Known for his work in the music scene of Naarm (Melbourne), Neil Morris—known under his moniker of DRMNGNOW—creates the music that calls to him. A Yorta Yorta artist who often performs on Kulin land, Neil's artistry ties together multiple genres and disciplines to form soundscapes that fuse his deep appreciation for the land and his peoples alongside genres of poetry, hip-hop, ambiance, soul and spoken-word.
Experimental and dynamic, Neil's latest singles 'Indigenous Land' and 'Australia Does Not Exist' are more than personal journeys; highlighting the truths many Indigenous peoples experience and stand for. Ahead of his appearance at Collarts' NAIDOC Week workshops, we spoke with Neil about music as healing, 'Indigenous Land' and the joys of the creative process.
Hey Neil, thanks for chatting with me. Known mainly under your artist name DRMNGNOW, you've always been proud of your heritage. Has music always been empowering or cathartic to you?
I feel incredibly blessed to have ties to this sacred land. As a Yorta Yorta person with the history of my people, just standing is an honour—to be a continuation of the beautiful lines of people they have been for thousands of years.
Since the very first day I ever began engaging with music practice as an art, I have definitely found it to have a mesmerising cathartic power that is beyond compare, in that it's most definitely been empowering. To engage in music practice as an Indigenous person on this land is automatically to engage in what has been a sacred aspect of living in these lands for thousands of years. We re-evoke all of that history every time we play music on these lands as First Nations.
"I believe strongly in choosing what feels like the right thing that one is being called to do at a period in time. This is what my ancestors offer me."
Totally. Blending together multiple genres and disciplines along with your language Yorta Yorta, your music is a truly personal experience. Have you always been confident about sharing your experiences as an Indigenous artist or is speaking your truth something you've had to work on?
For me, words haven't always been a medium I've seen as being a pinnacle in the musical art form. And still, even though recently having explored use of word in quite a direct manner about certain issues on this land, my inclination is to first create sound. So for me, it's been more a case of not feeling like it; where perhaps the right time to be expressive through the use of words. Recently, something came to me to feel that now was a time in my journey to be more expressive with words, being in the format of hip-hop and rap structure. I believe strongly in choosing what feels like the right thing that one is being called to do at a period in time. This is what my ancestors offer me. These prods to explore and express for whatever reason at whatever particular time. I feel that it's very much beyond my control on a very deep level.
"People have been living on a land due to the bloodshed and forced removal of Indigenous peoples. The intensity of that is lost on people... perhaps some anthemic repetitious music can play a role getting people thinking on this, whose radar it doesn't currently register on."
I understand what you're saying. Your recent single 'Indigenous Land' reflects on these feelings, looking at colonialism and the sacred indigenous systems that have been disturbed. What's one thing you're hoping non-Indigenous people will take away from the single, and what actions would you encourage they take?
With 'Indigenous Land', the track seemed to be written almost in autopilot, as though it was already inside of me bursting to be released onto the surface. When I created the track, initially it was simply going with what felt like was a track that upon its own volition just wanted to be made. So my expectations were not conscious for any particular outcome. That said now that it is out there, if it makes people stop for a minute and think and feel a truth to the words then that is a beautiful thing.
People have been living on a land due to the bloodshed and forced removal of Indigenous peoples. The intensity of that is lost on people, so if there's a piece of art out there that can remind people of that, I feel that's quite important. The original injustices of colonisation have still not been faced front-on at all. Perhaps some anthemic repetitious music can play a role getting people thinking on this, whose radar it doesn't currently register on. Above and beyond, if there was one hope when I released the track, it was that Indigenous people—not only here but —might feel empowered and uplifted by it.
"I believe young and emerging artists—or ultimately all artists—should focus more on the joys that the creative process offers... we are not obliged to be a branded product that remains in a dormant stagnant state."
Of course, music is powerful like that. In fact, you don't let genres or expectations define your work. What advice would you give young Indigenous and/or artists of colour who are struggling to make music that "defines" who they are?
I believe young and emerging artists—or ultimately all artists—should focus more on the joys that the creative process offers them and to follow their creative instincts and joys. First and foremost, we have to enjoy the music we are creating. We need to love what we create. And on any given day that could be different. We are not obliged to be a branded product that remains in a dormant stagnant state. Music was never gifted to us for those types of reasons.
"Our voices have been silenced and underrepresented far too long. The resurgence in musical voice of our people is amazing."
Reflecting on your music, you often collaborate and support artists in the Naarm (Melbourne) music scene. What artists are you currently listening to and being inspired by?
I'm blessed to be surrounded by a lot of amazing music makers in Naarm, both First Nations mob and otherwise. In terms of current inspirations, I've been listening to a lot of lo-fi music generally, with focus on texture-laden layered beauty. I'm digging so many emerging Indigenous artists specifically as music makers in this country. Our voices have been silenced and underrepresented far too long. The resurgence in musical voice of our people is amazing.
I have a show with a sister Rebecca Hatch in Eora Land on July 10th. She is gifted and is bringing a really fresh vibe into the sound of Indigenous music out here that is mature beyond her years. I'm inspired by a brother Janarli from a group called Indigenoise. A poet and spiritual warrior, he embodies the spirit of our peoples and ancestors in a special way. Mojo Juju too; I'm excited for her new work, it will be something really special. A poet Laniyuk is also an amazing emerging artist, the power of this Larrikia woman is something to behold. And my most listened to Naarm-based artist this year would be easily Willow Beats. Narayan and Kalyani are both incredible talents with worlds of inspiration to continue to bring to us all in the future.
Keep up to date with DRMNGNOW (Neil Morris) on Facebook here. Collarts recognises that our student-only NAIDOC Week event will be held on stolen land. We wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation and their Elders past and present. Sovereignty never ceded.