Features, Music, News, Performing arts, Rap, Visual arts

Rapping and weaving: Hannah Brontë

Claire Trolio catches up with Hannah Brontë, one of nine artists performing in the 2017 Proximity Festival.

I’ve managed to get a bit of time with Hannah Brontë, which is no easy feat. Although generous with her time, the Brisbane-based artist is currently working on a project that involves her travelling to remote Indigenous communities as part of a domestic violence campaign. As soon as she’s in range we check in.

Though Brontë is travelling for work, it feels like it’s for pleasure. She is writing raps with children and it’s clearly a dream come true for her. “Most recently we were on Palm Island and had the best time working with the kids there,” she says. “That island is so beautiful and the children were so great with words and expressing themselves. It’s very inspiring seeing little ones who can perform that well.”

Brontë was born in Brisbane in 1991, though she is vocal about not identifying as Australian. “What is Australian?” she asks. It’s a good point, and she’s impassioned. “What defines Australian culture? What? Beers, barbecues and mateship?” she challenges. For Brontë, this constructed national identity fails to acknowledge First Peoples and reflect the cultures within it, “So it doesn’t feel like the right way to define myself.” Similarly, Brontë has rejected her surname for the reason that family names are tied with history and lineage. “I explore my personal history in my work, but I don’t want to be bound by it,” she explains, choosing instead to adopt her middle name, Brontë, as a last name.

Her rejection of modern Australian history is reflected in her art practice and the way Brontë explores futuristic dreamscapes. “If we imagine it, it may be so,” she argues. Brontë dreams of a parliament filled with Indigenous women where they rap their parliamentary addresses.

Indeed, music is a massive passion for Brontë. She loves DJing and is excited when her art installations combine with live performance. “DJing is definitely another side of myself, the loud side where you need to stop being so cerebral and just be in your body,” she reflects.

Her rejection of modern Australian history is reflected in her art practice and the way Brontë explores futuristic dreamscapes. “If we imagine it, it may be so,” she argues. Brontë dreams of a parliament filled with Indigenous women where they rap their parliamentary addresses.

I want to talk to Brontë about rap music. It’s a genre she loves, as do I, but when it comes to a genre of music that, historically, included a lot of misogynistic lyrics, how do we reconcile that with a feminist agenda? “There will always be the songs I love because I grew up on them, but as a grown woman I’ve hated being aware of how disrespectful the language is,” she acknowledges. “The fact that women were called either a hoe, bitch or trick for a lot of the gangsta rap era didn’t make women feel welcome.”

We agree that the entire rap and hip hop genre isn’t guilty of this. I raise the empowering lyrics of Queen Latifah, and how Lil’ Kim (one of Brontë’s most played dance floor fillers) takes sexually aggressive lyrics and turns them back towards men. Brontë identifies certain MCs who were exploring social change, drug use, racial profiling and political corruption “at the same time as everyone was hyped up off gangsta rap,” listing A Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, The Fugees and Salt-N-Pepa. She feels that “pulling small sections of the movement under a magnifying glass excludes the whole picture.”

As part of the Proximity Festival, Brontë will be running the Fempress Flex Workshop, where she’ll be teaming up with RTRFM’s Rok Riley at local record shop Highgate Continental for an evening of patriarchy smashing on Thursday 5 October.

Brontë also points out that rap is performative. “There is this bizarre delusion that rappers are just one hundred percent themselves and they live what they rap, but that isn’t always the case,” she explains. “Provocative lyrics that push boundaries, whether positive or negative, are always going to create a reaction.”

As well as Lil’ Kim, Brontë loves cranking some Missy Elliot, Patra and Stefflon Don: her queens of rap. She also lists some Brisbane MCs, who I’m keen to check out: “Jesswar, Miss Blanks, Aywin and Kaylah Truth are smashing it!” Powerful female characters inspire Hannah, who relishes having grown up surrounded by strong women in her hometown.

“University was teaching us that a very small percentage of aspiring artists, and probably none from our cohort, would be ‘big’, and I’m very competitive so I remember thinking ‘Well I’ll be that small percentage then!”

Brontë is one of nine artists who have been selected to participate in Perth’s fifth Proximity Festival, a series of one-on-one performances in Cathedral Square. Happening over 10 days from 26 September to 7 October 2017, Proximity presents intimate encounters for an audience of one. Hannah’s hope for future change is part of what drives her performance for the Festival, which will explore weaving with both audio and hair. “I’m pulling from personal experience and wider experience to explore the links between weaving physically and weaving with language,” she explains. She’s no stranger to travelling with her art, and discovering a community of artists and musicians is a huge part of what inspires her. “I feel so excited that in every state I get to, there’s someone incredible to hang out with, work to listen to, and people to yarn with about ideas of new futures.”

The personal experience of art is part of what motivates Brontë. “I love it when my art makes people feel empowered,” she says. She credits a competitive nature for helping her make a career out of her passion. While she has had an ambition to make art since a very young age, it was towards the end of her time studying art at university that she started thinking about it as a career. “University was teaching us that a very small percentage of aspiring artists, and probably none from our cohort, would be ‘big’, and I’m very competitive so I remember thinking ‘Well I’ll be that small percentage then!’”

And so far, so good. Brontë is in high demand as she travels the country to show us what we can achieve. If you want to explore the Blak Matriarchy with Brontë, tickets for Proximity Festival are on sale now. But act fast, due to the one-on-one nature of the performances, tickets are extremely limited and always sell out quickly. Participants can choose from three programs that each feature three twenty minute encounters with exciting artists. Alongside the main program, Proximity also offers a handful of workshops, intimate walking tours and caffeine-fuelled conversations including DJ lessons with Brontë. For the Fempress Flex Workshop, she’s teaming up with RTRFM’s Rok Riley at local record shop Highgate Continental for an evening of patriarchy smashing on Thursday 5 October.

Check out what’s on offer and book your place at http://proximityfestival.com

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