Ziggy Ramo is undoubtedly one of the most powerful voices in so-called Australia.
As an ever-evolving storyteller who channels the strength of 50,000 years, Ziggy transcends many mediums and is creating much more than music. As an independent artist, he is creating a platform of change and autonomy with hopes to build a space larger than himself.
His passion for truth-telling through art was fiercely displayed in his cover of Paul Kelly’s ‘Little Things’ in 2021, which shines a light on the ongoing impacts of colonial violence, highlights vast contradictions, and reminds all listeners that this always was, and always will be Aboriginal land, demanding the question “are you ready to tell the other side?”
Off the back of his powerful debut album Black Thoughts, which shared his reflections on intergenerational trauma and systemic racism, Ziggy is currently writing a book and an album titled HUMAN that are reflections of each other and the human experience.
Through his existence alone, Ziggy expresses the power in self-determination, and whilst self-determination was stripped away from many First Nations people, Ziggy is unapologetically reclaiming that space and refusing to relinquish his right to determine his human experience. As he should.
Throughout our interview, Ziggy shares his journey of lyricism, his innate connection with storytelling as a First Nations person, and the experience and beauty of not only being led by the art but being trusted to do so alongside an international platform.
Tell me about the book and album you are writing, called HUMAN.
Combining a book and an album together is an idea I’ve had for a long time and has been years in the making in a way. Initially, when I was writing [my debut album] Black Thoughts, the idea came to me because it is a pretty lyrically dense album that sits just under 8000 words. In terms of music, 8000 words across an album is a lot. In parallel to that, books are usually around 80,000 words so the space, volume, and depth in which you can reach through a book is much more. But I’ve been drawn to music because there is an instant kind of connection. You can start listening to a song during the last chorus and be drawn into it, whereas if you skipped three-quarters of a book, it wouldn’t really make sense. The mediums are very different, but I think I’ve always been drawn to trying to tell stories through any medium. My Dad often says that dispossession isn’t a culture, it’s a state that has been forced upon us. Dispossession isn’t who we are [as First Nations people]. In that state of dispossession and not having access to my songlines or culture or language, the thing that has always been innate to me is storytelling, because that’s what [First Nations people] have been doing for over 50,000 years.
I haven’t placed much emphasis on what kind of artist I am, I just want to tell stories. Being able to tell stories across different mediums is something that really excites me because I know for me depending on the day, sometimes I don’t want to listen to music, sometimes I would rather read, or sometimes I would rather watch. The way in which I absorb is so dependent on who I am that day and who we are as ever-evolving humans. I also felt as an artist I wanted freedom and having 80,000 words meant I could put a lot of the heavy lifting and historical context in the book, and the music kind of focused on the feeling of what those things give me.
Conceptually, each chapter in the book is a song on the album. And they are kind of reflections of each other. But they are manifested in different ways and the music allows me to connect to the feeling of what the depth of the chapter is kind of uncovering.
Have you got a timeframe for when these bodies of work will be released?
I’m pretty led by the art, and I sit outside of maybe what is conventional. Black Thoughts was a really big lesson for me. I wrote that album in 2015 and I didn’t release it until 2020 but it was relevant because I’m telling a human story. Initially, when I started sinking my teeth into HUMAN, I had a real urgency of like ‘I just want it out’. I didn’t want to live in it. I wanted it out of my body and out into the world so I could be done with it forever. Creating from trauma and sitting in trauma is pretty exhausting. I’ve always tried to be led by the art and serve the art and let that dictate the timelines. It’s led on when I think the art is done—when it feels done and when I feel like it’s the right time for it to be received.
I love that, as it should be. We are synonymous with nature and nature takes its course and blooms when it’s ready, and that’s what I’m hearing as you are talking.
Definitely, and I know that’s not always great for an article, even within me making it or for the people, I’m working with because it’s exhausting riding that wave. I was pushing to get HUMAN out at the start of this year and then some stuff started going on in my life, and I feel like I’m living through some stuff that needs to be [reflected] in this project. To rush it out feels more ego-driven. For me, it’s about being driven by what is innate to us. Country talks and calls to us and we need to be open enough to listen and respond.
That’s powerful what you are saying, because having the freedom to do this is really self-determining. And as First Nations people – we didn’t have access to self-determination for so long.
A lot of the time when we talk about the scope of our existence [as First Nations people], we talk about it in the frame of colonisation, which obviously I completely understand because we haven’t had self-determination for a period of time within the colony. I try not to think about dispossession as our culture but rather as a state. Our history far exceeds what has been done to us. There is a strength that goes along with being able to carry what we carry because we draw on 50,000 years. And obviously, it feels way intense for us because we have only ever lived in that context, but 200 years is a small fraction of the oldest continuing cultures ever. Because of its removal, I definitely don’t take self-determination for granted and that’s something my Dad has always been big on teaching me. It’s the reason I have remained an independent artist. If I want to be like ‘the art is leading us this way, we should do this’ it’s not like there is a deadline with a record label I need to respond to because again, that’s kind of like structures born from colonisation as opposed to being storytellers and creating stories of Country on Country and for Country.
