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Policing the Poets: The Story of OneFour

Globally recognised as Australia's first drill act, OneFour is indeed the hottest outfit to hit Australian hip-hop in recent memory... but has Western Sydney’s “realest” summoned a 21st century assault on free speech?

These rappers may be under fire for rhyming about shady pasts and questionable attitudes towards enforcement of the law, but nothing can rewrite Australian hip-hop history: that in 2019, four young lads hailing from Mount Druitt became a drill phenomenon that exploded onto the Australian music scene under the name of OneFour, and gained respect in the global hip-hop arena. They don’t have a single record in store yet, but millions of streams show their popularity is assured. Except, that is, for a censorship controversy, unprecedented in Australia’s recording industry, that continues to follow them.

YouTube’s year-in-review testified to the group’s firebrand success. Australia’s first men of drill – Celly, JM, Spenny, Lekks and YP – ranked their singles “The Message” and “Spot the Difference” in the second and third places in its ‘Top Trending Music Videos from Australian Artists’ category (led by Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey”).

And yet OneFour’s celebration of their groundbreaking success was marred when the New South Wales Police Force effectively banned the rappers from attending the ARIA ceremony at Sydney’s Star Casino, quashing their revelry with the Australian music industry.

It seems some of the lyrics performed by OneFour are just a little bit rich for the blood of some in the Australian public service, specifically an anti-bikie police squad known by a ludicrously ostentatious moniker: Strike Force Raptor.

Formed in 2009 after politicians were shocked into action by a lethal public melee between rival bikie gangs at the Sydney domestic airport, Strike Force Raptor (SFR) is a specialist organised-crime unit, brandishing a ‘fight-fire-with-fire’ playbook of unconventional law enforcement tactics, such as intimidation and open threats (not to mention a well-oiled PR machine), against outlaw motorcycle gangs and would-be terrorist conspirateurs.

Safety fetishists would say heavy-handed censorship by police is entirely appropriate for dealing with the likes of OneFour: two of the band’s members, Celly and YP are in jail for a frighteningly brutal armed assault at a pub in Rooty Hill, serving heavy sentences which were handed down late last year, not long after NSWPOL conspired with interstate police departments to scotch the band’s first national tour by pressuring venues to cancel their shows.

Strike Force Raptor warned that the music of OneFour, due to their alleged “youth gang” affiliations, would present a high risk to the safety of the general public; that violent clashes would erupt between drunken fans, crazed with booze and under the influence of OneFour’s violent lyrical references to criminal acts, and their testosterone-fuelled musical style.

Meanwhile, down at the Melbourne venue, Victorian police suggested they would have to take a closer look at 170 Russell’s liquor licence if they insisted on going on with the show. A statement from VICPOL said blithely: “…any decision to postpone, cancel or proceed with individual events are made by event organiser and/or the venue operator.”

With their new careers on the line, OneFour tried to set up a meeting with senior officers of NSWPOL, Strike Force Raptor, and Strike Force Imbara (a spin-off unit aimed at youth gangs) to learn more about their grievances in a peaceful setting, with a view to calmly reach an equitable solution sans the daily police harassment. But rather than responding with any maturity to the approach by OneFour’s legal representative, SFR made a point of ignoring the olive branch, instead issuing some very public threats.

Spenny and JM, two members of Sydney drill outfit OneFour. Photo by Ken Leanfore for Rolling Stone.

NSWPOL was quite frank and unapologetic about launching a campaign of overt police harassment against OneFour. Shortly after OneFour’s The Message national tour was shut down, Detective Sergeant Trueman seemed to enjoy issuing his impassioned, albeit incredibly vague orders, from on high at the Parramatta SFR headquarters, through the ABC broadcasting network.

“I’m going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable, until you stop doing what you’re doing,” Trueman told (probably confused) reporter Osman Faruqi, who’d waited months for this exclusive interview, only to discover it was just another cog in the SFR propaganda machine.

“Every aspect of your life. I’m going to make it uncomfortable for you,” Trueman said.

He admitted to employing a highly unusual strategy for persuading venue operators to cancel OneFour shows: At the Enmore Theatre, police made the show unprofitable by intentionally demanding operators use, for security, more paid-police than they could afford.

“I’m going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable, until you stop doing what you’re doing.”

A request for an interview with NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller was deemed “unlikely”, but the NSWPOL media unit issued this statement when asked about OneFour:

“The incidents related to Strike Force Imbara include a murder, numerous public place shootings, stabbings and attempted stabbings, multiple affrays with a variety of weapons, including knives; and serious unprovoked assaults. In terms of the issue of violent lyrics on young people, that’s probably more a matter for a psychologist than police, however.

