We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

Nardean: the best of the West

In a gallery space with historic paintings on the wall, a smiling person holds their arms in the air, fingers pointing down.

Nardean in a video still from L-FRESH The LION and Nardean Gold frames, gold chains 2020 © the artists

Last year I attended the launch of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, in La Perouse. It was the first time I experienced Western Sydney Egyptian–Australian post-hip-hop artist Nardean. Performing her track ‘Aux cord’ as a spoken-word piece, Nardean held that room with an infectious energy, power and strength; I was mesmerised.

Fast forward a few months and our world had changed. Closures kicked in and I found myself reaching out to musicians to perform in the now empty Gallery for our newly created online project, Together In Art. It was a complete joy to film these musicians as they filled our uninhabited spaces with sound. Both L-FRESH The LION and Nardean delivered brilliant individual spoken-word pieces that were effectively portraits in sound and vision. Short and sharp, their performances spoke of and to their collective Western and South Western Sydney homes and experiences.

In late August, we invited both L-FRESH The LION and Nardean back to the Gallery to begin a conversation about Archie Plus and a potential collaborative musical work, to be made through a short residency and then exhibited in the Gallery. The artists were dead keen. After spending time in the Gallery writing amongst the art, their newly composed work Gold frames, gold chains emerged. Their recorded performance is on display in the Gallery’s Grand Courts as a two-channel video work.

I caught up with Nardean at her favourite cafe in Mt Druitt to chat about all things music and her part in the Archie Plus portrait project.

Two video screens on woodern stands sit in an historic gallery space where gold-framed paintings hang on the walls. On each screen is a different person filmed in that gallery.

Installed in the Grand Courts: L-FRESH The LION and Nardean Gold frames, gold chains 2020, lyrics, composition and performance, 2-channel video, documentation by Matthew McGuigan, Hospital Hill © the artists

Let’s kick this off. Have you always lived in St Clair?

West Sydney born and raised … (I love a good Fresh Prince ref). I’m living right now in the same house that I came home to from the hospital. I moved around for a few years. I left home when I was 21 but I moved back here when I got back from New York last year.

New York can be such a strange place, full of energy and with the spectacle of Western popular culture at every turn. How long were you there for?

I was meant to be in New York for 11 days and we ended up staying for 2 months. I was there with my friend and we kept joking that we were going to miss our flight, then we did. There’s so much great live music there, but I’m going to go to Egypt before I go back to New York.

I’m really interested in the shift that we can hear in music at the moment. Historically, world music was often about putting non-Western sounds into Western music structures, while now there is a new form that follows multiple structures from different places. I’ve been listening to a lot of experimental music from Egypt, Giza and Cairo mainly, people like 1127, 3Phaz and Digit.

It’s interesting you say that. My plan next year is to live in Egypt for 3 to 6 months and get music lessons. I want to learn how to sing Arabic songs properly, because there are things that I can’t hear in Australia. I grew up listening to and singing Arabic music, but I want to hear and learn it in the place it was made.

In a gallery space with historic paintings on the wall, a person stands next to a video screen on which they are shown in that same gallery.

Nardean with Gold frames, gold chains 2020, created in collaboration with L-FRESH The LION for Archie Plus

What triggered you to make music. What was the thing that you heard and thought, ‘That’s it, I can do that’?

I came to music super late in life. I grew up thinking I was destined to go to Uni, work in a job that I hated, get married, go to church every Sunday and hopefully go to heaven when I die. That was the plan. I grew up in a Christian family and went to church every weekend, but all of those things started breaking down when I moved out of home. I started dating a rapper and we went to a show where I saw a woman rapping on stage for the first time. I remember having full-body goosebumps and being like, ‘That’s what I’m meant to do with my life’.

You know that ignorant confidence you have when you’re new to a thing? That happened to me and I threw myself into it. I feel like when you’re doing the right thing it’s easier. Everything started to happen from then.

Who was the artist you saw?

It was Mirrah. I saw her playing at the Civic Underground when I was 21. My friend Rhys had a record label that put on shows there – with freestyle rappers, cyphers and so on. He posted on Facebook that they were looking for promoters and I thought, ‘I can do that’.

After I saw Mirrah on stage, I sent her a long Facebook message about how incredible it was to see her perform and then I sent her some poems I’d written and asked for some advice. It’s embarrassing to think about now, as we’re friends. She got back to me and said, if you want to rap, write poetry, then go to spoken-word nights and perform your poems. I think that really changed everything for me. It gave me an understanding of the importance of meaning what I say, and to express it in a way that’s not just … ‘Oh, here’s my rap bars’.

Rhys then hooked me up with ALPHAMAMA who was wanting someone to help her with her new label called God Queen. When I called her, there were goosebumps again, and tears, and then we just started hanging out. I performed at a bunch of events she did. Then I applied for a grant to make a record, which she helped me with, and I got it. It dropped in 2018, but it was probably about two years in the making.

I saw Mirrah perform in 1998 at the Metro Theatre on George St. It was a Public Enemy gig and Flavor Flav brought her out on stage halfway through their set. That was one of the first times I saw an Aussie hip-hop artist owning it.

Yes! She is so inspiring.

In a gallery space displaying historic artworks, two people sit around a table with laptop computers.

Nardean and L-FRESH The LION in residence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of Archie Plus

Let’s talk about Archie Plus. Can you share what your experience of the project was like?

It’s been so awesome working in the Gallery and being a part of Archie Plus. Every day of the residency was inspiring and the work happened organically. L-FRESH and I wrote Gold frames, gold chains together and we say each other’s lyrics. If you had told me I’d be rapping someone else’s lyrics, I wouldn’t have believed you, but the collaboration was easy and the way it’s set up on two screens as a live performance is cool.

I have to say, you inspired us. Can you elaborate on what it has been like to hear your music in the Gallery, particularly in the Grand Courts where your work was written, recorded and now lives?

The new work has come from a lot of those conversations we all had about music and its presence as art, our cultural currency, storytelling from our homes, and the current state of hip-hop and where it’s going for artists like us. The work itself is about the possibility of what we can do if we do it together. We knew exactly what we were there to do: new music, telling our story and doing it in our way. Adding the beat and shifting it away from poetry to hip-hop – an art form that is ours – really makes it.

Two images of people wearing white t-shirts in a gallery space with historic paintings on the wall. The person on the left has curly dark hair and wears a red headband. The person on the right has a beard and wears a red turban.

Nardean (left) and L-FRESH The LION (right) in video stills from their collaboration, Gold frames, gold chains 2020 © the artists

Lastly, what’s next and what do you think about the future of music?

I’ve started producing all my own music. I’m interested in finding new ways to get music out there. It’s the era of community. It’s no longer the era of the individual rising to power. COVID-19 is making us realise that materialism and capitalism are not sustainable.

I agree, and that connection to local communities must be central. I think the pandemic has helped people realise the music we have here in Australia is great, and let’s just do as much as we can with that. What’s your closing line again in Gold frames, gold chains?

‘Who would I be doing it for, if not for my community?’ I love that as a question to end on.