In the years since its launch party ended in violence, 66 Records survived a racist media storm to secure a major deal. Its bosses say nothing can stop them now
At the September 2018 launch of Melbourne rap label 66 Records at the Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood, a heaving crowd bounced under the venue’s giant disco ball to booming bass. But that jubilation ended at about 2am when a fight broke out.
The violence culminated in the street with one intoxicated attendee losing control of a car, pinning another teenager between two parked cars. The victim David Dada – a third cousin of the label’s founder Abraham Poni – lost his leg.
News outlets falsely reported the incident as a case of so-called African gang violence – part of a trend of exaggerated reporting on crime in Melbourne’s African diaspora communities, in the lead-up to the 2018 Victorian state elections.
The pressure almost ended the aspirations of the then 19-year-old label bosses Poni and John Nelson.‘We’re not a gang’: the unfair stereotyping of African-AustraliansRead more
“[The label launch] was a beautiful night, it was a moment our community won’t forget. The atmosphere was beautiful,” says Poni, of the lead-up to the fight. “[The violence] shouldn’t have happened but there was nothing we could have done. It didn’t involve our artists or any of our staff.
“At the end of the day how I saw it was, we’ve already come this far, we’re already making noise. Let them do their talking; it’s not going to stop us.”
This year the pair’s perseverance landed a joint deal with Warner Music Australia, which will use its major-label marketing and promotion resources to boost the smaller label’s reach – the first time Warner has entered a partnership like this with an African Australian-owned label.
John Nelson and Abraham Poni, the heads of Melbourne rap label 66 Records. Photograph: Nick Buckley
The 66 Records artists come from diverse backgrounds within Melbourne’s African diaspora community. Several show up when the Guardian visits the label’s Bundoora studio: they’re all in their early 20s, and have had fraught journeys to Australia.Advertisement
Poni, who is dressed in an extravagant ankle-length tartan puffer jacket, fled civil war in Sudan via Uganda; the softly-spoken rapper and singer Jordan “Lil Jaye” Yermian bounced between Cameroon, France and Australia; the group’s jokester and rapper Ater “BabyT” Mamer left Kenya for New Zealand as a baby before moving to Australia; and Nelson was displaced by the Liberian civil war at just six months of age, living in Ghana and the US before joining a mum he barely knew in Australia in 2012.
“The only thing I had was photos and stuff … [Meeting her] was like Christmas – until sometimes you realise that Christmas can get annoying,” he jokes.
Music has been an anchor for lives roiled by upheaval. Poni was introduced to it through the Yarra City Council-run Rising High program in Year 7; Mamer draws on the positivity of his mum’s gospel music; and BBG Smokey (real name Sean Deng) wrote his latest single, Guidance, as an outlet of the pain he says he felt watching “my brothers get locked up”. The single was released from prison, where Deng himself is incarcerated on a parole violation. “When one brother goes in, another brother comes out; that’s the pattern,” he said in the accompanying press release.
After fleeing Liberia, Nelson moved in with his uncle in Philadelphia, where he learned flute, cello, violin, saxophone and clarinet. Hip-hop came later. “Growing into hip-hop I reckon was like me understanding who I was as a person. Hip-hop is from our people, African people, all of us. It’d be hard for me not to fall into what my people created,” he says.
66 Records tracks feature the hallmarks of trap music, including complicated high-hat patterns, distorted Roland TR-808 kick drums and atmospheric synth frequencies. The sounds and styles in trap evolve quickly, which is why the label focuses on singles released through streaming platforms and YouTube, rather than full-length albums.
It’s a model that sits outside of the mainstream rock-and-pop-dominated Australian industry, and breaking through can be frustrating – particularly when it comes to the scrutiny and double standards faced by rap lyrics that might refer to or fantasise about crime, substance use, or anti-police sentiment.
Lyrics being taken literally is a problem familiar to the broader rap genre – particularly when its artists come from marginalised backgrounds. In November last year, rap group OneFour (part of Sydney’s heavily publicised drill scene) had its national tour shut down by NSW police, which alleged the group’s lyrics had links to violent crime in western Sydney.
“If you look at rock stars [back then] and look at the rappers now, there’s no difference. Everyone has their own rebellious stage,” says Nelson. He thinks the bias is a product of systemic racism; his early experiences with mainstream media surrounding the Gasometer incident have left him wary of including overtly political messages in the label’s releases.
“When people have power – government-wise, editorial-wise – they start putting a biased narrative on things,” says Nelson. “If you’re saying our music is this and that – and hip-hop is majority black – you’re labelling a [whole community] … it’s nothing else but racism. You’ll never hear that about Metallica.”
Eco$ystem, Lil Jaye, BabyT, Manuxella, John Nelson, Abraham Poni, BBG Smokey. Photograph: 66 Records/WMA
The artists also describe being criticised for rapping with American-style accents, rather than the thick Australian twang of local hip-hop acts like Hilltop Hoods. This critique feels particularly absurd given many of the artists are yet to be granted citizenship, instead living in limbo for years on permanent residency visas.
“I’m not really Australian … my accent is not the one I’m supposedly supposed to have, the ‘Yeah mate, how are ya.’ None of the boys sound like that,” says Mamer.
Despite the criticisms, Poni and Nelson remain driven to grow 66 Records’ local and international reach. The label has just released the single Fetish by Sudanese Australian rapper Eco$ystem, with new releases from Lil Jaye and BabyT on the way.
Ultimately Poni and Nelson hope the label will inspire other diaspora artists to tell their stories through music.
“We never really thought it was gonna get this far … it’s hard to believe it when everything’s against you,” says Poni. “We’re setting down a foundation for the scene here, for the next generation of talent. Give it time and let it happen because nothing’s going to stop it. It’s already in motion.”