Calvin AKA Snoop, Aubrey AKA Drake, Marshall AKA Eminem: if you’ve got a rapper name, you’ve also got the name your mum calls you. If you’re Danzal Baker – AKA lauded young MC Baker Boy – there’s a third name attached to you, and it’s unentanglable from Yolngu culture: his skin name. Baker was dubbed ‘Gela’ (“GEE-lah”) at birth in Darwin, and has carried the skin name through his childhood in the remote Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi and Maningrida, boarding school in Townsville, Uni at the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Brisbane, and south to Bendigo, where he now resides.
“Our skin name puts us in a position in our clan groups,” Baker explains over Zoom. “There are heaps of brothers that are Gela as well; one the brothers would go call out ‘Gela!’ and we all just turn around like, ‘which one?’” he chuckles. “Gela is short for Burralung. Burralung is the main skin name, but Gela is the nickname of that skin name.”
Gela is the title Baker’s chosen for his debut album, something fans of the rapper have been marking time to hear ever since superb singles Cloud 9 and Marryunna hit airwaves in 2017 – winning the then-20-year-old the Triple J Unearthed National Indigenous Music Awards comp. In the intervening four years, Baker has toured extensively overseas and at home, turning out propulsive gems that thump with bright basslines and rhythms, alongside the rapper’s irresistible flow which incorporates both English and Yolngu Matha.
It’s not difficult to absorb Yolngu Matha words via Baker’s music – even casual fans will find they’ve learned nouns like ‘yidaki’, ‘meditjin’ and ‘marryunna’. Amongst some full-Yolngu verses on Gela, there’s also swap-ins the non-Yolngu speaker will pick up on. (For example: on Funk Wit Us, Baker calls to “All my brothers in the building, all my sisters in the building,” and later on, asks “Where all the arlys at? Where all the yapas at?”) Baker says there’s no deliberate lesson going on. “It just happens subconsciously,” he says. “Every time I talk with my family, we kind of infuse Yolngu Matha with English. Some of the words – car, plane, surgeon, chair – we don’t have them in our language. So we criss-cross with English to make a full sentence.”
That track is one of several which relish full-body immersion in a funky bassline. It’s one of the things that makes Baker’s music so distinctive from other hip hop – that bright, melodic funk vibe that side-eyes George Clinton and Kool & the Gang. “First of all, I really love funk music,” Baker grins. “Anything to do with funk! I’m always looking for that song that, as soon as you hear it, you do that stanky face, and go, ‘Oooh, what is that?!’ I want that! I want that reaction from everyone. When I listen to funk music I do that face, and I go ‘Yes! I want to make something like this’.”
Amongst Gela‘s tracklist, you won’t find the musician’s earlier tracks like Marryunna, Mr La Di Da Di or Black Magic. “I just have a lot of tracks,” he smiles. “There are so many unreleased tracks not on the album; [but also] my main focus was telling my story. It was really hard to cut off songs, but the ones on the album tell my whole story.”
And of course, his whole story incorporates a long and rich ancestral history, which Gela embraces with a purposeful narrative. See incredible opener Announcing The Journey (featuring Glen Gurruwiwi), and the brilliant Somewhere Deep, which features Baker’s long-time collaborator Yirrmal (“Yirrmal’s voice is just insane! Every time I listen to him, I sit there and go, ‘Oh my god!” grins Baker) – a Yolngu man of the Rirratjingu clan who appeared on Baker’s early track Marryunna, and turns up again on Gela’s Ride. Yirrmal’s grandfather Mandawuy Djarrtjuntjun Yunupingu was lead singer for Yothu Yindi, while his father Witiyana Marika was also vocalist and dancer with the band.
“Somewhere Deep is pretty different from all the tracks on Gela,” says Baker of the collab, “and it was actually the second song I ever wrote: after Cloud 9, I wrote Somewhere Deep.” The track is wound around a breezy reggae melody, but its message is serious: climate change isn’t coming, it’s here, and we must act. “It’s really important we talk about protecting Mother Earth and looking after Mother Earth, and how important it is that we give back,” Baker explains. “Giving back to the country, the country gives back to you.”
We finally come to the astonishing Survive, featuring icon and leader Uncle Jack Charles. “I was looking for someone to do a monologue voice-over for this part in Survive,” Baker says, “and I straight away thought of Uncle Jack. We got him to come into the studio, and it was actually my last session for the album, so it was really so special to have him in there. We only needed about 10 seconds [of material], and I was going to write something for him. But then he started talking, like he does at a forum where he stands up and talks for a couple of hours. The same thing happened in that room! We pressed record, and we just sat down for three hours, just listening to him talking. That was just crazy. Really, really cool.”
Gela by Baker Boy is out October 15 via Island/Universal.
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