“We Have A Third World Country”: Dallas Woods Wants To Hold Australia Accountable

“I just want to let people know that we are watching.”

Dallas Woods - This Is Home

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These are the basics about Wyndham, Western Australia: it has a population of 780. It’s been known to tip the mercury at 46 degrees Celsius in summer, a climate that’s earned it the title of Australia’s hottest town.

It is 3351 kilometres from Perth, 1038 kilometres from Broome, or 446 kilometres from Darwin, nestled on Duulngari country in the Kimberly region. Its main tourist attraction is a 20-metre high Big Croc statue.

It’s also the place where rapper Dallas Woods grew up. Ask him about it and he’ll tell you the good with the bad.

“The Kimberley made me who I am,” he says. “Only because it wasn’t easy. It was like war.”

Today, Woods, a Noongar man, is an ascendant name in Australia’s hip-hop scene. Though he’s only officially a year into his career, Woods has already released three singles of his own plus a collaboration with Baker Boy, his longtime friend, collaborator and right-hand-man. He’s been played on triple j and performed at festivals like Splendour in the Grass, Laneway and Groovin the Moo.

But his path to music began back in Wyndham. It’s kind of a long story.

Photo Credit: Supplied.

Out Of Wyndham

At age seven, Woods moved from Perth to Wyndham together with his mum and six siblings. It was, he says, “a big change” from the city.

“No one really spoke English,” he says. The heat was oppressive, the cultural differences were stark, and the community was so small that every student, from year six until year ten, was taught in the same classroom. Dallas loved the freedom of life there, the time spent outdoors and the sense of community — his affection for the town is obvious in the 64 Bars rap and This Is Home episode about growing up in Wyndham he created with Red Bull, who have long championed Dallas’ creative pursuits and artistic growth. But there were challenges, too.

“You were exposed to a lot of things — drinking, racism — before you should have been and that makes you grow up a lot quicker,” he reflects. “When you live in a community where it’s a 50 minute walk from one end to the other, all this stuff was just so in your face.”

When Dallas was 14, he dropped out of school (“It wasn’t because I hated school, it’s just because I didn’t think school had anything for me.”). He was adrift the next year when Indigenous Hip-Hop Projects (IHHP) — a group of artists who travel around Indigenous communities in Australia, performing dance and music routines with public health messages — came to Wyndham. They ended up being his way out.

“‘Cos I wasn’t going to school I’d stand outside the fence and watch them dance and be like ‘ah, these guys are decent’.” Eventually, Dallas made contact and the troupe invited him to dance with them at a concert in town. His mum asked them to keep Dallas around.

“My mum pretty much said, look, my son’s gonna end up in jail or juvenile [detention] soon if he doesn’t find something to do. Can you give him two week’s work experience?”

“My mum pretty much said, look, my son’s gonna end up in jail or juvenile [detention] soon if he doesn’t find something to do. Can you give him two week’s work experience?”

He got the work experience and, quickly, an ongoing job dancing and travelling around Australia with IHHP. But regularly flying in and out of Wyndham isn’t exactly cheap so at age 15, Dallas relocated to Melbourne by himself. It was a baptism of fire. Or, given this is Melbourne we’re talking about, a baptism of drizzle and wind.

“I got to Melbourne and hopped off [the plane] with only shorts and a singlet because that’s all I had,” he laughs. “Wyndham is the hottest inhabited place in Australia. To go anywhere below 20 degrees, that’s Antarctica to me.”

The weather wasn’t the only thing he had to adjust to. “In the city there were so many rules and regulations and too many people,” he explains. “Even something as simple as catching a train — I didn’t know where I was going. I got a fine on my first day because I jumped on the train and they were like, ‘you’ve got to buy a ticket!’ I didn’t know that.

“Where I’m from, you got kids driving around in cars and stuff. It’s just freedom. That was the hardest thing about moving away from home — not having anyone who could understand what you were feeling. I was in my own country, but I felt like I wasn’t in my own country. I felt like I was in an alien area.”

Eventually, he found his feet and a supportive social circle. Then, a few years down the track, IHHP introduced Dallas to someone who’d become another key figure in his life: Danzal Baker, aka Baker Boy.

Like Woods, he’d moved alone from a remote community (Baker grew up in the Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi and Maningrida) to dance with the initiative. Dallas took the then 19-year-old Danzal under his wing to help ease the transition to city life. For Dallas, it was always just about being a big brother to Danzal. “It just so happened to be he’s ridiculously talented,” Dallas laughs.

Dallas Woods

Woods on stage at Red Bull Music Festival. Photo Credit: Supplied

When Baker Boy’s music career rapidly took off and saw him get booked for shows around the country, Danzal asked Dallas to travel with him, as they’d done when they were visiting communities with IHHP. The answer was a resounding yes: “I was like oath, I’m coming!”

