Mahmood Fazal | First published in Issue 01, August 2021 
When Barkaa raps, she spits a haunting eulogy for the person she once was. On the phone, she is shy and thoughtful. On stage, her heart is full of fight. A troubled voice of resilience vibrates from her lyrics. A sobering shadow haunts her rhythm.
     Barkaa is a Malyangapa, Barkindji woman from Western New South Wales, now living in South West Sydney on Gandangara land. “You say I’m oppressed. But you oppressed in the mind. 60,000 years of bloodline. You ain’t even got spine,” rhymes Barkaa. “I got my mob on my back, Koori pride ’til the death. We’re gonna breed them all back ’til we’re the last ones left.”
     At the Sydney Opera House, before performing an ode to Nas in “I Know I Can,” Barkaa invites her eldest daughter on stage. With tears in her eyes, she explains, “I made her. But she made me.” Her daughter joins in the chorus, “I know I can. Be what I wanna be. And if I work hard at it. I’ll be where I wanna be.”
     In 2020, Barkaa won the 2020 PUMA Rookie Of The Year Award for Acclaim Magazine and was listed as one of the Top 5 female rappers in Australia by the ABC’s triple j. Last month, I spoke to Barkaa about her journey to hip-hop to try and place where the sombre tone of her sound comes from.  

MAHMOOD FAZAL: I wanted to hear out your story, if that's cool with you. Tell me about Merrylands and what it was like growing up in that neighbourhood.

BARKAA: I grew up in Merrylands West. So, we grew up in housing commission here. I’ve lived here for 26 years now. My whole life I’ve lived in Merrylands. Dealt with a lot of racism growing up in the neighbourhood. There were a lot of other kids there from other backgrounds that kind of stuck together. I guess primary school was quite racist. Well, it was really racist. So, in high school I kind of rebelled.

M: For someone that’s never been to Merrylands, how would you describe it? Like, how would you describe Merrylands of that era to someone that's never been through there? What did it look like?

B: Yeah, it’s heaps more multicultural. But back when we were growing up, there were a lot of white families in the neighbourhood. A lot of alcohol and drugs in the neighbourhood. Where I grew up there were a few shootings [and] stuff that happened. But besides that, it was my stomping ground. A lot of people freak out when I’m like, “Oh, I’m from Merrylands.” And they’re like, “Oh, is it dangerous?” It’s like, fine. But sometimes, you know, growing up we couldn’t tell the difference between fireworks or gunshots or cars backfiring and stuff like that.

I mean, Merrylands growing up, I’ve always loved Merrylands. It’s grown a lot. I feel like back then there was [more of] a sense of community. We used to have more things for kids like the Children’s Museum. Central Gardens is still open. We had more things to do, I guess.

M: Yeah, I know. One of the biggest ills in my neighbourhood was that there wasn’t much for kids to do. And so you find yourself just hanging around. Trying to find something to do. It generally ends in doing nothing. Or nothing good.

B: Yeah, no, I felt that as well, growing up. I guess we get bored. Do knock and runs. All those things to annoy the neighbours. It was a good pastime. Fight with sticks and that. What can you do?

M: When you went to high school how did things change? Throughout your formative years, did your surroundings change much?

B: I met some new friends during the holidays and started smoking weed before I got into high school. And I guess it was like traumatising to me during primary school where I was like, outed, because I was the only Aboriginal kid in my primary school. And then when I got to high school, it was just like, I’m not gonna take shit anymore. Like I’m not gonna let anybody call me racist names without me backfiring and I guess I grew a backbone but in the wrong way. I’d smoke weed because I wanted to be the cool kid or the kid that no one fucked with. Which wasn't good. I was a smart kid and I had good grades. Looking back at my school reports, it’s
just like, ‘She’s not listening. She’s disruptive.’ And I think, I just got sick of it after a while. You can only deal with so much racism in school then you just don't want to be there. It’s not a happy place for you anymore. And then I started getting detentions, like every day. And then by Year 8, I was kicked out.

M: Did you have someone that told you, you shouldn’t be copping shit from other people? When I was growing up, we always had our older cousins that would say if any of these [White] Aussies say anything to you don’t cop it or
else don’t hang out with us. Like we don’t want anything to do with you. Did you have anyone that raised you to back yourself?

B: Yeah, my mum. She’s stuck up for me with the racist mothers in the neighbourhood. I had my older brothers in the house that would say i they give you shit just flog ‘em. They kind of instilled in me that I didn't have to take shit, or that they’d back me.

M: What was the racial makeup of your high school because you said you were the only one ‘Aboriginal kid’ in your primary school?

B:I had a few Aboriginal kids in high school, which was lovely to have. We had an Aboriginal worker there and an Aboriginal fellow who’d come in
and teach us dance and art and stuff. It was refreshing to have because, like, there were only a few black kids. But it was nice to have those elders to go to when shit was getting tense in school. And it was good to just have a yarn to them. And it felt like, it was a safe place at school. It was very multicultural in high school. I still did cop racism in the seven [Year 7] but I think it didn’t last long. Because I was just fighting kids when it happened. But it was still happening outside school.

