In an isolated prison cell, someone sings to flee their surroundings. In the locker room before the game, someone sings to find momentum. In the bedroom adjacent to a domestic dispute, someone sings to escape the noise.
“I will be real. I never had a dream job. I never wanted to be the president, a copper, be in the military, or none of that,” asserts Youngn Lipz. He sings to make his bones. “I always had the dream of being able to look after my own. My blood. Those I hold close.”
The word on the street is that Youngn Lipz has been crowned the R&B king of Western Sydney. As the drill scene shifts the cultural dynamic of Australian hip-hop, Youngn Lipz offers a different voice. With versatile vocal reach, heart-on-sleeve cadence, and a dark history of street cred, the young crooner’s meteoric rise has reimagined the stereotype of being a young man of colour raised in commission housing. “As an artist, I’ve developed dangerously,” he says. “In the beginning I didn’t know the ins and outs. I only knew how to sing. I’ve developed the flow and the writing.” For YL, art has become a survival mechanism. “That’s the mentality.”
YL is loud about his vulnerabilities and is motivating other youngins to triumph against all odds. His animated voice falls stern. “Before I could get my own shit together, my whole life, I was living in [a] housing commission. I’ve moved around everywhere; south-west, inner-west, everywhere. Going place to place. Moving town to town. Seeing a lot of bad habits within the household. I won’t go into too much, but that wasn’t pretty.”
The 22-year-old’s debut single, “Misunderstood”, earned the rising star a Platinum record and an APRA Award for Most Performed Hip Hop / Rap Work, while garnering the unprecedented attention of major US labels; Cash Money Records and OVO Sound.
“I didn’t know ‘Misunderstood’ was going to be that big,” admits YL. “That track was meant to be a throwaway but I felt it in my heart it was probably the best track I ever did. There’s no way in hell that I would have thought it would put me where I am today.”
In the music video for “Misunderstood”, YL rocks a Gucci cap, blows smoke, and details the sacrifices that riddle his lifestyle when he thinks of being with his girl. He sings, “I pulled up on you, baby, like, ‘What’s good?’ / I can take you on trips, show you the hood / Ain’t nobody gon’ take you, I wish that they would / And I’m bad and it’s sad, ’cause I’m misunderstood.”
Inked in black cursive on his forearm is Cabramatta’s postcode: “2166”. In the wake of the Vietnam war, thousands of Vietnamese migrants arrived in Australia and settled in the area. Since the Nineties, an energetic melting pot of Pacific Islanders, South-East Asians, and Middle-Easterners have chipped into the multicultural fabric of the suburb.
Cabramatta, beyond the banh mi rolls and steaming phở, was once described as a “war zone” in the New York Times. It’s the lifeblood of the young artist, who roams with his gang beneath the iconic red Friendship Arches that preach: “The world is for us to share and to respect.”
It was in Year Eight that YL began hustling with the local knockabouts. “The boys were ruthless,” says YL. “They didn’t give a fuck. If they saw something you got, and they liked it, they were gonna take it. Especially if they were coming up from nothing. Take what you can get.”
Youngn Lipz constructed his identity on the underside of the postcode, where misfits try to make the most of the hand they’re dealt.
“Not too much was going on in Cabramatta when I was growing up. I was still running amuck around that time. I was doing a 9-5,” he smiles. “I was in the factory and scaffolding. Hanging out and that. I was getting up to a lot of mischief. Not too much good. A bit of hustling this and that.”
Since the Nineties, Cabramatta has suffered significant problems with youth unemployment, drugs, and crime.
“We try to hustle you know, run up some funds to get buds. Get more money for food and ciggies. Jumping was a big one,” points out YL, ashamed of describing who he once was. “You run and take someone’s phone or their bags and shit. It wasn’t cool. Nothing I’m proud of, lad. I try to tell the youngins in my area that’s not the way to go. I tell them to let me know if they’re struggling, ‘I’ll see what I can do for you’.”
