Emily Wurramara isn’t interested in living up to your stereotypes
When you learn about Emily Wurramara’s musical upbringing, you wouldn’t expect her music to sound the way it does.
She grew up on Groote Eylandt, an island 50km north of the Northern Territory mainland, with grandparents who reared her on country stars like Alan Jackson and parents who threw 90s hip hop and R&B like 2Pac and TLC into the mix.
I'm still on a learning journey, still finding myself, and I think it's really important to acknowledge that and be respectful about that.Emily Wurramara — Double J, 2018
After church on the weekends, Wurramara would watch hard rock cover bands belt out AC/DC classics – her first interaction with live music.
But subverting expectation is what drives much of what Wurramara does. The very fact that she, a woman from Groote, is pursuing a music career is significant in itself.
“I love breaking stereotypes,” she told Zan Rowe on Double J this week.
“Where I'm from, we still have a very male hierarchy there. I'm the only female singer-songwriter from Groote Eylandt.
“I really want to inspire women from my community to step up out of that comfort zone and step up out of that cultural law. We can be amazing and still have a culture and follow it.
"It's the 21st Century, and women are starting to rise.”
While her decision to become a performer is at odds with what has come before her, Wurramara ensures that her culture remains a big part of what she does.
“I think it's important, as a young indigenous woman, to preserve and archive the culture,” she says.
“Where I'm from, we say 'The ground is still wet'. We still practice a lot of sacred things and hold a lot of sacred ceremonies. It's being respectful and approaching it in the right way; not exploiting too much.”
She has a lot to draw from, with African, Filipino, Chinese and Indigenous heritage all contributing to her identity, and the art she creates.
“I think culture is beautiful and different cultures around the world are beautiful. I'm so blessed to have this crazy mix in me. It's like a big pot and I just want to mix it all together and learn so much. I'm still on a learning journey, still finding myself, and I think it's really important to acknowledge that and be respectful about that.”
Her latest song ‘Ngarrukwujenama’ is her most accomplished to date. Its subject matter belies the ultra-laidback vibe laid down by Wurramara’s band and driven by her stunning voice.
“Ngarrukwujenama means 'I'm Hurting',” she explains. “I wrote this song about a mining company that came to Groote and wanted to mine the seabeds.
“That seabed line is our songline that follows into our dreaming stories. The Rainbow Serpent came from there, and mermaids... there are so many beautiful stories about the sea. “My people stood up to the mining company and we fought and we won. It's just a celebration, an anthem and a reminder that not only are we protectors of the land, but we're protectors of the sea. A lot of people take that for granted.”
While nature has always served as Wurramara’s ultimate songwriting inspiration, there’s a new person in her life that is going to drive her from here on in, her two-month-old daughter K’iigari.
“It's made me a bit more openminded to what I'm doing and what my message is, how I can empower and inspire her,” Wurramara says of being a mother.
“At the same time, it also puts up stereotypes. As a woman, after you have a baby, you're expected to stay at home and practically be a housewife. I'm trying to defeat those stereotypes and tell other mothers you can have a baby and have a career and you can still balance it out and be happy.”
Emily Wurramara plays the Sunset20°N event at Barangaroo on Sunday 25 February. Her debut album Milyakburra will be out later in 2018.