ONEFOUR documentary

In ‘ONEFOUR: Against All Odds’, Australian Hip-Hop Goes Global

Australian drill group ONEFOUR are one of the country’s biggest musical exports — but their rise hasn’t come without controversy. Writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist Ben Madden spoke to ONEFOUR member Celly, director Gabriel Gasparinatos and producer Erin Moy about the making of the documentary. Words by Ben Madden

By Ben Madden, 6/11/2023

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Western Sydney rap group ONEFOUR are the pioneers of drill music in Australia. It’s a genre that’s known for being dark, gritty and often confronting — artists making drill music don’t tend to shy away from the realities of what they’ve seen and experienced. Instead, they’re committed to telling stories that are as raw as possible, even if that may be unpalatable to certain sections of society. Drill music first emerged in Chicago in the early parts of the 2010s thanks in large part to Chief Keef, before it made its way to the UK. It’s primarily UK drill (and artists like Harlem Spartans) that caught the ear of ONEFOUR, and inspired them to tell the stories of what they were seeing and experiencing growing up in Mount Druitt, including the violence and poverty that exists within Australian society. 

Drill music has given a voice to many that may not otherwise have been able to speak to audiences on a national and global level — but it’s also a genre that attracts significant police attention. A new documentary, ONEFOUR: Against All Odds, captures ONEFOUR’s struggles with the NSW Police, and highlights the pressures they have faced from NSW Police’s anti-bikie squad, Strike Force Raptor.

Throughout the documentary, we hear from three members of the group — Jerome ‘J Emz’ Misa, Spencer ‘Spenny’ Magalogo and Pio ‘YP’ Misa — who, along with members Salec ‘Lekks’ Su’a and Dahcell ‘Celly’ Ramos, make up ONEFOUR. The documentary also features interviews with pivotal figures in ONEFOUR’s story, such as their manager Ricky Simandjuntak and mentor Hau Lātūkefu. It’s a revealing insight into the inner workings of one of Australia’s most important musical acts, and the people that surround them.

Junkee caught up with the documentary’s director, Gabriel Gasparinatos, producer, Erin Moy, and ONEFOUR member Celly, to talk about ONEFOUR: Against All Odds. “It’s really not just a drill music doco,” Gabriel says. “It’s a doco about a group of drill musicians. But I think it’s so much more than that. And I really think that people, fans of the music or not, will connect with it.” Erin adds, “It’s very much our hope and intention that it brings a lot of people who don’t already know about drill music and don’t already know about the group into some of the wider things that we’re talking about in terms of who gets to make art in Australia in the eyes of police and why they get to have a say in censoring content.”

Filmed over a four-year period, the documentary delves into what’s happened during ONEFOUR’s journeys so far— both musical and personal — and Erin says the extended filming period “allowed us to go a bit deeper and make a connection with all the participants. And I think it unearthed a lot of stuff that was a different angle, but also some really challenging moments. We wanted to make sure that the audience could feel all of that. Because, obviously, the people who are living it were feeling it.”

From Mount Druitt To The World

A lot’s been said and written about Western Sydney’s new status as a musical hub of Australia, a reputation that’s emerged over the last few years. The spotlight that’s been shone on the area is, in part, thanks to ONEFOUR’s success. In the documentary, the members of ONEFOUR reflect on how the area’s been represented to date in the media, while news reports interspersed throughout the documentary show the prevailing negative attitudes held towards both Mount Druitt and drill music. 

To have a spotlight shone on the area in a way that’s reflecting on the power of community, rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes, is something that Celly welcomes. The documentary highlights both the group’s Samoan heritage and their faith, with members of the group first meeting at a Mormon church. 

Celly says, ”It’s good [for] people to see more into Mount Druitt than what they hear, what they think about it, especially for my community and my culture as well, just to see what we’re doing and what we go through, and to give them hope and faith as well. And just to show, if they got dreams as well or accomplishments that they want to go for, it just goes to show, if you want to go out or live your dreams, go get it.”

The documentary also captures another side of growing up in Mount Druitt, one the members of ONEFOUR, as well as other interviewees like acclaimed investigative journalist Mahmood Fazal, discuss in candid detail. There are multiple clips featuring physical altercations that are included as a backdrop to help illuminate why ONEFOUR’s bonds with each other, as well as those around them, are so strong. As they describe in the documentary, having each other’s back was a way of protecting each other. The group’s legal challenges are also featured in the documentary. Three members of the group, Lekks, YP and Celly, were all jailed after a brawl at a Rooty Hill pub in July 2018. All three members have completed their sentences: YP was released in December 2021, Lekks was released in January of this year, and Celly was released in June. 

