L-FRESH The LION: "Australia doesn't take racism seriously enough"

"Forever Rising Exceeding Sudden Hardships." That's why you capitalise the FRESH in L-FRESH The Lion, one of the most energising rappers in Australian hip-hop. 

Infusing street-level poetry with a Sikh's love of humanity, Sydney's L-FRESH first came to TheVine's attention last year with the release of 'One'. 10 months later -- last week -- his album of the same name dropped. In our interview, two phrases come up the most: "empowerment" and "community". Both concepts dominate One. "I felt so much love in life / I feel spoiled," he says on 'Macquarie Street'. The foundation of his approach is littered with considerations of war-torn countries and refugees, slavery and bondage in corrupt governments as much as substance abuse. And yet for all its darkness, L-FRESH always looks towards the sun: his faith in God and people.

This is how L gets down.


TheVine: The record opens with a freestyle from KRS-One. Can you tell me how that happened?

L-FRESH: That was a really awesome experience. KRS was on tour here in 2012 and two mates of mine who were old school MCs in the hip-hop scene, particularly in Sydney, were coordinating with KRS-One to do community events between his gigs -- to go out to communities and give talks and lectures and do meet-and-greets for KRS to build, on a ground level, with communities here. One of their planned events was for KRS to come to Liverpool in south-west Sydney, to work in a community centre there called Street University. KRS did a three-hour talk about the history of hip-hop and the origins of hip-hop and it was an amazing lecture. There was a room full of 80 people and not a single person left throughout, they were just glued to their seats, hanging on every single word, 'cos it was really valuable knowledge about hip-hop.

Afterwards we were hanging out and I told him a little bit about the album I was part way through piecing together, and he was just like, "Yo close the door, close the door," and he immediately busts into this freestyle rap. Afterwards he's laughing like, "Man use that on the album!" We had a good laugh and shook hands and continued to hang out, and I was like, "Man of course I'm gonna use that on the album, that's amazing."

Do you know if he's heard it?

I have no idea if he's heard it. He's one of those people you've kinda gotta get in a room to get in touch with, so I'm still trying to figure out how I can get it to him. I hope that he hears it. He did express an interest in wanting to come back to Australia sooner rather than later, I don't know where those plans stand at the moment but if he's ever back here, I'll be sure to give him a copy. But in the meantime I'm just doing my best to filter through those middlemen to get through to him, to say "Hey man, this is what we ended up doing with your freestyle. Check it out." 

Before KRS-One's verse, you open by saying something in Punjabi ["Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh"]. For someone not fluent in Punjabi, could you explain that?

That's a traditional greeting that Sikhs have with one another. When I see another Sikh person in the street and I can tell they're kinda clued-up then I can approach them with that greeting. It's for both of us to be saying it in unison. So I begin, and the response by that person would be to try to catch up and say it in unison. It's like a very formal greeting. Essentially it translates to "God is with the brotherhood of the Khalsa" which is like the Sikh community but also the brotherhood with human beings, and then, "All victory belongs to God." It's a humble way to greet someone, [to say] we don't own none of this, this is not us, we're just here playing a role. It's a really formal greeting that speaks out for one another. 

Seems like a good message to start the album with, given the tone of the lyrics, these ideas of community and togetherness.

Yeah, well the concepts on the album are things that I've thought about for a long, long time. Things that I think about all the time, actually. So I thought it was right and appropriate to start the album that way, this formal greeting for people who were listening. So now people who've read this interview will be clued-up as to what it means, if they wanted to say that at the same time, it's like inviting them to engage with the album as well. That sets the tone, the KRS intro sets the tone, that this album is about movement, it's about getting the core of who you are as a person and trying to create music that feels good. 

At a time when hip-hop production seems to be getting more maximalist, your beats sound more stripped back. I'm curious about where your musical influences come from.

My musical influences are really broad. I grew up in a household that played Punjabi music, Bhangra music, and religious Sikh music and hymns. From the very beginning those were strong influences for me. Then I was introduced to hip-hop in high school and I really explored it from top to bottom, and got a piece of a majority of artists, tastes of stuff here and there. The music that really resonated with me was the righteous, positive, empowerment music, from Common, The Roots, Public Enemy, KRS, Nas, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill. That kinda stuff really stuck with me. Oh and Bob Marley played a big influence, and then Bob Dylan played a massive influence on me when it came to thinking about and approaching lyrics and songwriting in general.

