Photo: Ian Laidlaw
JK-47 seems a bit flustered when we make the call. He's on his way to see his manager at his recently-opened shop in Cabarita Beach and his phone has been on 1% for the last 10 minutes. Regardless, we chat and we cover a lot of ground in that time.
Waxx Lyrical recently pressed JK's debut album - Made For This - on vinyl for the first time ever, something that was a success for the company and for JK himself. Over 100 people who had never heard his music before were suddenly thrust into the dynamic world JK has created and, in turn, now call themselves fans. The record sold very rapidly and debuted at #2 on the ARIA Vinyl Chart - a whole lot of firsts for a lot of people.
"So dope, man!" he gushes. "Big ups to you fellas, I appreciate you all putting us up and fronting us like that. It’s always been a dream of mine to sell my CDs or records. I wish record sales were more of a thing. I’m trying not to get focused on the money anyways, but it really puts it into perspective, because the stuff I’m talking about is worth more than money. It’s priceless. Whatever they’re going to pay, is never going to be enough. It’s priceless. I’m not going to make a huge fuss about money, I’m just not about that."
JK-47 - or real name Jacob Paulson - is a First Nations MC from Tweed Heads, a proud Gudjinburra man of the Bundjalung nation making a lot of noise right now. Not only is he already a community hero, a charismatic stage presence, a gifted rapper and dancer, he is also quickly becoming the leader and spokesperson for a new generation analysing racial inequality, the legacy of colonisation and intergenerational trauma for First Nations people. He's also incredibly humble, quickly handballing compliments and bringing the conversation back to issues he's concerned about. He is a firm believer in the transformative power of music, but remains determined to keep focused on the message at hand and not get lost to the potentially superficial side of making music.
"I don’t want to wake up one day and realise that I’m just a fake," he explains. "I don’t want to get distracted by how much money can come in and this and that and look back at the end of the day and not know who I am anymore. I want to go in from the jump - original, real. I was worried at the start about offending some people, but someone told me that you can’t worry about that shit. You can’t doubt yourself. I’ve realised that my music is going to offend some people, people are really easily offended these days but I can’t worry about that. That’s why I want to do it different. I don’t mean to offend, I don’t want you to feel offended, I want you to listen because if you feel offended, you won’t want to listen. I don’t want to come off offending people, but in the same sense, who cares?!
"Not everyone is going to take what I’m doing," he continues. "That’s been a problem, thinking about other people and whether I’ll offend them. Thinking too much, I can’t do that because the government is run by people like that, it’s embedded. Most of the time they don’t have to worry about lower class problems, they’re rich fellas – not all of them – but that’s just how it is. When you’re not on the ground floor and you don’t see the problems you don’t really care. I don’t know why. People need to put their 10 cents in when they don’t even know about the issues, like all white panels talking about whether Aboriginal kids should be taken away, rising that Stolen Generation issue up again. What the fuck is that?"
On stage, JK is an utter revelation. He's backed by his producer Jay Orient and brings the likes of DREDUB, Nerve, ECB or Jon Doe onto stage at any given time. He pauses between songs to reflect openly, to speak his truths and deliver messages of love and hope. He's equal parts teacher and party starter. At just 24, his voice is well beyond his years. He pushes compliments away and speaks with wisdom, recounting stories from his own past or reflecting on greater issues within the nation at large.
"Every time I get up on stage, the stuff that I talk about reminds me of what I’m doing it for. It keeps me in line - my own songs, lyrics of mine and… it never started off like that, I wanted to make music that everyone would like. That’s the thing though, we all want a fantasy, but we don’t want to see the reality and there’s a lot of reality in these lyrics. I’m just happy I can come across in a good and positive way and have a positive impact.
"I want them [his audience] to know this music was made for them. In my mind, when I write a song or write some lyrics, I am taking listeners on a journey and them to be in a better place than when they started. I want to take them to that place where they felt down, go down with them, but then bring them back up. Hopefully, bringing them through, whatever it is they’re going through. That’s what I want everyone to know. Maybe they’ll buy my merch and do this, do that – but that’s not what’s it’s about, but the music isn’t to help me further myself, this is all for you. For everyone else. It’s got nothing to do with me. I see myself as a vessel that God is talking through, it’s weird, I can’t make music like everyone else. The next record I make has to be better, I got to up the bar now."
Experiencing much turbulence as kid - substance abuse, domestic violence - JK fortunately discovered hip hop as a teen, initially idolising American rappers as he set about finding his own identity. He also learnt traditional dance and even visited Stateside as part of the Bundjalung Kunjiel troupe. He eventually befriended Brisbane's Nerve and they exchanged collaborations. But in essence, it's the last 12 to 18 months that have been nothing short of a whirlwind. May 2020 saw the release of 'The Recipe' and it immediately struck a chord. He won the triple j Unearthed National Indigenous Music Awards competition at the end of that year and released Made For This in September. It was a triple j Feature Album and the station offered him a Like A Version slot where he covered 2Pac's 'Changes'. He toured with Adrian Eagle and won support in Ziggy Ramo. He married his girlfriend and became a father, a rather surreal turn of events even by his account. With all these new people coming on board to support his music, he is clearly seeing the fruits of his labour and seems genuinely bewildered and humbled by the response so far.
"I’ve gotten a couple of messages from people who that they’ve never listened to hip hop until they listened to me," he says in disbelief. "It’s an unreal feeling. I started out wanting to be like the same as everyone, but now I know that the beauty in an artist is what he brings to the table that other people can’t. It’s a good thing to be different. You got to find a way to be happy. There’s so much bullshit going down and you have to find anyway you can to cling to some sort of happiness, be fulfilled in some way. Otherwise, if you just aren’t happy… especially living in Australia, we’re a blessed country but it’s all about balance. You can look around and look at how blessed we are and still forget about all the problems and shit going down."
"I got to find my peace of mind," he continues. "I got a wife and a baby son and I can’t look out at the world, get angry and bring that anger home. This is for my well being – I forgive and love for my own welling being. I still have to outline the issues, because the people that are committing these injustices don’t understand what they’re doing, so I have to tell them. But in a way that they’ll want to listen. I don’t want to offend you, bro, I’m trying to ask you what the fuck are you doing? Don’t walk away while we’re talking to you."
JK-47's MADE FOR THIS IS OUT NOW
Watch the video of our month with JK-47, from receiving the exclusive record to the live show, the signings and packing up hundreds of records for new fans.