It seems for us as First Nations people there is this consistent expectation to be strong and resilient and enduring. And that language and that expectation sometimes doesn’t leave a lot of space for softness. I think that softness is an important part of survival. How do you maintain space for softness and vulnerability, particularly as a Black presenting male?
I think my relationship with softness is directly linked to strength. It’s interconnected. To allow yourself to hold space for softness requires strength. I think it is allowing yourself the right to be a human outside of what societal lenses are put upon us. It’s about preserving and honouring that right, experiencing everything that this human experience delivers. For me, I was very lucky to have a father that is Black presenting and very forthcoming with his love and affection for us. He is a very strong male figure in my life that never viewed vulnerability as weakness. The more difficult thing for me outside of softness is anger. I really struggled with ever allowing myself to visibly feel anger, because I felt like as a Black presenting man, if I showed I was angry, my thoughts and feelings would be invalidated. And angry Black men often end up dead in this country. It was more difficult to honour those feelings of anger and it took a lot of therapy and work for me to kind of come to a place of understanding that being angry doesn’t mean you’re screaming. Allowing yourself to experience your full range of emotions doesn’t make you weak. It’s a never-ending journey. It’s something you have to manage and persistently create that space for yourself.
When did your relationship with music start?
Music has always been a big part of my life and I have always felt a magnetic pull to it. We grew up in East Arnhem Land in Gapuwiyak and experienced buŋgul (dance) and ceremony, and even though it wasn’t our ancestral culture or Country, I had a tangible experience with what it might have been like [if it were my Country]. I just had this gravitation to it and hearing and seeing the impact that those stories and songlines held across thousands of years sparked a pretty deep respect for it within me. I can remember being pretty young actively listening to music and trying to hear what the drums were doing or count how many sounds I could hear in a song. It was always really interesting to me. I thought that was how everyone was experiencing music. When I was like 10 or 11 my older brother would share new music with me that he was finding that shaped his identity, and seeing him search for music in that way really rubbed off on me. He is my hero and music was a big way that we bonded. I quickly became pretty obsessed with music, and we were very lucky as Mum and Dad played a very eclectic and broad kind of catalogue. I became obsessed with words and how they fit, and I got heavy into Shakespeare at school. When I was 15, I stumbled on freestyling, and it really made sense to me. Putting words together was like game over.
That space that you enter when you are writing or when you are pulling words and allowing them to dance together to tell a story – what does that look like to you?
It’s actually not that complicated—it’s a real stillness. When I write I don’t really agonise over whether or not I have chosen the right word. I don’t think I have rewritten lyrics ever. When something comes it just comes, like Black Thoughts for example. All of those songs are things that I have thought about my whole life. I feel like a lot of the songs are conversational. What does it feel like to talk about your experience as a First Nations person? It’s just innate. My relationship with understanding how words rhyme just feels innate. When I was younger from 15-20, I worked really hard at honing my craft as a lyricist. It’s instinctual to me because as much as I’m trying to write, I’m not really trying to write the most impressive lyric, I’m just trying to write what’s true. I worked really hard to get to a point that when I’m writing it’s not about doubting or second-guessing, I just want to write my story. Less thinking and more doing and being present.
I want to talk about your recent campaign with Tommy Hilfiger. What was it like to work with a platform of that size?
Tommy Hilfiger is amazing. I understand the privileged position I am in to have created a space of self-determination and I’m not naïve to the fact that how rare that is. A lot of us don’t have the freedom to answer to ourselves because of intergenerational trauma. We are more often than not forced into oppressive positions and positions where power is yielded against us. And self-determination is further and further removed. Whereas having my Dad really drill into me how lucky it is to maintain that self-determination means it’s something I’ve never relinquished. I hope I’m able to build a space that’s larger than myself. If I can demonstrate a pathway of self-determination and then get into as many mediums and across as many platforms, I hope other free-thinking self-determined people from our mob follow suit.
Working with a brand like Tommy as a completely independent self-determined artist is so powerful because a lot of the time those opportunities with these kinds of campaigns only come if you have a really big commercial song for example, so many boxes that I don’t tick and nor am I trying to. To Tommy’s credit they have understood the power in art and the power in cultural impact. I think people connect to what I’m doing because I’m free to say whatever I want to say whenever I want to say it. I think a lot of brands and partnerships can find that threatening and fear inducing, whereas working on their campaign they are literally like ‘What do you want to do?’ That kind of freedom is not something that we are used to, especially not in those kinds of spaces. My partner is a photographer, so she shot the whole campaign and it’s literally like her, me and my sister-in-law walking around being led by the art deciding what and where we want to shoot. To have that kind of trust put in us is when we get the best results, when our self-determination is respected. It feels amazing because it feels aligned to everything that I am trying to do.