NORMAL PEOPLE - ZIGGY RAMO

Interview and intro by Tim Snape - Heaps Normal

Ziggy Ramo Burrmuruk Fatnowna is a polymath. He recorded his debut album Black Thoughts back in 2015, but worried that Australia wasn’t ready for such truth-telling, delayed the album indefinitely - until the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. The album and the accompanying re-interpretation of Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly's classic Little Things has springboarded Ziggy into the spotlight as one of the most cerebral and vocal performers in Australia today. Not content on artist, writer, rapper, singer-songrwriter and protester - Ziggy has since kicked off a career in acting with a starring role in Australian series Black Snow. He’s also one of Heaps Normal’s best mates. I sat down with Ziggy at his Bondi Beach recording studio and talked truth, storytelling and what normal means to him.

TS  

I just wanted to start by saying thanks for performing at NormFest a couple of weeks ago. I think everyone was just blown away by not only your performance but also the story that you had to tell. You talked a lot about your interpretation of Little Things in particular. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with that song and why it means so much to you? 

ZR  

Yeah, it's actually pretty interesting timing. Because last week, I got a call from my brother. And he works in the government and has relationships with a new Art Gallery down there. ANU was giving Kev Carmody an honorary doctorate and Electric Fields were scheduled to play. However, they had COVID, so they were calling around and trying to scramble to find someone to step in. Eventually, they got in touch with my brother and my brother got in touch with me. We were in Sydney, this was at like two o'clock, and it was starting at seven. 

So we just literally loaded in the car and drove down to Canberra. It was just so awesome. I've had the pleasure of meeting and performing and connecting with Paul quite a few times, but it was such a full-circle thing. Standing in the university seeing Kev getting an honorary doctorate was just an awesome thing. He played for like, the first time in maybe five or six years. He got up with a guitar and it was the weight and the power of the song that kind of transcends time and space. He was talking about when he was sharing the song with Paul and Kevin said it's not a story. It's the truth. 

TS  

Do you think that there’s a distinction between truth and stories? Do you think they can be the same thing?

ZR  

I think so. Especially because we come from an oral culture where our stories are our truths. When you come from an oral culture, there is so much wisdom and understanding and perspective. Kev was really talking about that actually, you know, that these stories live beyond us. And that's what our cultures have done for thousands of years. It's not only speaking to people right now, but you're going to be speaking to people that you never engage with for generations to come. I think the quest to put truth in storytelling is of the utmost importance. I don't think it always happens and when it doesn’t that's like rewriting history. It happens all the time. I think our role as people and artists is to embed our truth and understanding in stories because they have the power to resonate with people beyond our time.

TS  

You've spoken a little bit about how the song was written back in early 1991. How much were you guided by the original lyrics and meaning? Did you talk to Kev and Paul about the song as you were developing it? Or did you kind of see it as your own?

ZR  

Yeah. I mean, I guess it's the young ignorance of feeling like, I could just take it and do it. I never thought it would happen. It was all hypothetical to me. I didn’t think about whether Paul and Kev would like these lyrics or not because I didn’t think it would happen. The whole way it came about was that I was supposed to do Like A Version and my grandmother passed. So I wasn’t able to do it, but it was going to be in November of 2020. That was Australian music month. So I wanted to do an Australian song. And yeah, nothing felt more fitting than a song by Paul and Kev. So I was learning it. And then with the passing of my grandmother, those ideas and words were floating around in my head. 

When I was inside it learning it, it was moving me to want to express what I was thinking and feeling. And I was feeling like, how could you know, my grandmother passed from undiagnosed cancer, and she was a principal, and it was a lack of access to health care. So many things impacted that. And then zooming out of that, and looking at all these things that went into growing into the position we as indigenous people find ourselves in today. So it was wanting to create the context. From Little Things, Big Things Grow tells this specific story and tries to paint the landscape in which that story is taking place. And so yeah, I just did it. And then when I did it, and I didn't end up using it for Like A Version, I just felt so connected to it and I wanted to reach out and see what they thought and felt. 

The next day I got an email from Paul, and we were connecting on something totally separate, and I just said, Oh, by the way, I've done this thing we'd love to show you. And I think he thought it was going to be a sample, because I just put out Black Thoughts. And I sent it to him. And both him and Kev were just so gracious. They come from a folk genre where it is, taking something, changing it, taking it, changing it, and that's the kind of craft of it. So they were both just so hands-off and supportive. When I saw Kev, he was saying, you should be doing it. That's your thing now and both of them have been so gracious in allowing artists to be artists. I think that is the biggest compliment if an artist feels moved by your art so much. I'm in disbelief, just how giving they are because it was something so significant that they did.

TS  

So do you feel like they've kind of handed the baton over to you on that song? 