“We try to hustle you know, run up some funds to get buds. Get more money for food and ciggies. Jumping was a big one.”
Our understanding of crime in the area has been skewed and misrepresented by politically charged media outlets. To this day, it continues to be racialised and tokenised in class wars. A battle that tarnishes the artful and political credibility of the Australian hip-hop renaissance.
In a study on youth crime in Sydney, Professor Jock Collins writes: “To the critics of immigration, minority youth have been increasingly linked to crime, criminal gangs, anti-social behaviour, and riots… We conclude that the evidence on minority youth criminality is weak and that the panic about immigrant youth crime and immigrant youth gangs is disproportionate to the reality, drawing on and in turn creating racist stereotypes.”
YL comes clean. “It’s not that you have any sort of hatred [for] anyone else, you just want something so you gotta get it and no one else is going to get it for you—so you go get that. That is the worst way to do it and the worst mindset to have but as a kid going through all that, you’re raised to really not give a fuck.”
“As a kid going through all that, you’re raised to really not give a fuck.”
For YL, family issues between his parents spurred on an internal conflict. “My mum and dad have always been supporting and loving but there was just drama between them. We just had to be around all of that. Obviously with funds, rent, electricity, and water. All that type of shit and bad habits. Money was a problem.”
The stigma of living in public housing weighs heavy on identity issues among young people in disadvantaged suburbs. Since its inception, hip-hop has weaponised empowerment as a tool to subvert the expectation of being and remaining poor.
“I never focused on where I was going to be or what I was gonna do. Even with all the dramas and trouble I was in, I knew beyond all that there was more to it,” asserts YL. “I didn’t know what I was going to be but something was calling to me. Something was telling me that I would be using my voice.”
Self-expression offered Youngn Lipz an escape route out of the hood. Through singing, he discovered a path into himself.
“Even through all the dramas and all the troubles, I would always sing,” he explains. “Doing jobs, kicking back, having a few at the park, the back of paddy wagons, or in cells. I’d always start singing, no matter what I was doing.”
“Doing jobs, kicking back, having a few at the park, the back of paddy wagons, or in cells. I’d always start singing, no matter what I was doing.”
YL inherited his voice from the disarray. “My mum was a singer and my dad was a singer, professional. Dad was in a band and mum was on Australian Idol. She went good bro. She came seventh. She was on the first one with Guy Sebastian and Shannon Noll. Family always had voices.” The pride in his voice is quickly unsettled. “When you’re young you sing. You don’t care too much who’s around or who’s saying this or that. You have all this confidence and shit. But when you get constantly told to shut up. There isn’t any love or support, you just fall out.”
The Samoan community across Western Sydney is proud of their heritage and their faith, both of which are grounded in a passion for music and expression. In Samoa, Christian missionaries in 1830 brought with them the influences of Western evangelical hymnody. At house parties, over barbecues in the outer suburbs, harmonies break out as drunken nights crescendo with song.
“When my little bro got locked up, I felt like it was because of me. My daughter wasn’t too much in my life and I was fighting cases. I was still hitting liq’s [liquor stores] to eat and trying to provide for rent. I felt like a big disappointment to my parents and my little brothers. I didn’t want them to feel like this was going to be their life; their brothers are in and out of jail, and mum doing this and that. No food in cupboards type thing, drinking water as the only drink.”
There was light at the end of the tunnel. When asked what woke him up, he replies with the confidence of a miracle, “God”.
On Instagram, YL would post selfie videos of his songs, dressed in high-vis workwear, as he streamed his lament in angelic harmonies. It caught the attention of Lowkee, the prolific CEO of Biordi Music.
“When Lowkee hit me up, like, ‘Shit this is it’. This is the start of what’s about to unfold. Fuck when I first met [Lowkee], I thought, ‘Fuck this bloke is big’, lad! Big love,” laughs YL. “He taught me a lot about the mentality. On the physical point and the mental point, he taught me, ‘Lad, don’t let anything get to you. Got to stay consistent, work hard and play hard. And trust no one’.”