Policing The Art (And The Artists)

The documentary features the perspectives of two members of the NSW Police who were directly involved in Strike Force Raptor: Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Weinstein and the former head of Strike Force Raptor, Deb Wallace. Both are candid about the lengths that they, and the NSW Police, were willing to go to to curb the perceived influence of ONEFOUR. One of the documentary’s most revealing moments comes from Mr Weinstein, who says that “we will make sure that we are lawfully harassing that group”. According to 2021 reports, Strike Force Raptor receives $15 million in annual funding.   

In 2019, NSW Police also established Strike Force Imbara in order to combat street crime in Western Sydney, and their focus on ONEFOUR primarily stems from their belief that the group is connected to ongoing street feuds in Sydney. As outlined in the documentary, they have previously alleged that the group is connected to a turf war between rival groups (otherwise known as “postcode gangs”) in Sydney’s inner west and greater west. While police have also attempted to link their lyrics to gang violence (in 2022, they attempted to force platforms like Snapchat and YouTube to stop hosting drill music-related content), ONEFOUR denies any connection.

The presence of Mr Weinstein and Ms Wallace isn’t the only insight we get into the pressures that NSW Police have placed on the group. The documentary also features vision from a raid on J Emz and YP’s home, a raid that took place on what was meant to be one of the group’s most triumphant days. The group were set to secretly perform as part of long-time supporter and global superstar The Kid LAROI’s Sydney show at QUDOS Bank Arena, during his End of the World Tour. The raid commenced shortly before the group were meant to head to the performance, but in the documentary, Mr Weinstein denies that the two events were linked. The raid meant they were not able to perform that night (though, as the documentary’s climax shows, they were able to perform at The Kid LAROI’s second Sydney show the following evening). 

The group has long faced difficulty when trying to play live: the focus of the documentary is the group’s cancelled 2019 national tour. Following the release of their single ‘In The Beginning’, the group announced a national tour, featuring shows in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth. The documentary tracks the group’s reaction as venues pull out from the tour, after concerns were raised about public safety. Speaking to the ABC’s Background Briefing at the time, Sergeant Nathan Trueman, a member of Strike Force Raptor said, “I’m going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable, until you stop doing what you’re doing. Every aspect of your life. I’m going to make it uncomfortable for you.”

Watching this play out on screen is a visceral reminder of the power Strike Force Raptor holds, and it clearly came as a surprise to the group — especially given they were able to hold a Brisbane show without any issues. They mention that the success of that show meant they believed their national tour would not be affected by police. “We didn’t go into this film expecting to get that access to really either side,” Gabriel says of the police and the group’s involvement in the documentary. “Getting the perspective of the police in there was something that I couldn’t have expected, to get them speaking so candidly about the tools that they use against ONEFOUR.” 

Elsewhere in the documentary, we hear from the mother of J Emz and YP, Sifoua Misa, who is candid about the impact that police pressure has had on her sons. In turn, YP speaks about his family’s experience of having their house turned upside down while he wasn’t there, while his mother recounts her younger daughter crying out to the police, asking them not to shoot her dog. So much of the focus has framed things as a battle between ONEFOUR and the police, so it’s easier to lose sight of the bigger picture — there are families being adversely affected by the operations that the police are undertaking throughout the documentary.

Gabriel says, “I think it is a side of ONEFOUR that you might not often see or hear in the music or seeing the mainstream media depiction of these guys, but I think to be given that access, to be given that kind of intimacy, and that connection to the boys over these years, was really special. I’m just so grateful to them for being willing to open up like that, because I think it is necessary to show that side of this story.”

The police pressure ONEFOUR routinely faces played out at the documentary’s world premiere as part of SXSW Sydney, held at the ICC Sydney. Attendees noted a significant police presence both inside and outside the screening, while inside, metal detectors were set up. When asked by Junkee about their presence at the screening, NSW Police provided a statement that said, “NSW Police facilitated a high-visibility operation for the entire of the SXSW festival event in Sydney, this includes multiple events at different venues/locations over the entire week.

“This is a standard concept of operations when we have large numbers of people for events. The premiere was just one of these said multiple locations. While police provide safety and security advice to venues, promoters, and other stakeholders ahead of major events, the decision as to whether or not an event will proceed lies with the relevant venue.”

Junkee also approached SXSW Sydney for comment, with the following statement provided by a spokesperson: “It is SXSW Sydney policy to not make public comment or communication concerning event specific operations in order to create and maintain a high functioning, safe and secure environment for all patrons. From the moment we saw ONEFOUR: Against All Odds we knew it was a perfect fit for the inaugural SXSW Sydney Screen festival — a propulsive documentary that appeals across our pillars of Screen, Music and ideas. We are proud that we were able to work with ONEFOUR, Entropico, Netflix ANZ and the community to bring this screening to the festival.”

