A proud Murrawarri and Filipino rapper, drummer and composer, Rhyan Clapham isn’t afraid to push creative boundaries and draw together diverse influences, from classical to hip hop.
In this conversation, Canberra-based slam poet Andrew Cox explores the power of spoken word and Clapham’s forthcoming CSO commission.
I ﬁrst saw Rhyan Clapham (DOBBY) perform at the Bankstown Poetry Slam, the largest regular slam in Australia. Artists come with big energy and emotion-fuelled poetry, often in response to political, social and cultural issues. It’s a safe space that celebrates all stories; Rhyan and I both shared work informed by our experiences as people of colour.
From that ﬁrst encounter, it was clear he was a skilled artist, with a razor-sharp focus to his storytelling and strong messages he needed people to hear. We reconnected in Canberra, where he will soon premiere his new work, HISTORY MEMORY POWER, alongside musicians of the CSO Chamber Ensemble.
You have to connect your stories, record your Elders.
A rapper, drummer and composer, Rhyan’s work is deeply personal and rooted in his own identity, story and history. ‘You have to connect your stories,’ he tells his audience, ‘record your Elders. It doesn’t matter who we are, we all have ancestors—if we can all connect to those histories and identities, we can all come together, work together in truthful and meaningful ways.’
‘But that can’t happen unless we love and forgive ourselves.’
The more I grow as an artist, the more I know this to be true. Going deeper into my identity as a Filipino-Australian artist and my story means I have a more honest space to write and create from. In turn, that allows me to connect with my audiences in a more valuable way—strangers become almost friends, and we all feel a little less alone in the journey.
Slam poetry thrives at the local level, where a supportive creative community creates space for organic and honest storytelling. In the growing slam and spoken word scene, a new kind of literature is emerging, not constrained by the traditional parameters of poetry.
There’s nothing that has quite the immediacy and the almost instantaneous impact of rap and slam poetry. Maybe it’s the ancient nature of spoken word that resonates with us on a deep level. Maybe it’s the intricate marriage of intellect and artistry that drives a visceral live performance.
And yet, there are outsider voices that would paint hip hop, one of slam poetry’s greatest inﬂuences, as ‘uncivilised’— an art form historically led by people of colour. There’s a kind of colonialism in the class divisions between art forms, a narrative Rhyan is keen to challenge. ‘What is considered traditional or non-traditional?’ he asks, ‘Who gets to dictate what’s deﬁned as ‘elite’ music?’
‘It’s my duty to question those kinds of thoughts.’
Rhyan has a great appreciation for classical music, and he deeply values the opportunity to write with the accompaniment of orchestral instruments. ‘I want to see more crossover,’ he says, insisting rap is just as powerful as classical music and ‘even more direct’ in its ability to carry a message. ‘The potential of what music can do is that you can really dig into a feeling and purpose.’
Rhyan’s not alone. ‘There are plenty of artists like myself who are changing the narrative—redeﬁning what music can do, what it’s always been able to do, and who it is for.’
Reckon with your history. Figure out why you are here and what you can do.
This sentiment animates Rhyan’s new commission for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Chamber Ensemble, to be premiered on 28 July at the National Museum of Australia. Fresh from VIVID Sydney, Rhyan will make something truly special alongside musicians of the CSO in a radical fusion of classical and hip hop.
‘History is written by those in power,’ he says, ‘and that informs our collective Australian memory—but that’s not necessarily the truth.’
‘With this work, we are attempting to bring together and question the ideas of history, power and memory. I want to bring forward an understanding, ultimately, of what is truth, and who can tell truth.’
For some, rap is easier to tokenize than understand. Yet, when we look back to moments where the world changed, we always ﬁnd poetry, stories, speaking and sharing. Honest art like this is revolutionary in nature, and Rhyan’s not afraid to shake some cages.
‘I want the penny to drop for everyone in the room…I want it to slap some people in the face.’
Rhyan is a part of a movement that’s seeing hip hop reach new heights. We ﬁnish our conversation dreaming about its potential to reach governments, inform policy and impact local and wider communities.
His words will stay with me: ‘Reckon with your history. Figure out why you are here and what you can do.’
Andrew Cox is a proud Filipino/Australian who creates and lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country (Canberra). With a desire to see people experience poetry and engage deeply, his live performances are memorable for intensity, honesty and abstract storytelling.
Recognised as an emerging voice in Australian poetry, Andrew’s work has been shortlisted for national writing prizes—notably, Innovation in Spoken Word—and published in multiple anthologies.
Andrew produces and leads Canberra Poetry Slam, the capital’s new and exciting home for stories and spoken word.