Wilcannia Mob marks 20 years since Down River paved the way for Indigenous hip-hop artists

They were five kids from the remote outback town of Wilcannia in far-west NSW, rapping about their daily lives, swimming, fishing, and playing the didgeridoo.

But 20 years ago, the boys became trailblazers for Indigenous hip-hop music in Australia, when they started The Wilcannia Mob.

The band’s members included Lendal King, Keith Dutton, Colin “Colroy” Johnson, Buddy Blair, and Wally Ebsworth.

Johnson is one of the last members who still lives in the town.

“We were just being us, typical young people growing up down the river every day, [at the] drop-in center, doing our own thing, cruising around on the push bikes,” he said.

a man staring at the camera surrounded by a river.
Colroy Johnson wishes The Wilcannia Mob was still together creating music.(ABC Broken Hill: Youssef Saudie)

Johnson, a Barkindji man, was just 10 when The Wilcannia Mob kicked off together.

“It kind of feels like it was only just yesterday like, man, that was me and now look at me — I’m 30 years of age,” he said.

“20 years ago that was me.

“Where has the time gone? I’ve got three daughters of my own, a beautiful partner, and I love them for the world.”

Origin of The Wilcannia Mob

The Wilcannia Mob started at a Shopfront Theater project hosted by a local drop-in center, to give vulnerable young people opportunities.

Collage image of mothers and Wilcannia Mob's Colroy against backdrop of Sydney Harbor bridge.
The Wilcannia Mob traveled with their family to Sydney.(Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes)

People from across the state, including Ku-ku Yalangii and Woppaburra man Brendon Adams, came to the outback town to help run the workshops.

“I was a dancer in Sydney and there was a project coming up in Wilcannia because they were going through a lot of youth issues,” Mr. Adams said.

“At that time petrol sniffing in remote communities throughout Australia was very high and they wanted to bring some positive programs to Wilcannia.”

The programs included putting together The Wilcannia Mob, which was made for fun.

But then they recorded the song Down River.

“Each of those boys wanted to give their own expressions about their lives,” Mr. Adams said.

the drop-in center entrance includin a fence and sign of 'Gloria King Memorial'
The Wilcannia Mob was formed at the Gloria King Memorial youth drop-in center.(ABC Broken Hill: Youssef Saudie)

“You hear them all talking fishing and jumping and swimming, which is their culture and their identity within that.

“That’s why we came here, to … make them feel proud about who they are and their identity.”

It meant a lot to Johnson.

“At the time I felt like I was being recognized … not just around the community but right around the far west,” he said.

International attention

The song took off across Australia in the 2000s.

It won Single of the Year at the 2003 Deadly Awards and placed number 51 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 for 2002.

Hip-hop performer Morgan “Morganics” Smith and Wire MC helped put the band together.

Smith, who is now based in Cairns, said his passion for hip-hop and community initiatives lived on.

Image of Morganics and Wilcannia Mob members and others sitting around computer in Wilcannia.
Hip-hop artist Morganics helped the Wilcannia boys produce their track Down River.(Supplied: Melinda Collie-Holmes )

He said The Wilcannia Mob’s music had a lasting impact.

There wasn’t much Indigenous hip-hop music being played at the time as there wasn’t much being made, he said.

“Once they came out, I think a lot of other Indigenous people full stop would … hear it and go ‘yo I can relate, yeah that’s cool, I can tell my story now, I can do my thing’,” he said.

“If they can do it, I can do it.”

The Wilcannia Mob spread Barkindji culture across the world.

Their song was discovered by British rapper MIA, which led to a collaboration called Mango Pickle Down River in 2007.

Smith put the grungy, home-recorded song together and featured it on MIA’s album, Kala.

a man smiling with a hat, a white shirt, black collar, necklace inside a studio.
Morganics said the band was part of creating hip-hop history in Australia.(ABC News: Buzz Ruddick)

“It opened ears and minds to possibilities of like ‘wow, we can take hip-hop and we can use hip-hop to tell our stories,'” Smith said.

“They did that, and were lucky enough to be showcased nationally and internationally.”

There have since been new adaptations of The Wilcannia Mob through other community projects, including The Wilcannia Mob: Next Generation, River Down, featuring original band member Lendal King and others from the Wilcannia community.

But there was a lack of ongoing support for the band and it was difficult for members to continue making music.

Supporting future generations

Mr. Adams moved to Wilcannia in 2003 to help provide further options for youth.

But he said it could be difficult for Indigenous people in remote areas to find and pursue opportunities.

“We need to find the opportunities to bring the resources to remote communities because our culture is looking after our mob,” he said.

“But when you do that, you miss your own opportunities.”

He said there needed to be more action from the government to help young people in remote communities.

“Us as community people, the government both state and federal, need to turn it around,” he said.

Two men standing in front of the river with The Wilcannia Mob book.
The Wilcannia Mob’s Colroy Johnson (left) with Brendon Adams.(ABC Broken Hill: Youssef Saudie)

“The moment you invest in our young people, you will build them to be leaders.”

He said more investment in young people would help break down the problems faced by some Indigenous Australians.

“You’ll live better, you’ve got pride, you’ll eat healthier, and you provide for your families and start breaking cycles,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I think we need to bring more resources to Wilcannia.”

‘Keep pushing … seize your moment’

Johnson said he still had a passion for music and wanted to see The Wilcannia Mob back together.

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