Their serious faces easily break into boyish laughter, suggesting a pair more socially active than social activist, but look again and you might guess they’re rappers. Rappers with the kind of story that says everything about modern Australia, and a new single that takes a clear-eyed look at that modern Australia.
Tasman Keith is short, compact, and as politely blunt as his hair – built like a league halfback, from god’s country Bowraville, with a family connection as a Gumbaynggir man going back millennia.
Kwame is tall, solid and sparkling with diamonds in ear and nose - built like a basketball power forward, from Sydney’s godzone, the Hills District, and a family story that includes Auckland, where he was born, and Ghana, from where his parents came.
With a TV show appearance to prepare for today, in a narrow lane in a semi-industrial part of Marrickville they’re both dressed down for rehearsal room comfort, the splashes of colour coming at either end: 23-year-old Kwame’s close-cropped purple hair and 25-year-old Keith’s blindingly white sneakers.
Mind you, there’s plenty of colour in the duo’s first joint single, One, which plays with and skewers the music industry’s tendency to simultaneously belittle and blow smoke up the backsides of its performers.
Over a bass-heavy, ‘90s sound that begs to be played at bowel-rumbling volume, they trade lines about bypassing gatekeepers (“I can show you how to get right through the door without a key”) and unlikely praise (“I got motherfuckers claiming that they like my shit”), and they make it clear they’re not asking for but expecting respect (“I don’t need no one/And if you’re supposed to be my/Then you should throw some.”).
Which is fair enough. Both men have been lauded and publicly backed: Keith recently a crossover star on tape and on stage in Midnight Oil’s Makarrata project ; Kwame a producer/writer graduate of triple j’s Unearthed who went from obscurity to viral when US rapper A$AP Ferg pulled him up on stage and handed him the mic.
However, given this is an industry full of “smoke and mirrors” as Kwame puts it, where, as One explains, labels “polish these rappers … then they let them all go, hood robbing these rappers”, how do they know when they’re hearing or facing the real thing?
“For me, I just grew up around uncles and cousins that keep it straightforward, and I know how to see through a bunch of things because of that,” says Keith, earning a vigorous nod from Kwame who says “I think it ultimately comes from surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals that are a check on you, who will challenge you in life.”
And like-minded, strong-minded individuals is how this pair see themselves, Keith saying that “respect comes people being openly honest with you, which is why when me and Kwame connected there was that mutual feeling”, and Kwame confirming that “deep down we both just know that that other person wants me to shine because they believe in who I am and what I do”.
Less that sound like some sort of hip hop Kumbaya circle, each stress that competition is part of the relationship. And competition is good, beginning with the fact that while Kwame figures he’s pretty cool out in The Hills, Keith tops it with “I’m Bowraville cool. That’s 60,000 years cool”, and Kwame can do nothing but agree.
“We are both competitive in ourselves, and that’s why you hear these verses: we’re both at our best because we’re both in the same room,” says Keith, who sought out a working relationship with Kwame that turned into this friendship and a two-week writing trip earlier this year that spawned One.
“I started to notice that this guy thinks very much like me, and that’s very rare to find in an industry that is full of people that just say a bunch. It’s holding people accountable, holding yourself accountable, and just respect for people as human beings.”
Which sort of brings us back to where we started, with the face of modern Australia. As Kwame put it in a track of his own a few years back, “we are the city and the town”. That is, whether it be Bowraville or Glenwood, Indigenous or Ghana-via-Auckland, they are the people they see and hear around them, even if it’s not the people they see on TV or hear on the radio. It’s a community thing, with the key point being neither of them claim to speak for any community, but rather to come from those communities.
“For me I don’t even go out of my way to make it known, because I am that regardless,” says Keith. “My belief in that comes from what I do in my community and people don’t need to see it. People see me on stage and that’s what matters. That there’s no point me going out and staking a claim when me, as a man, can just be that in general.”
For both men, it’s the people who claim the loudest, who boasts the most – “your many circles of yes men” as One has it - whose connections to community are more tenuous, if not questionable.
“Exactly what Tasman said: that’s just who we are as people,” says Kwame. “As long as you stay true to yourself and back your actions, people can’t come at you and say it’s not you.”
A version of this story first ran in The Sydney Morning Herald