Within a few months the pair went from playing in schools with only a dozen students to festivals like Splendour, Laneway, and Groovin the Moo. Having Dallas around helped Baker Boy acclimatise to his sudden fame. “That transition is so much easier when you’re doing it with someone you see as family,” Dallas says. “I pray that every artist finds that person that they can professional around, but they can also be at home around.”

Though not even he realised quite how big it had all got. “I never really knew what Splendour was, I didn’t know what Byron Bay was. I’d heard of it but I was like — where is it? Is that Home & Away?”

Something To Say

IHHP opened the door out of Wyndham for Dallas, but it was always rap he had his heart set on (as he puts it: “dancing was my profession, rapping was my passion”). So after Baker Boy went big with ‘Cloud 9’, Dallas decided to take the leap into making music of his own.

“I saw the reception he was getting. It wasn’t jealousy; it was inspiration. It felt good watching him get that because of how much I love him. And then I’m like, I could do that for myself, you know?”

Dallas Woods

Photo Credit: Supplied

Woods’ first track was 2018’s ‘9 Times Out Of 10’, a scathing indictment of corruption in the justice system. “At the time I wrote it, in the Northern Territory, 100 percent of the kids in juvenile prison were indigenous. 100 percent. I’ve been all through NT, it’s not just Indigenous people who live there.”

Creating music with a message has kept Woods busy ever since. His track ‘Hoodlum’ tackles racial stereotyping (“at that time, the African youth couldn’t even walk around Melbourne without getting called a criminal”); he later collaborated with Baker Boy on the black empowerment anthem ‘Black Magic’. Along the way, he found himself on some of the country’s biggest festival stages, performing sets of his own with Red Bull at Splendour, as well as supporting Sampa The Great at last month’s Red Bull Music Festival in Melbourne.

Part of what he loves about music is the platform it provides. “Growing up, I wanted to be in the AFL. Every single kid wanted to be in the AFL. And some of them are! Which is good. But it felt like sports was the only way out.

“Then the power of music really got to me and I saw how much it can connect to what we’re already doing as Aboriginal people with song and dance, which has been part of our culture since the beginning. I realised I could make my change through music. I didn’t have to go to school and become a lawyer or something, because that wasn’t my path.”

Dallas also sees it as a way to keep Australia accountable.

“I just want to let people know that we are watching,” he says gesturing around. “You don’t have to be that educated person to have a say. You can just be someone that has been actually in the midst of it and seen firsthand what racism and inequality can do to a person.”

“It made me want to do something with my life so I can talk about it. When I’m on stage now, I do songs about suicide. I raise awareness.”

He cares about putting what he’s seen growing up in a remote community into song. “In Australia, we have a third world country. It’s hard to think like that. You paint your picture of where you’re from to people and they’re like, “Nah. That can’t be.” Yes, it can be… music helped me because it was an outlet, but it was also a tool of engagement that I could actually use to make a difference with my people.”

One of the issues he’s particularly concerned with is youth suicide. “In the Kimberley, there’s a lot of it,” he says. “I was losing a lot of people, especially from that age of around 15 to 18. The Kimberley, if it was a country, not a region, it would have the highest suicide rate per capita in the world. There’s 15-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 13-year-olds taking their lives now. There’s still not enough resources. They’ll [the government] go up there and dig the country out but they won’t go up there and set up a hub for mental health. Their priorities aren’t straight.”

“It made me want to do something with my life so I can talk about it. When I’m on stage now, I do songs about suicide. I raise awareness.”

Wyndham, WA.

Kimberley Boy Gone Big

Dallas Woods doesn’t only take his music to stages like Splendour. He also regularly works in prions, bringing songwriting workshops to inmates in both adult and juvenile facilities.

“Some of them are just kids, legitimately just kids. I look at them like my little brother. Like, what are you doing in here?” he says. “There are a lot of kids in there who don’t have that role model who could at least just care for them and say ‘man, you could do better than this’. It might change someone’s life. If I can help one or two, maybe I’m doing my job right.”

And while Wyndham still has a special place in his heart, 25-year-old Woods doesn’t plan on returning any time soon. “It’s home, but it’s not where I can grow as a person,” he says. “Right now, I’m focusing on music. I thank that opportunity and my mum for trusting me not to mess it up. And I still got a lot more I want to do.”

“There were a lot of bumps along the way,” he grins. “But at the end of the day, what’s play without battle scars?”

Katie Cunningham is a former editor of Junkee, a co-host of the money podcast Frugal Forever, and a freelance writer based in Sydney. She is on Twitter

Photo Credit: Supplied