On January 23rd, 2021, Birdz’ song “Bagi-la-m Bargan” (featuring the rapper’s cousin, Butchulla songman Fred Leone) came in at no. 30 in the triple j Hottest 100. “Bagi-la-m Bargan” is the most potent piece of anti-colonial songwriting to appear in the Hottest 100 since A.B. Original’s “January 26” reached no. 16 in the 2016 countdown.
Birdz, who grew up in Katherine, Northern Territory and is now based in Melbourne, shares close personal and professional relationships with Briggs and trials, the duo of Indigenous hip hop titans who make up A.B. Original.
However, where Briggs and trials directed their rage at the wilful ignorance of the Australian public—who, they said, could remember 20 recipes for lamingtons but “wouldn’t read a book about a fuckload of massacres”—“Bagi-la-m Bargan” is told from the perspective a Wonamutta warrior preparing to defend the island of K’gari against the British navy vessel, the Endeavour, and its commander, Captain James Cook.
Something that “Bagi-la-m Bargan” does have in common with “January 26” is that both songs are hip hop anthems.
“The message that I’m trying to convey and put out there and bring awareness to has a better chance of being heard if the song’s a banger,” says Birdz, who’s speaking to Rolling Stone Australia a couple of days after releasing his second album, Legacy, through Briggs’ Bad Apples Music label. “It has a better opportunity and more chance of reaching people if it sounds good.”
Right now, Birdz, a proud Butchulla man, is having no trouble getting his music heard. Legacy was recently named triple j feature album, while Birdz and Fred Leone performed “Bagi-la-m Bargan” on ABC TV’s live music program, The Set, earlier this year.
Watch the official music video for “Bagi-la-m Bargan” by Birdz featuring Fred Leone
Birdz was also named Best Hip Hop Act at the 2020 Music Victoria Awards and received multiple nominations at this year’s National Indigenous Music Awards. But, although intent on reaching a mass audience, Birdz’ aims for Legacy went beyond the acquisition of music industry accolades.
“[I was] just really taking the time to hone my craft and get better at it,” says Birdz, looking back on the four years that separated Legacy from his debut album, Train of Thought. “We didn’t rush it and I’m just super proud of these ten songs.”
Trials, a Ngarrindjeri man who’s also a member of the Adelaide hip hop crew, Funkoars, produced every track on Legacy. Birdz has known trials since 2015, when Briggs introduced the pair. They first worked together on Birdz’ 2019 EP, Place of Dreams.
“We like the same kind of music and we have similar experiences as Blackfellas,” says Birdz. “We understand each other’s story and where we come from and that really shines through our creative process. It’s never work or it’s never too much effort.”
Courtesy of trials’ production, Legacy builds on the boom bap sound Birdz is best-known for, bringing in elements of reggaeton, trap, neo-soul and singer-songwriter balladry. But while the production was a group effort, the rhymes are all Birdz.
Legacy is essentially a passion project dedicated to Birdz’ young son, with several of its songs displaying the rapper’s desire to break the cycle of suffering and disadvantage for his son—a cycle imposed on First Nations people as a result of settler colonialism, intergenerational trauma and ongoing systemic abuse.
Birdz says he started thinking about his legacy after shooting the music video for “Black Child”, a single from Place of Dreams. The highly-stylised visual, shot in a vast manor on Boon Wurrung country, depicts Birdz and fellow Indigenous musicians, Alice Skye, Kaiit and Mo’Ju, as well as Rebecca Mabo, Shannan Marino and Cormach Evans, decked out in elaborate Renaissance clobber.
Watch the official music video for “Black Child” by Birdz featuring Mojo Juju
Directed by Amber Mealing, the video co-opts and subverts Eurocentric iconography in order to emphasise the beauty and achievements of First Nations people.
“Making the ‘Black Child’ video really changed me and really made me think about my outlook on music and messages and the imagery that I’m putting out there,” Birdz says. “It was birthed there, the concept of Legacy.”
Legacy features guest vocals from Ngaiire (on “Fly”), Thom Crawford (on “They Don’t Know”) and Missy Higgins (on “Legacy part 2”). But the most significant guest vocals come from Leone, who appears on the album’s opening and closing tracks, “Legacy Part 1” and “Bagi-la-m Bargan” respectively.
“I knew for ‘Legacy Part 1’ that I wanted to sing the chorus with somebody on that. I just felt like with the type of song it is and what I’m talking about, it being so personal, I just needed that vocalist to be family. Fred was just perfect for it,” says Birdz.
“Bagi-la-m Bargan” was written for the 2020 documentary film, Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky, in which director Steven McGregor looks at the arrival of the Endeavour from a First Nations perspective. Leone’s Butchulla-language vocal parts, which open the song to tectonic effect, were extracted from a song he’d written previously, also titled “Bagi-la-m Bargan”.
“When I was approached for Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky, I was like, ‘We’ve got to get Fred on this. If you want this kind of song to represent Butchulla people and where we’re from, I need my cousin,’” says Birdz.
Watch the official music video for “Fly” by Birdz featuring Ngaiire
“I showed him the beat and I said, ‘Try and sing that Butchulla song on this.’ And it was crazy, he sang it just naturally, how he always sings it, and it just fit perfectly on the music. It was one of those really surreal moments.”
The narrative of “Bagi-la-m Bargan” occurs in 1770 CE, but Legacy on the whole seeks to trigger change in the here and now. “Aussie Aussie”, the album’s catchiest song, is a sardonic yet no-less-harrowing broadside against police brutality. The late-album cut, “Play the Game”, contrasts the neoliberal capitalist imperative with the on-the-ground reality for a young Indigenous father like Birdz.
This emphasis on current events distinguishes much of Legacy from Birdz’ earlier releases, which often centred on the stories of his grandparents, his Stolen Generations father and the fight of his Wonamutta ancestors.
So, what explains the change in perspective?
“The shift was really just wanting to focus on now and how I’m feeling right now as a proud Butchulla man and as a father,” he says. “Every day I look at my son and I see the future, so it’s always in my mind.”