Our wonderful production manager Joshua Nicholas sat down for an interview with Delmar Terblanche from Little Black Book to discuss the power of making art with indigenous Australians.
“I find that regional towns in New South Wales are, sometimes, some of the saddest places… But the people are amazing.”
Josh Nicholas, production manager at Clockwork Films, has just come back from Kempsey. It’s a town in the mid-north coast of New South Wales with a population of around 15,000, including a great deal of indigenous Australians. He spent his week with indigenous kids, elders, and community members, helping to write, record, and master a hip hop song – which he then shot a music video for, too.
Before he came to Clockwork Films, Josh spent 10 years with a company called Desert Pea Media, which specialises in this kind of community-led work. His most recent trip was a reunion with his Desert Pea comrades, and a return to some of the most meaningful creative work it’s possible to do.
“We travel from all sorts of places all over Australia… that’s usually on Sunday. And then on Monday, we go to do the workshop.”
The workshop is, essentially, a space where everyone has a chance to tell their story. “They speak poetry,” Josh tells me, and it’s a good thing too, because these snatches of history, of memory, of culture, and of personal lives become the basis for the song’s lyrics.
“We have this thing called ‘the real; the ideal; and the bridge.’ The real is ‘what’s happening in your community’; the ideal is ‘where do you want to go’; and the bridge is ‘how do we connect the two’.”
After Monday’s brainstorming, Tuesday is spent doing what Josh describes as “hip hop 101”.
“Of the five elements of hip hop, one might be graffiti… your mob has been painting on walls for 60,000 years… They’ve been making music. They’ve got traditional dancers, and it’s like breakdancing. Those elements that make hip hop work are already there.”
He makes four different beats, and, at the end of the day, the kids vote on their favourite. Then, on Wednesday, the “poetry” of day one is compiled into lyrics.
“We’ll bring them into the classroom, and we’ll either pick out sections that they like, or they’ll do the whole song… We do a call and response, because, for a lot of these kids, reading and writing might be a bit difficult.”
Josh spends all of Wednesday night mixing and mastering the song. By Thursday morning it’s ready. Then the next two days are spent filming the music video.
For the work they did last week, in Kempsey, this process involved visiting some truly fraught locations. The town has a sad and violent history, directly tied to the infamous stolen generation policies of the state and federal governments.
“One of the young fellas kept saying ‘It’s real and it’s raw’”, recounts Josh. “Kinchela Boys Home was there.”
The boarding school was one of the most infamous sites of government abuse of indigenous children; taken from their families and raised in abusive environments in an effort to be made “white”. The scars of what was this cultural genocide still linger across Australia, but it is in rural towns like Kempsey that they’re most acute.
“It’s a lot of drugs or alcohol, a lot of grief, a lot of trauma. That’s just how it is. But, like I said, the kids, and the community, are amazing.”
When he talks about the people, Josh lights up. His relaxed, casual posture tightens. He raises his voice (almost imperceptibly). The enthusiasm is clear.
“We go to the places that we talked about in the song. The missions, or other spots where bad stuff happened. But we talk to the elders, and they tell us ‘you’re okay to go film there; we give you permission.’ And then we put everyone on a bus.”
With more than a decade of experience making these projects, Josh is unequivocal about the effect.
“When you make a song, it’s like you go into battle… there’s something chemical in there that makes you connect with each other. The kids might not be talking because their families are arguing, or things like that, but this process breaks through all that ice. And, beyond that, it’s just a matter of confidence. These kids don’t get told enough that they’re deadly. They get told to shut up.”
Josh goes on to describe how the effect of these projects is magnified by repeat visits, citing a past experience in the small town of Burke where the Desert Pea Media team was able to visit five times.
“In that year, when we kept coming back, all those kids went to school. They all finished Year 12.”
Projects like this one are, unsurprisingly, not commercial ventures. They rely on a variety of charitable and government sources for funding, and are constantly at risk of becoming unviable. But Josh insists that it’s worth it.
He’s quick to point out that the experience of producing a creative work with such a short turnaround has been instrumental in shaping his own work ethic. “It’s taught me how to problem solve,” he says. But the real benefits run deeper.
“A lot of those stories and songs have been passed down from elders for thousands of years, and now they’re going to be on YouTube forever. There are a million reasons why these projects work and why they should continue. It could be something as simple as ‘Little Kayle didn’t go to jail that year’, because he was excited about Desert Pea coming down. If we can save just one person, it’s worth it.”
For Josh, it’s been worth it since the day he started.