M: When did you start to learn about your own cultural history? Was that in high school when you were with those elders? Because I know, when I was raised in this education system, I didn’t know anything about First Nations’ history and culture until university. It was really shocking. It was like finding out a family member was a mass murderer or something.

B: Yeah, it’s lacking. I learned about culture in my home. Mum taught me my culture and taught me who I was. But I guess as a kid, you still have identity issues when you’re faced with racism, because as a little kid you’re so impressionable.  And you're like, ‘Oh, I wish I wasn’t a blackfella. I wish I could fit in with these kids.’ And you tried to like, make friends with the enemies, I guess. Which is soul-destroying because they end up making black jokes about you.

I think it was conditioned in the home, so I was lucky to have you know, my culture instilled inme in my home behind life and yeah, I grew up pretty radical having a radical mother who was part of the movement. My mum was a part of the Stolen Generations and I guess, even for her it was hard to connect back to culture after being taken so far from it. Our family never let her go. They followed her everywhere she went. So, we couldn’t lose our culture. We couldn’t.

M: And you started writing raps in Year 8? In English class?

B: Ha! Yeah.

M: How did that go down?

B: We had a teacher. He was like, an English sub but he also did our woodwork classes. I think he just wanted me and my friend out of the class all the time, because we were disruptive. So, as a part of English class, he’d send us outside and then we’d write rhymes. And then we’d perform them in front of the class. So shame [laughs]. So cringe.

M: Why cringe? Well, do you remember what the raps were about or anything?

B: Yeah. Crips and Bloods [laughs].

M: That was a big thing growing up in Melbourne, too. All the Islanders brought it over from New Zealand because it was like a real thing in parts of Wellington. There were a lot of shootings and murders. In my neighbourhood, the Crips were Maori’s and the Bloods were all Samoan. Was that happening around your neighbourhood?

B: Yeah, we had a big Maori, Samoan and Tongan community at school and in the neighbourhood at the time. Everybody was walking around with
bandanas, and I guess I gravitated towards them because they were brown people. It was huge. We had a little group called ‘G’s Up’. It was cringe. It was so funny because we’d meet up at Macca’s and people would have crump battles.

M: I interviewed Onefour a year ago. They took me to this place in Mount Druitt, where gangs would meet up and have dance battles. I remember when that shit was happening when I was a kid. Like people would meet up and have hectic dance battles and shit.

B: I wish it was still the go. If you had beef with the kid, you would just out dance them.

M: There were really staunch dudes in our area just known for being mad dancers. I thought that was a sick, sensitive, creative thing that happened in the suburbs.

B: It was special. Looking back at it, you could just sort stuff out through dance.

M: Yeah, but it’s coming back with all the TikTok shit. Have you seen all that? You see these hard rappers or eshays? I even saw Hooligan Hefs and those dudes on TikTok performing their dance moves. I heard you went to Blacktown and were involved in rap battles?

B: Yeah, we’d all meet up at the back of the library. And they'd have power points on the outside. So, we put all our speakers and our phones in the power points and pump beats.

My sister girls would bet drinks with the guys saying I’d rip them. And then I’d rip them. But I can’t freestyle anymore. I think it was like when I was drunk.

I guess back at the time I was using ice at the time, so my brain kind of felt like it was quicker. Even though it was just full of shit. It was nice to have people coming and calling me a bitch. It's funny how the tables turn. We got a lot of free drinks.

M: What music were you listening to? Like Australian hip-hop?

B: I did love Sky’High when she came out. Yeah. I think, to say she was female and that she was First Nations as well—it was just a huge impact [on me as a kid]. At that time, it was more like Pac. I love listening to 2Pac and he would just get me through a lot of things.

M: I love Sky’High. She redefined Australian hip-hop. A gutter icon, for real. Were there any particular Pac tracks or albums that you played to death?

B: I love ‘I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto’, ‘Thugz Mansion’, and ‘Keep Ya Head Up.’ ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ was a huge one. It helped me through a lot of stuff. My brother played it to me. Even though it was a triggering track to listen to. It [‘Baby Don’t Cry’] speaks to me. Growing up in a female household and having a single mother. I needed to listen to that. And I guess it was beautiful that my big brother would dedicate these songs
to the females in our house. It goes to show how much my brothers loved and respected women because they were raised by one. It was something nice to have in a household that was sometimes dysfunctional. We still made it out, like made it through together.

M: So at what point did high school start falling apart for you?

B: I was kicked out in Year 8. Fighting kids.

M: Yeah. It is what it is.

B: I went to Verona and I was the only female at that school. It was a bit gross. Especially with teenage boys. So, it was forever me like, challenging sexism in school. You could tell the teachers were stressed out. It was a behavioural school. I left there, fell pregnant with my daughter when I was 15 and, um, yeah, I had a really quite abusive relationship with her father. And so we didn’t, we don’t talk or nothing. So, I moved to Mildura to get away from him with my sister [and] try to start up a new life in the country. All my cousinslived there. I just wanted to be close to my family. I had my own house by the time I was 15. I wanted to come back up to Sydney for New Year’s, and then I ran into old friends there. And that’s when I was introduced to ice. And pretty much just like that everything fell to shit. It was around 2011.

