“I wasn’t born in Australia. Australia was born in this land,” Jontae Lawrie says defiantly while looking straight down the barrel of the camera.
That’s how the Pitjantjatjara rapper begins the first filmed recording of ‘Holding On’, the new single by Dem Mob. In the embryonic clip, shot in 2021, the trio – comprising Lawrie, non-Aboriginal member Matt Gully and Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara man Elisha Umuhuri – perform the track live from the backseat of a moving car with an acoustic guitar.
They’re travelling up the red, dusty guts of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia’s far northwest. Lawrie opens the song with rapid-fire bars about the discrepancies between being Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal in Australia. “We all live under the same blue skies / We all don’t have the same blue eyes / Every time I’m walking I’m crying ‘genocide’ / Saying my lies rocking suits and ties,” he raps as the car rumbles.
Recorded when Lawrie was a high-schooler, the three-year-old recording is wobbly, but striking. Despite the song’s simplicity, it was a nascent expression of the spirit of Dem Mob: punching back at colonisation through desert-drenched hip-hop laced with ancient Pitjantjara and English songlines.
Three years since Dem Mob broke onto the scene and debuted their first single, ‘Kalala Kutjupa’ in 2020, they are finally hitting their straps. They have played major international festivals and have a swathe of unreleased material ready to drop.
‘Holding On’, one of these tracks, has been polished in the studio and now features singing from Nukunu songwriter Tilly Tjala Thomas. The track, which NME is premiering here, is slated for immediate release ahead of the band’s September gigs at BIGSOUND. The national industry showcase – where the South Australian Music Award-nominated outfit hope to find representation – is the next stop for Dem Mob in what’s been a meteoric rise.
In a massive coup, Dem Mob performed at Primavera Sound Barcelona in May, sharing a bill with Blur, Kendrick Lamar and Rosalía. Previously, the rap outfit delivered a storming WOMADelaide set in March alongside the likes of Florence and the Machine, Bon Iver and Sampa the Great.
Without Dem Mob, Lawrie reckons he would be back in the bush, in Pukatja, working in stocktake. “I would probably be in a shop just stacking shit up… and all my friends would keep walking in like, ‘Oh, I’ll pay you later’ and walk out. Then I would pay for it. It’s good I’m not doing that anymore.”
“There’s just so much to take in and I really enjoy what I’ve done so far,” Dem Mob’s other rapper Umuhuri, who was born in New Zealand but raised in the Red Centre, shares over Zoom with a smile. “All at the age of 22!”
“What I hear when I listen to ‘Holding On’ is the fact that it’s not just these old customs and old places that no one actually uses anymore; the culture is still alive” – Matt Gully
Outside of music, the friends have made mammoth personal gains. In November 2021, after a devastating family loss, Lawrie became the first Aboriginal Australian man of his community to graduate from Ernabella Aṉangu School and go to university. Pukatja is a majority Aboriginal town, where according to 2021 ABS data, 11.9 per cent of the residents had graduated Year 12 and unemployment sat at 46 per cent.
Initially a duo before Gully, who was Lawrie’s music teacher, joined as their DJ, Dem Mob was partly founded in 2020 as a way of keeping Lawrie engaged with high school. But he says that’s now “all changed”.
“We now just do it because we really care about each other,” Lawrie says. “These two guys are really important in my life, and they really showed me everything. They’re really close to me. I call them family and it’s been a lot. I’m pretty proud these guys are by my side and I’m by their side.”
Lawrie and Umuhuri are now completing foundation courses at the lauded University of Adelaide’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). “We’ve been pretty productive,” Umuhuri says, CASM instruments visible in the background of his screen. Lawrie says the program’s director Grayson Ratumah is teaching him how to play guitar – something unavailable to him in the past. “I know how to play A minor, F sharp, G and C and D minor and also E major. I’m learning all of it,” he beams.
There is both dark and light in Dem Mob’s repertoire. In ‘Soul of the Lion’, they deliver lyrics about finding strength within over an arpeggiated guitar riff. On the other hand, ‘Still No Justice’: is a defiant protest song containing clipped samples of wailing police sirens and television news reports about racial injustice. It was partly inspired by the death of Kumanjayi Walker in 2020.
In ‘Holding On’, Lawrie references the razing of the sacred trees belonging to the Djab Wurrung people in western Victoria, while “Elijah mentions sacred sites (the Juukan Gorge) being blown up by Rio Tinto,” Gully says. “What I hear when I listen to ‘Holding On’ is the fact that it’s not just these old customs and old places that no one actually uses anymore; the culture is still alive.
“There are still songs that are 100,000 years old. There are still practices that are 100,000 years old, practiced at these places, and they need to be around. They can’t just be traded and sold for money between different mining companies and shit like that.”
“I’m still working on my character, still working on how I’m feeling” – Jontae Lawrie
Aside from the star-spangled shows, there are hard truths still impacting the band. Security is something the band didn’t always have; Gully wants a “consistent home and food” for Umuhuri and Lawrie. When we ask the pair to expand, Umuhuri says, “On my end, that’s a documentary and a half. It was really hard.” Lawrie agrees: “There are some things going on.
“But I’m trying to get over that shit and just trying to have a good time living in the city, doing my thing and being around with Elisha and Matt for plenty of times… Everything has just been a shithole for me but I’m still working on my character, still working on how I’m feeling.”
Doing their part to unravel the Gordian Knot of poverty, overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in Australia’s justice system and inadequate housing is what propels Lawrie and Umuhuri to help aspiring First Nation rappers find their voice. Each week in Adelaide the pair visit Wiltja, a residential secondary school for Indigenous students from remote communities, to teach them the A to Zs of rapping. Currently, the bilingual program consists of six boys and 15 girls (there are fewer boys for cultural reasons). “We go there and say, ‘What’s up? What do you want to do? What do you want to sound like?’,” Umuhuri explains. “It’s good to see them smile.”
Education and community work has always been at the core of Dem Mob. It is the kindling that lit a fire under the band and propels them forward. In Barcelona, the trio participated in a street rap outreach program with kids who then watched one of their free performances at the conference segment of the festival, Primavera Pro. Gully says their only job, really, was “hang out with the kids during the day, freestyle and shit”. But the reward was immense. “We really cherish those moments,” Lawrie continues.
So it makes sense that when NME asks Dem Mob what they are most proud of in their burgeoning careers, they say it is not the headline shows nor playing alongside their idols nor the opportunity to travel overseas, but the volunteering: giving young people a chance at a life with music as the vehicle. “We’ve grown as not only artists but as individuals,” Umuhuri says. “We have had a massive impact on our communities and our families.”
Dem Mob’s ‘Holding On’ will be officially released on September 3. The band perform at BIGSOUND on September 5 and 6 – more info here