When Danzal Baker landed at the airport in Arnhem Land two years ago, the first things he saw were the signs. “They said ‘Welcome home Danzal Baker AKA Baker Boy!’” he laughs. After years of touring his infectious and innovative hip-hop music around the country and the world – on festival lineups, headline tours, and as support for artists including Dizzee Rascal, 50 Cent and Yothu Yindi – Baker was home again. In the time away, he’d become something of a local hero.
From his accommodation in Milingimbi, he heard his own songs echoing out every hour or so from the school across the street; the school’s administration had replaced the traditional school bell with them. The kids, he says, hung off him “like leeches”. Milingimbi is a tiny island town, with a population hovering about 1,000. As a teenager, Baker left first to study at boarding school in Townsville, and then at the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Brisbane. As a member of the Djuki Mala dance troupe, he toured all over Australia, performing for kids in other remote communities.
He found his voice in music – melding together English and Yolŋu Matha in his breakout singles Marryuna and Cloud 9 – and since 2017 recognition has steadily flowed. Baker earned nominations in the Australian Recording Industry Association awards and wins at the National Indigenous Music Awards, and in 2019 he was named Young Australian of the Year.
His live show became the stuff of legend. In 2018, with just a handful of songs to his name, he performed before Big Boi at Golden Plains festival in Victoria. The crowd gathering to see the legendary rapper, producer and one-half of Outkast almost unanimously gave Baker Boy the fabled “boot”, so impressive was his performance.
In January, Baker received an Order of Australia medal for his contributions to Australia’s performing arts industry. As always, thoughts of home weren’t far from his mind. “I’ve always wanted to show those kids back in community that they can do it. It’d be really cool if everyone started giving opportunities to remote communities where the kids don’t have to leave their home to be able to become successful.”
Despite the praise and profile, on the eve of the release of Gela, his debut album, Baker still describes himself as “a kid who came out from a remote community [and] found it really, really hard – struggled a lot”.
I recall speaking to him back in 2019 in the lead up to his performance at the AFL’s annual Dreamtime game. He was anticipating how nervous he’d be, saying: “I’ll be in the centre [of the MCG] and too many people [will] be watching, I’ll be freaking out”. He’s more confident and considered now, but just as generous and open, eager to talk equally about footy and the emotions he poured into Gela.
This year he took it up a notch, performing at the AFL grand final with a mashup of his song Marryuna – which came in at number 17 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2017, the first ever song with an Indigenous language to make it in the top 20 of the poll – and Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. A vision in a shimmering sky-blue Gucci tracksuit, Baker turned pop music into something mythic on the turf of Optus Stadium, playing the yidaki and singing, over thundering drums, of music’s power to heal what ails you on the single Meditjin:
You got stage fright? No problem
You got neck brace? No problem.
You got two left feet, can’t catch that beat?
I got the Meditjin … Music is the Meditjin
“[Meditjin] is just the Yolngu way of saying medicine,” Baker says. “Music has been part of our culture for generations and generations. I don’t know what we would have been doing without music.” He might, in fact, have been on that football field in a different capacity: “I always say [if I wasn’t making music] I’d be playing AFL. There was a bit of a fork in the road where I made the decision to go to auditions for performing arts school instead of going to footy training where AFL scouts were coming to watch us train.”
Watching his infectiously high energy live show, it seems impossible that Baker’s description of stage fright comes from personal experience. “Even now, I still get really nervous right before jumping on stage. I do get scared,” he says. “But as soon as I’m out it’s like no turning back now, you gotta keep moving forward. You just gotta let it flow in your body, let the music take control.”
His music is designed to embolden both himself and the people back home who taught him the ropes. On one of Gela’s standout tracks Survive, Baker sings of Indigenous tenacity over a thunderous beat reminiscent of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead: “I don’t know how we continue to thrive … We keep on going like we cannot die”. The track draws on references to Hollywood blockbusters, from The Lion King and Sleeping Beauty to Jurassic Park, which was a formative inspiration.
“We came up with the idea to try and make a track that survives dinosaurs,” he says. “And then it started to evolve naturally into surviving the systematic racism and negativity that’s happened to First Australians.”
Gela confidently weaves the voice of actor and elder Uncle Jack Charles into contemporary hip-hop on Survive, and holds up rose-coloured pop (on Butterflies and My Mind featuring G Flip) alongside themes of climate change and destruction of native lands (as on Something Deep, featuring Yirrmal). It’s skilful, and illustrative of what the Baker Boy project has always been about: putting on a show, with plenty of soul.
“Something about the way he approaches music and performance reminds me of a classic showman,” says producer Pip Norman, who worked closely with Baker on the record. “He’s got this big heart and joyous character that he wants to convey through his music. That’s one of his most crucial gifts: that enthusiasm and positivity for life. But when you’re writing, other things come up.”
Gela carries a new sense of the importance of legacy for the artist – of both following established paths and charting new territory. The record’s title refers to his skin name, and opens with a track called Announcing the Journey. A traditional song of the Galpu people of north-east Arnhem Land, it’s performed by one of the Lead Songmen of that clan group, Baker’s Uncle Glen Gurruwiwi.
“It was really nice to have him to do that,” he says. “Because when I get older I think I’m going to take over his role. It’s really a big responsibility, but I think I can handle it since, you know, I’ve already had a big responsibility as Baker Boy.”
Even when he’s far away from home, his father – one of the original Baker Boys, a dance crew he toured in the 1980s – reports that on his daily walk to work he hears local kids calling out his son’s name: “Baker Boy! Rap a few verses!”
“He recently told me he could hear these kids trying to rap in language,” Baker says, wide-eyed and clutching his heart at the image of the next generation acting on his inspiration. “I was just like, oh my god, this is amazing.”
• Baker Boy’s debut album, Gela, is out on Friday 15 October through Island Records