Gabriel Akon radiates a beaming confidence and clarity that is both endearing and welcoming. It is a balmy Thursday night in the beer garden of the Hotel Metropolitan, an inconspicuous setting for the fresh faced 22-year-old rapper known as DyspOra.
He takes the newfound attention in his stride, choosing his words carefully as he discusses where he sees the future of his rising hip-hop label and crew Playback 808. He emphasizes 808 are “curating the sound of the city.”
He pauses, before following up, “The ultimate next step for me is to try to put one of our Playback 808 recording acts onto the world hip-hop culture.”
It’s a tall order, but people are beginning to take notice.
Playback 808 and DyspOra are still on their way to some national recognition, but for Akon the road to this moment has been particularly long and often arduous.Born in South Sudan, Akon and his family fled the conflict that plagued his homeland when he was young. “The irony in the fact is that scientists have found strong evidence pointing to East Africa, and more specifically the Nile as the origin of humanity”, he ponders thoughtfully.
He believes that from his earliest origins, music and his culture are inseparably intertwined. “Most tribes from Sudan have an oral tradition that is deeply intertwined with poetry, song and dance. Many of these tribes were branches of great ancient kingdoms that fell to constant invasions, colonisation and conquests. With organised or urbanised society becoming too inconsistent, most left and chose tribal based pastoral and nomadic lifestyles that strongly emphasised spoken language as a way to pass on knowledge to future generations.”
Akon and his family soon found themselves in Kakuma, Kenya; home to the second largest refugee camp in East Africa. His family displaced and adrift, Akon attempted to educate himself in the face of poverty and uncertainty.
“I read and studied a lot of books. Knowledge is the quickest way out of poverty. Beyond that, sports and hope extracted from stories and music mentally kept me and most of the people I knew going. Also knowing that our fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins are fighting to liberate us and knowing one day we’ll go back home.”
After several years Akon and his family were granted refugee status to relocate to Adelaide. Initial impressions of his new country often surprised him. “People smiled less over here... I wondered why the people in refugee camps had bigger smiles than some people living in skyscrapers overhead.”
Hip-hop and politically conscious music became a beacon for the young student, immersing himself in artists such as Nas, 2Pac and Fela Kuti. He also found a shared experience in the rapper K’nann – a Somali refugee best known for his 2010 World Cup anthem ‘Wavin’ Flag’.
“I figured if he could do it then why not me. I mean we had the same story and I was one of those kids with the ‘if they can do it, I can’ attitude. So I started and have been looking to hopefully become that figure for someone else someday.”
Initial home recording sessions bloomed and the label concept grew, incorporating other talented expat and interstate artists, including 808 co-founder Emmanuel Deng (Eman), NeSs, Sean Russ, Majiik, Lord Levi, visual artist Mukebx, Ajak and rising 17-year-old online prodigy E L K. The group successfully applied to be accepted into N1 Records, a unique program facilitated by Northern Sound System, which allowed the collective to focus solely on recording in a professional studio. Fellow notable successful graduates of the program have included internationally celebrated singer and rapper Tkay Maidza and alternative songstress MANE.
NSS Project Officer Nick O’Connor has been gratified by the group’s music output. “Playback 808 in the studio is all vibes. They hype each other up and push until they’re in the zone. The studio at the moment is a rich and productive arena where their life experiences and youth collide in a fierce display of finesse and fury.”
Having recently met with Australian hip-hop artist Remi, receiving online plaudits from underground hard man Kerser, and having the track ‘Real Friends’ highlighted on triple j’s Hip Hop Show by influential host Hau Latukefu, Playback 808 are now set for their biggest show to date – supporting national icons Hilltop Hoods, Seth Sentry, The Funkoars and Aaradhna at the Clipsal 500 in March. Eventual winners of the Music SA Bands On Track competition alongside fellow locals DC & Dragz, the group were chosen by a panel of independent local industry professionals to support some of Australia’s biggest hip-hop exports.
Just don’t call DyspOra another self-anointed rapper, for now however, his plans are bigger than that. “I’m not just a rapper, I’m a sonic activist. I use music to tackle things that have meaning to me. Right now I’m fighting racism with my lyrics because it is a cancer to humanity. In a way I found one of my life’s purposes as soon as I got off that plane and started a new life.”
Akon is also busily preparing the release of his own ‘return from self-imposed exile’ – the autobiographical Rebelution EP later this year. It’s about his connection to the roots of his past, the burgeoning success in his present and his undeniable self-belief in making his own future.
“The Dinka people view music as a tool to instill wisdom in others and express one’s self as well as bring the community together. In times of happiness we sing, in times of joy we sing, in times of war we sing – and times of peace we sing even louder.”