“Detective Sergeant Trueman told the ABC: ‘We have previously drawn correlation between lyrics and actual criminal offences, but do not suggest it would be sufficient information on its own to put a matter before the court. That said, just as we won’t tolerate public acts of violence, we also won’t tolerate any behaviour – including music – that clearly incites and provokes retribution and other violent behaviour in NSW’.”

The Story Only Gets Weirder…

OneFour’s ‘national’ tour was reduced to a single, ironic stop: Auckland. But two days before getting on the plane, Spenny was woken by a nasty surprise: the barrel of a gun. He says that early in the morning, members of Strike Force Raptor forced their way into his home while other members of his family were present. Officers told Spenny they were there looking for firearms. The band’s manager Ricky Simandjuntak tells Rolling Stone the story:

“They woke him up at gunpoint. His nieces and nephews were in the house. Family members were in the house. They entered his room and pointed a gun at him and told him to get out of bed. Real intimidation.”

Later, the ABC reported a statement made by police media unit: that there was no record of a drawn weapon during that home-entry.

Two days later, making his way through customs in New Zealand, JM (on visa conditions after a previous prison sentence) was stopped, quarantined, and promptly sent back where he came from, leaving Spenny the unenviable task of performing to a sold-out crowd, with Lekk’s younger brother as a stand-in.

OneFour member JM. Photo by Ken Leanfore for Rolling Stone.

“I do feel a bit more confident as a performer [now], way better on stage, but it’s something that I don’t want to have to go through again,” says Spenny. “Performing OneFour music, I’d rather have all my friends with me.”

On their way back into Australia the whole entourage was stopped at the Sydney International baggage screening area by about eight Border Force agents, and two ‘patched’ members of Strike Force Raptor. For nearly three hours, officials went through their bags, and electronic equipment – hard drives and all – while the mighty ‘Raptors’ told OneFour that they had to change the lyrics of their songs.

They then slapped a non-association order on manager Ricky Simandjuntak, who says the police told him that he had to make OneFour change their lyrics, because, as the band manager, he might be committing a crime by allowing them to write “violent lyrics”. Ricky claims the officers said that if he didn’t, they would start coming to his house to “make things difficult” for him.

These broadly-issued demands seem ad hoc and baseless, especially given the deliberately public face of this issue. Shouldn’t the general public be able to see some sort of evidence that musical lyrics can give rise to crime, before the police decide to (economically) bully some reformed teen delinquents, and ruin commercial public endeavours such as music concerts?

Growing Up Rough (From Rags To Recognition)

It’s understandable that trouble with the law (read: petty crime) is commonplace in Sydney’s ‘Greater West’. Mount Druitt hit national headlines after SBS ran a documentary about everyday life in the area, which introduced Australian viewers to a community outreach education centre called Street University. That’s where the professional story of this band of young musicians begins.

That’s where four lads, who met in church and learned to sing together, turned their attention to rap; where they found the encouragement to take their social frustrations to the page, and their talents to the microphone. That’s where OneFour made their bones and grew into professional musicians – thanks to the help of their mentor and band manager, Ricky Simandjuntak.

“Our audience is not limited to Western Sydney, it’s all around Australia, and wherever they go, they’ve got fans.”

As solely independent artists, with no current label, distribution or publishing deal, OneFour has garnered a heavy following on YouTube and Spotify, clocking more than 72 million streams across all platforms in less than 12 months: Ricky can’t help boasting the numbers.

“Compare that to Guy Sebastian’s channel.” Ricky leans back. “Our figures are comparable with his. He’s got the biggest people in music behind him; he’s done, like 130,000 streams, in how many days?” He looks over at Spenny, who just shrugs and hardly looks up from the phone-glow in his face.

“Sebastian has all that backing, so I’m like, that’s cool – we’re getting a million streams in three days! That shows you that there’s a real connection with the music that they’re making, and how young people are feeling, particularly in Western Sydney. But our audience is not limited to Western Sydney, it’s all around Australia, and wherever they go, they’ve got fans.”

Back In The Studio

So much has gone under the bridge in a matter of mere months, and the band members still walking the streets are just 21 years old. Despite a very, very tough year, beset by ongoing police harassment, intimidation (and often outright antagonisation) – and bookended by a cancelled national tour – drill fans waiting to see OneFour’s next move will be pleased to know they’re spending every available hour at work in the studio, finishing up mixing and mastering a new single for release in February.

Hanging out at the studio on a dedicated writing day, Spenny and JM are relatively quiet and reserved, a far cry from the hoodlums I’ve seen spitting fire on YouTube. Word is, they’re not planning an album just yet; instead OneFour is looking towards a new project in autumn 2020.

But have they bowed to pressure to change their lyrics?

“Y’know, that’s a surprise in our music that we don’t want to [give away],” Spenny says. “Look, it’s just the situation going on around us. You could say we’ve been, ah, experimenting in the studio, big-time, so there’s gonna be a lot of surprises; things that you wouldn’t expect us to do here.”

