We spoke to Ziggy Ramo to discuss his debut album Black Thoughts, his upcoming headline performance and more!
Image: Emma Pegrum
Later today, musician Ziggy Ramo will make his grand return to the stage, performing an exclusive set at Sydney's Sunset Piazza. Playing his debut album Black Thoughts in full, live for the first time in front of an audience.
On his debut record, Ramo draws on classic hip-hop, political fury, and collective trauma, drawing on influences by artists and activists ranging from Yasiin Bey and Lauryn Hill to Charlie Perkins and Adam Goodes. Bringing powerful, articulated lyricism to each song, the album sonically calls back to the golden era of hip-hop. Conceptually, the album reckons with the personal and the political. The collection of songs documents Ramo's own lived experiences, addressing the silenced injustices of Aboriginal Australia and other social issues, using his voice as disenfranchised and dispossessed Aboriginal man.
Written five years ago, Ramo held on to Black Thoughts before sharing it with the world during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Having worked on the body of work with producer JCAL, the musician documented the stories and the lyrical themes he intended to explore on the record prior to writing the songs. After working together on four tracks, Ramo began sorting through JCAL's beats, writing the tracks above them.
Located at Cathedral Square opposite Hyde Park, Sunset Piazza transforms the city into an outdoor cultural experience. Crossing comedy and music, the performances will run until late March, with a bevy of local acts, presented by the NSW Government and City of Sydney. All events will follow COVID-safe regulations and guests are reminded to follow the latest NSW Health advice regarding social distancing, hygiene and staying home if unwell.
Final tickets to Ziggy Ramo's Sunset Piazza performance are on sale now. Read our interview with the musician below.
Tell us a bit about how you started your musical journey...
Music was always a really big part of my life growing up. I’m the youngest of four and both my parents love music, and there was always music in the house. So I think I always just had a really strong connection with how music can bring people together, how it can move people, how It can make you feel. My brother was a really big part in my journey, he really kind of got me into hip-hop and showed me different classic albums and that really piqued my interested in the art form. From there it was just a lot of trial and error and exploration and I think it’s just the journey of trying to master a craft that is just constantly challenging, and exciting, and stimulating and I think I just feel so privileged to be able to be creating.
You’re about to take to the stage for an exclusive performance at Sunset Piazza in Sydney! What can audiences expect from the show?
You can expect Black Thoughts from top to bottom, my debut album of 2020. I created that body of work as a concept album and as a complete body of work, and because of that it has a narrative that is really strong throughout. For me, I remember when I saw NAS when he came to Perth and he played Illmatic top to bottom, and I just thought that was so dope to be able to play an album top to bottom and have an audience be captivated by the story of that album. So when I wrote this album and when I envisioned performing it wasn’t taking songs from here and there, it was being able to deliver the entirety of it and the entire message and the ebbs and flows of it. So yeah you can expect the album, but I think for me what I really like about live music is that it’s live. I’ve got an incredible band and we play completely live with no click, not to track, not with any other kind of backings, just us and I think that’s really exciting because it means no one performance is ever the same and this is the first time I’m performing the Black Thoughts album with an audience. I guess expect the unexpected because we’re gonna find out how it goes together.
How have you approached crafting a set and overall live experience for the current socially distanced format of live shows?
I think I’m actually really excited because I am going to be playing this album from top to bottom, it’s not light entertainment. I guess I’m asking a lot from the audience and I’m asking them to come on a journey with me, and I think the fact that people are gonna be sitting and taking in what I’m trying to get across is really exciting because the album is quite uncomfortable, quite confronting. I don’t really shy away from anything and I think to be able to have people full attention for the set is really exciting. So I kind of think it’s a blessing in disguise honestly. I mean of course the pandemic is terrible but the fact that people are going to be sitting and engaged with the art is kind of the perfect way for me to deliver it.
The past twelve months have taken its toll on the music industry, specifically the touring sector, but also in terms of making that in person connection with audience members and creating a shared feeling and experience. How important do you think live music is not only for yourself as a musician showcasing their art, but also for the audience members who resonate with your music?
