Arno Faraji on starting young: “You’ve got to ask yourself, how much do you want it?”
In 2017, Perth’s ARNO FARAJI was spending his weekdays in classrooms, finishing up his high school education for good. While his classmates spent their afternoons and weekends with their heads down gunning for university offers, Faraji was tucked away inside his home studio, writing music and honing in on a sound that would later in the year help him take out 2017’s triple j Unearthed High competition.
Throughout its 12 year run, Unearthed High has seen a memorable range of musicians take out the crown, including Japanese Wallpaper in 2014, Mosquito Coast in 2015 and heaps more. Faraji is the first and only hip-hop artist to take out the title, and since then, he’s come out all guns blazing, showing the world not only what he’s capable of, but also showing how diverse a musician he is, never pigeonholing himself to any one particular style of writing.
His relationship with music began before his family settled in Perth. His Zimbabwean-born family have a story reflective of many migrant families, marked by his parents’ search for more and better opportunities for Faraji and his sisters. He and his family relocated to Australia around 2007. His father’s job required him to travel often, so his father would find himself in places like the US and Mexico before finding a job in Newman, a small country town about a 14 hour drive, north-east of Perth. He was 6 years old when they moved there.
“It’s a small mining town, pretty chill. There’s not too much to do,” he said. “You have heaps of time to dive into things you’re interested in. I was interested in music, so it was one of those places where you could just listen to music the whole day.”
Music is something that began for him at an early age. Growing up, his ear for sound was largely influenced by the catalogue of music his parents had collected. Afro, jazz, reggae and his mother’s favourite, gospel, were prominent in their collection, but it was hip-hop that continued to captivate him.
“Rap wasn’t something that we listened to in the house,” he reminisced. “We actually had to find clean versions of shit to be able to listen to it, that’s the kind of woman [his mum] was. My sisters were big on RnB and 2000’s hip-hop. If they left their MP3 players lying around, I’d listen to it and think, that’s cool! I’ll burn a CD and take it to school.”
When he hit Year 8, his family packed up their belongings to make the move down to Perth. I asked what his experience of relocating from a country town to a big city was like, and he said “it was cool because we’d always come down to Perth for holidays to see friends and family.”
“Coming from a small town, Perth was huge. It was just so cool. All of the technology was there, everything was there. By the time we were ready to move, I was like oh cool, I can just be around it all of the time. It made things easier. We had access to a lot more.”
Accessibility was a huge influence on Faraji and his journey as a musician, and the move allowed him to not only be amongst like-minded people, but it also afforded him the resources to further his skills to the point where he was ready to think of music as something more than a hobby.
“I actually made a little plan in high school. I was like, it would be really cool if I started in music, got a little following and then by the time I finished high school, I had enough of a platform to tell my Mum I wasn’t going to do uni,” he explained.
“That was my initial plan. When I started on Soundcloud, it started booming and then when triple j entered the picture, it made everything completely possible. I had all of the access to what I needed. People from the industry were hitting me up in my emails and stuff saying like, yo, we’re interested in working with you, we want to talk to you about this.”
His winning Unearthed High helped essentially launch his career, giving him the reach and the platform to continue showcasing his work. Faraji‘s age was never something that was going to stand in his way, and Unearthed High was proof of that.
“I think it was more of a weapon to me because I had so much time to release as much music as I could and show my growth within it as well. I have my young phase, like artists like Joey Bada$$ have. He started so young as well. He’s been making music from so early on, and he’s still doing it so he has so many eras of sound. I can have the same thing for me and my songs.”
Since finishing high school at the end of 2017, he’s been able to put his music journey front and centre, something that presents itself to Faraji with new challenges and opportunities every day, something that he’s learning to navigate.
“Last year was really overwhelming because I had so many like official people telling me all of these things and I didn’t know what to do, so I was like, I need time to think. Now I’m in this time where I’ve had the time to think and I need to get a move on. The pressure’s on my back, but it’s cool.”
“I’m feeling pretty new still, but I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. I’m definitely not as green. I’m feeling inspired as well because I have all of the resources that I didn’t have before, like the team. I’m pretty organised, but now I get to organise the way I move, the way I release things.”
