Ziggy Ramo always knew his song April 25th would “go down like a teaspoon of salt”. Released in 2020, the track contrasts Australia’s Anzac legend with the country’s treatment of Indigenous people, interrogating why the nation chooses to enshrine some parts of our history and conveniently brush aside others.
“Fuck those whack blacks, but we love the Anzacs,” raps Ramo, who is of Wik and South Sea Islander heritage. Then, in a verse that – in a post-Yassmin Abdel-Magied Australia, at least – feels like a dog whistle to conservative commentators, he repeats one line seven times over: “Fuck those Anzacs.”
It caused the biggest stir when Ramo appeared as a panellist on the ABC’s Q+A. He had also been invited to perform a song – but when he chose April 25th, station executives asked him to play something else, citing the lyrics. On the panel, Ramo called the network out for “performative diversity”, and found himself facing off against fellow panellist Barnaby Joyce – then the deputy prime minister – while calling out the hypocrisy of the national psyche: “In world war two we fought against genocide, yet we don’t recognise the genocide in our own country,” he said at the time.
While his music is often stark and uncompromising, Ramo is warm and soft-spoken in person; someone who greets with a hug, not a handshake. He remembers the ensuing outrage cycle, which led to both Sky News and Joyce defending the ABC: “I was like, I’ve broken the Matrix!”
“April 25th is obviously a very inflammatory song – but that’s the whole point of it,” he says. “In the song, I say ‘fuck the Anzacs’… [But] prior to that I say ‘fuck black people’ three times as much. And the whole thing is that both of [those statements] make me feel uncomfortable. Why don’t you feel uncomfortable when you hear me say ‘fuck black people’ repeatedly?”
Two and a half years on from that controversial TV slot, Ramo is gearing for a different sort of screen appearance. After building an independent music career that has seen him collaborate with Paul Kelly, perform at the Sydney Opera House and be nominated for the prestigious Australian Music Prize, the 28-year-old is about to make his acting debut in the new Stan murder mystery Black Snow, for which he also co-wrote the score.
Out New Year’s Day, Ramo plays Ezekiel, a mysterious figure in the unsolved 1994 killing of 17-year-old Isabel Baker in small-town north Queensland – a crime that Isabel’s South Sea Islander community never quite healed from. Ramo brings a tenderness to the role, convincing as a character who we’re not sure whether to trust or fear.
Born in Bellingen and raised between Western Australia, New South Wales and a community called Gapuwiyak in East Arnhem Land, Ramo has been freestyling at home with his brother since he was a kid – but as a hobby, not a potential career.
He actually studied to be a doctor – a profession underrepresented by First Nations people, and an area he felt passionate about. But he was releasing singles in the time between his studies, and a few years in momentum had started to build. When he was accepted into a postgraduate degree, it felt like something he could defer. Music, on the other hand, was now or never. “I couldn’t be like, hey, music industry, hold my place,” he says. “It was just like, you’ve gotta go for it.”
With medicine on hold, Ramo wrote his debut album, Black Thoughts. As well as putting Australia’s mythmaking under the microscope, the LP tackles the stolen generations, systemic racism and police violence; he weaves in audio samples of Lang Hancock advocating for the sterilisation of Indigenous people, and Charlie Perkins speaking at the Freedom Ride. “Being Blak in Australia, everything I do is politicised,” he says. “I’ve never really thought of myself as making political music, I just share my lived experience.”
But Ramo wouldn’t release the album for another four years. One of the first times he’d performed it publicly, at the Australian music conference Bigsound in 2017, a record label executive approached him after his set to ask “why he was so angry”. The year prior, after the killing of 14-year-old Indigenous boy Elijah Doughty, he had worn a “Justice for Elijah” T-shirt to a gig. At the venue, the bouncers told him: “If you get glassed, that’s on you,” Ramo recalls. “And so that was the context in which I wrote that album … It was just like, well, no one wants to hear this.”
Ramo met with just about every label in the country but couldn’t find the album a home, an experience that was “disheartening”. He began to feel that Australia wasn’t ready for its messages – and in 2018 moved to Sydney to work on a new record instead.
Then, in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded. Spotify featured an early single from Black Thoughts in one of their biggest hip-hop playlists, which felt like a sign that his music was finally resonating. He rushed the album out in just 72 hours, without a label.
While his music landed well with the public, he says multiple music festivals asked him not to play April 25th on stage – and then of course there was the Q+A debacle. Black Thoughts did, however, strike a chord with legendary songwriter Paul Kelly, who liked the album so much he asked Ramo to join the bill of a New Year’s Eve concert in 2020, and gave him permission to reimagine the Kelly classic Little Things. That cover was what got him noticed by an executive producer of Black Snow, who approached Ramo for the role.
Black Snow is one of the first TV shows to represent Australian South Sea Islander people – which is what drew Ramo to the role, his first professional acting gig. While it satisfies as a classic whodunnit, it also shines a light on historical blackbirding and Australia’s contemporary treatment of migrants – a topic tackled in Ramo’s next album, Sugar Coated Lies, which hides messages about Australia’s exploitative sugar industry in anthemic pop songs. It will be released in 2023.
The world hasn’t changed dramatically since he first released Black Thoughts: “It’s an album about systemic issues and it’s haunting how slow-moving it all is,” Ramo says. But something has shifted. In 2021, he finally got to perform April 25th on the ABC, this time for music program The Set; and just a week before our conversation, Ramo played a show at Hanging Rock in Victoria, as part of a First Nations festival. Stepping back into it a couple of years on, the atmosphere felt markedly different.
“Usually when I say ‘fuck the Anzacs’, it’s like a pin drop, and you can hear the air sucked out of the room. Whereas when I performed it a week ago, there was just so much understanding. That … was such a full-circle moment, from not being allowed to perform that song in so many spaces, to then go to Hanging Rock and play it to a sea of people and have them understand it,” he says. “That’s why I’ve fought.”
Black Snow is released on Stan on 1 January 2023