“This is an example of talent being put to its best use.”

Ricky is confident OneFour will continue to deliver world-class hip-hop, despite any controversy.

“I think when anyone talks about the controversial stuff, what the police are saying, the thing that people seem to not talk about is…,” Ricky pauses “…that there’s 72 million streams by a group that is purely independent. […] They’re earning a healthy income, and part of their time and their income, they give back what they can to the community. This is an example of talent being put to its best use.”

“That’s what a lot of the kids in the area look to; they look and say: ‘Hey, they come from where we’re from. They’re exactly like us, but they made something on their own,’ and that’s worthy of a story in itself.”

Rap (Gangster): A Genre Is Born

Popular music with an edge has gotten on authoritarian nerves for a very long time, although no one had ever heard the term ‘gangster rap’ until 1988, when a group of young men calling themselves N.W.A. brought into common parlance a neat little phrase of their own: a phrase powerful enough to cross all borders – geographic, cultural, or completely imagined – to capture hearts and corrupt the minds of a new generation of youth, perched at the end of an epoch… Fuck Tha Po-lice.

Referred to more politely with the initialism “FTP”, the sentiment continues to shine in the lyrics of OneFour. It’s a verbal embodiment of the futile anger felt by all those locked in a centuries-old struggle against post-colonial oppression, no matter what colour, growing up in a climate of financial hardship, and inevitable associations with petty criminality, and criminalisation.

But that’s not enough to turn off those more fortunate, because anyone else with a yin for the “cool” wants in on the deal too. The struggle of the lower classes is what rap poetry and the hip-hop genre are all about. It’s a literal rage against the machine. And true to tradition in the western suburbs of Sydney, or any place like this, there’s always a silent rage against social injustice, inept governance, and good-old-fashioned police harassment.

The Ethical Concerns Tied Up In This Gangster-Rap Saga

NSWPOL have deigned to dictate the kind of lyrics that these musical artists, these poets, should choose to write and perform, and in doing so, these blue-shirted bovver-boys have employed some highly irregular tactics, which seem very much in the same wheelhouse as, say, the ambit claims of a militant mining union. And so the question begs to be asked: is this how we want our society run? Where do we draw the line between personal responsibilities and government power?

Should we prevent people from writing and performing lyrics that describe acts of violence? Should we do so violently? Should the police be the final arbiters of whether or not a band like this can play a concert, or write a song?

Renowned ethicist Peter Singer offered this perspective: “Australia has laws against incitement of racial hatred, and support for terrorism… a police warning is not so surprising. Nor, in my opinion, are these laws unjustified in themselves, although there is a danger that they may be applied too widely.”

OneFour member Spenny. Photo by Ken Leanfore for Rolling Stone.

We now know that the police used a foul tactic to force the Enmore Theatre operator to cancel a show, for which thousands of tickets had already been purchased. They told the venue they would need to hire many more police for security than ever typically needed for other performers – just as violent – in the same place. If anything, it seems more damaging to the public’s image of the police, who really do need respect from the general public to function effectively. But now they seem to insist on being feared (as per statements made by Commissioner Foley last year).

Without the police ‘showing their work’, this is a conundrum for anyone who believes in freedom of speech. Dating back to before the days of Elvis Presley, we’ve had wowsers trying to tell us that somehow songs will degrade our moral fibre and cause us to break laws, take drugs, and even engage in vile sex acts on stage, and such quaint folk are usually laughed out of town, in this day and age, right?

To be sure, these lads are rapping about violent acts, real violence, and I would agree with anyone who says that the world needs less of this sort of thing, but advocating the other side of the argument, the band is ‘singing’ and performing lyrics based on their own lived experience. It’s not been made clear by police exactly how these lyrics will incite violence; we can use our imaginations, of course, but when the law is in play should one have to?

 “Evidence-Based Policing”

The name sounds pretty obvious – you would hope that’s how the cops get things done, but the terminology actually advocates the inclusion of scientific research and rigorous evaluations of police work in the lab or field, through consultation with experts in a given field of research, like behaviourism, or musicology, whenever an investigation or operation could benefit from academic perspectives (which, incidentally, seems to be all the time).

However, these modern schools of policing tactics and strategy [as outlined in ‘Evidence-based policing: A survey of police attitudes’, a July 2019 paper (No. 579) from the Australian Institute of Criminology] appear relatively unpopular with Australia’s boys and girls in blue.

Surveys of police attitudes in Western Australia and Queensland revealed police felt there were numerous issues with the application of “evidence-based policing,” such as beliefs that there was little benefit in using scientific research for police work; that the “opinions and experience of colleagues” were more useful than Evidence-Based Policing (EBP), that police were isolated from knowledgeable colleagues with whom to discuss EBP, or were even unaware of the practice and that there was no value in it anyway! Bleak stuff.