It became this broad collection of music that I was being thrown from all directions. I listened to a lot and tried to learn as much as I could from everything I was listening to. When it came to piecing together the album, before doing the album, or before I write music in general I tend not to listen to a lot of music, particularly music of the time because I try not to be influenced by it. I wanna try to create music that's original and that comes from my own sense of what I think it should sound like, separate from other influences. Having got those diverse influences in music already, I have a solid foundation for what has influenced me sonically, but then leading up to writing I try not to touch anything, so I'm just creating from what's purely in my head.


You said that you grew up listening to a lot of hymnal music, and I think that comes across in your lyrics. You've got a lot of very uplifting lyrics, and rather than coming from materialism, that seems to come from personal conviction. Where does that sense of positivity come from?

I just wanna make music that I enjoy listening to. I feel like there's a gap in this day and age of music that's uplifting and positive and empowering. Those types of songs make me fall in love with hip-hop and music in general. Identifying that gap these days, I wanted to try and fill it with music of that kind. That positivity isn't necessarily conscious like, "I'm gonna make an album that's all positive material." I mean there's concepts on there that are quite challenging as well, that aren't always exactly positive, but at the end of the day it's music that makes you wanna feel good.

I wanted to make music that make my people, when they listen to it, wanna move, and they also wanna feel better about themselves and be better as individuals. It's the type of music you can listen to when you're going to the gym and you're thinking about how you're gonna make the most outta this workout, or the type of music people listen to before they play sport, or sit an exam, or before they go through something that's gonna be challenging. It's the type of music they listen to when they're on the way home from work and trying to think about how they can push forward towards their dreams and ambitions. That's the kind of music that I really thrive off and look out for, so that's the kind of music I wanted to make. 

Some of it's quite fatalistic as well though, like you have a line on 'The Heart, The Pen' where you say "Realise that each moment is precious / And it can be gone like first wishes and second guesses." I've found that a lot of the most inspiring people come to that perspective after acknowledging the trauma and transience of existence. Does that resonate with you?

Yeah. We have to realise that we have a short space of time in existence and we have to make the most out of the opportunities that we have. It isn't meant to be easy, it's meant to be a challenge. There's always going to be things that really test us as individuals and we have to be conscious of how we respond so we're ensuring that we're getting the best out of every situation. But when you realise, "Actually I might not be here tomorrow," like, "Something could happen. I could not wake up tomorrow, I could be in a car accident," or whatever. We have to come to terms with the fact that we have no control over when that time may be. You start to think about the present moment and what you can do to become better at what it is you do. I think that's what I was trying to get across with that line. Our time is fleeting, we have no control over it and we should make the most of it. 

I've been thinking a lot lately that merely being an empowering influence in other people's lives isn't enough; instead of just generating posvibes for yourself and other people you have to direct that positive energy into something constructive. So, you have these uplifting lyrics, but you're also involved in community activism, like before you mentioned Street University. Can you tell me about how you got started with that?

It has to come back to cultural roots. As a Sikh I'm always taught to give back to community. It's a legacy that's passed down by my ancestors, to always work hard and honestly, and to give back to those who're less fortunate, to ensure that you are being a valuable member of a community and you're not just driven by your own needs and wants. Also, growing up in south-west Sydney you can really see the impacts of the things like poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, the social disadvantages. I think about how I can play a role in assisting wherever I can. For me a lot of that comes through music. Hip-hop as a culture is about empowering community, that's how hip-hop was born. Understanding that as well I feel like I have a social responsibility on that level if I'm going to be benefiting from a culture that was born out of empowerment, that I should also be giving back to others in need as well.


We ran a column a while ago where we talked to some Australian MCs about racism in Australian hip-hop and the conclusion was that it's not the MCs who're encouraging racism -- certainly when you look at the work of the Elefant Traks folks, they're trying to preach against that -- but it exists in the audience. There was also an edition of Conversations with L-FRESH where you talked to other rappers about it. What is your experience with prejudice in Australian hip-hop?

I agree. I feel like it's something that often is evident within the audience. In the Conversations videos, Jimblah said something that's really important: "The perceived level of racism in hip-hop in Australia is a result of dominant mainstream views towards racism in Australia." It's bigger than what we perceive in hip-hop. Australia doesn't take racism seriously enough. Most mainstream conversations about racism often do not include the people who experience it the most. Often our voices and the voices of those who do experience it are left out of the conversation.

Australia is a country that's founded on racism. You think about colonisation, you think about the mistreatment and genocide of Indigenous people -- the establishment of Australia was born off this kind of racism and that's permeated through systematically during the solidification of Australia. There are so many issues there that haven't been dealt with seriously enough for us to have a genuine conversation about racism and what that means for people in Australia and contemporary times. We have a lot of work to do.

