On the opening track of his second album, Ziggy Ramo raps “It’s hard if we don’t ever talk about it / that’s why I had to write this song about it”. That line from Pretty Ugly could well be the modus operandi behind the Indigenous and Solomon Islander rapper’s work – the artist, full name Ziggy Ramo Burrmuruk Fatnowna, exposes uncomfortable truths.
On his first album, 2020’s independently released Black Thoughts, Ramo took aim at colonisation, genocide and both systemic and everyday racism, fortifying his arguments with powerful and often confronting spoken word interludes and soundbites from the news. Recorded in 2015, that album was shelved for five years as he tried to find a label, before being released independently in response to George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction around the world – and it was still as relevant as ever. Songs such as April 25 and Black Face were explicit in their damnation of the Australian government, and the colonial project in general. It is far from easy listening, but it is essential.
Sugar Coated Lies, also released independently on 26 January, is not as immediate at first listen. On the surface, these are songs about relationships, but dig deeper and you’ll find the raw heart of a man, a life, impacted by intergenerational trauma.
Ramo, who wrote this album as diary entries after being hospitalised on suicide watch, turns the focus inwards, plainly laying out his self-loathing and intrusive thoughts. If Black Thoughts was the shot, Sugar Coated Lies is the chaser – he’s illustrated the obvious, and now he tackles the insidious. Topics such as toxic masculinity, the limitations of gender and the cycle of abuse and trauma are explored on these tracks, with Ramo turning an unflinching eye towards his own flaws.
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Sonically, the album takes a new path – gone are the lengthy interludes, which was where much of Black Thoughts’ most uncompromising arguments came through. In fact, there’s very little here that resembles what came before, with a greater focus on melody and more conventional pop song structures. Hints of early 2000s hip-hop infiltrate Love Sick, where Ramo’s vocals are overlaid with a second voice, filtered through the “chipmunk” sound effect that was a hallmark of the era. There are forays into a more mainstream sound, too, as on Done to You, where the singer’s voice is slathered in Auto-Tune and then layered upon itself, before the song’s pitch drops and heavy bass swallows it whole. Guest vocalists add another perspective and layer to keep the songs from being too singularly focused – vonn’s slinky chorus on the pulsing Never recalls 90s R&B, and Alice Skye’s breathy vocals provide a lovely foil on the title track.
Along with the pain and righteous anger, there’s optimism and pride here, too. Blak Man Swimming celebrates Black excellence in a number of different fields, before Ramo calls himself the Blak Michael Phelps or Ian Thorpe, and drops the killer line “Gold medal round my neck, boy it’s time to pay rent / I’m this First Nations person, fuck your disrespect”. These unapologetic statements of self contrast the vulnerability described in other tracks, creating a holistic picture of Ramo’s existence as an Indigenous man in all its complexities and contradictions. On closer Better, Dutch singer Jantine repeats “it all gets better” like a hopeful prayer, before that final word echoes to a fade – though a little cheesy, it’s a wish for a better tomorrow.
Before Ramo released Black Thoughts, he said that Australia wasn’t ready to hear the hard truth of his music. It might still be true – just last week, the rapper spoke out against the City of Joondalup council, who “unreservedly” apologised to concertgoers who may have been offended by Ramo’s performance at a free family concert (see: swear words and a strong anti-colonial stance).
But sitting through the discomfort may be the only way anything can meaningfully change, beginning with a conversation and spreading outwards from there. Sugar Coated Lies was released on Invasion Day, and like everything else in Ramo’s career, that is a very intentional move. This is a fine piece of work from a bold voice who demands Australians to listen, to look, to not look away.
Sugar Coated Lies by Ziggy Ramo is out now