“IT’S HARD TO BE what you can’t see.”
Rapper, producer and radio host Nooky understands these words firsthand. Not only do they speak to his personal experience as a proud Yuin and Thunghutti man who defied the expectations of his school teachers by forging a career as a successful musician and community leader—they also underpin the message of We Are Warriors, a social enterprise dedicated to celebrating Blak excellence and empowering Indigenous youth. Nooky launched the movement alongside prominent First Nations ‘Warriors’ like rapper Barkaa and activist, dancer and poet Luke Currie Richardson in 2022.
Since then, the program has been helping kids in schools to realise their full potential and aim for greatness. But it was on January 26 2023 that We Are Warriors made its biggest splash, teaming up with the Powerhouse Museum on the first ever Blak Powerhouse event. An evening of music, contemporary and traditional dance, art and photography, the occasion drew thousands of people to the Powerhouse, turning a day that’s traditionally associated with loss and sorrow into one of power and positivity.
This year, with Nooky and his team of warriors on deck, Blak Powerhouse is gearing up to be even bigger—and even more powerful—than ever, with a line-up featuring celebrated First Nations artists like Maanyung, Mi-kaisha, Rona, Miss Kaninna, Becca Hatch, 3% and JK-47, while a few “special guests” are also slated to make an appearance.
Ahead of the 26th, we caught up with Nooky to hear about his vision for this year’s event and how, with each We Are Warriors workshop, school visit and all-ages party, he’s helping young Indigenous kids to see what they can be.
Esquire: First up, can you tell us about the We Are Warriors origin story?
Nooky: It was around 2020, when the Black Lives Matter marches were happening all over the world. It kind of made people start to ask questions, and some people were just starting to find out about some of the things we go through as mob here. When these things happen, everybody wants to talk to you; everyone wants to know our lived experience. And it’s not always to have those conversations, you go back and relive traumatic moments, so sometimes it takes a lot to have those conversations.
But there was one conversation I had, where I was asked: if you could change it, what would you do? And I said, ‘for me, it’s all about an ongoing commitment. It’s a long-term process. I’d get in early and I’d start with our youth’. I said, ‘if it was on me, I’d be there telling the kids how great they are, and exposing them to stories of Blak success and uplifting stories’. That was my solution.
How about your own upbringing—how did experiences at school shape your vision for WAW?
There were lots of incidences, but I remember this one time, I was sitting in class and the teacher busted out the old projector and started putting up pictures of Blakfellas on the board. She was saying: ‘these Aboriginal people, they used to run around the bush here with no clothes. They’d walk around everywhere naked. They were dirty people, a bunch of savages, no housing structures, and they lived a meaningless life here’. And as I’m looking at these pictures, I’m like, ‘oh shit, that looks like my family. Maybe I’m Aboriginal’. I felt cut off from the rest of the kids in the class. I felt different; I felt ashamed of myself in that moment.
When my mum picked me up from school, I asked her, ‘hey, Mum, we’re Aboriginal, aren’t we?’ And she goes, ‘yeah, son.’ I started crying. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be dirty, I don’t want to be Aboriginal’. And she turned around and said, ‘we weren’t dirty people, son. We were warriors’. In that moment we both realised like, that’s exactly what the message is. That’s what we need to put out there. So that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Last year’s inaugural Blak Powerhouse event was a massive success. You’ve said that the amount of power and resilience in the room changed how you felt about January 26th. How did it?
There’s always a big conversation around, ‘should we get rid of the date altogether? Should we change the date?’ And for me in that moment, it just hit me. There was so much power and love and joy in that room, in that moment, it felt different and it hit me. It was like, ‘oh shit, we did change the date. Not by moving it. We changed what it feels like on the day.’ And that’s exactly what it’s done for me.
I’ve never been happy on that day. It’s almost like preparing for a fight, preparing for war… It’s hard to describe the feeling—if there’s somewhere you’re going, somewhere that’s like a safe space like Yabun or Blak Powerhouse, you gotta go through the bullshit to get there. But this day, Blak Powerhouse last year, it really did change how it felt. This year, I was looking forward to this day. It healed me. It healed the inside of me. It healed what that day meant to me. And that’ll be something I have forever. That can’t be taken away. That’s that power of reclaiming things like, you know, breathing light into the dark sort of thing.
It really did change my outlook the day. And again, that’s something I wanna share with my people. We open up the doors for everyone. Like, it’s not just for Blaks—that’s how we do it. It’s We’re at the centre, first and foremost. But we do it in a way where everyone can partake.
Following last year’s event, the Powerhouse Museum committed to an ongoing partnership with We Are Warriors. What does that commitment and support from one of the country’s biggest cultural institutions symbolise to you?
It reinforces that we’re on the right track. Like, the first Blak Powerhouse—and I’m not bullshitting you—we pulled that together in two weeks. And when we done it, there was that sense of pride and joy, it ended up being one of the biggest events Powerhouse had in its history. I think 6000 people attended throughout the whole course of the day. It really touched our hearts. After that, Powerhouse said they wanted to make it an ongoing thing. And like I said at the start, I’m all about meaningful and long term relationships and commitment. So we do educational programs and workshops together with Powerhouse, and post this Blak Powerhouse, we’re really gonna ramp it up and go even harder.
Can you tell us about any special guests?
Otis Hope Carey and Shal will be floating around. I think Tony Armstrong’s gonna drop in… these are the elite, you know, the top of Blak success, Blak excellence. And they’re there for the kids to see and for the rest of us get around.
You’re a father now. Have you noticed a difference in how your daughters see themselves, compared to how you saw yourself at school?
Oh yeah. They walk around saying that they’re warriors, and that they’re proud to be Blakfellas and stuff like that. I can definitely see the difference. And that’s why I do it. I do it for my daughters, I do it for the other little Blak kids out there. That’s my reward right there. That’s success for me. Being able to do that—you can never put a price on that. I could win ARIAs, I could win Logies, I could win Grammys. It wouldn’t come close to that, you know? That is so enriching for my soul. When it’s all said and done, that’s what I’m most proud of.
I got kicked out of school, right? But now through We Are Warriors, we do workshops back in the very school that I got kicked out of. We show our kids what is possible and what you can achieve. And we do that by uplifting each other and telling our stories and elevating our stories and being attainable, being amongst our mob and our youth. That didn’t exist for me. I had to go make it, but now I’ve made it. It’s for my people. Here you go. This is not mine. This is ours. You know?
Absolutely. Apart from ‘come to Blak Powerhouse’, is there anything else you’d like people to be mindful of this January 26?
I think this January 26th is a bit harder, post-referendum. But I’d just say that Blak Powerhouse is a place for everyone. The door’s open for everyone. I’ve got a thousand Devon sandwiches there. I’ve got tea and biscuits for the elders, and we’ve got a mad music lineup, special guests coming through. Shal is gonna be painting live—you can get on the brushes with Shal and have a bit of a paint. This is gonna be a mad day. So if you’re in area, you can come through and be a part of it.
Blak Powerhouse is an all-ages event. You can find out more and register to attend here.