RONA.’s Medicine Is The Bush

rona interview dj be my medicine boiler room

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I’ve really struggled to connect to the recent explosion of live electronic music. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. But too often it seems like the DJ booths are occupied by white, heterosexual men. While there are some incredible queer, POC, and trans DJs across Australia, I’ve really been waiting for someone like RONA. to step onto the scene and inject our First Nations culture into electronic music. 

RONA. is a Kaytetye producer, artist, and DJ who is based in both Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and Naarm (Melbourne). When I watched her Boiler Room set, I was transfixed. Not only by her presence, but also her music, which features speeches from Indigenous activist and trailblazer Uncle Gary Foley, birds singing and wind blowing through the trees, the sounds of our culture mixed over an infectious beat. But this is all part of RONA.’s signature style — exploring the connections between the industrial dance floors of Naarm and the sweeping plains of her home. Her latest song ‘Be My Medicine’ does just that. 

I spoke to RONA. about creating electronic music in Australia given the current state of live music and how she transports people on the dancefloor to her home on Kaytetye Country. 

Ky Stewart, Junkee: What drew you to making ‘Be My Medicine’?

RONA.: I started writing it when I was out bush and I often work from voice notes and start recording on little zoom recorders. That was back in 2022. It was in July and I remember the photos of being out on Kaytetye Country, just north of Alice Springs where my family are from. There were a whole lot of things that were happening in my life at that moment and I had this openness towards the healing and the medicine that was coming my way. I was collecting bush medicine at the time, but also thinking about all the different types of medicine we hold as people and I really wanted to explore that in the music. The song was built around recording birds early in the morning and there was just this moment when it all came together for me. It felt like I was moving into a different season of healing and for medicine.

Your Boiler Room set was incredible but what struck me the most was how you incorporated language and traditional sounds from our culture, which I’ve never really heard in a DJ set. How do heritage, cultures, and ancestors influence your music?

I think for me, music is about storytelling. That is at the heart of who we are as Blakfellas. We were the original storytellers and my music always starts with the energy of a story that I feel I have the authority to tell. Which often is about my experience, but it also draws from feelings and what sits inside me. The power that’s been held by thousands of generations before me. A lot of the cultural expression I bring is informed by Country and the energy of Country and place. It’s been really interesting recently exploring writing from different contexts. ‘Be My Medicine’ was written out in Alice on my mum’s back verandah in the stinking hot desert. 

The energy that I bring to my music is often described as expansive. I think that’s in relation to how I feel when I’m in the desert, how I represent the energy and connection that I hold there. Whereas if I’m down in Naarm in Wurundjeri Country, the way that I write and express myself is completely different. It was really interesting going through the experience in the Boiler Room. I had an idea of the narrative and story that I wanted to tell and the energy of my writing was really different because I was writing predominantly from Country where I’m not connected. So I think there’s something I’m starting to explore more in my music around the energy of place and how we represent the energy of Country through the sounds that we express in music.

As you said, storytelling runs in our blood. How have you used your sets as a way to not only connect with people but to educate them?

My writing and storytelling that I’m shaping are predominantly for me, my family and communities first. I light up when I hear feedback from mob that have found connection or solace or medicine or healing in my music. That fills me with so much joy. Through the stories I’m exploring, there is an invitation for non-Indigenous folk and settlers to listen to what’s been shared. Particularly with some unreleased tracks that I hope to get out in the future, that really continue to explore our experiences as Blakfellas. The dispossession and injustice that exists in the present and the past. Those stories in electronic music have rarely been centred. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities within the context of this continent and surrounding islands for mob to bring our stories into those moments. 

ln the Boiler Room I got permission from Uncle Gary Foley to bring one of his speeches from 1982 into the set. He felt like the perfect voice to express the ongoing resistance of the battles across that region. Even though he’s not from Victoria he’s held a lot of space in the fight and struggle the community have had down there. Having that expressed in the music really resonated I think for so many audiences as well as for the Blakfellas that were there on the day. It was such an empowering moment. I was holding back tears the whole time when that speech was playing and afterwards. I can’t even describe the energy of what it felt like in that moment. I know that it’s such a powerful way to express story through those speeches and bring that history which still exists to the centre. 

I think that invitation for settlers and non-Indigenous folk to be part of movements for change and to not just acknowledge our voices, but really deeply connect with our experiences is something that I want to explore in electronic music. I’m excited about some of the work that I’ve done in that space and I know that it’s just gonna grow and evolve over time. 

What does making music mean to you? 

Writing music and creating is the most clear form of presentness that I have in my life. So this present pouring of emotion and energy takes away all the distractions of the dopamine hits of scrolling or even talking to people. I love it. I cherish the times when I just have weeks or days on end to be able to write. It’s good until you start to second guess yourself or think about the audience or how people are going to respond. The best moments are when you’re fully focused on your own expression and how it feels. I love the initial parts of creating. It’s when it gets to the last 20 percent of production that I find it really hard where you’re listening over and over and over again and you’re tweaking things and you have to be so so insanely wired up to the mainframe and so present but also you just constantly listening to the same thing over and over again. I find that boring.

Live music is going through an interesting time at the moment. People are desperately trying to revive it in Australia. How do you think we can better support live music and promote live acts here? 

I don’t think about the industry as much as I probably should. I work full time so I’m not playing out as much as I probably would if I was full time in the industry. It’s a really tricky context with where the economy’s at and the costs of bringing artists and touring artists right now. I think that we need more support from industry bodies and governments to ensure that live music is able to thrive as it always has done in this continent and enable spaces for more people to go. We also need people to be buying tickets. That’s a challenge. I noticed people are buying tickets so late and making it hard for promoters to make their businesses viable. 

I have been thinking a lot about the climate crisis and how that’s impacting festivals. I was playing at Pitch Music and Arts Festival a couple of weeks ago — the whole context of an environmental disaster and how that’s going to shape live music is a really interesting one. I’m trying to think of solutions. We need to build a dome in Naarm where we can hold other festivals. It’s not a bad idea. But it’s sad to think that [festivals] are special experiences you have with live music on our own Country where you are wrapped up in a natural environment and that’s going to become harder to do over the coming years and decades.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: YouTube