Another Side To The Story

The documentary also highlights the pivotal role that youth workers and other role models can have in shaping the lives of young people in their community, highlighting the work of Mount Druitt’s Street University. Street Uni is where the members of ONEFOUR first recorded music, and the perspective of Esky, a coordinator at Street Uni, helps paint a picture of ONEFOUR’s impact. While they may be international superstars, there are multiple moments in ONEFOUR: Against All Odds that show that their impact may be greatest closest to home.

Speaking about featuring Street Uni in the documentary, Gabriel says he wanted to illustrate the work of those who are trying to improve their community — not just police it. He says, “I have all the time in the day for all of these community workers who are actively engaging with young people in these meaningful ways and actively trying to help and support them because I think people like Esky are one of the many people that have helped to turn ONEFOUR into what ONEFOUR is and [they’ve] inspired and given opportunity to young people to be able to pursue their dreams.”

The contrast of programs like Street University, and the continued police pressure that the group has faced, is one that resonates with Gabriel. “I hope it shows that Street Uni’s a really successful model that was able to birth a group like ONEFOUR and imagine what else we could do with the money that the police spent on the metal detectors,” he says.

“Let’s put that into the Street Uni studio.”

So What Happens Next?

On their 2020 track with The Kid LAROI, ‘My City’, ONEFOUR push back on everyone that has criticised them for the perceived negative influence their music has had. J Emz raps, “They blamin’ us for what happens in Sydney (why?)/They blamin’ us for what happens in Melbourne (okay)/They blamin’ us for what happens in Brissy (true)/Tell me who’s with me? ‘Cause I ain’t kiddin’, this shit’s been happenin’ since back in the day (now listen)”.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph in 2022, Mr Weinstein said, “Drill music and songs (in some cases) are being weaponised to basically inflame a conflict with another side.” However, data from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows that in New South Wales, violent knife crime is at a 20-year low. Yet, police pressure continues.

The final scene of ONEFOUR: Against All Odds features a phone recording from after the filming of the documentary wrapped. The footage was recorded before a boxing match between Mount Druitt’s own Paulo Aokuso and Yunieski Gonzalez back in March of this year. ONEFOUR were meant to perform during Paulo’s walkout, but the police officer featured in the recording (which was posted to ONEFOUR’s TikTok account) makes it clear that their planned performance won’t be happening. In the clip, the police officer appears unable to explain why the group is unable to perform — when questioned, he asks, “Am I going to keep going around in circles?”. A NSW Police spokesperson later said, “Police do not tolerate public acts of violence and they also won’t tolerate any behaviour — including music — that clearly incites and provokes retribution and other violent behaviour in NSW.”

Much like the police presence at the SXSW Sydney screening, these incidents are reminders that the pressures they face from law enforcement haven’t been left in the past. However, there’s a second postscript that’s not featured in the documentary. Following American producer Metro Boomin’s withdrawal from Listen Out, ONEFOUR were called in to replace him, playing shows in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney throughout September and October, as well as a previously-announced performance at Gold Coast’s Promiseland Festival. The group was two members down when performing: Lekks was deported to New Zealand following the completion of his sentence, while YP is currently in custody. He’s awaiting sentencing this month, having pleaded guilty to an assault charge following a September altercation.

To date, ONEFOUR have existed primarily as a studio act, only sporadically getting the chance to play shows (often as a result of other artists bringing them out on stage), but these recent performances prove that they’re able to thrive in a live setting when given the opportunity. Celly says that he and the rest of the group are hoping that 2024 brings “a lot more shows, a lot more opportunities. Just to rise up more, just move forward. More music, just keep evolving and keep moving forward”. This year also saw ONEFOUR receive their first-ever ARIA nomination — they’re up for Best Hip-Hop/Rap Release for their song ‘Comma’s’, which features fellow Western Sydney rapper CG. 

ONEFOUR: Against All Odds is a challenging watch, but it’s one that old, new and non-fans alike will take a lot away from, especially those unfamiliar with ONEFOUR’s story. It’s an insight into the ups and downs of their journey so far, but in some ways, it’s not really a story about them at all. There are large sections of society that don’t quite know how to react when marginalised communities push back against oppression, and the documentary captures the resilience that ONEFOUR have had to channel at every step of the way to simply be heard, a privilege that is all-too-often offered to some but not all. 

“I hope people get a bit angry, people get a bit challenged by the themes and the subject matter and take a bit of a look at how we as Australia treat those that speak or act differently to how we want,” Gabriel says, “and I hope that people see that and feel that and get a new, interesting perspective on something that is so important to give time, space and a voice to.”

ONEFOUR: Against All Odds is streaming on Netflix.

Ben Madden is a Melbourne-based music writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaddenwriter and Instagram at @benmaddenwriter, as well as keep up with his Sucks column here.

Image: Supplied

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