Photos by Charlie Hardy
You’d be mad to place your bets on making it as a musician, and indeed the list of those who’ve spent their whole lives chasing it and got absolutely nowhere is long.
As the cruel paradox to this familiar tale, however, you have people like Danzal Baker—aka Baker Boy—who started rapping a year or so ago and supported 50 Cent in front of a sell-out crowd in Sydney in the early stages of 2018.
Baker Boy was born in Darwin, but spent most of his formative years in Milingimbi, an island off the coast of Arnhem land in the Northern Territory. Music was always an important part of his life, hip-hop in particular having a profound influence.
“Hip-hop started for me just hanging around with my dad,” Danzal tells me. “He was listening to old school hip-hop and all of that stuff. They introduced hip-hop to Arnhem land back in the 80s. My dad was the original Baker Boy, and that’s where I got the name from. So I’m the next generation of Baker Boy.”
Despite loving 2Pac, Grandmaster Flash, NWA and a host of other greats from the era, it was dance that first captured Danzal and took him touring around the country as one of the original members of Yolngu dance outfit Djuki Mala. By now based in Melbourne, it was Danzal’s work with bringing music and dance to remote communities that eventually led him back to hip-hop. One of the activities that he was involved in was producing music videos with the kids from the communities. The writing and recording process intrigued him, and he started hanging out with friends who were into freestyling and beatboxing by chance.
“They tried getting me to freestyle, and I said no because English isn’t my first language and it’s a bit harder for me to rhyme in English,” Danzal explains. “So I ended up going back to my apartment and writing a couple of lyrics. And then the next time they tried to get me to freestyle I had something to rap about and it ended up being (Baker Boy’s first single) ‘Cloud Nine’.”
On hearing the rap that Danzal had written, a friend grabbed him, dragged him to a studio and threw him in the booth. “We were in the studio just vibing and mucking around pretty much and ‘Cloud Nine’ just happened,” he remembers. “And then about a week later we ended up going on a week-long tour just out to my home, Milingimbi, and we filmed a dance tutorial little doco and during our free time we filmed the clip for ‘Cloud Nine’.”
The most fascinating thing about Baker Boy’s music and its popularity is the language. Baker Boy rapidly switches between his native Yolngu Matha and English. In a genre where lyricism and meaning is seemingly everything, this is unusual to say the least. But it seems also to be one of the reasons why Australia as a whole has taken to his music with such fervour. And it’s something that Danzal is rightly proud of.
“Australians need to know that there’s hundreds and hundreds of languages in Australia that people still speak fluently,” he says. “You can still learn a local language and we can all feel proud of knowing that it’s been in Australia for many, many years and it’s still strong. For me, I speak three, four, five different languages, but one of those languages is about 15 different dialects, y’know.”
The educational element to Baker Boy’s music, in regards to both language and indigenous culture as a whole, is something that he’s highly conscious of, but it’s inclusive and positive. You get the impression that his desire to share his culture comes from a genuine belief that Australia as a whole, regardless of ethnicity, would be better off if it was more conscious of its indigenous people. And it’s a hard approach to fault.
“I’m really proud that the next generation are actually listening to what I’m doing and how important all this stuff is,” he says. “If I’ve got that, then I might as well use it as a good opportunity to get new generations to do the right thing. Do it for Australia and especially for kids from remote communities because they could become the next leaders of their community and keep all that stuff alive.”
Coming from such a remote and beautiful part of the country, I wondered whether touring life—which is far less glamorous than it sounds, particularly in the fledgeling years—took its toll on Baker Boy. His reply was a touching reflection of his relationship with both his home and his family.
“All of the family is really proud of me and keeping me strong minded and grounded,” he explains. “They keep saying, ‘You’re making us proud and giving us and the whole Northern Territory a name, so keep doing us proud. And don’t worry about us—home will always be home, you can come back here anytime you want, we’re not going to go anywhere.’”
With a new album set to be soon, and a headline tour soon to be announced, it’s been a productive year since first stepping into the booth to lay down his maiden track for Baker Boy. Given the complete lunacy of the concept, however, I can’t resist asking about his support slot for Curtis Jackson III at Parramatta Park on February 9, 2018.
“Oh, the 50 Cent concert was just insane, I really…wow. I can’t believe it,” Danzal says, obviously scratching around for adjectives to describe the experience. “I never thought that I’d be opening for someone really big, like straight OG and stuff. I’ve been listening to 50 Cent for pretty much my whole life. And to get to meet him and get a photo with him was pretty awesome. I was fangirl-ing hard. I feel speechless, you know. Even thinking about it, I can’t really say anything. It was that overwhelming and just… pretty cool. It’s not cool actually, it’s completely insane!”
More than anything, what strikes you about Baker Boy is his attitude. Proud and energetic, sure, especially on stage, but equally he’s humble and totally appreciative of the opportunities that he’s been given so far. And he seems to be loving every minute of it.
“There’s a lot of tours coming up, and hopefully I’ll end up going overseas and showing the world what Australia has to offer,” Danzal says as our chat comes to a close.
I genuinely couldn’t think of a better ambassador.