Going it alone


- Words Emma Do

When Adam Briggs was a kid, he dreamt of being loud and daring. A profession­al wrestler; Slash from Guns N’ Roses; a rapper

– any outlandish job you could imagine, so long as it didn’t involve nine-to-five office work. Briggs, as he’s more commonly known, never saw the point in restrictin­g himself, and that’s largely how he’s made a career bouncing from festival stage to TV set to writing with Matt Groening (yes, Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame).

At 33, the Yorta Yorta rapper, actor and comedy writer has built up one heck of a résumé. “I think you have to defy expectatio­ns to succeed in Australia as an Indigenous person,” he says. “You have to work 10 times as hard. I knew from school that I was the underdog and no one bet on me.” Briggs leaves no room to doubt his tenacity: he’s a solo artist and one half of acclaimed hip-hop duo A.B. Original; he heads his own music label for Indigenous artists; and he’s a newly minted children’s book author. When he’s not penning jokes for Aussie TV, he’s living it up in the writers’ room for Netflix cartoon Disenchant­ment. (“It’s the best job in the world,” he says.) None of this was part of some meticulous grand plan. In fact, a fair bit just came from being funny on Twitter (but more on that later). Ask Briggs why he does all the things he does and he’ll tell you he just wants to make stuff he wished for as a kid. “Growing up, you didn’t see Indigenous representa­tion outside the footy field,” he says. “It’s probably why I was so drawn to rap music early on. I saw people who kind of looked like me – even though they were in another country and it was another story, it was closer than what I was getting at home.” Briggs grew up in Shepparton, in regional Victoria. (“That’s my traditiona­l homeland – it’s called Shepparton now, but it wasn’t that for thousands of years,” he says.) As a teen, he’d write parody raps and make up rhymes for kicks at parties. School wasn’t his thing, and at 17, he set his mind to pursuing music seriously. His family – though not particular­ly musical – weren’t fussed. “They were like, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? If it doesn’t work, you’ll just end up back in Shepparton. You might as well have a crack.’”

He describes his hometown as “really racist”, with bleak job prospects for Indigenous folks. But for all its troubles, Shepparton gave Briggs a thick skin and a healthy sense of cynicism – two helpful qualities to carry into the music industry. “I learnt really quickly if you’re going to do something, you’re going to have to do it on your own,” he says. “People don’t necessaril­y understand your view until they see the finished product.”

At 18, Briggs moved to Melbourne, and things got rolling soon after. Local hip-hop MC Reason invited him onto the Hilltop Hoods’ national tour after spotting one of his early performanc­es. His big break came when Suffa from the Hilltop Hoods lent him money to make his 2009 EP Homemade Bombs, and subsequent­ly signed him to the Hoods’ Golden Era label.

Briggs began building a name for himself as the big guy with hard-hitting, in-your-face raps about life in a disaffecte­d country town – epitomised by his 2014 album Sheplife. “Aussie hip-hop songs at that point were super-light and jokey,” he says. “Everyone was riding the wave of the festival song, which I thought was corny, so I decided to be the antithesis of what I was hearing. Not trying to fit in – that was my goal.”

Money was never key to Briggs’ ambitions – “I give away more than I have,” he says. To Briggs, music is a way of reaching kids who grew up like him. So when he and fellow rapper/producer Trials (real name Daniel Rankine) formed A.B. Original, he had zero expectatio­ns for commercial success. To put it bluntly, he thought their album would be “career suicide”.

Of course, 2016’s Reclaim Australia was the complete opposite. It soared on the ARIA charts and bagged honours from many within the industry. Much ink was spilled calling it a ‘momentous protest album’ for Indigenous Australia. Reclaim Australia – a satirical play on the far-right political party of the same name – featured 12 furious tracks that unapologet­ically skewered everything from Australia Day celebratio­ns to Indigenous deaths in custody. “It wasn’t a metaphor or a simile of ‘fuck you’, but an actual verbatim ‘fuck you’,” Briggs says. “But Australia’s so white, we didn’t think they’d be ready. We were like, OK, we’ll put this album out then sign off.”

He describes the recording process as being quick and impulsive. “There’s this romantic idea that we planned an Indigenous masterpiec­e,” he says, “but that’s absolutely untrue. We didn’t set out to make a protest album in the sense of making a thousand watertight points. We made the album we wanted to hear as kids – what hip-hop group Westside Connection would have sounded like if they came from Shepparton or Adelaide.”

While A.B. Original was making Australia sit up and take notice of Indigenous injustices, Briggs had also begun dabbling in TV. He landed his first gig writing and occasional­ly acting on ABC’S Black Comedy. At that point, he’d only written treatments for his film clips – but after responding to an online callout and sharing ideas with producers, he was in. Since then, he’s joined the writing team on Charlie Pickering’s The Weekly, where he gets to “show up and get stuff off [his] chest”. “Comedy cuts through,” he says, “and I like the fact I don’t have to adhere to the convention­s of rhyming and melody. I can just have a good joke.”

In 2017, Briggs scored his dream role writing for Matt Groening’s Netflix show Disenchant­ment. Josh Weinstein – who wrote and produced The Simpsons for most of the ’90s – was a fan of Briggs’ music and started following him on Twitter. The two struck up a friendship and the rest is history. So, how does he feel sitting in an LA writers’ room alongside his comedy heroes? “It’s killer!” Briggs says. “It’s problem-solving every day, everyone’s super-nice, super-funny, and there’s always a fridge full of snacks. If I could do that forever, that’d be so cool.” Briggs is a big advocate for diversity on screens and behind the scenes – and he’s quick to remind people he started out with no experience. “Sometimes all people need is a shot,” he tweeted recently.

With his pull-no-punches attitude, Briggs has also become one of the media’s go-to commentato­rs on Indigenous issues. Does he see himself as an activist, though? “You get thrown a lot of titles being Indigenous and doing extraordin­ary things,” he says. “I guess I take part in activism, but I don’t think about it. I just worry about the work.” Activism, to him, is the arduous, unfun stuff that doesn’t get posted on Instagram. It’s what his parents do running the Rumbalara Football Netball Club in Shepparton, a “nucleus for the Indigenous community”. “It takes years and generation­s of work to get things done,” he says. “Building self-determinat­ion within the community – that’s where the change is.”

In his own way, Briggs is already creating change. With his record label Bad Apples, he gets to be an uncle of sorts, helping young blak artists navigate the music business. “Every industry in Australia has racism,” he says, “so I want to help them dodge the bullshit and avoid the same mistakes I made. It’s about letting them know they can talk about career moves with someone who’s been through the same life experience­s.”

He’s stoked to reach an even younger generation, too, with his first picture book, Our Home, Our Heartbeat (illustrate­d by Kate Moon and Rachael Sarra), which celebrates Indigenous legends and emerging generation­s. Teachers have reported how happy kids are to see different complexion­s within its pages. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me,” he says. “I talk about how being fair or dark doesn’t define your identity. There are so many young people who may not look Indigenous, but have the same life experience­s of someone who might be darker. So to hear that it’s resonating – that’s really fulfilling.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia