Interview: Ziggy Ramo Isn’t Sitting on the Sidelines
Indigenous artist and activist Ziggy Ramo is one of the most powerful storytellers in the Australian hip hop industry today. Raw and unfiltered, Ramo's debut album Black Thoughts chartered the devastating experiences of intergenerational trauma and colonial dispossession in Australia. Quickly generating a cult following, the LP sparked important, uncomfortable conversations about Australia’s fraught Black history, and the difficult pathway forward. Now, Ramo is ready to take it to the next level.
We linked up with the Arnhem Land rapper to discuss creative integrity, the importance of ancestral storytelling, and how Reebok are empowering young artists to find their voice.
Congratulations on your latest campaign! How are you feeling about it?
It’s such a full circle moment, because I think back to 2018 or 19, one of my first branded gig opportunities was a Reebok shoot and it rained – they're always the best clients. Getting to collaborate on this and really being supported brought this whole vision to life. Often, I’ll get approached with different opportunities and the initial pitch is, ‘This is what we’re thinking and we just really want to hear your idea.’ And then you share that idea and it’s loved, but it gets diluted every step of the way until you no longer recognise it. But it was amazing to collaborate with Reebok because they really honoured my ideas and helped me bring that vision to life.
It’s so important not to have your vision diluted. Can you touch on that a little more?
It's so rare as well. I've had some pretty negative experiences in the past so I've remained independent my whole career because I want that freedom of self-determination and autonomy. I want to be able to say exactly what I want to say.
When art meets commerce, there's always this dance. I think I’m a bit of a black sheep in the industry, because I don't ever really compromise. But it's been so rewarding over the years just staying the course and seeing brands like Reebok, for example, start to understand that it’s something we can amplify and not something to be scared of. And that's so powerful, because that's when I think the best art happens – when people are free to be themselves.
Why is being your own person and expressing yourself important to you?
My father is an Indigenous Australian. He was born before 1967. So he wasn't even classed as a citizen, in our own ancestral country. A lot of the time people are like, ‘Oh, you just need to get over it and move on. That happened so long ago.’ For me growing up, we never were under the illusion that self-determination was something to take for granted because the last few generations in my family didn't have it. We didn't have autonomy. We didn't have the basic human right of self-determination and to make decisions over our own livelihood. We recovered a letter that my great grandmother had to write to the chief protection officer of the board of Queensland asking for permission to get married.
So in my family history, we've known what it's like not to have control over our actions and for me it's something that I take really seriously. I know that I'm so privileged to be in a position to speak what is true to me. And it's because of my dad, it's because of people before us. They put us in a position where we've been able to reclaim that back. So there's nothing that could make me compromise that or give that up.
Do you feel like you need to guide the next generation of Indigenous Australians and creatives that may feel like they don't have a voice?
I definitely think about it beyond myself, but I also know that everyone's on their own journey. I want to try and lead by example and I'm trying to do what I can do and demonstrate that it's possible. I want to be practical and applicable for people. I think that’s why I like to talk about the fact that I'm independent – I’ve gotten to where I am because I’ve taken the smoke and mirrors away. We are paralysed when we don’t have knowledge or information.
So I think it's beyond Indigenous Australians. It’s also relative to people in general. I think we are indoctrinated into this way of living in Western civilisation and we just assume that's what we have to do. But I think because I grew up in a community and I grew up with a different lens and a different world perspective, I understood community and family in a very different way. I wasn't eager to jump on the hamster wheel and just do what is done. In the music industry, for example, there are so many industry standards and well, why are they industry standards? Who created them? A lot of the time, these are created from people who are in power and it's about keeping power.
For me it's about trying to redistribute that and demonstrate that you don't have to compromise yourself, your authenticity, or your self-determination to have success. It's about redefining what success is. Having the freedom to choose what I’m doing each day; there’s no trade-off. I understand that remaining true to who I am isn’t necessarily going to be true for the next person, but I’m allowing my Black authenticity to shine.
You spoke about growing up in a community, which is really special. Can you share what that was like, as well as some of your most memorable experiences?
