JK-47: “I Been Fighting This War, But I Been Winning It”

JK-47 is one of the most important voices in Australian music. He further cements his status on his introspective new project, 'Revision For Regrowth'. Writer Matthew Craig caught up with the Tweed Heads MC to talk about facing life's battles head-on. Words by Matthew Craig

By Matthew Craig, 10/11/2023

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“They weren’t even ready for me, but you know I had to get it done!”

JK-47 is recalling a moment from a couple of weeks ago. We ran into each other on the front steps of ABC’s studios in Sydney, as he was heading in to perform as part of an episode of triple j’s cypher series ‘Bars of Steel’.

Seated in a gaming chair at his new home studio in Tweed Heads, JK laughs that, despite the disorganisation, fellow Indigenous emcee and occasional ‘Hip-Hop Show’ guest host Tasman Keith happened to be around at the time to welcome him onto the segment. “We just walk, man. Enjoy the journey. Let everything come to us.”

The journey to this point is befitting of one of the country’s premier storytellers. Born Jacob Paulson in NSW’s most northerly coastal town which he still calls home, JK-47’s upbringing was marked by the natural beauty of the region, but his childhood wasn’t without its challenges. Social and economic disparities have long been at play in a community where the median household income sits almost 30% below the national average. “We’ve come a long way, me and my family, the trials and tribulations that we’ve been through.”

It’s this reality that forged JK-47’s social consciousness and fueled his desire to use his music as a platform to address these concerns. Raised by a single mother, he witnessed firsthand the struggles that many in his community faced and recognised the need to speak out against the status quo.

“First thing I tried to do was be American. It wasn’t Kerser or Hilltop Hoods. It was The Game & 50 Cent”, chuckles JK, reflecting on his early moments discovering hip-hop. Like many across the world who accessed the culture from outside the United States, he was attracted to hip-hop’s aspirational, capitalist lens — a cornerstone of the genre. Had he not become aware of his surroundings, and blindly chased “all that”, his story may be very different. “I didn’t have it, so I didn’t relate to it. But I was attracted to it. I had to look around and keep it real to myself,” he explains. “I live this. And that’s why it’s so real.”

That story is one he shares with me while dressed in a well-worn, oversized, black, Nike singlet. He’s not wearing any bling — besides his signature smile, which he carries with him constantly. It’s a far cry from the designer caricature that has become synonymous with many rappers. “It’s a very slow and draining process, financially and mentally, being an independent rapper, let alone not trying to rap about what everyone else is rapping about, that we know sells.”

If there’s a tide in Australian hip-hop, JK-47 is swimming against it. He’s not interested in being a businessman or digital marketer — that’s a job for others in his team. His focus is firmly on the art of music and the craft of rap. His purpose is to be a storyteller, and his destiny is to reach ears across the country. As he sees it, his only task is to keep getting better. ”That’s my job. My job is a storyteller. I got people around me that focus on all that sorta stuff because their mind can be there. I’m not able to do that.”

At well over six feet tall and with a shoulder width to make anyone jealous, JK-47 has a presence. However, as we talk over video chat, I’m struck by how gentle he is. Every response is incredibly considered and measured; signs of a being who, as his album title suggests, has spent many hours undertaking revision and regrowth. He lists marriage, fatherhood, and travel as key factors that have forced his personal evolution.

In 2020, his critically acclaimed debut album showcased a skillset and maturity beyond his years. Reviewing the project, the ABC wrote, “More than an introduction; it’s a bold portrait of a young life described with intensity and honesty”. Made For This was more than just a musical endeavour; it was a manifesto of self-discovery. It was also a declaration of future intent, one that firmly entrenched him as a leading artist in Australia’s hip-hop renaissance.

Not content with merely sharing his own story, JK aimed to become a voice for those who needed it most. On ‘Wings’, he rapped about finding a way to thrive: “Survivin’ since they came and tried to murder my tribe/A juvenile until I found a way to murder the mic/A way to harness all my darkness and turn it to light/No doubt, I know we bound to make it out alive.” Now, some three years on, it’s less about where he’s headed — that journey is well underway. On Revision For Regrowth he’s reflecting on where he’s been, and what he’s been through. “I been fighting that war. But I been winning it.”