2017 saw him release his first two singles, ‘130 Ego Jump’, with James Pants, and ‘Destiny’s’. Those tracks became definitive of his earliest era, showcasing not only his ear for witty rhymes, but giving us an idea of his chops as a producer too.
Since 2017, he’s continued to innovate his sound and methods, learning the keys to collaborating along the way. In 2018, he teamed up with REMI and Sensible J for ‘Bless (What It’s Like)’, and more recently, he worked with fellow Astral People family member, Milan Ring for ‘Scalin”, a track which she co-produced with him.
“She’s so talented. I got a lot of tips from her. I grew a lot as an artist just from that one session – we had a few sessions, but that specific session was our first one, and the fact that we were getting something so fire from day one was a really good indication to me that we were on the right page and in the right environment,” he said of their collaboration.
“I learnt so much from her. She got me really involved. I put the drums into the track, she would listen to me, I would listen to her. There’s this big thing that Remi and J taught me, before you work with someone, you talk to them and see what their perspective and point of view is so that when you trade your ideas and knowledge, it comes from an equal place.
“It’s really easy to do that, so before that, we just talked about our cultural backgrounds and she told me her perspective of that and what music she grew up with, so when we got into the artistic stage of everything else, it was just so easy – it clicked.”
Faraji regards collaboration as something that’s exciting to him. The opportunity allows for him to not only connect with someone else on a creative level, but it also gives him the opportunity to grow as a person.
“I look at music like photos, it’s like a little reflection of who you are and what you were doing in that exact moment in time. When you work with different people at different times, it’s a reflection of “I was there, I was thinking that”. It’s really cool doing stuff like that.”
Performance is a major aspect of Faraji‘s artistry. The opportunity to do so offers him the chance to both showcase his work and learn from the experience. Since leaving school, he’s played shows with Rejjie Snow, Smino, Cosmo’s Midnight, Tkay Maidza, Mallrat, Allday and more. It’s an apt group of artists, each one having an element of sound that he also embodies within his own music.
“Last year, I supported Smino. He told me that you’ve got to be true to yourself. He said I like the way that you talk to your crowd and your audience, if you keep doing that and keep telling people to come through, give the energy you want out of the crowd, your show’s going to set off. And that’s something that I’ve embedded into the back of my head, like every show, trying to use the same advice every single time.
“I’ve learnt heaps of stuff from everybody that I’ve met. I even ask questions about how they’re doing things or how they deal with things because you can learn something from everyone. Sometimes it’s my favourite artists as well, it’s like the cream of the crop.”
He also attends shows, studying the movements and actions of the performer intently. “I really like going to see people’s shows and learning from how they do things. I feel like you can learn something from every artist who’s doing it right now.”
Though he’s spent the better part of the last two years playing shows around the country, next week, he’ll embark on his debut headline tour, something that he’s been working towards for a while now. Starting on the 2nd of August, the tour kicks off in Adelaide at Rocket Bar, moving to Melbourne’s Workers Club on the 3rd, his hometown with One Day at Centenary Warehouse on the 9th, then a week later he’ll fly out to Sydney to perform at The Lansdowne on the 16th and finally, wrapping things up on Brisbane on the 17th at Black Bear Lodge.
Though he may be nervous for the tour, his spirits are high and he’s giving himself plenty of positive affirmations to push through.
“I am [nervous], but I also really want it. That’s what I always tell myself if I’m nervous about something. You’ve got to ask yourself how much do you want it? Are you going to let being nervous stop you from doing it? I really want it. I’m really keen for it. It’s been a long time coming.”
One of his highlights of touring has become a bit of a ritual for him.
“I’m keen to eat. I love going to different cities and eating at specific chain joints, or eating like specific food. I love sushi, I love ramen. I like going to different Japanese restaurants and rating them, like this is where to go here, this is where to go here.”
Faraji has a love for Japanese culture – as reflected in his lyrics. If you dig a little deeper, there’s a sneaky Naruto reference tucked away in ‘Destiny’s’ (“Kamikaze, catching bodies / kazekage, what you mean?”).