I grew up in a community called Gapuwiyak in northeast Arnhem Land. Because my great-grandmother was stolen, we didn't really have a connection to our ancestral country. So up until 2012, we didn't actually know where we were from ancestrally, but my parents' first job at a teacher's college was in northeast Arnhem, and mum and dad were adopted into that kinship. It meant that as kids we were born into that kinship as well. It's this really interesting thing where we've been given access and because of how remote it is in northeast Arnhem land, the lack of urbanisation has meant that the forces of colonisation haven't worked as fast. So a lot more of the culture is intact, which actually ties into the whole concept of the shoot with Reebok.
Because I grew up within the community, but then also in cities and towns, a lot of people look at what I experienced and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you have a connection to culture and Aboriginality. That’s amazing.’ And of course, that is amazing, but for me that culture is everywhere in Australia. The forces of colonisation might work fast, but that doesn’t change the fact that underneath the buildings is Gadigal country, the same way that in northeast Arnhem, it’s Yolngu country.
The same rich culture is still shining so loudly in Yolngu culture today. It’s still that connection to our country, the desire to have our own Gadigal country in Sydney is still here. It’s just that our right to self-determination for Gadigal people has been completely obliterated. When we did that Reebok shoot, it wasn’t on Gadigal country, the whole theme was about emphasising the country back on top of these buildings and reawakening what has been there and always will be there.
How does your upbringing and heritage influence your music?
It's everything. I feel very privileged to understand that I’ve always known my purpose. I come from a culture that innately teaches us what our role here is. I was never like, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ I knew that my meaning here is to care for our country. And when you are learning how to care for your country, you learn that you care for that physical space, you care for it emotionally. You care for the animals, the people, and everything on top of it. And in turn, the land will care for me. So that’s been inside me from the moment I could walk. When I was 15, I discovered this passion for music and passion for words. And I think that at the time, I didn’t consciously understand it, because I had been dispossessed and I didn’t have my ancestral language.
I didn’t understand the weight that pulled me into words. But we came from an oral culture, and a lot of people use that as something to demonstrate that we weren’t civilised, and it meant that storytellers and songlines were the most important aspects of our society. Within stories and within language was knowledge. What I’m doing now is finding the songlines of the dispossessed, because I don’t have my language to share these songs in – I have the language of the oppressor. But it’s about finding our songlines and amplifying them in a way that is then understood by all.
We’ve been telling stories and singing songs for 50,000 years. So to me, it’s like breathing. It’s the most natural thing. And it’s so nourishing as well, because I know that for all of the dispossession and all of the traumas that have been inflicted, when I’m singing and able to find those words, I feel that intrinsic connection to something that is unbroken and immovable inside of me.
Tell us about the element of collaboration behind the shoot and how it all kicked off.
It started with talking about the ‘Life Is Not A Spectator Sport’ campaign and what that meant to me. The project was really about amplifying country and reminding people that yes, we’re in a beautiful studio shooting the campaign, but what does it sit on top of? The way we’re tracking as humans, in a couple of hundred years if we’re all gone, the buildings, and all the roads underneath will still be country. Country will always remain. We put a lot of fancy buildings on top of it and we destroy it because we’re not caring for it, but it’s still there. Ultimately, the project was about my self-determination, but also about allowing my country to be self-determined.
The Classic Leather is an iconic sneaker, what do you think of when you think of ‘classic’? And what relationship do you have with footwear?
It’s really funny. I think for the first 10 years of my life, I couldn't have been less of a sneakerhead, because when we grew up in the community, we hated wearing shoes. I remember we got taken to sports competitions sometimes, for basketball and everyone would look at us crazy, because none of us wanted to wear shoes. As I grew older I started wearing shoes, and then there was no going back because my feet had become all soft again!
I also think of myself as a bit of a chameleon with fashion. I just want to be able to express myself on a day-to-day basis. What really pulled me toward Reebok and the Classic Leather specifically is that they’re timeless. Aesthetically, they go with anything. For me, I’m working on music, or my book, or directing a music video – I’m so chaotic and chopping and changing all day so to have some kind of consistency on my feet is good. And the Classic Leather is going to go well with anything, which is always great for me because my mind is running a million miles an hour.
To get your hands on the latest Classic Leather, head over to Reebok now.