Despite outside successes, such as the NIMA Album Of The Year award, which sits proudly on the wall beside him, internally Jacob has been wrestling daily with the doubts and insecurities commonly befalling a new husband and father, let alone one in the public spotlight. “I’m not gonna front, man. I been struggling too. Even though I been doing a good job. I been struggling too.”

He reveals the body image and mental health challenges he has endured since a young age, and his commitment to ensuring his own battles are won, and not passed on to the people around him. “I never was confident about myself. I was overweight in school. Everyone might’ve thought I was cool, but on the inside I never thought of myself as that. I never had my own back. Every day I gotta be better. I can’t stay the same. I gotta keep evolving and being that better version of myself. You can’t bring that shit from your past to your current self and your future.”

“I never was confident about myself … Everyone might’ve thought I was cool, but on the inside I never thought of myself as that. I never had my own back.”

At the core of his identity is a hardened resolve to be better than his circumstances. Whether they be the hardships of his upbringing, or the temptations of indulgence in his current music industry surroundings, JK-47 is set on his path, moving out of intention rather than emotion. He remains grateful to the tight-knit circle around him, particularly his wife Lauren, conscious that their sacrifices enable him to focus on music, and aware that his actions impact his team, his family, and his community.

It’s little wonder that a man of faith, with such a strong spiritual connection to the Bundjalung land, speaks in metaphors about nature. ‘Rain’ and ‘Seeds For The Future’ are titles taken from songs at either end of the new album that personify his character: everything he sows from his good works today is calculated to multiply in generations to come. On ‘Introspect’, he raps, “Know what I’m standing for/This what got planned so I’m planting my feet”.

Like a flower, his biggest goal is continual growth. In order to achieve that, he must equip himself with the right conditions. His daily reflections, readings, and learnings are the actions of a gardener: “going through your garden up here (points to head), picking out all the weeds”. JK lives what he raps, just listen to‘Introspect’: “I keep sowing them seeds, we don’t talk what we do not believe. We turning thoughts into reality”.

The new album is a testimony of victory. It’s an affirmation of pushing boundaries to discover new horizons, sonically, lyrically, and personally. The twelve tracks play as a diary entry narrated by JK-47, communicating through both rap and the spoken word, while notable guests, including Adrian Eagle, Tasman Keith, DENNI and ECB, help provide the context and surroundings where the protagonist overcomes both the challenges of his surrounds, and those within.

No mention of JK-47 is appropriate without proper recognition of his longtime collaborator and childhood friend, Jay Orient, who produced this album.Jay showed me the pocket and I been in the pocket ever since,” he remarks. While initially he was obsessed with gangster rap, he told me, it was actually Jay’s palette of the ’90s golden era that led to the sonic style you hear today. For this project, they studied Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, dissecting how the album utilised jazz instrumentation to powerfully portray a social conscience.

When quizzed about expectations for the album’s reception and the standard industry measures of success, JK-47 quickly responds with a grin. “I’m already successful in my book. I’m already famous. These kids know who I am. They’re teaching my stuff in these schools and English classes.” This seemingly simple joy separates JK from many of his contemporaries. Numbers, streaming achievements, awards — they’re all secondary. His art is the greatest reward. His success comes from simply creating and telling stories, anything beyond that is a bonus. “I do it for the output, not the outcome.”

That outcome is often unforeseen. Just as the future harvest of seeds sown cannot be measured today, JK reflects that the simple act of penning his thoughts and performing them has been crucial in the overcoming of his own mental hurdles. “Imagine all the stuff that I’ve said and written about. Getting up and performing it, just reciting it over and over again. Resolving over and over again. That’s been an effect I didn’t even know my music would have.”

A newly bloomed blossom brightens the landscape around it, and it has no greater purpose than that. JK-47 exists as a conduit to the betterment of the environment that surrounds him, and while his new project will undoubtedly find a home in many end of year lists, that matters very little to him.

“You don’t get your flowers until you’re gone man. You just gotta keep working.”

JK-47’s new album Revision For Regrowth is out now. 

Matthew Craig is a hip-hop head from Northside Naarm. Catch him on socials via @whatmsees_rmf.

Image: Supplied

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