(Photo by Jordan Munns)
TASMAN KEITH? SOUNDS LIKE A PERFORMANCE NAME, a street name, or even a last throw at an Australian getting some traction in New Zealand. But for Tasman Keith, Gumbaynggirr man, rapper, Bowraville represent, Midnight Oil collaborator, it’s real and it’s connected.
“My name comes from my great uncle, Tasman Dotti. He was a Djangadi man and [Dotti] is one of the heritage lines, one of the main Djangadi last names way back,” says the rapper whose full name is Tasman Keith Jarrett. “I always knew I was named after him but it wasn’t until recently, after I moved to Sydney, that I got a message from a lady in Campsie who is actually my cousin, and she said we found his unmarked grave in La Perouse. Then last year I went and saw him, visited the grave.”
It obviously comes with value, being named after a respected elder – not to mention being the son of groundbreaking rapper Wire MC, as Jarrett prepares for the release of his debut album, A Colour Undone – but there’s some weight to carrying that name, to sustaining that connection.
“There was, there definitely was, until the most recent [time I] went back to my community and spoke to people and realised that all of this pressure or expectation that I’ve had of myself, either comes from the outside world or what I have put on myself, from wherever,” Jarrett says. “From the family? They just say do what you are doing and everything else will follow.”
And the best thing about having that connection and responsibility?
“Purpose. You get purpose in many different ways throughout life and this has given me purpose throughout my entire life.”
The flipside to this questioning is that this is how most respectful engagements with Jarrett go: questions about the past and traditions, about making a difference and taking responsibility. And he’s good with that: thoughtful and articulate and passionate, his album addresses directly issues like multi-generational trauma, mental health, and reclamation of pride, and there’s power and force behind some of those beats too.
But as the musical and emotional variety of the album reflects a man with humour and wide musical tastes (including for your older listeners, like his Dad, moments that recall the great Gil Scott-Heron’s mix of groove and potency), you have to wonder if sometimes he might want to speak without speaking for; maybe not speak at all or be light or fun; making mistakes without having to be representative of a community or, soon enough as his career expands overseas, a whole nation.
“Yeah, you definitely see throughout my career. I tend to only speak on things when I think I really need to. That comes from, like you said, sometimes I just want to remain quiet for a second, or I want to figure out what I’m saying for myself before I can speak for others,” Jarrett says. “Even then, if I choose to speak for others, I can’t control them relating to what I’m saying: at the end of the day I’m a Gumbaynggirr man and if we’re going by technicalities, there’s over 200 different countries in this country.
“And also it comes from sometimes I’ll just be chilling with the cousins [he laughs], talking shit or it’s just humour you know. However people choose to see me, is how they see me. I can only control how I see myself and represent myself.”
Representing still matters though. Jarrett has often said he wants to change the narrative around Bowraville, which for most Australians is best known for the unresolved death of three Indigenous children, and some of that change comes from seeing its full society: its humour and love and life as well.
“At the end of the day it’s just emotion and we feel that across-the-board, not just anger and frustration,” he says. “I go back to community and it’s love and it’s humour for the most part. Definitely humour for the most part.”
All that would come in handy when he was part of Midnight Oil’s Makarrata project, the veteran activist band combining with Indigenous artists such as Jarrett, Jessica Mauboy (who is one of several guests, including Genesis Owusu, on the Tasman Keith album), Gurrumul, Troy Cassar-Daley and Alice Skye, on a suite of new songs and live shows to highlight and agitate for an Indigenous voice to parliament.
While the Oils’ audience is little more polite, you might say a bit more grown-up, than its rowdy past, it was still an occasion where a “gerroff! We want Oils” chant might have been expected when so much space and time was given to these artists. But certainly in the Enmore Theatre, the reception was open and the reaction to Jarrett was positive and connecting.
“That’s the thing I noticed. I don’t know if they knew what I was saying – its rap, and I don’t know if they are keeping up with it,” he laughs. “But they definitely felt the emotion and the energy, and I was really taken back by. Because even when I get out for Beds Are Burning [Jarrett contributing a fresh, rapped, verse] it’s like, if they wanted me to get off the stage right now I would completely understand, because this is Beds Are Burning and here’s this rapper with their favourite Oil song, but they loved it.”
This mattered too.
“I always knew and I always wanted to cross generations with my music, but I think that was when I thought, I can do this and I don’t have to hold anything back.”
The Oils tour wasn’t without its darker side though, as the genesis of the album emerged from soul searching after the gigs ended and Jarrett was alone in a room.
“Once we got into the [recording] rooms it was that simple, but prior it was a lot of hard conversations within myself. The nights on tour with Oils where I was sitting in a hotel room in tears because there was shit I hadn’t dealt with. I thought I did by working hard or doing what I’m doing and then it’s like, nah, that’s not how you deal with it; you’re just pushing it to the side,” says Jarrett.
“So from March until July  it was this whole process of working on myself – which I don’t think anyone ever stops doing, and I know that I’m still doing it – and in those few months a lot of growth and perspective from sitting with myself, meditating or reading a book, doing some self-work, so that when I went into the album sessions I was fully aware of myself at the present time. I know that’s what allowed me to jump across any different experience and pull from any emotion I had.”
How tough was it finding out that the things you thought you dealt with, had moved on from, dammit, had got right, were anything but sorted?
“It was very tough. But one thing that I’ve always been thankful that I am is quite self-aware. So when I am going through certain things, as of lately anyway, it’s ‘This is coming up now? Sweet.’, and I just sit on the emotion in silence and feel this pain to get through it, instead of ignoring it.
"So it was tough. But two nights later I had the concept for the album.”
A version of this story first ran in The Sydney Morning Herald.