I’m honestly so excited to be able to create that shared experience and I think it is so important. I still have a memory of when I was 12 and I saw Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley’s son, perform and I can remember one of the backing vocalists kind of gave me a wave and that has stayed with me forever because I thought they were obviously the coolest people in the whole world. I think bringing people together and creating experiences and creating moments, moments define our time here. So I think being able to culminate and create things but have shared experiences at the core is just so vital for our experience as humans. I think for myself as an artist, last year I really enjoyed the challenge of tackling how ‘can I present my art without people in the room’. And now I was able to play at the Sydney Opera House and Hammer Hall and do it in a way where we incorporated live streaming. Now I’m so excited to take that foundation and understanding of how to present the album and do it with people in the room. Because I think what I’m so excited about is I don’t know how it’s going to go, I don’t know what that shared experience will be like for people because I know for me, performing this album takes such an emotional toll and it’s so draining every time. But I’m so excited to have people coming along on the journey with me, and going on the journey with them, and kind of finding out where they are and how they resonate with what I’m presenting. So I think it’s so important and I feel so privileged to be able to be in a position where we are starting to have opportunities to come back together.
What lasting effects do you hope audience members walk away with after attending one of your performances?
I hope people walk away feeling something. Whether or not that means they agree with me, disagree with me, they like what I’m saying, they don’t like what I’m saying. I’m not invested in what the reaction is, I just hope that there is one. I’m not a dictator, I’m an artist. I’m not trying to police how people engage with my art, and everyone is on a completely different journey. So you don’t have to understand necessarily where I’m at, because that’s not going to change what art I’m going to put out into the world. So for me, I just hope people walk away feeling something, I hope they’re moved. I think art is supposed to move people. And I hope for the people who do walk away who maybe don’t understand where I’m coming from, I hope in time there’s growth and an ability to be able to reflect on the performance and maybe have a change of perspective. But at the same time, like I said, I don’t want to control people’s reactions. I just want to allow people to have a reaction to the art I’m putting out.
Could you share with us what has been your favourite concert you ever attended and why?
That’s so difficult! It’s so weird I don’t love live concerts, just because I don’t love really large groups of people. I find that super overwhelming which is ironic, but I think my favourite live performance would have to be when I saw NAS play Illmatic top to bottom. That was a pretty surreal moment.
You’ve been making music for quite some time, having only shared your debut album, Black Thoughts, almost a year ago. What prompted you to really take your time crafting the record and how did the body of work evolve over time?
I’ve been at music for over ten years now from when I really first started trying to master the craft I guess. I finished Black Thoughts over five years ago now and I hadn’t actually touched it for a very long time. But before I ever wrote Black Thoughts I was kind of working at music for five years before I ever thought about putting out an album. I think for me it was just that I had an internal sense of quality control and it was just a fear of it not being good. I’ve always wanted to be the best and the best that I can be, and because of that it just meant that I would rather take a long journey with things and be really proud of what I’m able to create. I think that’s the thing, I think I’m a very harsh critic of what I do, so I just want to do the best and be the best. And it’s not just be the best, I want to put the best art out that I can because our art stays here after we don’t. So I just want to put my time into creating things that will be around, and hopefully have meaning to people in time to come.
When writing this collection of songs, was there any way you specifically approached crafting each track? Or did each song prompt its own creative process?
This album was quite specific in the way that I approached it. I had all of the stories and the lyrical themes that I was going to explore. I already had that mapped out, and then when I met JCAL (Jack Calneggia) who produced Black Thoughts, we did about three or four songs from scratch, and then I really got a vibe and understood the sonic that I wanted and what I was trying to reference. From there, I just started going through all the beats he had made and once I’d found the right beat, it was just putting that idea that I already had down to it. That was honestly a pretty quick process because I had been thinking about the concept and the themes of this album for a very long time. I guess each song was slightly different in figuring it out, but it was kind of really therapeutic. In a way it was just creating unconsciously, because I had already put so much groundwork into the process of getting them out.
