Being one of Australia's most engaging live bands isn't enough for Melbourne roots and reggae artists Blue King Brown. They also want to make a difference in the world, and have amassed a community of likeminded fans through their tireless activist work.
Blue King Brown's origins can be traced back to the beachside town of Byron Bay, where soulful lead singer Natalie Pa'apa'a and bassist Carlo Santone would often find themselves jamming on the street with residents and visitors alike. Eventually, they made the move to Melbourne on the hunt for what Pa'apa'a called "the hotshot players" to round out the rest of their line-up.
Now, two albums later, Blue King Brown have earned waves of critical acclaim Down Under, and even impressed one of the world's greatest guitarists, Carlos Santana, who called the band one of his favourites.
Blending Latin, reggae, roots, dancehall and funk into their sound, Blue King Brown reflects the diverse cultural and musical histories of their nine touring members. Pa'apa'a herself comes from Samoan, Native American, Basque and Mexican heritage, and credits her mother with instilling a love of music in her early on.
"I grew up with a really great soundtrack because my mom has a great taste in music. Also, she's Samoan and there's a very strong tradition of singing and rhythm in the Pacific Islands. Rhythm is something I gravitated towards as a percussionist and feel it's such a really powerful foundation of music," she said. "The other parts of my heritage have influenced my activism and my worldview. I think there are things in peoples' ancestry and bloodlines that we probably don't even realize are there and influencing us, but they are doing that, and I'm sure I'm the same."
Finishing up their third LP, which doesn't yet have a Canadian release date, Pa'apa'a said the record has more of a "reggae flavour" than past releases, like in the album's first single Rize Up, which harkens back to the rhythms of legendary '60s-era Jamaican record label Studio One. The song also contains politically-inspired lyrics that are characteristic of the band.
Involved in a wide range of issues surrounding social and political justice, most recently Pa'apa'a and her band have been promoting their Rize of the Morning Star project, a collective of musicians, filmmakers, journalists and activists fighting for the independence of indigenous West Papuans who have lived under brutal Indonesian military rule for 50 years.
"The indigenous West Papuans are crying out for freedom," Pa'apa'a said. "They have over 70 political prisoners. Obviously it's very rich in mineral resources, which is why Indonesia don't want to let it go. The people are ready and crying out for their freedom and there are so many horrific human rights abuses happening there that we felt we needed to help raise that awareness."
The band has been touring recently with two indigenous West Papuan sisters, Lea and Petra Rumwaropen, who besides adding their strong vocal talents to Blue King Brown's energetic live show, have raised awareness for the West Papuan struggle for independence around the world.
"They're onstage with us and flying the flag of their country - which, by the way, is a jail sentence of 15 years if you raise that flag in West Papua. So they're here with us singing and not only sharing their incredible voices, but being a voice for their people, a whole country that's crying out to be heard by the international community," she said.
Besides her work with the Rise of the Morning Star campaign, Pa'apa'a is also actively involved in a host of other causes, including spearheading her Nuke Free Future educational project and previously serving as an ambassador for Amnesty International's Arms Trade Treaty campaign. The Aussie singer sees a common underlying thread in all of her activist efforts: justice.
"Capitalism is not a system of justice, of equality, of environmental sustainability, and it's all connected," she said. "You find that an indigenous people suffering, like the West Papuans, is connected to the fact that they have the biggest gold mine on the planet and the second-biggest copper mine on the planet, and that environment of destruction that's being militarily protected with village people getting killed and kicked out of their indigenous land.
"To me, if you look at the bigger picture, what we're fighting for is the globalization of justice, and that in itself crosses and connects with all of the injustices happening around the world."
To get involved with Blue King Brown's various initiatives, visit www.bluekingbrown.com. The band plays the GLC Sunday (July 28) at 9:30 p.m. Advance tickets are available at the GLC for $15.