Connecting the Community by Celebrating Culture: The Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

In 2013, I was a young teaching artist specialising in running arts-based programs with disadvantaged youth across Western Australia. I was working primarily in Midland, a suburb that is approximately 20 kilometres east of the Perth CBD. I came across a tender providing an opportunity to establish a community hip hop program for local indigenous youth. At that time, there was a gap in services for children aged 7-14 years old to engage in after school and during school holidays. The program would aim to fill that gap by providing local youth with hip hop workshops and performance opportunities. I immediately saw the potential in this program and applied for the tender. In 2014 I was lucky enough to become the facilitator of the program and the Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program was born.

 

The program began as a six month program, with a concluding NAIDOC performance at a local community NAIDOC event. It was funded by the Department of Social Services through the Communities for Children initiative and the Swan Alliance. The program originally consisted of twenty-five participants that had been referred to me through local schools and services like the Department of Child Protection and the local PCYC. The children involved needed to meet three criteria: they needed to identify as Aboriginal; they needed to be between 7 and 14 years of age; and they needed to live within the Midland area. The program consisted of a term workshop program, with an hour long hip hop dance workshop being held every Tuesday afternoon at the local PCYC. It also included a school holiday masterclass program, where the children got the opportunity to work with industry professionals while engaging in a wide range of arts-based activities. Our masterclass workshops included: break dancing; traditional dance; didgeridoo playing; visual arts; costume design; song writing; traditional storytelling; music recording; graffiti art; rapping; and cultural tours of significant sites around Perth.

 

Building respectful relationships with the children and their families has always been at the heart of the program. As a non-indigenous Australian, it was important for me to make sure that every level of the program was culturally sensitive at all times. I needed to build trust amongst the families that I would take care of their children, not only physically but culturally. To help me do this, I employed indigenous artist Karla Hart as the Cultural Coordinator of the program. She attended all workshops, masterclasses and performances to ensure that the children were always exposed to the activities in a culturally meaningful way, incorporating language, and traditional dance and songs when appropriate. Our Registration Day included: a Welcome to Country, by a local elder who had great-grandchildren who were enrolled in the program; and an afternoon tea of scones with quandong jam as a nod to bush tucker cuisine. By working together, Karla and I were able to tailor the program to the needs of the participants and their families, making it relevant to their experiences. To this day, I continue to employ indigenous artists whenever possible to provide the children with culturally appropriate role models. Parents and caregivers are also encouraged to be a part of program activities, which are rich opportunities for them to connect with their children through arts-based activities.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Within a few weeks of starting the program, it became evident that there was a reason why the indigenous youth in the Midland area were experiencing difficulties in engaging in activities outside of school. Many of the participants in the program were facing unique challenges that were inhibiting their ability to engage in the program fully. The biggest issue that arose was transport. Many of the families involved in the program did not have access to a vehicle or an adult with a drivers’ license. This made getting to the program and back home again very difficult. I realised that this would be an ongoing problem for my participants, so instead of removing these children from the program, I decided to address the issue straight on. I started a carpool service, where I would transport children to and from program activities. In 2017, when the demand for this service grew too much, Indigo Junction (a local community organisation) donated a van and a male employee to help transport children from school to the term program. This volunteer, as a gentle yet strong indigenous man, became a much needed positive male role for the children in the program. This was a great example of how community organisations in the Midland area worked together to create positive outcomes for our participants, enriching the program as a result.

 

After the initial six months, the Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program received an extension in funding. Then another. Then another. The program has now been running for six years and is still going strong. In that time we have managed to reach over one hundred young people in the Midland area, the majority of them indigenous youth. We have also expanded our focus to include a small percentage of non-indigenous participants. These participants have sought the program out as a way to learn more about, engage with and celebrate indigenous culture through the frame of hip hop dance, a universal art form. As our program grows, so does reconciliation within our community.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Over the past six years, the program has continued to listen to the needs of its participants and adapt accordingly to meet those needs. Our term program has continued on, as has the holiday masterclass program. We also have established our performance group, the ‘Beat Walkers’ who can be hired to perform at community and corporate events. The ‘Beat Walkers’ have performed everywhere from local community events to conferences to large scale events like the 2016 Perth AFL Indigenous Round Football Game and the Wardarnji Festival, WA’s biggest indigenous dance festival. The ‘Beat Walkers’ combine traditional dance with hip hop to create a unique dance style that simultaneously entertains and celebrates indigenous culture. We also provided extra training in break dancing and gymnastics to promising participants through collaborations with local organisations like Swan Districts Gymnastics and the WA Break Dancing Youth Championships. From 2015-2016, we also partnered with the Cockburn Youth Centre to run a hip-hop program for the youth at the Centre. Older members of the Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program were trained as dance mentors and were taught to plan and facilitate the classes. They were paid and received financial training to encourage savings practices. The program is always evolving, which is what allows it to consistently meet the changing needs of our participants.

 

In 2018, the program was endorsed by the Department of Social Services as a program that had attained ‘Promising Practice’ as an evidence-based program. This was recognition that the program had been achieving significant and sustained changes for its participants. This was a huge achievement, as arts-based programs can be difficult to evaluate and assess. As a part of the ‘Promising Practice’ process, the program produced a manual, so that other agencies who wished to establish a similar program had a blueprint for how the program runs successfully.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

The Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program is a unique program that has gone from strength to strength. What makes it different is the way that the program looks at the individual needs of its participants and adapts to make sure these needs are met. This care for the individual makes the program feel like family. The program has been a great source of joy for me and I am constantly blown away and filled with pride at what the participants are able to creatively envision and achieve. Helping to build a culturally sensitive and celebratory creative community has been a highlight of my career. To me, it shows the importance of providing opportunities for young people to engage equitably in creative programs. Then, you can step back and watch them fly.

 

If you are interested in finding out more about the Midland Aboriginal Hip Hop Program or purchasing the program manual, please contact Fleur Hockey by email at fleur.hockey@live.com.au

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.

Photograph courtesy of Brook Desmond, Dezire Studios.