Your music holds very powerful messages. Your songs address the silenced injustices of Aboriginal Australia and other social issues, speaking truth to power and giving voice to the disenfranchised and dispossessed. How important was it for you to use your music as a vehicle to share these experiences and stories?
That’s such a big question! I think for me, when I was younger it was the sole reason behind why I wanted to do this and it still is. But I think as I’ve gotten older it’s like I can’t speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people in Australia. I can only write and create art that speaks on my lived experience and if people resonate with that, regardless of being indigenous or non-indigenous, if people resonate with that, they resonate with it. Giving a voice to the disenfranchised and dispossessed, well that’s me. I am aboriginal, I am disenfranchised and I’m dispossessed so it’s not like I’m giving a voice, I’m just using mine. These are my stories, this is my life. I’m not an observer, I’m not free from what I’m talking about, it’s just actually what I’ve lived. Obviously it’s so important for me to always hold my community first and foremost, and wanting more for us and wanting equality. I’m always going to stand for that, but I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else other than what I’ve lived and what I’ve experienced.
Since the albums release, how do you think wider social conversations and actions have continued to grow and evolve surrounding the issues and topics covered on the record? Especially with the album being released during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement?
That’s such an interesting question. I’m hopeful, I’m always hopeful because if I’m not it makes me not want to be here. I’m hopeful that each time there is a spillover, or each time we reach a boiling point, our collective conscience and understanding of the issues that we’re talking about grows. Because it isn’t an overnight fix, there were so many people posting black squares and #BLACKLIVESMATTER, but that hasn’t necessarily changed anything. There’s actually still so much to be done before black lives do matter. There’s still so much more within our society to demonstrate that we do have equality and we do have the same opportunities. I think for me, I’m hopeful that we are continuing to grow our capacity to make long lasting change, each time there are more conversations and more learning around the constructs of what’s going on. But I think there’s still a very long way to go, and that’s not to undermine or devalue all of the work that has gotten us to this point, but it isn’t as simple as ‘Oh, George Floyd died and that makes me sad and uncomfortable and I’ll do a hashtag and then a few weeks later, six months later, a year later, I’m no longer engaged’. The systemic nature of these issues and the structures that are allowing them to continue haven’t necessarily changed, so there needs to be so much reform and decolonisation. That takes time and it takes persistence and it means we have to hold ourselves accountable to continue to show up. So it’s not just when the boiling points happen, it’s every day of every year. What I didn’t like about the fact that an album that I wrote five years ago about race relations in Australia is still relevant today, in five years it’s still resonating with people. Unfortunately, the reality is it’s going to resonate five years from now because these changes don’t happen overnight, it’s so systemic. But we just have to keep chipping away at it, because just because something is hard it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. That’s why we have to stand on what we believe and continue to keep pushing forward and growing and working at this together, because we’re going to solve it together.
Did you encounter any hardships whilst creating such a personal and significant body of work?
Definitely. I think a really big reason why I held onto it for so long was because personally it’s such a difficult album to perform, it’s such a difficult album to talk about, it’s so draining you know? As much as I feel very privileged that I have a voice and people are asking questions about it, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easy to talk about, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fun. Other musicians can laugh and joke and it’s like I’m sitting over here like Mr. Serious. But also when I did show the album to people in the industry five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of support and understanding in what I was trying to do and I think I felt very alienated. I thought to make it in the industry you had to have a label or publishing company, and if you didn’t have that you’d never be successful. And I think for me it was understanding that for me what is successful is making art that is true to me, and true to what I’ve lived and just back that. The fact it took me so long to just be able to let it go and exist in the world I think it was just where I had to get with it. But yeah, evidently some people have not liked what it says or does, but I think for me it’s like there aren’t a lot of spaces where I can be completely unfiltered and free to express whatever I want to express, whether that’s right or wrong, because it’s like I always have to be so on point with how I’m communicating and explaining things to people, and within my music and with my art it’s my safe space to be able to be angry and frustrated and pissed off. Because as much as I want to educate and help people, I also just want to scream because it’s so overwhelming and it’s so frustrating, and it’s so painful and hurtful to watch your people be put through a continued genocide. It’s difficult because obviously it is such a weighty album and it’s really challenging for a lot of people for different reasons. But it’s what I do I guess.