ZR  

In a sense, but I think that's what is so beautiful about that. They’re okay, with people just taking it in and making it their own. So it was the original and is the original and will always be the original. I wasn't trying to do a cover or anything, I just felt that I had a song to make. And they really supported that. So, you know, I think we use words like reinterpretation for it to make sense to people. But, for me, it was just, I’ve just got this song that I want to make it. And they’ve been so supportive in that.  I sent them the finished song and there were no notes, there was nothing, it was just, great. And then I told them that I was going to make a music video. And it was just like, great. Go do your thing. Whenever I perform it with either Paul or Kev now it's so beautiful. I try to think about what it must mean for them, that the song that they wrote thirty years ago is impacting artists from all these different generations. I try to think about thirty years from now if an artist feels moved by something I wrote now, that would be pretty mind-melting. 

TS  

Yeah and not only the artist but also with their audiences as well, who may not be familiar with your work. Yeah, that's pretty powerful.

ZR  

Yeah. Massively. It's a very beautiful thing.

TS  

During the story you told at NormFest you spoke about how so much and so little has changed since that song was first written. What role do you think art plays in driving change?

ZR  

Yeah, we were briefly talking about this, within truth and storytelling. I think that's why we have responsibilities as artists to be as honest as we can because then it allows us to reflect on what's going on. Hip Hop as a genre has been spoken about as the kind of street reporter in that, people will just tell the truth when it otherwise isn't being disseminated in mainstream platforms. It's really interesting because it's such a delicate thing of never wanting to disrespect or inspire growth and change that previous generations have made. But it's this other side of not wanting to be content in oh well that's good enough. It's such a fine line of both wanting to fully see and acknowledge what our previous and current generations are doing but then also, wanting to keep the fire underneath us to fight for our rights here.

TS  

And how do you balance that? How do you acknowledge the work that's been done, but also recognise that there is still much to be done?

ZR  

We're all complex humans. And we have the ability for nuance. So I think it's about how we move, whenever I’m talking about how things haven't changed, it's never directed to my community. It's talking about larger societal, systemic issues. At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge what in our community has shifted, what we have fought for, and we've remained. You can't do everything all at once in every song. So it’s about understanding what you're trying to communicate in each moment. And just honouring that.

TS  

We talk a lot about the pressures of Australian culture at Heaps Normal and obviously, we're focused on drinking culture, and how that impacts behaviour, and how that impacts things like the safety of spaces, particularly those spaces that are created for music. What are some of the pressures that you felt growing up? I understand you lived in multiple locations around Australia and abroad. What are some of those kinds of Australian cultural pressures you felt growing up in Australia? And how did you overcome and deal with them? 

ZR  

I didn't like the whole Australian identity, which we subscribe to, or the Australian larrikin. That idea that you get pissed out of your head. I think it's drinking for joy and stuff, but it's also drinking from discomfort and laughing from discomfort. I think a lot of times we try and make light of things because we don't know. Growing up Indigenous in this country, you just see the discomfort in people. So rather than dealing with the discomfort, you try to make it light or dismiss your existence.

Because it's really uncomfortable. What we've done here, I think it manifests in this very toxic way. So you know, I kind of can't switch off the fact that I make people uncomfortable, because of how I look, what my lived experience is. When I was younger, I had a really difficult time you kind of go into survival mode, where you've grown up understanding that not all spaces are safe for you. So it was this whole process of unlearning, catering to make people feel comfortable.

But if you were strong in what you're saying that could completely set someone off and the conversation. So you're just constantly reminded and taught, you know, to make yourself small and to understand how to make other people around you feel comfortable, so you're constantly watering this garden. If I stop worrying about watering everyone else, what will I then grow into? 

As I grew up and started to understand my own power, and my own thinking, and understanding around everything, and, and also having a loving and supportive family. There were specific spaces that I did feel safe and I didn’t want to abandon that. I want to be able to take my safety everywhere I go. I don't have that privilege. I know that to not just find my norm and be myself, like, poisons me from the inside out. 

TS  

Yeah. I'll just jump on what you said there about being normal, obviously, that's built into our name as a brand. We talk about what the word normal actually means. And in a way, what we're trying to do is ask people to question normal. So what does normal mean to you? How  do you define normal?

ZR  

Yeah, I mean, I think that such critical thinking is something that is not always encouraged in a society that's hiding things. Normal has become almost convoluted. And I mean, when you think of the normal Australian, people always ask me where I'm from. Well, isn't that interesting, that you ask someone who's been here 50,000 years where they're from? 

Because what you understand to be a normal Australian shouldn't look like me, because that's not what we've told people is normal. So I think language is powerful. I think what's so interesting about redefining normal is making people think about that. I think what is normal to you really reflects where you're at, and how you're thinking about things. I think normal for me, it's like, anything and everything pride. It's far and wide. And it's individual.

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