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March 3, 2023

Mob rule

First Nations hip-hop outfit DEM MOB is throwing Molotov cocktails at colonial Australia. We speak to band member Elisha Umuhuri about the power of rap in regional communities, why he makes music, and how it helped him connect with his biological family.

  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Main image: Samuel Graves

Wailing police sirens, blistering bars and sampled media reports about racism riddle the straight-faced four-minute single ‘Still No Justice’ by DEM MOB.

The all-Indigenous hip-hop group kicking up red dust in Pukatja use the song to speak about some stark realities of being Black in Australia: high rates of Indigenous incarceration and shorter life expectancy.


DEM MOB is performing at Uni Days on Saturday, 29 April, alongside King Stingray.
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Despite the band’s regional location, 1257 kilometres from Adelaide in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, the outfit is making waves in postcode 5000.

DEM MOB were finalists for both Best Regional or Torres Strait Islander Artist and Best Hip-Hop act at the 2021 and 2022 South Australian Music Awards. Last year, the musical unit performed live at the Hindley Street Music Hall ceremony, with rapper Jontae Lawrie storming the stage spitting rapid-fire lines in Pitjantjara and English while wearing a Wu-Tang t-shirt. Member Matt Gully didn’t shy away from blasting his own political communique from behind the DJ decks, wearing an ‘Abolish Australia’ t-shirt.

But it was the clear-eyed Elisha Umuhuri who led the DEM MOB charge. As the bubbly synthesiser closed ‘Still No Justice’, with the song dissolving to stillness, we obeyed a request from Elisha. He goaded the crowd – including Premier of South Australia Peter Malinauskas, who sat in attendance – to thrust their fists skyward and join DEM MOB’s rallying cry. The entire venue chanted: “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”

This picture: Samuel Graves


It took many weeks to schedule an interview with DEM MOB ringleader Elisha, a Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara man. After he returned from out bush in Western Australia on secret men’s business, without a cellular hook-up, we eventually get him on the line.

He explains that the explosive song performed at the SAM Awards was written after Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe shot 19-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker dead in 2019.

“It was sparked by that situation,” Elisha says. The Aboriginal educator at Ernabella Aṉangu School says ‘Still No Justice’ was also written to teach young mob.

“To raise awareness that being coloured obviously isn’t easy,” Elisha says. “Once you start stepping outside of our communities and into the Western culture, everything obviously starts to get a little bit harder.

“It’s 2022 and racism is still a big thing.”

The song, one of two from DEM MOB’s total discography to date, bursts with lacerating lines about “the rich white man” and “racist boomers”. Weaved within the light-speed flow are warnings to First Nations youth: “When you see the blue and red, come home tonight”. It’s sung in English and Pitjantjatjara, and aims to communicate to ‘piranpa’ — Pitjantjatjara for non-Indigenous people — and those on the lands what it’s like being a First Nations person.

“It speaks to both worlds,” Elisha says. “Being coloured and being around any incident, you are obviously going to be interrogated on why you were there or what did you do.

“There’s still no justice for First Nations [people], but then it’s for our mob to really educate themselves to be smarter, and the choices and the decisions they make outside of our communities.”

Despite possessing a command of rhyming couplets and flow, this isn’t Elisha’s first foray into linguistics and songwriting. He understands 11 languages, speaks three fluently, and runs Ernabella Aṉangu School’s five-year bilingual rap program. Reggae is big in the desert (think: Coloured Stone and No Fixed Address), but hip hop is slowly taking hold.

“At first, people thought it was stupid and funny and ridiculous,” Elisha says of rap’s popularity, “but then they really saw how it moved not just Aṉangu but how it had the power to move white people, non-Indigenous [people].”

Elisha says DEM MOB performing at Adelaide shows, such as the sold-out NAIDOC 2020 showcase and the upcoming 2023 WOMADelaide festival, and the resulting media attention the gigs garnered, demonstrated to “tall poppies” and naysayers in community that it’s not a flippant artform. It’s music people in far off places are paying attention to.

Community elders are slowly dying, taking their knowledge and stories with them. Elisha believes rap – a form of oral storytelling – could be the “last link” connecting young Indigenous people to their roots.

“It’s important for us to keep going with our music, because our culture is forever evolving and changing,” he says. “And that’s why music is so important, and that’s why I live to speak it.

“Everything has been taken from us ever since Invasion Day. [But] the only thing that Western culture can’t take from us is our Inma,” which are stories sung, danced and celebrated through visual art by APY communities.

This picture: Capital Waste


DEM MOB formed three years ago while Elisha was helping run the rap program, of which he reports excellent results.

“The students in general, their wellbeing, has just been crazy,” he says. Jontae – a diehard hip-hop head – was a program participant, and has filled Elisha in on some historical hip-hop gaps.

“Jontae listens to heaps of rap,” Elisha says of his bandmate. “He goes, ‘Oh, you should listen to this bloke or listen to him’, so I have been looking into J. Cole and JID, obviously, and Jontae just points me in directions. I’m just soaking it all up.”

During the program, the pair struck up a creative rapport, then started getting booked for shows. The rest is history.

Aside from the numerous gong noms and metropolitan interest, an unexpected and meaningful bright spot for the band occurred recently in the Red Centre.

Elisha was born in New Zealand and adopted by a family living in Australia. He was brought to the Northern Territory across the Tasman as a two-week-old baby, and, in his early years, bounced between states as his parents looked for work. Because of this, he hasn’t always had strong ties to his biological family. But through DEM MOB’s building profile, he’s been able to reconnect with some long-lost family members. 

“One of my biological cousins, a couple of months ago when we performed in Alice Springs, showed up,” Elisha says.

“My real mum [told him], ‘Your cousin’s playing in Alice, you should fly over and see him’. He kind of surprised me because he flew over and he mentioned my real father’s name, his island and his story, and my real mum’s story. And I was, like, ‘Yo, this bloke is legit!’

“Then we just sat down for hours, drinking, drinking, drinking, telling stories. I just gave him a 20-year update on my life.”

Despite the constant travel, and not knowing his biological origins, music has helped Elisha establish a strong sense of self.

“I see myself as a young Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara man,” Elisha says.

“But obviously there’s a whole other world of mine that I haven’t discovered yet, which is my homeland. I hope music will [help me] find my way there.”  

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