If Black Thoughts was a piece of pre-existing visual art, which artwork would it be and why?
I feel like my knowledge of the art world isn’t extensive enough to be able to answer that accurately. But if photographs count, maybe the handful of sand photo with Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari. Actually scrap that, it’s the album cover because that photo was pre-existing. It’s the photo of my parents at their wedding. Their Yolngu wedding in Gapuwiyak east-Arnhem land. Whenever I was growing up and I saw that photo, it always showed me what we could be if we embraced who we were as a country, rather than lying and hiding it because we’re uncomfortable with the fact of what we’ve done to our Indigenous people here, and what we continue to do. But that photo always showed to me where we could be and where we could get to I hope. And also my parents look dope, so I love that photo and without them, I’m not here and without them I don’t have the perspective or lived experience that I have had. So without that, Black Thoughts doesn’t exist, so that’s it.
Australia has a diverse and vibrant music scene, who are some of your favourite Aussie acts?
There’s so many! I feel like the scene is so rich with so many different artists and different lanes. I think that’s so exciting and if things do open up here a bit earlier, I really hope that festivals and the Australian audience really supports Australian artists here, to be able to be those headline acts. Because I feel like artists here are somewhat pigeonholed in how they’re supposed to be, or the kind of art that is commercially successful. It’s like there’s a double standard, like international artists can be really experimental and still be commercially successful here. Whereas in Australia, if you don’t follow a certain formula then you’re not a successful Australian artist. Obviously there are people who break that, but in terms of who I think is dope there are so many. I think Stevan, he’s crazy. Genesis Owusu, Kwame, Tasman Keith, Jesswar, Miss Blanks, Khi, Adrian Eagle, Stella Donnelly oh my God, so many! I feel like I could just keep rattling off so many, but I don’t know how many I’m supposed to say or not say, so that’s where I’ll wrap that up.
With restrictions starting to ease, will we be seeing you hit the road this year for a national tour?
I hope so, I really do. I just think if 2020 taught me anything, it’s just to take it as it comes. If the opportunity is there and I’m able to, I would definitely love to. But I’m just kind of going along with everyone else and I really think it’s all of our responsibility to buckle down, and see this through. We are obviously in such a good spot, but I think it’s because we’ve been really responsible. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would risk the health and safety of anyone. So yeah, fingers crossed. I would love to do a national run, but we’ll just see what 2021 has in store for us.
NAS, Jay Z, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West and my parents.
I think Frank Ocean. I’d be super interested to hang out with Frank.
Album that has had the most impact on you?
I would say The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
How do you define your musical style in three words?
Hopefully really good!
A release you are most looking forward to in 2021?
No idea, I’m honestly so out of the loop. I feel like I’ve just had my head down in what I’m doing, and I’m missing out on what else is out there.
If you could create the soundtrack for any film, which film would it be?
Tenet, I thought that soundtrack was so dope but it was so loud. So I want to like, just back it off a little bit so I can hear what they’re saying.
Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus?
Miley Cyrus, I guess?
Album you would listen to on repeat on a road trip?
Lately, Snoh Aalegra, Ugh, Those Feels Again.
Last concert you went to?
Ooh, I can’t even remember it feels like a lifetime ago.
If you were a Spice Girl, what would your spice nickname be?
Carolina Reaper because I’m super spicy.
Guilty music pleasure?
I don’t have anything, I don’t have anything that’s guilty. I don’t feel guilty about listening to anything. If I like it, I like it.
If you could support any artist on tour, who would it be?
Stevie Wonder! I just want to hang out with the dude.
An artist you think has had the most influence on the music industry.
I would say Kanye West.
What advice would your current self, give your future self, for a year from now?
Drink more water.
The moment you knew you wanted to be a musician?
Really for the longest time, honestly just been wanting to do it.