.
Having grown up by the ocean—a “saltwater boy”—Danzal says his recent relocation to Ocean Grove was a homecoming of sorts, and a conscious decision to be closer to the sea. “As soon as we moved here, opened the door, my nostrils became huge because I smelled the salt in the air, and it already felt like home,” he says. “Except…the weather’s cold, and the ocean’s freezing cold. But other than that, it’s just like home.”
Danzal clicks off mangrove worms and pulls up an old video of Uncle Jeremiah and his father, Josiah, synchronised dancing to an old-school hip-hop beat. When it came to dancing, young Danzal didn’t have to go far for inspiration. His father and uncles had become “mission famous” with their dance troupe, “Baker Boys”, who would fuse the hip-hop styles of their youth with traditional Yolŋu dance. He was born into a family of entertainers, on both sides.
Despite falling in love with dancing at a young age, Danzal says his older cousin, Shaun—a talented dancer himself—was the first to carry the flame lit by the original Baker Boys. Shaun would battle other local kids in the Milingimbi community and in Darwin’s nightclubs, and Danzal, inspired by his big cousin, couldn’t help but follow suit.
Over the years, Shaun—who, among other talents, was also a gifted rugby player—did whatever he could to encourage Danzal to follow his dreams, and would often push him beyond his comfort zone. “Every opportunity that came to me, he would be the first one there to say ‘do it’,” remembers Danzal. “He really, really took care of me growing up. Took me under his wing.”
Shaun, who was “like a big brother” to Danzal, was killed in a car accident in 2017, at the age of 26. His passing had an enormous impact on Danzal. He hasn’t talked about it much until recently, preferring instead to honour Shaun by making the most of any opportunities that come his way, and living the life his older cousin wanted him to live. “Every time I think about him, and how I feel, I use that energy to do something about it,” Danzal says. “His voice is just in my head, like, ‘What are you doing? Just get up, do something.’ [Losing Shaun] really opened up the reality where…you never know when’s the last time you’re going to see someone, and get to tell them how much you love them.”
The original Baker Boys—Danzal’s father and uncles—were also inspired by the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose dance moves they studied via VHS tapes their parents would bring back into community from their trips to the US. Uncle Jeremiah cannot over-emphasise the influence his parents—particularly Daisy—and the cultural treasures (CDs, video tapes, clothes) they’d bring back from overseas had on his family and on the wider community. “Instead of our parents telling us, ‘There’s a whole new big world out there’, they practiced it,” says Uncle Jeremiah. “It was the best gift.”
Growing up, as well as entering competitions and tournaments, Danzal would have dance battles with his cousins and other dance crews in the community. He recalls inhaling Step Up, Breakin’, Electric Boogaloo, and Beat Street CDs and DVDs, and cites “Singin’ in The Rain” as one of his favourite songs. From a young age, he had his heart set on becoming a professional dancer; envisioning himself as a backup performer for “a crazy celebrity like Beyoncé or something,” he says. “I always thought something that big.”
Danzal often talks about the “shame” experienced by many Indigenous kids in community. In Milingimbi, for example, he grew up with a lot of talented people who didn’t want to put themselves ‘out there’, for fear of what other people might say or think about them if they found success. But as far as Danzal’s concerned, “success” is about finding what makes you happy, and what brings you joy. “I think the word ‘successful’ in remote communities, some would say that it’s having money and a nice car, nice house, and stuff,” he says. “But it’s more that you find your passion, what you want to do. That’s successful.”
He concedes that it isn’t easy—particularly for kids in remote communities—and that striving for something more involves taking risks, and being uncomfortable, a feeling he is all too familiar with. After leaving home to attend boarding school in Townsville, Danzal went to Brisbane and enrolled in the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts. “I fully just shit myself,” he says of the transition to Brisbane. “I was so scared because I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know how everything worked.”
Danzal remembers calling his Aunty Jennifer in tears, telling her he wanted to come home. “She said, ‘No no, just do it for a couple of weeks, and if you still feel like this then I’ll book you a flight and you can come back’,” says Danzal. A couple of weeks passed, and he had fallen in love with the programme and decided to stay. “I learned how to dance tap, jazz, hip-hop, ballet, contemporary. It was purely mind blowing, I started freaking out. I started looking at myself like I was in a Step Up movie.”
“I made sure I pushed them to the limits,” Aunty Jennifer tells me over the phone when I ask about the influence she had on young Danzal. “I knew he was going to be something bigger.”
By now, Danzal was making something of a name for himself as a dancer. And after a stint touring with Djuki Mala (formerly known as the Chooky Dancers)—one of the Northern Territory’s best-known dance troupes—he received a call from a dance group in Melbourne, who wanted to know if he’d be interested in coming down for some work experience. As it happened, he was.
Danzal paces the stage while his backing band blasts through a rendition of “Marryuna”, which could already be considered ‘vintage’ Baker Boy. It’s the group’s first rehearsal since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and drummer Benny Clark, a Gunai/Kurnai and Djapwurrung man, is pounding the drums as if his life depends on it. Danzal is nodding his head, reciting lyrics under his breath. He grabs his yidaki and lets a rhythm rip.