M: That was about the time that I started fucking with shard. I feel like it was everywhere. Everywhere in the places we come from. It burnt my entire circle. Put a lot of good ones in prison. And it was so cheap.

B: It was so normalised. Everybody had it. And people were just like, “Do you want to smoke? Do you want to smoke?” And if you have any trauma in your life, you’re just like, “Yeah, sure. You all look really happy.” They're not.

M: They’re just distracted. I found in it a perfect distraction. For days. And then the distractions fall away, and you’re left in the shit. Horrible shit. Proper horror. Why do you think it draws those personalities to it?

B: You want to escape from reality, like you’re already at a low point in your life. You’re associating with people who are at low times in their lives as well.

As a little girl like you never dreamt of ever touching that shit. You would look down at people who were on it. I remember when my brother first got on it and I was devastated.

It broke my heart and I called him a junkie. And I never thought I’d get on it. But there I was with a pipe in my hand doing the thing that I hated the most.

M: At what point do you think it got a hold of you?

B: Straight away.

M: I know for me, it started off on a Saturday night. Then it was Friday and Saturday night. Pretty soon it was Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I was drowning. Losing sight of my days and stuff. What is it about people who have lost something or feel like they have got this missing piece? Those who use fear or violence or something to fill that grief or that loss? Why do you think that happens?

B: I think there’s a stigma around mental health, like just sweep it away, and don’t deal with it. I think that stigma leads to a lot of question like, how do we cope in this world? We grow up in a pretty racist country. It’s like a way to kind of assert your dominance in a society. As a black kid I’d grow up and people would say we stole it anyway. Like this isn’t your land and I’ll still fight for it. You got trauma and you’ve got issues, but you don’t want to face it so it’s just easier to put a mask on it and self-medicate. There’s this thing in our community, there’s an expectation you got to be an angry black woman, or you got to be really strong. You’re
not given a chance to be weak. I feel as a black woman, we’re not allowed to be introverts.

M: When did things start heating up for you because you found yourself in lockup? I had the same issues. I was committing desperate crimes to make a living.

B: Yeah. We would do break-ins just to get ice and stuff. We’d be like stealing from shops or creeping in shops and going in the back and stuff. Even breaking into people’s homes and you feel at the time you don’t have any remorse.

All you had in your head was, “I want drugs.” The boys would send me in to rob chicks and they’d rob the blokes. There’s things that like flashback in my head like I wish I could just give back these people their stuff now. You feel an immense amount of guilt.

So, yeah, I think like my last stint I went on the run for a bit. It was an assault police charge.  It was pretty heavy. When you’re on drugs, you just don't think straight like you think that you can make all these crazy plans. But in the back of my mind, my reality would say like, I can’t run off with my kid, like, I gotta face the music, they’re gonna find me. It’s just going to end up worse. So, I ended up going home to my mum’s house, and I was like really starving. I was homeless at the time. My mum wouldn’t deal with mewhen I was on drugs, because she had my two other kids there. I don’t think anybody wants to be around people who are on ice especially because they got to keep the household safe.
But yeah, I came home. She cooked me a feed. And then we contacted my old juvenile justice. Me and my mum, we called him up. And I’m like, “Can you take me in? Like, can youcome and hand me in?” And he’s like, “Alright, we’ll go to the pub. We’ll have the Last Supper.” He shouted me steak and I went with him to hand myself into the police. I think that was like my rock bottom. When they took me to the cell, it was the rock bottom I needed to hit. How can I keep doing this to my children? I’m pregnant with my third life. I want better. I want to be better. I want my kids to have somebody. Even if I couldn’t have been the role model to them or their life, I want to set the example. You can. You can make it back.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: When did you start rapping seriously? When did music become your way out?

BARKAA: I was always writing. In jail I was writing music. I’d rap in front of these two sister girls there. We would have a Koori meeting and we’d all sit in a circle. Afterwards, I’d be like, “I wanna rap sis.” So, I’d spit a rap and it brought the jail closer. I felt like I had something there. I could draw them in with what I was saying. When I got out of prison, I started doing my community services course because I wanted to do youth work. It was a huge adjustment for me to read again. I started rapping freestyle, recording videos in my bedroom when my kids were asleep and putting them up on Facebook. I wanted to do something I loved. But now that I’m doing it as a career, I’ve realised it’s so technical. It’s all emails. I love doing it. I get to give back to my community and inspire young kids. I get to tell my story through music.

Mahmood Fazal is a Walkley award-winning writer. After abandoning his role as the sergeant-at-arms of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, Mahmood has devoted his life to bare-knuckle stories that challenge our views on crime, violence, imprisonment and radicalisation. Mahmood is currently writing a memoir, due to be published by HarperCollins in 2022.
Saturday May 28 2022