Ziggy Ramo just released his new album, Sugar Coated Lies, offering us radically intimate truths this Jan 26.
Sugar Coated Lies is a thriving call to critical thought and a reckoning with the inner conscience of this country: of ourselves. Dropping specially this Invasion Day 2023, the proudly Wik and Australian South Sea Solomon Islander artist considers this album in context may not necessarily be what we expect from him on this day, however Ziggy affirms:
“This is what I’m ready to give you, and this is what you’re gonna get.”
With themes of navigating complex traumas through relationships, gender and toxic masculinities, and mental health issues with a side of relatable self-deprecation, the album likewise bares ancestral truths and hope for freedom encased in hip-hop resonant of a Mos Def era. Importantly, this work holds a mirror to the things we tell ourselves about ourselves. It also asks us to consider how and from where these lies/truths arise.
I sat down with Ziggy to talk about his new album, its relationship to his acting and scoring debut in the Stan Original Series Black Snow, his ‘clean slate’ manifesto, and his Indigenous-Australian South Sea Islander heritage entwined through it all.
Ziggy: “When I was asked to come on board for the project in June 2022, what drew me to it was that it was exploring the Australian South Sea Islander experience in a very nuanced way. Australian South Sea Islander people weren’t recognised federally as an existing cultural group until 1994, the year that I was born. Queensland didn’t recognise Australian South Sea Islander people til 2001.”
Black Snow is set in the small fictional town of Ashford, North Queensland. In real time, this was filmed across multiple sites on Aboriginal Lands, such as the Lands of the Ngaro People/ Proserpine, North Queensland. Using the genre of murder mystery to help bring to light a darker untold story of the experiences of Australian South Sea Islander People and forced labour, it provides the Australian public an opportunity to further investigate an unsettling silence in their own colonial history.
The series’ main character, South Sea Islander teenager Isabel Baker (Talijah Blackman-Corowa), is murdered in 1994, shortly after a group of high school students bury a time capsule containing critical information. 25 years later, with no resolve, her Australian South Sea Island community is still uneasy about the unsolved mystery. Ramo’s character Ezekiel, a young man from Tanner Island, Vanuatu, becomes a curious figure in the narrative as he searches for two of his cousins.
Alongside his acting debut, Ziggy also had the beautiful opportunity to play a role in post-production and work on scoring the series.
Ziggy: “After filming, we flew out to Tanner Island and were given permission to record with the community on what became the backbone of this score. We were provided traditional recordings, custom songs with cultural instruments and dances. Aunty Kaylene Butler, who is an executive producer of Black Snow, has been saying that our story is ‘rising from the cane.’”
Sugar Coated Lies, both the name of Ramo’s album and Black Snow’s feature song with Wergaia/ Wemba Wemba singer-songwriter Alice Skye, was written by Ziggy from 2018-19 before the inception of his role in Black Snow. The album’s executive producer Lewis Mitchell also mixed and engineered the work. Stellar vocals are provided from artists such as Vonn, Becca Hatch, Ladi6, and Jantine. The album’s cover art was designed by Jasmine Togo-Brisby, based on her sculpture ‘Bitter Sweet’ (2015) which was prompted by the discovery of an unmarked mass grave on a former plantation in Queensland.
Ziggy: It’s not only sugar coating in theory, but also practice. Black Thoughts (2020 album) was explicit and unmissable, whereas Sugar Coated Lies is insidious, and hidden; Australian South Sea Islanders are the forgotten people.”
Around the same time that Ngaro People, from where Black Snow was filmed, were being forcibly removed off their Lands and put into pastoral and servant labour roles, Pacific Islanders were being shipped and forced onto sugar plantations on stolen Land and under the same thumb.
Beginning in the 19th century to meet the shortage of labour supply said to have been caused by the alleged abolition of slavery in the British Empire, more than 62,000 Pacific Islander children and adults were kidnapped, forcibly trafficked, ‘Blackbirded’ and deceived into leaving their homes. Most people were originally from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, however workers were also “recruited” from the Loyalty Islands (part of New Caledonia), Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji. They were transported to places like Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand), the majority never to return home.
Ziggy: “They kind of legalized slavery… they put a framework around it.”
Lack of funded education on this aspect of Australia’s colonial history promotes the continuing subjugation of Islander stories and experiences in these settings. This sadly isn’t a bygone era. The remnants of sugar plantations that fostered much violence, injury, illness, and indeed death, continue to be toiled. Workers upon these plantations and in farming industries continue to be exploited and subject to racism and stigma.
For example, in 2018 reports revealed that 50 workers from Vanuatu had lived and worked in shocking conditions on a farm near Shepparton, and had earned as little as $8 an hour. When considering foundations of dispossession, violence and exploitation in Australia there is an undeniable intersection of stories and solidarities across the globe, especially across the Pacific.
For Ziggy, it is from the place where his Wik and Australian South Sea Solomon Islander identities and intergenerational knowledges converge that he derives his passion, vulnerability, and strength for truth-telling.
Ziggy: “This album is made up of journal entries, starting and ending with my hospitalisation after being on suicide watch… it’s about grappling with and understanding my own internal, cognitive distortions.”
Strikingly the first track of eleven on Sugar Coated Lies is “Pretty Ugly”, which speaks to the pain of poor self-image and helplessness. When asking Ziggy about this song in comparison to the gender-euphoric, sexy D’Angelo-fashioned “Pretty Boy” that speaks to loving on yourself, a track he released back in 2019, he responded, “it’s the duality of living with trauma.”
Don’t get it twisted: this album is gritty, steeped in resilience, and from personal experience it’s possible the amount of ‘stink face’ you will pull will hurt your cheeks for a while to come. Particularly for us First Nations People, I couldn’t imagine a better track to commemorate this Invasion Day than “Blak Man Swimming” and lyrics like:
“The male Kathy Freeman, I’m your Blak land lord
Gold medal round my neck, boy it’s time to pay rent
I’m this First Nations person, fuck your disrespect”
When asking about his feels this Invasion Day, and even the possibility of what reparations might look like, Ziggy says:
“I’m not really looking for the colony to say that we have ownership because it would be ownership in a system that has ingrained our subhumaness to them… I want a clean slate, to design something new.”
The power of ‘Sugar Coated Lies’ is in its brutal honesty that sets ablaze the parts of ourselves we’d rather dance around. In imagining a future beyond colonial plantations, a future no longer subjugated beneath bloodied cane fields, we must continue to heed Ziggy’s call for honesty.
“Today I celebrate the pain we overcame, I know it’s not gone but we still remain.”
(Lyrics from “Better”, on Sugar Coated Lies)
Ziggy Ramo’s Sugar Coated Lies is out now.