This article is created in partnership with Magnum After Dark, an exclusive event brought to you by Magnum Ice Cream, celebrating self-expression and pleasure on June 17 at the Oxford Hotel starring JamarzOnMarz, Peach PRC, and Mia Rodriguez alongside a glitter bar, tattoo station and a virtual performance from a very special guest.
There’s a righteous streak running through everything James Emmanuel produces. Better known by his artist name, JamarzOnMarz, the 22-year-old Emmanuel has spent the past half-decade defying industry norms and cultural taboos.
As JamarzOnMarz, Emmanuel specialises in a protean style of hip hop influenced by trap, Afrobeats and future soul. When he’s not holding a mic or saxophone, Emmanuel is no less intent on dismantling arbitrary boundaries.
Emmanuel grew up in Orange, regional New South Wales, where, as a queer person of Kenyan and Sri Lankan-Tamil heritage, he was a true minority. He turned to music as a means of expressing himself.
“I needed to just let all my deepest thoughts out,” he says. “At the time it was anger that I was letting out, repression, resentment of the self and the environment.”
Despite undertaking classical saxophone training, Emmanuel was drawn to hip hop for its long history of rebellion and script-flipping. But his early attempts at fashioning an artistic identity only led to further alienation in Orange.
“I was not popular at all, everyone was mocking me, making fun of me for being a rapper,” he says.
Not one to be easily deterred, Emmanuel started booking pub gigs in Sydney during his final year of high school. His father would to drive him into town – about a four hour trip each way – so that Emmanuel could flesh out his flow at the city’s underground hip hop nights.
“Coming to play in Sydney was a defining moment,” he says. “[I was] rehearsing in the car, dad’s in the other seat, he’s wanted me to go to university, do a business degree, but he’s still supporting me.
“We get there and I let it all out. To have adult men accept me for who I was at the time, it was such a freeing [moment]. At that point I realised, ‘This is what I’m meant to be doing.’”
Watch JamarzOnMarz perform ‘Bless You (Achoo)’ and ‘Amnesia’ live for Loud N’ Queer TV
Emmanuel soon relocated to Sydney full-time, a move that accelerated the development of his sax-inscribed hip hop sound. At this point, however, he was still hiding his sexuality from the world.
Emmanuel was already a relative pariah in the context of Australia’s predominantly white music scene. Revealing his queer identity required him to breach another seemingly intractable barrier: “Hip hop is historically, predominantly, homophobic,” he says.
Emmanuel wasn’t just wary of upsetting the hip hop fraternity, either; he also feared condemnation from family members and old friends. But he knew that the longer he remained closeted, the more his art would suffer.
“I wasn’t expressing myself fully,” Emmanuel says. “I started to adapt and evolve into this super hyper-masculine guy, but that was not me.”
And so he came out. But instead of simply outing himself to those closest to him, Emmanuel released a new song – “Amnesia” – and an accompanying interview with The Uncast underlining his newfound queer pride.
“In that interview we just discussed how queerness needs to be normalised,” he says. “I just wanted to say it, because in my culture, my background, it’s not normal. In hip hop, it’s not normal.”
As for the song’s subject matter, “Amnesia” wasn’t exactly a bullet point PSA on queer consciousness. Emmanuel’s lyrics were inspired by a number of distressing experiences he’d had using the hook-up app, Grindr.
“The lyrics weren’t explicitly queer, but I couldn’t keep pretending like I was writing about a girl,” he says. “I just wanted to tell the truth so I could connect with people more.”
“Amnesia” came out in September 2018, just days after Emmanuel’s 20th birthday. He’d come a long way from the kid in Orange who’d copped so much ridicule for trying his hand at hip hop.
But Emmanuel wasn’t content with being an exception to the rule. He wanted to put his own journey of self-empowerment towards lifting up other Black kids who continued to experience discrimination on a daily basis.
Inspired by Solange’s 2016 single ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (which Emmanuel got to witness first-hand as a member of Solange’s touring band on her 2018 Australian tour), Emmanuel launched a petition calling on private schools to stop discriminating against Afro-textured hair.
“In my experience growing up in an independent school, afros were banned, braids, locks were banned,” Emmanuel says. “They were ruled as extreme hairstyles even though to us, this is our normal hair texture. It’s how we maintain and look after our hair, and then we’re being called extreme, unacceptable, silly.”
The petition went live on Change.org in July 2020. Emmanuel’s goals were clear: he wanted NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, and NSW Attorney General, Mark Speakman, to pay attention and ultimately bring about legislative reform to prevent schools from discriminating against Afro-textured hair and protective styles.
The petition gathered 25,000 signatures within a few months, leading Labor Party MLC, Rose Jackson, to raise the issue in Parliament.
Watch the music video for ‘Tomorrow’ by JamarzOnMarz
“It was a very, very surreal moment spearheading the petition,” says Emmanuel “I always felt that I had to make statements through my music, like a Beyoncé, and then people would talk about it. But then I realised I could use my voice and the change can come.”
The fight for law reform is ongoing, but Emmanuel builds on the petition’s success in his latest single, “Tomorrow”. The track is heavily indebted to Afrobeats – a dance- and hip hop-oriented sound that has its origins in the music of West Africa – while sections of the song find Emmanuel rapping in Swahili.
“I’m explicitly talking about being with another man even though in Kenya, where Swahili’s from, it is illegal to be gay, it’s punishable by imprisonment,” says Emmanuel. “For those who know the language, it’s just normalising it for them.”
The track’s music video is yet further evidence of Emmanuel’s righteous streak. Under Emmanuel’s creative direction, the video reimagines his high school experience, pointing towards a freer and more diverse future.
“I rectified some hurt from my past, in terms of not growing up with diversity around me. It was a diverse cast. I was living my fantasy,” he says.