Quietly spoken but radiating with energy, Danzel Baker aka Baker Boy was completely at ease with the chaos surrounding him when we met in a packed hotel lobby on Sydney’s North Shore.
Arriving back from rehearsals for the 26th of January Dawn Ceremony with NITV, his backup crew, manager and producers were milling and chattering excitedly as Baker and I sat in a quiet corner to catch up. It had been some months since I saw him at Bigsound in September last year, and the man opposite me was just that little bit more confident, assured in his message and filled with an endearing curiosity.
Our interview came just before the contentious Australia Day long weekend and just after the premiere of his music video for single Marryuna, plus the announcement that Baker Boy would be supporting 50 Cent and Dizzee Rascal on their upcoming Australian tours.
This interview is featured on the cover of Happy Mag Issue 7. Get yours here.
With each cheeky smile and bashful laugh, a set from Baker Boy reminds us all of just how fun and natural music is meant to be.
Known for the proud and unassuming use of his native Yolngu Matha language, he exploded onto our music scene with his single Cloud 9 in 2017 and since then Baker Boy has become a household name. Dominating Bigsound and triple j’s Live at the Steps in Melbourne, it’s hard to believe that until last September Baker had never performed live. His set is built on a foundation of boundless optimism and energy, bringing with him a tight collective of cousins, uncles and friends from home. His stage is always full, and his audience’s hearts even fuller.
After such an enormous year for the young artist I was curious as to whether 2018 had him feeling daunted or exhilarated, the answer to which I already felt I knew.
“It’s unbelievable what has happened, this taking off… everyone has been saying it’s a bullet in a gun. Every time I’m performing [I’m] getting more and more comfortable, I’m having so much fun performing and being on stage.”
And the stage is definitely where he is most comfortable. While conversation flowed easily, you could tell that this hotel lobby was not where Baker Boy felt most like himself. To see him dancing and connecting with his crew of backing singers, dancers and friends you can’t help but realise that Baker Boy is an act not for Danzel, but for his community and the people around him.
He jumped in enthusiastically, sharing “I would love to keep doing what I’m doing. It makes me feel like me… now that I’m doing all this I feel really proud, proud that I’m doing something with my life. To see young Indigenous people like myself taking the job and keeping everyone entertained and keeping the Northern Territory alive and showing the culture and the love.”
One issue which has been playing on my mind recently has been the use of Indigenous languages by non-Indigenous artists. When is it ok and when is it not? With the recent release of fellow NT artist Emily Wurramara’s new single Ngarrukwujenama and another injection of these sacred sounds into our sphere, I felt like this is a conversation that could not be ignored.
The example I used with Danzel was that of The Preatures’ acclaimed track Yanada. Impeccably researched and beautifully delivered, Isabella Manfredi managed to respectfully and creatively engage with language to create a bridge between two cultures. But on the flip side, the opportunity soon arises for other artists to take less considered paths. To this notion Danzel was quietly contemplative.
“It depends on how they are using it and it depends on if the language group or leader have said you can do it… my view of my music is being a bridge for both worlds to become one. Music has its own language, where everyone listens to music. Every race, every colour, we all dance and listen to music, that’s why I want to talk about strong messages and healthy ideas, like knowledge is power, and education, and showing two worlds through music as well.”
“And making Australia understand that we still have our native languages. It would be cool to see more people actually having the time off to learn more native languages. If you look at it, people overseas have their own language, why doesn’t Australia? I’m aiming for something like that but through music, teasing people. First starting with lyrics, then they ask where they can find a dictionary and then they want to learn more and more.”
This is what I find makes me drawn to Danzel as an artist. His confidence in his community and the agenda-less gaze he employs when writing and performing creates a powerful sense of inclusivity. Filled with humility and positivity as Baker Boy, Danzel is bringing everyone closer to Indigenous culture, and showcasing how we can use music to make Australia stronger.
In amongst all this however, the early days of Baker Boy were not so easy. Unsure whether to chase the sudden success Cloud 9 received, Danzel found himself questioning what the next move should be. With next to no performing experience and a phenomenal support network at home, Baker Boy was a project walking a fine line of short-lived exposure.
Danzel went on to explain that it was his father who pushed him to take what was being offered, and run with it as far as it could take him.
“I stood back and thought about it twice and triple checked and was thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ So I called my Dad and he said ‘it’s up to you, if I were you I would keep going’. I thought ‘I love this tour, I’m going to keep going’. And everyone back home is supportive and very proud of me for doing all of the good stuff that the younger generation is going to see.”
And it’s his community back home and the support of his family and friends which have kept him going. Hardly ever seen on stage without the enormous posse of co-performers, it’s these relationships that keep Baker Boy’s feet on the ground.
“Those guys were the ones who sat around and started freestyling and beat boxing and were the inspiration for me to start rapping. Now every time I say ‘you guys influenced me, so we are sticking together’. So now they are actually going with me and helping me out with backup vocals or taking me out for a breather, they’re everything I could ask for, and everyone is really talented.”
So does Baker Boy ever want to check out for a bit and head back home? To this Danzel scoffed “Nup! My family doesn’t want me to take a break. I’m being serious, they said ‘you’ve got nothing here, go out there. You’re keeping us motivated, we’re going to work our butts off and keep going because you’re inspiring us and keeping culture alive.’”
“It’s a really heavy duty to have. The weight on your shoulders of the whole of Arnhem Land, or even the whole of Australia… I’m really honoured to have that role. I will keep going, I won’t stop. I don’t do it for money, I just do it for fun. It’s love and passion and it doesn’t feel like I’m working. I’m showing the whole family that I’m having fun onstage being me.”
With an album due for release in the middle of 2018, Baker Boy is already taking this year by storm. Just announcing his upcoming support tour with 50 Cent and Dizzee Rascal, Danzel was over the moon, gushing with excitement for this enormous opportunity.
When the tour came up in our chat he just shook his head, eyes wide.
“I walked up and down the room going, ‘oh my god what’s going on?’ All my family were calling me. Texting me and calling me, I was starting to get overwhelmed, everyone was texting me and I started getting emotional and a bit teary. When it comes to rapping and hip hop, when one of the greatest hip hop artists in the world asks you to open up for him, it’s unreal.”
Baker Boy is undeniably one of the most exciting new artists in Australia right now. Inventive and utterly his own person, he has carved for himself an opportunity to redirect the conversation of Indigenous music out of the political playing field and into a space where we can all connect on common ground.
This interview is featured on the cover of Happy Mag Issue 7. Get yours here.
Catch Baker Boy live around Australia:
Fri 9-10 Mar – Womadelaide, Adelaide
Sun 11 Mar – Golden Plains Festival, Meredith
Sat 17 Mar – Pool House Party, Coburg
Baker Boy dressed by L.E.V.E.L.