MC Rulla Kelly-Mansell, a Tulampunga Pakana man from Kooparoona Niara, Lutruwita (Tasmania) has joined forces with Marlon Motlop, of Larrakia, Kungarrakany and Thursday Islander to deliver the inspirational song of empowerment and pride, “Black Swan”.
These two proud indigenous Australians met whilst playing AFL for the Glenelg football club in South Australia. Bonding over their love of music, they have started to write songs together, and the first track to be published is “Black Swan”. Rulla says of the song “Black Swan’s purpose is to empower first nations “mobs to stand up and be proud of where we are from”.
The duo has had some great showcase gigs of late. They opened for Midnight Oil at Womad, as well as playing at Darwin’s Bass in the Grass.
The duo are balancing their musical careers with other diverse commitments. Marlon is still playing for Glenelg (having previously played for Port Adelaide) and is a partner in a business growing indigenous herbs.
Rulla has come out the other side successfully from treatment for aggressive cancer, works in media, has a charity for mental health and is still playing some footy.
I caught up with the duo to chat about their new musical project, how they came to work together and what they’ve got coming down the line.
Hi guys, where are you both?
Marlon: Brisbane, I’ve got a work conference up here the next few days.
Rulla: Darwin airport. I’ve just arrived. I’m about to head over to the Tiwis in 2 hours. Marlon, I’m in your hometown! How are you going Bruce?
Well thanks. What are you doing up in the Tiwis?
Rulla: Filming a series on Aboriginal weather seasons, so we’ve chosen the Tiwis as one of the spots to go to
Congratulations on Black Swan. How did the two of you end up working together on that one?
Marlon: Myself and Rulla met about 4 years ago, – maybe even 5 – on a coaching trip in Darwin. Rulla ended up coming across from Tasmania to play at Glenelg footy club. It was kind of like that awkward footy player friendship where we both knew that we dabbled in a bit of music, but never sat down together and talked about it, or had sat down with a guitar together.
It took a few months and Rulla invited me around to his house one day and we were playing around with a few songs, and then he showed me “Black Swan” and yeah, I loved the song. He asked me to add a few things to it, add some of my vibe to it, and I added a verse. That was about 14 months ago I reckon.
It’s a great track. I like the mix of the rap, the acoustic guitar, and the alternating flow between the 2 of you. And that you’ve name-checked some great First Nations storytellers – Tiddas, Archie Roach, Dan Sultan and Kev Carmody. They have all been great communicators for your people.
Rulla: Yes – part of it is paying homage to them. Without them, we wouldn’t have a lane of opportunity to voice a song like Black Sawn into the space that it is today. Without the work of those people in particular, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do right now. You’ve got to pay respect when you can.
B: Yes, you’ve done that. And the video was really moving. Seeing you play it for Archie, that was pretty special
Marlon: When we were discussing the song and the film clip, which was very early on, probably about a year ago, I had a little thought. Imagine if we could sample in something like a voice of someone as significant as Archie or Kev Carmody, cause Rulla references them in his first verse.
It turned out that Rulla through his connection with Archies manager was able to connect us. And for us to be able to perform in front of him, and perform it to him, along with another song, was probably in amongst all the Womad stuff, was probably the highlight of that whole Womad experience. It set off an amazing week.
Rulla: I was having a look today, almost 4 years ago to the day, through some old photos on my phone of myself and Uncle Archie when he played at Dark Mofo with Tiddas, and I remember telling him about “Black Swan” then, which feels pretty crazy. It’s come around full circle, it’s amazing.
… and then opening for Midnight Oil at Womad – must have been a blast
Marlon: That was amazing. I guess the Oils have been a part of my life personally through my family. They’ve always been played at family gatherings. The messaging through their music has been synonymous with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. They have been a huge advocate for our people and our messages and to be able to open on the biggest night of the festival, just before Midnight Oil was amazing.
Tell us about Blkmpire who produced the track
Marlon. Yes – Blkmpire produced the song. He started with an acoustic raw vision which we filmed at Rullas house, and jumped on it straight away. He produced it and then wanted to do the full video.
