melbourne’s ror akot on rapping, community and escaping south sudan
The inspiring artist tells i-D about his ambitions, and how even the most trying times can lead to good things.
Photography Justin Leijon
Ror Akot is an eighteen-year-old rapper from Melbourne. In 2005, at the age of nine, Ror escaped war-torn South Sudan with his mother and siblings, immigrating to Australia via Egypt. But since starting a new life in Fitzroy he has found solace in his community and now shares his life's story through hip hop.
While he's now been rapping for three years, Ror didn't come onto our radar until last year, during the Melbourne International Film Festival. A short documentary about the then-16-year-old screened before Nas: Time is Illmatic at the Forum Theatre.
That same charisma saw him steal the show at Melbourne's White Night, where Ror performed with his group TLB (Together Like Brothers). The whole crew radiated energy, but Ror's sophisticated flow, drawing on New York rapper Rakim's relaxed style and a maturity beyond his years, made him stand out.
Ror's raps are visceral; unflinching in their descriptions of domestic violence, racism and immigration. He counts legendary music critic Molly Meldrum as a fan, and since releasing his debut album Hear Me Ror last year he's been growing a community of followers - some of whom he now mentors as a youth ambassador to Yarra City Council.
i-D: What inspired you to start rapping?
Ror: My role model is Tupac, he's the one that really made me think about writing music. I kept listening to him every day and I was like "Oh, I should start writing!" I realised how many stories I had to tell. The first time I wrote was with my friend MXC, he told me how to write because I was just writing essays - I didn't have any structure. We sat down and he told me "This is a way to structure your songs, you've got to go to the beat and make words rhyme," 'cause my raps didn't have rhymes back then!
You went to MIT for a leadership course in 2012. Did being in America, with its history of hip hop, inspire you to write?
That's where it all started, basically. The person who took me to the States told my hosts a lot about me, and when I got there they were expecting me to perform. So I performed in front of a few hundred students from around the world.
What a debut! Did you freestyle or did you do a song?
I actually performed the first song I ever wrote, 'Live Your Life Right'. That was cool, the feedback I got was amazing, it changed my whole perspective on music. I was like yep, I've got to do this.
That's so great. And now you're working on an album with TLB?
Yeah, we're halfway through, we're making a big album, like 20-something songs, and we're gonna release it in September. Then we might release an EP as well. We're putting in the hard work!
That's a lot of songs! If it came down to it, would you sign with a label as a solo artist or with TLB?
I would have to sign with TLB. If I'm gonna go somewhere my group has to come with me, this is where it all started. I wouldn't screw them over just to get to a higher level, it's not like that. After all those years working together, sharing each other's stories... I wouldn't trade that for anything.
I love that loyalty. And a lot of young artists are starting their own labels nowadays, anyway, like Pro Era.
Yeah, well I actually am - I've started a thing called Afro Ink, but I'm still trying to get it off the ground. My aim is to promote the young kids in Fitzroy and ourselves, 'cause there's a lot of young talent in Melbourne. I guess telling people your life stories is inspiring them, as well. It's giving you that relief from keeping the anger and hatred inside. You share it with someone, and you feel better.
A lot of people your age don't get so involved in their communities like you do.
In my community there's a lot of Africans, and it's a very cultural place. I'm just trying to support the young kids that are coming up to pursue their dreams, instead of going down the wrong path. But also I come from a hard background. I'm trying to do as much as I can, achieve what I wanna achieve and get the things I never had back home...and pay back my mum for all the things she did to bring me to Australia to enjoy a better life. That's why I work hard.
That's so inspiring. You rap a bit about South Sudan on your album, but I'm still really curious about what your life was like there. Do you remember much from that period in your life?
A little bit. We moved around a lot, because of my dad, he was in the army. He didn't want us to leave Sudan. He married mum and then he moved onto another wife, and treated mum pretty bad. He actually also put my mum in prison for a bit, and I had to go see her in prison. So for us to get out of Sudan my mum did things underground, Dad couldn't find out. Then after years of trying to get out, it happened. We got on the train to Egypt, and we lived there for maybe three years.
How have you found growing up in Melbourne?
It's been great, I've been exposed to a lot of things, it's made my future. In Fitzroy everybody talks to each other, which is cool. Even though we have to live in public housing, the way that people look at each other and treat each other is awesome. People don't care who you are, they still speak to you. In the city people just mind their own business, no one really talks, they just walk down the street doing their own thing. But once you're in Fitzroy, everything is different. People are playing basketball together and the Fitzroy Police Station, they're doing wonderful things for the community, running events and getting the community together and teaching them life skills.
What else are you up to?
I went to Mornington Island last year to run a two-week workshop in an Indigenous community. It was real cool, we made four songs. That also helped me open my mind to think a bit differently.
Did you record them?
Yeah, 'cause I do engineering as well. I got my certificate in sound production. Hopefully I'll also do a diploma, but I really want to do drama more. I want to be an actor.
I knew you'd make me feel lazy!
Haha! Don't feel that way.
Creativity is a bit of a curse, isn't it? You can feel like you're never doing enough.
Yeah. That's true. I've got so many ideas that I want to achieve, and it's hard because the government doesn't fund younger people. 'Cause I want to start a fashion label as well.
I was going to say you have sweet style!
Thanks! Yeah, I have a concept for these cool t-shirts and pants, and even shoes. I just wanna tackle things.
Text Sarah Gooding
Photography Justin Leijon