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Baker Boy - Born To Dance, Born to Lead




You may have already met Baker Boy. The bright-eyed, enthusiastic and ferociously talented rapper Danzal Baker has been prominent to a rather hefty and ever-swelling audience for four years or so now, since the release of his exceptional debut single 'Cloud 9'. The self-described "proud, blakYolngu boy" was born in Darwin and raised in the remote Northern Territory communities of Milingimbi and Maningrida. Baker's totem is the Olive Python, his moiety is Dhuwa, his skin is Burralung/Gela boy and as a youngster, all he wanted to do was dance. As he sits, poised on the eve of release of his game-changing debut album Gela, five days after his 25th birthday, little did anyone realise, let alone Baker himself, what a leader of his field he would become.

Leadership of this calibre isn't an easy road. There is no book of guidance, nor anyone to really look back on for a source of inspiration. At home, they call him the Fresh Prince of Arnhem Land and he's standing at the forefront of his peers as well as a whole new generation of young Indigenous artists, encouraging them to dream and make the art within them.

Gela is his skin name and one of the truest markers of his identity. “Gela is who I am,” Baker says, “and it’s my story.” There really was only one obvious and perfect choice for the title of this long-awaited debut, an exuberant and uplifting record that paints the young, gifted rapper more vividly than ever before.

The journey to Gela, however, has been winding and intense with extreme ups and downs, though Baker admits, "more ups than downs." The entirety of Baker Boy’s art -- from his killer flow to his music’s modern-throwback production to the jaw-dropping dance moves he perfected as part of the Djuki Mala dance troupe -- has connected from the very beginning and constantly managed to break down all the boundaries in his path.

English is not Baker Boy's first language and just a few years ago, even a basic English sentence was a challenge for him. Impressively, the multi-talented, multilingual artist is the first Indigenous artist to achieve this kind of success while rapping in the Yolngu Matha language. Baker says he didn't want to let his limited English hold him back.

“No one was rapping in language so I thought I’d try [to] make history to be the first... and it happened, which is crazy, it’s so insane! For me it is way better to rap and to even write songs (in Yolngu Matha) because it’s easier for me … it's way easier than writing in English," he told SBS News. "In English, I pretty much, sometimes struggle. These brother boys, they'd always rap freestyle, where someone is beatboxing, and I always listen to them and would think that’s so cool. Then they’d ask me to try and do it and I'd be like, ‘sorry I can’t do it’ because English isn’t my first language.”

When he eventually did finally put pen to paper, Baker vowed that the next time he was asked to rap freestyle he’d be prepared: “I wrote this crazy verse mixed with Yolngu Matha and English and now that song is known as 'Cloud 9'. When people first heard it they just absolutely lost it.”

The one-two hit of 'Cloud 9' closely followed by 'Marryuna' in 2017 had enormous clout and was a glorious and inspiring musical fist. Huge hits almost immediately, the songs firmly thrust the aspiring young rapper into the limelight -- triple j Unearthed picked them up first with its big sister station triple j quickly following. By the end of the year, both songs would appear in the Hottest 100 (the former at #76, the latter at #17) and Baker would be well on his way to taking Australia by storm.

“My music is all about bridging two worlds as one. I want everyone, no matter black or white to come together and have fun, no colour you know?" he explains. "You see it as just human beings. We all have brains, eyes, and hearts. I think it’s cool to have everyone come together to be strong and marryuna."

In the immediate subsequent years, he continued to release single after single and each was more successful than the last. The feel-good 'Cool As Hell' is now ARIA Gold-certified and on the likes of 'Better Days', he was joined by Dallas Woods and Sampa The Great while the man himself progressed, establishing himself as a deft, talented rapper, with charisma and verve inherited from rap's greats. He quickly began to sell out shows, play support for the likes of 50 Cent, Dizzee Rascal and Yothu Yindi, attract bigger and better festival slots, make his acting debut (The True History Of The Kelly Gang), sign a label deal with Universal's Island Records as well as management with Lunatic Entertainment, the team behind Gotye, The Temper Trap and Laneway Festival. He's appeared, seemingly somewhat apprehensively on The Project and danced alongside INXS in a viral Lego ad. In 2019, he would win Young Australian Of The Year. More recently, however, and fresh off the stage of the AFL Grand Final pre-game entertainment, Baker is still beaming.

"I mean, performing at the AFL Grand Final was mind blowing - 61,000 people plus about four million people watching (on TV) and it's just pretty amazing!"