He is an artist himself under Jimblah, but has formed Blkmpire which is a First Nations space for artists to come together and collaborate. To be able to work in a culturally safe space to create. He has worked tirelessly on the video and the song as well.
We are super happy with how it has come up. He has been able to champion some really great First Nations artists, makeup artists, dancers, choreographers, and myself and Rulla. It’s more than just a song and video. It’s a celebration of creatives in the South Australian space, which is a space that is growing by the day.
Musically – what’s in line for you guys next?
Ruller: We have heaps of gigs coming up. We’re lucky enough that we’ve had some great live gigs and been putting a lot of energy into our live set. We are jumping into the studio in July to track our live set with the band.
We have a band behind us who are all First Nations artists, which is pretty speccy. There are six of us all up. We’ll track that. We want to keep getting music out. “Black Swan”, as joyful as it is, has been a long time coming, almost a little bit of relief that we can get it out into the world and the world can hear it and absorb it. But now, we’re right, let’s go, let’s do the next one.
We just want to keep on playing gigs and get some music out there. Cause, I think what we’re writing and playing and engaging is going to be really worthwhile. Not just in a musical sense, but in the greater purpose than just the sound.
And you guys have your own side thing going on. Marlon, you have your Native Co. ?
Marlon: I’m a partner in a native herb business on the edge of the Barossa. We’ve been nominated for a couple of awards. That’s really growing. And playing football amongst that as well.
Rulla, you run your charity Make Runs Maxi
Rulla: Yeah – I run a positive mental health charity. It’s been established for 4 years. I have a team of about 7. They are largely based in Tassie, which is home for me. I’m doing my ABC work as well, as try to play football which keeps me busy.
What were your musical backgrounds?
Marlon: I’m from Darwin. The Motlov name is quite a big sporting name. But what a lot of people don’t know is that as well as being playing sport, we’ve been playing music.
My dad was a student of music. He went to university and studied music. That was when I was really young. Whatever he learnt at music he would bring home and teach me, my brother and sister. So, to be honest I used to hate it. I used to sit and we’d get home from school and at 5.30 every night we’d have to go into the room and go through the guitar chords and do a proper lesson.
I’d be sitting there with tears in my eyes learning a g-chord, and an a-minor and all this stuff, and I’m so thankful now, and I’ve got the ability to hear music and understand it, and pickup songs and melodies and pick up chord progressions easily. I’m so grateful for that.
Also through our Aboriginal and Torres Strait background, guitars were introduced into our music a long time ago, percussion as well. A lot of our family gatherings would be with music from Torres Staits and would involve guitars and singing. It’s been a constant every day, within my life there.
What about you Rulla?
Rulla: For me, like a lot of young aboriginal men and women, I started dancing before playing music. I was doing a lot of cultural dancing which let me engage with music. I got to tour with Xavier Rudd from a young age and got a feel for being around live music.
And I was learning a little bit of guitar at school, but I wasn’t that great. But I used to watch Xavier play and learn off him. My uncle was a singer/songwriter. He lived in Hobart and played in pubs and clubs around there.
But it started with the dancing, and then I learnt guitar. I come from a pretty remote place in Tassie, which is already pretty remote. It had a hippy vibe, I went to an environment-friendly primary school where all the music we were listening to was rock or punk or stuff like the Oils. I learnt to play listening to those sort of musicians, but I learnt I couldn’t sing. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the singing gene, hence the connection to rap and hiphop.
I love listening to hip-hop and rap. From the 90’s era. My brother is seven years older so I was always listening to his CDs and tapes and practising rapping over the likes of Snoop Dog. Then I was writing my own raps to acoustic guitar and that’s been my vibe got a long time.
I was just a bedroom jammer for as long as I can remember, as I was too nervous thinking that rap and acoustic didn’t go together. It turns out that it does, and it’s going well!
It certainly does. Thanks heaps for your time. Good luck with “Black Swan” and we look forward to what comes next.