My experience has been varied. The most common experience that would reflect it in a way people would easily be able to understand is that whenever I get on a stage, if people haven't seen me perform before, I can see people in the audience anticipating what it might be and having a laugh, not knowing what to expect. Then when I start rhyming it's like "Wow, okay well let me take this seriously, let me listen." I use that to my advantage in the way I try to set up my live shows. But that in and of itself is a statement because when I start rhyming, it's like, "How about you look at me now without prejudice and listen to what it is I have to say, and value that over what you perceived initially when you saw me?"

There's other stuff as well that I'm sure other artists have experienced, in a much more serious way than I have. I've been quite fortunate. I think we haven't spoken about this seriously at a mainstream level and until we do that, racism's gonna play a role in a lot of industries across the country, not just within the music industry or within hip-hop. 

One thing Kween G and Urthboy talked about in that Conversations video was that artists of influence aren't doing enough to promote non-white artists, and that's an issue with the media as well. Why do you think there's that lack of exposure?

The answer to that I think is something Jaytee said in those videos. Jaytee said that people don't often respond to things they don't have an immediate connection with. The mainstream audience is perceived to be predominantly Anglo, so media and industries will take the easy way out and post content that will get the most hits or the most responses. There's that aspect to it. That in and of itself is a level of racism that's systemic and something people probably haven't thought twice about. It's like, "We enjoy the music of this person so that's why they're doing well," but when you listen to  people talk about their favourite pieces of music, one of the most common things that gets said is "Well I relate the most to this, that's why I enjoy it." Music and the fact that it can be related to plays an important role in what we decide is good music and what we give power to.

On another level, we don't have enough of those people working within media yet. There's probably a number of reasons for that but I think as Australia continues to grow that'll change. It's just taking a bit of time. But there's a bunch of diverse artists out there who're just way too hungry and way too dope to be neglected and pushed into a corner and silenced. There are audiences out there now, younger generations of people who're coming up and more diverse people who're engaging with mainstream content more so than ever. Or finding ways to establish their own outlets. So, things'll change, man. Things'll change. 

I struggle with my own culpability 'cos I do this New Oz Music column and every week it frustrates me that so much of the music which is floating around at any given time is reinforcing the status quo. So, for anyone with a platform who wants to offer that exposure and that respect to people who aren't getting it elsewhere, where do we look?

I think your column's doing a really good job, man. It's doing a really good job and it's great that you're conscious of it. There are artists out there who're bubbling away, it's just a matter of going out there and really trying to find them. The other thing is, you don't wanna put an artist in the column 'cos they're diverse but they're not hittin' the same goals as those whose music also deserves attention. There's a fine balance there that needs to be struck. As a journalist or as a person who has a medium, it's one of those things where you have to keep your ears and eyes open as much as you can, and see what's out there. Really just try and explore and dig as much as you can. It's difficult to pinpoint where to look or which artist to look at 'cos there's just so many. Just keep your eyes and ears open. 

Do you wanna give a shout out to a few people who deserve some shine but maybe aren't getting it?

Man, people should be on the look out for Luka Lesson and his new album EXIT. He's got some really dope, lyrically mature Hip Hop for people. The album is a free download or pay as you like. Then check out Philly who's due to release his debut album on Payback Records.

People should obviously check out my fellow MC MIRRAH. She rocks stages with me as part of my band and she's amazing. She's a beast on the mic. Amazingly talented. She's a sister and a mentor to me. I learn a lot from her.

JPoint is an up and coming MC who I actually met at my album launch show in Adelaide. He was visiting the city at the time and came through. He's got a really nice style as a MC. Be on the look out for him. Another one to look out for is Nooky. His hunger really comes through on the mic. I got nothing but respect for him.

Also check out Mosé + The FMLY for powerful, soulful Hip Hop grooves; Mau Power for that goodness; FLYBZ for some amazing story telling; Selekt Few for that knowledgable rap; Joseph & Ellie Duigan and Koolta for conscious and political sounds.
Also my DJ, MK-1 has you covered with the best mixtapes to get you moving. His knowledge of music is second to none. Check him out.


L-FRESH the LION's One is out now.

Jake Cleland (@sawngswjakec)

profile of JAKECLELAND

1 comments so far..

  • Sunil's avatar
    Date and time
    Saturday 17 May 2014 - 9:59 PM
    L-fresh keep fighting the good fight. Being non majority speaking out against racism is just going to get you shouted at about going back to your own country. Even if you were born in Australia, if you speak against racism there's meant to be some country you should go back to. I love how you are using your tiny bit of voice to bring equality and fairness to the country. You'll get louder and people will have to turn 'tolerate' into integrate.
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