We’re at Howler, a venue in Brunswick, Melbourne, and Danzal and his band have been rehearsing for most of the day. Belle, a backup vocalist, is here to meet the band and rehearse for the first time. The gig will require her to sing in Yolŋu Matha, and she’s a little nervous about it. “Ride” in particular, is giving her cause for concern. “It’s just so fast!” she says.
With Gela (pronounced GE-lah, a shortened version of Danzal’s skin name, Burralung, in Yolŋu Matha), Baker Boy’s debut album, set to drop in October, the group is feverishly running through new songs and blowing cobwebs off old ones. And though the COVID-19 pandemic upended most things in Danzal’s fledgling musical life, it did give him an opportunity to focus on the album.
The 14-track record begins with the one-two combo of “Announcing the Journey”—a traditional Yolŋu songline, performed by Danzal’s Uncle Glen Gurruwiwi, and “Survive”, which features a spoken-word verse by Uncle Jack Charles. “We just survive, we just survive / I don’t know how we continue to thrive / We keep on going like we cannot die / Carry the fire so we can survive”, goes the hook.
For Danzal, who signed his album deal with Universal in 2019, it’s a more intentionally political track than he’s released in the past; but not so much a departure as it is an evolution. “I want to share my thoughts and feelings,” he says about “Survive”. “I don’t want to become the person who’s like a robot, where it’s always programmed to be positive and be light. It’s important for me and for people to actually understand what I stand for.”
Elsewhere on the album, “Somewhere Deep” sees Danzal—who shares songwriting credits on Gela with the likes of Dallas Woods, Jerome Farah, and Pip Norman—take on the climate crisis with his cousin and musician, Yirrmal, against a breezy reggae beat. The track was actually one of the first Danzal ever wrote, but he decided to release “Marryuna” instead and hold “Somewhere Deep” for the album. “It’s important that we look after the land,” he says. “That’s been part of my culture, always. Giving back to the land, because then the land will give back to you.”
In its entirety, Gela—which features guest spots from G Flip, Yirrmal, Lara Andallo and Jess B among others—is Danzal’s most definitive and impactful statement to date (it’s also still jam-packed with upbeat club- and gig-ready gems). And the fact that he’s performing in Yolŋu Matha and experiencing this level of mainstream success (38 million global streams and counting) is a statement of intent: that this ancient culture is still here, that it still matters, and that you will hear it.
“It’s keeping language strong, keeping culture strong,” Danzal explains. “It’s really important for the next generation to keep learning. And [by] putting it in music, it’s going to stay there forever. Now it’s permanent.”
“It’s keeping language strong, keeping culture strong,” Danzal explains. “It’s really important for the next generation to keep learning. And [by] putting it in music, it’s going to stay there forever. Now it’s permanent.”
“We do not speak our language just for the sake of it, or for the sake of conversation,” adds Uncle Jeremiah when I ask him about Danzal’s use of language. “It’s not about wasting your breath. Every word that you speak must matter and must affect the listener. That’s just the way our culture is.”
For Danzal, whether he’s rapping in Yolŋu Matha or English, performing for a remote community or in front of thousands of adoring fans, he often finds himself leaning on this unwavering belief in the idea, and potential, of unity. He credits his upbringing, and for being raised with “a lot of positivity, a lot of encouragement” for his outlook. “Unity is a place where I want to be,” he says. “We’re all connected in some way.”
The importance of what Danzal is doing, not just from a musical perspective, but from a cultural one, cannot be understated. That he’s not just performing in language, but tapping into the largest audience possible while he does it, is a radical act of cultural preservation. “Traditionally, that’s how we’ve passed down knowledge: through dance, storytelling, and song,” Dallas Woods tells me, citing other Yolŋu artists such as Yothu Yindi and Dr G Yunupingu as having helped paved the way.
“[…] But there was no one doing it in the way [Danzal’s] doing it. He’s not limiting himself to an audience; he’s opening himself up to being a superstar. Kids think he’s cool. Old people think he’s cool. There’s no age limit on what Baker Boy’s reach is.”
Though his ascension in music was unexpected, Danzal has taken to the responsibility that comes with his new platform naturally, as if it was a part of the plan all along; as if this is what he was put on this earth to do. “Seeing kids coming up to me at festivals, saying ‘I want to be like you when I grow up’, seeing that smile, that’s the best achievement I could get,” he says. “And I always say, ‘You can be better than me. You can be you, and you can do whatever you want.”
Baker Boy’s Gela is out now.
(Feature photo: Sam Wong for Rolling Stone Australia. Stylist: Brittni Morrison. Hair and Makeup: Xeneb Allen using Fenty Beauty and Kevin Murphy. Photography assistant: Toshiki Tanaka. Styling assistant: Liana Aspros. Production: Long Story Short. Robe from Shag. Tracksuit by Kloke.)