In just under a year, Youngn Lipz has released a number of certified hit singles and featured on the biggest international collaboration of 2020 with “Rover (Remix)”, featuring chart-topping UK rapper S1mba.
YL’s music reimagines the visible stereotype of Pacific Islanders from Western Sydney with introverted lyrics and transparent vulnerability. His success is testament to the emotional intelligence of suburban otherness and the fragility that is masked by gang-riddled performative masculinity.
“What I wanna get across is that being an Islander in Western Sydney, you don’t have to just do the same shit. You don’t have to do what we are limited to or what we feel like we are limited to. I feel like doing this is an eye opener for everyone, not just Islanders lad.” YL is sharp when it comes to his place in Australia. “They feel like they can only be a part of the streets because that’s all they have seen their whole lives. They only see their family or friend be able to do shit like that. I want them to feel like they can do other things. Anything is possible.”
“I feel like doing this is an eye opener for everyone, not just Islanders.”
Dreams come true for those who believe in the magic of hope or the blessing of faith. The struggle for creative souls is discovering a world that gifts them the freedom to tell their story. For many disillusioned young men of colour, the new wave of Australian hip-hop is a platform they constructed outside the deeply institutionalised web of mainstream music. Through passion, truth, and integrity, they’ve become equally successful.
“This sound, it’s the shit you don’t hear from this country. You either hear someone that sounds too white or too foreign. No offense. There are streets in this country too. This movement gives the streets a voice,” says YL. “I think it’s given us our own sound. What people forget is that we are Australian but we’re not just all white—we’re multicultural as fuck.”
“What people forget is that we are Australian but we’re not just all white—we’re multicultural as fuck.”
The sad reality of where YL comes from, came back to haunt him in December 2020. The systemic trappings that follow those from broken backgrounds is as inescapable as it seems. After attending a boxing match to support a family friend, YL was involved in a brawl that resulted in him being stabbed.
“The truth is, this game comes with a lot of hate and jealousy,” reveals YL. “I’ve been involved in a lot of beef in the past, and this could possibly have something to do with that. When things popped off, I was all hands when this other person wasn’t. The rest is history.”
I ask if it’s ever possible to escape the world that made you.
“I think it’s important to know what you’re trying to separate when it comes to the art and the streets. At the end of the day you should keep it real with what you’re doing whether it’s the streets or the art of the music,” explains YL. “Without the streets there would be no hip-hop culture, that’s where it originated from, no doubt, people need to remember that. The streets gave us hip-hop. People forget that it didn’t come from the suburbs or cities. It came from the streets.”
YL churns the shootings, struggle, and cultural fireworks of his upbringing into a rhythm that bleeds from feeling.
“Nine times out of ten when I’m writing I will be freestyling and an emotion, topic, or feeling will come to heart. That’s what I start going off. It’s just whatever I’m feeling at the time,” explains YL. “Music’s taught me to be healthy. Stay hungry, be enthusiastic, and remember why you’re there.” Without music, Youngn Lipz imagines his life, “in the trap. I don’t know bro, whatever it takes to survive. Hopefully not on that dumb shit to provide”.
This year, Youngn Lipz has toured across Australia with sell-out shows and released his highly anticipated debut album Area Baby.
“With this album, I’ve overcome a lot spiritually. I overcame a lot of things like my self-doubt. There was a lot of that. Not going to lie. I have overcome just me doubting what I can do, where I can be, and what I’m capable of,” says YL. “My favourite track is ‘Broken Home’. That’s been a favourite ever since I made the album. I feel like the whole thing together speaks for itself man. I don’t speak too much detail in the track but just the chorus itself, a lot of heart there.”
In the chorus for “Broken Home”, YL intones:
“I came from a broken home, a very broken home / I told my father, I told my mama, I’m still pushin’ up / Please don’t get it twisted, we still got each other through the storm / Man above my witness, know the pain I’m feelin’ in the soul.”