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BORN TO STAND OUT – AND STAND UP: THE L-FRESH THE LION INTERVIEW


You’ve probably noticed there is a lot of shit going down at the moment, plenty of things being missed out on – I mean, the prime minister had to miss a day with the kids because the Sharks were playing - but a pain not to be diminished is that felt by rapper and social worker, Sydney Kings spruiker (that’s his track, We The Kings, you hear as the official team song), and all round ‘ball fanatic, L-Fresh The Lion.


So how has he coped without basketball for months now?


“Ah man,” he says with a groan. “It’s not fun. I popped into the Sydney Kings training for my fix but I’m definitely missing the NBA.”


Basketball of course is not just, a game, especially for non-white kids growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, such as Liverpool in Sydney’s south west where the man we can simply call Fresh, grew up as part of the Sikh diaspora, whose musical as well as spiritual heritage can be heard in his three albums.


It represents not just sporting skill and an alternative to the dominant forms of sport in Australia, but a marker of non-white success, social activism and power in its American circumstance. How many ‘90s kids had a Michael Jordan in mid-flight poster on their wall?


“Sport has been huge for me, and initially it was actually cricket. Before music, my dream was to play cricket for Australia,” says Fresh. “I played really competitively until under-16s, by then I had found music which took over my passions. There was also skateboarding but with basketball, I loved it but I was never any good at it [he laughs]. At school, the majority of people playing basketball at Macquarie Fields, in my time, were people from migrant families really.


“The courts didn’t have any nets, the fencing was not the greatest, it wasn’t the best facilities, but it was swamped. We weren’t playing five on five, literally it was 30 people on a half court. We didn’t play teams: literally if you got the ball it was you against 29 people.”

The only thing that’s changed around there is the standard of the grounds.


“When I drive past the basketball courts Macquarie Fields now, it’s actually a really great facility next to the skate park, and everyone is playing ball,” Fresh says. “You can see the cultural divide between the skate park and the basketball courts, so I can appreciate now what basketball means for people from migrant communities who can see people who look like them, or somewhat like them, and relate to them on a cultural level, in terms of hip-hop culture and youth culture, the social media world.”


Sport isn’t just a metaphor for the man who in 2015 told the Sydney Morning Herald that “I was birthed as The LION, and I have been living that incarnation since”, his role to make “people move physically, spiritually and mentally”, and as he does in the new song Strength, represent the south west region’s success stories and giants.


“Sport is also a space where I can see the barriers that I’ve experienced in music, the disconnect between those who play it and the industry. The passion is there, the flame of basketball is so strong, but for whatever reason it doesn’t translate into playing at a club level,” he says. “There’s a barrier there and I think it’s a conversation worth exploring.”


There is another element to this as well, a cross-generational difference, which also brings us back to the impending third L-Fresh album, South West, whose central theme is the lessons he wishes he had learnt when he was a kid - not least of them being self-confidence and pride in his culture.

“My aim for South West was to create music that my 13-year-old self would be proud to listen to not only because the beats rocked but the stories represented him and related to him,” Fresh says in his promotional material. “I was lost back then. The messages on this album are what I wish I knew back then.”


While Fresh is 31, growing up in the 1990s which now feel like a kind of cusp for migrant experience in Australia, for those born before then, cricket and football of various sorts in Australia, taking their cues from the UK, discouraged the celebration of individualism or what was seen as glorification. The worst thing that could be said about anyone was they were big-noting themselves.


Basketball, quintessentially American, has for some time been the opposite and I wonder whether the 13-year-old version of L-Fresh would have been comfortable taking the advice of the adult L-Fresh to “feel like the chosen one” and to live by the notion “Why blend in when you’re born to stand out?” as he said in last year’s single, Born To Stand Out.


“My cricketing idol at that point was Michael Bevan, and to me Michael Bevan was the underdog,” says Fresh of his teen self. “He was the guy who wasn’t the prettiest when he played but you can’t win without him, and he was an Australian hero at that point. When I think about the mindset of myself at that age, I reflect on the mentality that when you see people from the area that you’re from, then you feel like you can do it too.


“I think about the song, Strength, and the chorus ‘it ain’t winning unless we’re all winning, and that for me is very much the south of the city, the west of the city mentality.”

Bevan was joined by Tupac, the Black Panthers, Nelson Mandela and, even more importantly, the stories he heard within his Sikh community of heroes and thinkers and martyrs, “those who stood up to any hardship and achieved great things”.


That’s the other message incorporated into South West, to build up and build within a community, or communities: religious or ethnic, regional, cultural. To be part of something bigger and not allow your narrative to be dictated to by any dominant force. To actively engage in what Fresh calls “de-colonising” your thinking.


But what does it mean to decolonise your mind?


“For me as a kid, and it’s very prominent in young Sikh kids now – and I know this because I see it at camps and youth workshops within my community - one of the common discussions is around our identity, cutting our hair, fitting in visually, how to deal with racism and bullying and discrimination. I make reference to it in the song Peace And Light, where I talk about how people in our community are arguing the phrases of politicians and value that recognition from outside because of not just wanting to fit in but be accepted and in the eyes of those outside our community, to be appreciated. We crave that.”


It’s not a healthy craving, not one with honour. What he’d rather see is pride that doesn’t ask for or depend on acceptance from outside, that doesn’t see markers like the turban and the beard just as a discipline or inheritance, but a way to be distinctive.


“Yeah we are a minority community but the quality that the Guru has given us is to be 1 in 125,000: we shouldn’t worry. Struggle isn’t our enemy, struggle is our friend,” says Fresh. “It’s a very different mindset now and I’m still unpacking [the mindset I grew up with]. That song, that hook, ‘why blend in when you’re born to stand out’, speaks to that on many levels.”


South West is out on July 17.

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