No small feats and a way to securing household name status, yet, despite his freewheeling joy, his sudden success and fame created something of an internal struggle. His ties to his community back home, and his love for his art and the inspiring leader-figure status Baker Boy was quickly establishing, were in conflict. As anyone who moves from somewhere remote to the big city will attest, it's heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, this hurt is unique for First Nations people leaving a remote community for a more populated area. Throw in Baker's unique journey of leadership-in-the-making without the safety net of his community, one for which there is definitely no guide book, and a cocktail of emotions are surely unavoidable.

Gela, then, is the story of Baker Boy overcoming this conflict, and coming to terms with himself both as Gela and as Baker Boy — an inspiration and beacon of light to his fans, his family, and, most of all, himself.

The record’s striking album artwork, by iconic street artist Adnate, is a perfect encapsulation of this concept, featuring a split portrait of Baker Boy. “I want people to see what my life is like, and where I come from,” he says. “The journey from a remote community to living in the city and trying to adapt, and have that balance, is a lot of hard work, [but] it’s an amazing journey.”

Faithful to that duality, the record is a utterly breathtaking. It's a portrait of the personality, a coming of age tale, a powerful AF political vessel and a story of a colourful and fascinating life to date.

Working with gun collaborators such as Jerome Farrah and Pip Norman formerly of TZU, the record, as a whole, is a dizzying array of sounds and flavours. You've heard the singles already, they're songs that have become so big, they've grown to take on a life all of their own. Ultimate party-sparker 'Meditjin' (which means "medicine" in his native language) recently opened the AFL Grand Final's pre-match entertainment and, undoubtedly exposing him to an entire new legion of fans. Co-written with Thundamentals' Tuka, 'Cool As Hell' overflows with confident swag, its sample of The Flamingos 'I Only Have Eyes For You' reveals a deep understanding of music history (though it could've as easily com via Fugees' 'Zealots'). Elsewhere, even old school G-Funk seems to have a presence ('Funk Wit Us') as does Prince-esque instrumentation (the closing 'MYWD') and Roger Troutman's vocoder-vibes (also 'MYWD'). In fact, a lot of Gela feels more funk-driven than hiphop -- certainly a welcome surprise.

The G-Flip collaboration and the record's lead single 'My Mind' bubbles with romance, a love song referencing Baker's partner and stylist Aurie. It's a masterclass in Baker and Flip's combined penchant for boundary-pushing, smile-inducing pop.

“I’ve known G for a while now, and I'm a big fan of what they do,” Baker says of the collaboration, which was always sure to be a hit. “When the opportunity came up to work with them, I was super stoked. It’s a love song —really just a bit of fun.”

Similarly, 'Butterflies' exerts the sheer adrenaline that love brings, its handclaps and skittering, almost militaristic drum beat conveying the excitement and frisson of getting butterflies in your stomach. “‘Butterflies’ has a lot of play on words and flavors,” he explains. “It's about chasing that feeling and excitement —you know, being addicted to that adrenaline rush.”

An optimist at heart, he's often shied away from politicising his art. He's even been criticised for remaining silent when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted globally last year. However, on Gela, he tackles it head-on. Following the opening ‘Announcing The Journey’ - distinguished by Glen Gurruwiwi’s singing and Kevin Gurruwiwi’s yidaki - Baker serves the defiant and sharp-tongued 'Survive', swiftly reminding that he's much more than the naive party guy. Similarly, on the change of pace, dancehall-via-Darwin jam 'Somewhere Deep' with Yirrmal, he denounces climate change and controversial fracking in the NT and its heartbreaking impact on his community.

Despite it all - the skyrocketing success and its inevitable excesses, the immensely gifted artist has remained humble, modest and candid. One quick glance at our or any interview footage will quickly display a wonderful soul, shy and careful, yet ready to bring out Baker Boy as soon as necessary.

"Every time I’m on stage it’s like I’m a different person – I’m Baker Boy, not Danzal. It’s two different personalities," he described. "Danzal is basically me. He sometimes stutters with English, is shy and stuff, but then on stage he transforms into Baker Boy... Baker Boy, well that guy is in the zone! He just has this amazing presence and only wants to marryuna."

He says these days he's lucky to now be working on a record collection - one he can soon add his own masterpiece to - and is currently spinning everything from J. Cole's latest The Off-Season to Prince's Purple Rain.

In essence, while he cites J. Cole as an influence, no one sounds like Baker Boy and nothing comes close to Gela's original impact. It's a spirited listen that'll stand alone as a source of inspiration and the soundtrack to the country's slowly emergence from lockdown. With the release finally here, aside from "a lot of dancing", Baker is already eying the future.

"I have a lot to offer, a lot of ideas and a concept that I want to execute," he says with a gleam in his eye, "but I can't share too much yet, so you're just going to have to wait for album number two."


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