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Black Bear Magic

Candy Bowers and Melbourne rapper P-UniQue on the origins of hip-hop fairytale One the Bear.

Sydney Opera House

This Saturday, the Sydney Opera House Studio transforms into an alternate reality where hunters reign free and bears are on the run. One the Bear is a hip-hop fairy tale written for the modern age by Candy Bowers (of Black Honey Company). One and her best-bear friend Ursula live in a rubbish tip where they get up to mischief, spit rhymes and mourn about the dank lives they lead. 

We caught up with Candy Bowers and Melbourne rapper P-UniQue to chat bear-y important things like teenage identity and hip-hop in Australia. Candy and P-UniQue first met 10 years ago, way before she broke out as a triple j Unearthed artist. 

Melbourne rapper P.UniQue. Photo credit: Michelle Grace Hunder

Candy Bowers: Let’s start with how we know each other. I met Piath when she was in her early teens and we were working on this really epic program at the community arts centre. I was working with teenagers to put together a show that was artistically driven by them. Piath was the youngest person and I remember her saying, “I want to rap.” How old are you now Piath?

P-UniQue: 22, I’m turning 22 in two months. 

CB: Yeah, so it’s been almost 10 years that we’ve known each other. I’ve been making spoken-word theatre for like, 20 years. I wrote my first hip-hop theatre show when I was 14 and it was a hip-hop take on the Nativity story. I had a rapping Wise Man! Hip-hop has always been rooted in my work. What’s different is the transferral of doing it in a community centre and now doing it at the Sydney Opera House. For me, to make a work like One the Bear, it’s taken 10 years to convince the main stages that this sort of work doesn’t just have to be in the community centre. It can take centre stage.

PU: I was really young when I met Candy and did that program [that she mentioned]. When Candy invited me to see the show, I hadn’t seen any plays or seen live theatre in a long time. I brought a friend along and I was kind of shook because there are only two people in the cast and yet they made everything work. They still were able to get the point across and still were able to engage with the audience and make people feel something. 

CB: Right now the music scene in Australia is at a point where you have a pathway, P-UniQue. You can look to people around you, people like Sampa the Great and even the fact that Missy Elliott this year was entered into the [Songwriters] Hall of Fame. As black women in hip-hop, we go “finally!” There’s acknowledgement of amazing craft and ability. I wanted everyone, particularly young black women, to know that they can be centre stage and that our storytelling has its place at centre stage too. It’s not on the outskirts, not waiting to be acknowledged. When I was growing up, kids were so shocked that I rapped. They thought boys rapped and girls do the sexy dancing in the background and do the hooks. Ashleyrose [Gilham, who also performs in the show] plays men and white women. We can play all of those characters too and rap. And be funny. And bring everybody into our world and our perspective. We don’t have to be the sidekick or the sassy friend or the co-star. We can be the star and smash all the stereotypes.

PU: Yeah totally, I can really connect with that. Doing music in Australia, I find women are so under-represented and underrated. Every single time I do a show, I find myself being the only female artist in the line-up. For almost every single show, females are singing and not rapping. There’s not that many females that are black that have been represented and pushed to do music. At a time like this it’s very important that we push each other and we have that network of people that are doing things for us to be at the top. It’s very important for us to help each other when we’re feeling down and not feeling important enough. This kind of work reminds us that ‘yes you can do this, yes you can do that’. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, doesn’t matter if you’re female.

Candy Bowers and Ashleyrose Gilham in One the Bear

...our storytelling has its place at centre stage too. It's not on the outskirts, not waiting to be acknowledged.

CB: We need to see each other. For me, at some of my lowest points, I get to see that P-UniQue is an entity now. This is a person I worked with when they were a kid! Or I see Kaiit, who once came to a workshop with me, doing her thing on the mic. I can see these amazing young artists and women of colour from the African diaspora succeeding. I get to look back at younger folks and see a trajectory. There’s a massive shift going on across the world. We’re seeing more amazing - particularly in Hollywood - African-American women running TV shows, running rooms, directing. There is a movement going on but if we don’t stay connected we can easily forget that because it’s still a small movement. I can listen to a whole playlist of black female rappers from around the world. I couldn’t do that when I was 12. But I can do that now. That’s a big change.

PU: Internationally there are a lot of black females emerging into the music scene. I think in Australia, we don’t see that as much and that’s the reason that I do music because I’m trying to inspire and motivate and encourage other young black females to do what they love most. I think something like One the Bear motivates and encourages people. There are rappers but a lot of them might be white and people might look at them and think, “I wouldn’t be able to do that”. That’s not true.

CB: The soundtrack to One the Bear is a masterpiece. It’s really cool to be like, guess what? Black women wrote, directed, beat produced and composed this entire show. That’s breaking barriers and has a powerful impact. My friend has a 10 year old daughter and 15 year old too-cool-for-school son in Melbourne. They’re both trying to convince their mum to fly to Sydney so they can see the show again. The work cut through and I totally believe in the power of our voices and our skill base and craft. We get to see ourselves reflected but it’s also undeniable that it’s a damn good work. 

...not everything that glitters is gold, man. Winning means that you get to maintain who you are. Winning is defining yourself for yourself.

PU: It’s crazy because [what One experiences] is literally what I am going through. Because you have labels and all these people would come to me and say ‘do this and do that’ and they’re trying to change who I am. But I like who I am, the way that I am now and I don’t want to change that. I don’t need anyone to tell me who I need to be and who I am. And it was a reassurance. I could so relate to that. It’s much more than just being a musical for musical fans. It’s about women too.

CB: For me, there’s two heartbeats to One the Bear, one of them is about friendship. Instead of “one day my prince will come” it’s “one day my best friend will come” and she will save you. The other heartbeat is that not everything that glitters is gold, man. Winning means that you get to maintain who you are. Winning is defining yourself for yourself. Winning is not necessarily Beyonce’ing or Cardi B-ing. Winning is Lizzo. Winning is putting everything that you want to be out there because you know that that will cut through in a way that none of these folks understand yet. There’s a legacy in the work about being seen on your own terms. And that’s the sort of thing that I want for young people because I fought really hard to do everything on my own terms. And a lot of people say, ‘if you’d just compromise maybe it’d be easier’, and I’m like, ‘not in the long run’.

PU: For me, after watching it, I can’t stress enough for young black females to watch the show. But I think everybody should watch it. Especially youths, being the future of tomorrow, I think it’s important for them to be able to see this show and have a sense of knowing who you are and what you believe and everything that makes up you. Like Candy was saying, it’s about friendship. I think everybody should see it. 

CB: My family are black, white, Asian and Indian. The more we see of everybody, the better the world is and the more connected we are as human beings. The higher consciousness creates better ground, particularly for young people to be artists but also just so they can connect with each other and be great humans. I think the people who love music - all those hip-hop heads - they’ll dig it. I love seeing families watching it together. I’d love to see heaps of fathers and daughters. I feel like anybody who needs a bit of inspiration and wants to talk to kids about the big stuff going on in their lives - this show is a great vehicle for that. But if you just want to laugh your ass off and enjoy really fat beats and show them a great story or a good musical, then it’s also really great entertainment. 

One the Bear plays in the Opera House studio on Saturday September 7th.

Find more about Kids & Families at the Opera House