When songwriter and musician Urthboy was 12, he had an epiphany. It was an occasion he describes as “dull as a grey day”; he was on a family holiday on the central coast.
“My mother organised a game of tennis and matched me against an old lady, at least she looked old, like somebody’s grandmother. Anyway, I was quite a competitive kid and I thought to myself, this will be great, I’m going to smash her off the court. Well, not only did that not happen, she smashed me off the court.
“I’d never felt such humility as well as humiliation.” Urthboy, otherwise known as Tim Levinson, says the sudden revelation that he could be so abjectly wrong about judging people on age, gender and ability, altered forever his assumptions about the way he judged people and situations. It allowed him to see everything new as a “clean-slate”.
The beat of political activism is the rap-note to Tim Levinson’s music. In addition to his solo material such as The Signal, Tim is one of the main songwriters in The Herd whose five albums – The Herd, An Elefant Never Forgets, The Sun Never Sets, Summerland and Future Shade – have seen the group become a significant force in Australian music, winning two Aria Awards and a Top 10 Aria chart album.
Music and politics have always had a forceful relationship but none so forceful as when their first single Burn Down the Parliament, from their 2003 album An Elefant Never Forgets, coincided with the Canberra bush-fires. The second track from the album, 77%, was written during the 2001 Tampa Affair and directly attacked a survey that showed that 77 per cent of Australians agreed with the Howard Government’s position.
“Unjust political systems don’t take into account context. New starts, beginnings, usually kick-off from a place of loss, that’s why our music looks at the bigger picture, the unclean slates, of the political landscape,” Tim says.
The importance of understanding that “new beginnings” often start from “unclean slates” is rapped into his response to the Apology to the Stolen Generation made by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.
“The apology is a new start which must embrace all the dark corners of our past,” Tim says. “We can’t airbrush the brutality that occurred; being collectively whole means to face and accept the parts of our national history that are unpalatable.”
At the time of Prime Minister Rudd’s apology, Tim co-wrote the lyrics to Time to Face the Truth which addresses issues of pain in facing and accepting the truth of Australian history:
This is your land I’m on. We owe much more than money,
But that’s where we’re restarting from.
Tim’s belief in the importance of the apology prompted him to join the activist group GetUp. He released a version of the song, From Little Things Big Things Grow, with original artists, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, for GetUp. The song peaked at number four on the Aria singles chart, and number two on both the Australian Chart and Digital Track Chart. It raised almost $100,000 for Indigenous health and education programs.
Rap music starts from syncopated sounds, pared back, like the slim, spare body of Urthboy himself. His sharp emcee energy is softened by a half-smile peering out from under a page-boy cap. The 35-year-old artist grew up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
“The winter cold with its fine, gentle rain and tranquil mountain setting has a magnetic effect on creativity if only for the fact that the cold pulls you indoors and into a contemplative, introspective mood,” he says.
Unsurprisingly for this songwriter/poet son of an English teacher, Tim’s conversation is peppered with expressive words and phrases. “The simplicity of a vocal line and its emotional power is something rap has to work very hard to get close to. I’m magnetised by that side of things like I am to the sun in summer.”
However, he says, “Doubt and conflicts of interest in my personal and professional life are things that I grapple with. I constantly seek an understanding of myself and explore where my motivations are coming from. I have great expectations which can cloud my judgement.”
Business partner and fellow band member, Richard Tamplenizza, says, “Tim is highly motivated and works very hard. As a musical group we have the common concerns of looking at the bigger picture of the political landscape and that facilitates the smooth running of a fairly unique business, in that it’s run by artists.”
Urthboy will take part in ‘5×15’ on Saturday, May 25, 5.30-7pm, at Sydney Theatre. Five speakers, 15 minutes: Amelia Lester dishes the inside world on The New Yorker; author Jackie Kay shares taxi chats; Urthboy defends unclean slates and new beginnings; Kate Mosse speaks about the importance of female heroes; and Lawrence Krauss argues that Star Trek saved the world.