The Science of Aggression In Musical Lyrics

OneFour may seem on the surface like not-terribly-nice chaps to anyone at home with a cup of chamomile on a Sunday night, but today these are the facts: OneFour is a very popular musical entertainment act, with no track record of violence at the three shows they’ve been allowed to play. They are writing and performing lyrics based on their own lived experience, in a style that is arguably ‘softer’ in tone than music played by other musical artists that have performed in Australia.

Examining music according to the degrees of ‘aggressiveness of tone’ or ‘extremeness of imagery or metaphor’ in lyrical references, can be extremely difficult to quantify. Fortunately, there are experts in this field; psychologists who can show us the facts as they stand, qualified with evidence; people like Professor Bill Thompson at the Psychology department of Macquarie University, where he studies (among other things) death metal, and the effects aggressive genres of music have on different types of listeners.

“Aggressive or violent lyrics are also common in the death metal genre…” he says.

“There have always been concerns about music that is different, that is underground, that is edgy, and there is a long history of this kind of concern.”

Professor Thompson regards the OneFour story and the controls applied by police with no small amount of interest: it relates to a key question examined by his research: Do violent song lyrics make young people more prone to commit violent acts?

“If the police are worried about aggressive music causing harm, then I’d be curious to see the evidence they have for this concern, because I do not know of any evidence to support such a concern.”

“I’m not aware of any evidence that rap music can cause people to become physically violent. Instead, rap as a genre emerged out of subcultures in which there were certain social disadvantages, and when you look at rap music subculture you may find somewhat higher levels of violence than, for example, the classical music subculture. So the question is, do the violent lyrics reflect what their experience is; is it like a poet writing about a war?

“In this case it’s not clear what the concern is; whether the police had inside knowledge that violence was going to occur, or whether they were simply anxious about the music itself.

“If the police are worried about aggressive music causing harm, then I’d be curious to see the evidence they have for this concern, because I do not know of any evidence to support such a concern.

Spenny and JM, two members of Sydney drill outfit OneFour. Photo by Ken Leanfore for Rolling Stone.

“When we’ve conducted psychological studies on the impact of aggressive music on fans, we find that this impact tends to be positive, and I think that one of the things that seems to be important with death metal and probably with rap as well is a sense of community and the sense of belonging. I mean, obviously people like the music. Nothing is going to take away from that. But there is a sense of unity, experiences, that you are part of a group of people that share a sort of common sensibility about music.

“I think that there is an incredible success story here, and the fact that [NSWPOL] are trying to suppress what OneFour is doing might be counterproductive; I mean OneFour have converted a very difficult situation and difficult circumstances into something positive, and not only for themselves but for all of their fans, who get a sense of hope and empowerment, and have a voice through their music.

“It is entirely possible, even probable that people in Mount Druitt, young kids who were involved in gang situations, might listen to this music and be working through their feelings of frustration in a positive way. So instead of being a negative influence, the music may have positive psychological outcomes.”

Perhaps the most interesting discovery made by Professor Thompson et al. is the revelation that while fans of violent musical archetypes (like gangster rap, or death metal) can feel uplifted and invigorated by their favourite twisted sounds, non-fans who are made to listen to the same music react in the opposite way – they become aggravated, and even, yes, violent!

It follows rather logically that the police are the last people who should judge whether or not rap music makes a person more prone to violence or not, and without any reference to evidence-based policing, their explanations ought to be subjected to inquiry by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.

Was It All Worth It?

Without evidence, shutting down the OneFour concerts seemed to represent a gross overreach by NSWPOL, and throws into question the use of police units like Strike Force Raptor.

The bulk of positive news articles about Strike Force Raptor seem to be behind News Limited mastheads, sensationalising the achievements of these modern day ’Untouchables’. One video from the Daily Telegraph website is six-minutes long, has no narration, and simply shows heavily armed police shouting a lot and breaking into people’s homes.

Without context, how is anyone supposed to learn anything about Strike Force Raptor aside from the fact that they may very well – as was so beautifully put by the O.G. Biggie Smalls – “kick in [your] door, wavin’ the .44”? Read the news in New Zealand, and you’ll see the ‘Raptors’ are regarded as a total waste of money, because they have had virtually no impact on gang numbers in Australia.

The one-size fits-all approach of Strike Force Raptor would not wash in a department store fitting room. So why would we as a society accept the policing of our poetry as blithely as we do?

Because we do not know, and we do not care.

This full article was featured in the Rolling Stone Australia print magazine issue #001. To receive this back issue, or to receive every Rolling Stone magazine delivered to your door via an annual subscription, check out our subscription options here.