He’s prepared us for the tour with a new single in ‘Sneakers’.
“I needed some more music for the [Mallrat] tour, I didn’t have enough, so I was in the studio a few weeks before just pumping out all of this music, and then I made ‘Sneakers’ with my mate,” he said. “Every time I had a tour, I kept upgrading it a little bit and then I left it out for a while. Then Tom and Vic, my managers, were like yo, what’s the next track you want to release? Send through a bunch of tracks that you were working on that you might want to brush up on.
“So I go back, and I look at all of the tracks that I made and I saw ‘Sneakers’ and was like, that can work. So I sent it to them, they messed with it, and I was like cool, let’s work on it. Then, I added a newer verse onto it to make it more modern and with the time right now, updated the instrumental a bit, and that’s how it came about. It’s been a long thing that I’ve been dragging through for ages when I first started touring.”
The creation of ‘Sneakers’ was a lesson in knowing not to keep working on a track, but really knowing when to stop. Though the track’s been part of his artillery for quite some time now, its seen many iterations over its lifetime.
“In this last period, I was sending it all the way to Sydney and then back to my studio, showing people and then they’d give me tips and stuff. I think I had maybe like 13 versions. I’ve had a lot of versions, but that’s just this period. If you take into account the number of times that I worked on it before tours and stuff, there’s a lot of tweaking.”
It’s a testament to his respect of the creative process, something that he’s learning more about each day. I asked him if he thought he was a perfectionist. “Yeah I am. They had to tell me, yo this one’s good. I was like are you sure? Do you think I should take the drums out and add something in? And they were like no, it’s good!”
Faraji‘s story is reflective of his migrant drive. I’ve experienced it within my own family, myself being a first generation migrant. There’s this thing embedded into the minds of those coming here seeking better opportunities where no second is spared and no opportunity is taken for granted. Not to say that non-migrants don’t have this, but I think there’s an inherent-ness to the migrant experience that is heavily reflected in work ethic and passion.
His drive comes from his passion, but also his willingness to show his parents that music is something that he’s serious about. “They moved here because they wanted more opportunities for us,” he said. “Back in Zim, me even doing music would be off the table. You have to find a serious job with something to do with like being a doctor or something like that. So coming to Australia, somewhere like this where they do support the arts and media so much, I feel like after some time, they saw the opportunities that came outside of that realm as well.”
“Initially coming here, they wanted me to be an engineer or something like a doctor, because back home, that’s an honourable job that you can tell your family and friends. I feel like I am lucky to be in Australia and these cities and these places where I can say that I want to do music and I have the resources to actually do it, and they see it like oh yeah, he can actually do it too because it’s actually built for that.”
Though they might have taken a little bit to come around, Faraji has since taken over one of the rooms in their family house to put together his home studio. His passion is front and centre in their family, something that he’s grateful for.
His music now extends further than just his tight-knit community back in Perth. In the few years since Unearthed High and his few times playing shows around the country, he’s noticed a change in the way the hip-hop community in Perth has been operating, and it’s been all positives. The last few years have seen a surge in up-and-comers, and Faraji is arguably leading the charge for this next generation of musicians coming out of Australia’s west. More importantly, he’s giving representation to a new generation of people of colour, something that he didn’t have much of growing up.
“A lot of people are being represented that didn’t have a voice before, so like I remember I listened to hip-hop, but I wasn’t finding a lot of people that I related to, especially me and my perspective on specific things.
“Now we just have a lot of diversity in gender, race, perspective, in an open space and time as well. It’s the perfect time for this to be happening. It’s really cool just being able to spotlight other kids just like me who didn’t have a me when I was in the same shoes.
“I have a lot of kids from my church and family friends, like my mates little brothers and sisters being like yo, it’s so cool you’re rapping. Now they’re knowing that they can do it. It’s priceless. I used to think that I’d have to move to Sydney or out of Australia to be heard on a big level, but now there’s so many people doing it right now. It’s a big statement. Representation is really important and yeah, it’s cool to be the centre of this.”
“I’m really pumped for the new stuff. I want to work everyday if I can.”
Words & photos by CAITLIN MEDCALF