OneFour: How drill music trailblazers have divided Australia

Spenny, Celly and J Emz from OneFour
Image caption,OneFour members (L-R) Spenny, Celly and J Emz on the set of their new music video

By Hannah Ritchie

BBC News, Sydney

“We’re not a gang. We’re a music group,” J Emz says, unflinchingly.

“We’re a business.”

The OneFour frontman is speaking in a small, hard-to-find recording studio wedged behind a refrigerator supply store in industrial outer Sydney.

It’s here that Australia’s most successful hip-hop act is finalising their new single.

The question I’ve asked J Emz – does OneFour have gang links? – has long stalked the group.

To fans, the rappers are pioneers: five Sāmoan-Australians from one of Sydney’s poorest postcodes who have used their explosive sound to give voice to millions of marginalised young people.

But to police, OneFour is a threat to community safety, to be managed and contained.

For years, they have blocked the group from performing at home by arguing their music incites violence – triggering a complex debate about art and censorship.

Violent or visionary?

OneFour is made up of J Emz (Jerome Misa), 25; his brother Pio “YP” Misa, 22; Spencer “Spenny” Magalogo, 25; Salec “Lekks” Su’a, 27; and Dahcell “Celly” Ramos, 28.

They are the undisputed faces of Australian drill music – a subversive style of hip-hop that tells unfiltered stories of crime, poverty and social dislocation by people who have lived it.

Their songs have accrued more than 150 million streams and focus on their experiences growing up in Mount Druitt, a Sydney suburb which has long been the subject of stories about struggle and unemployment, not art.

But it’s a melting pot of diverse communities, littered with family-run businesses, busy churches and mosques.

A picture of OneFour member J Emz
Image caption,J Emz (centre) says OneFour tells authentic stories of western Sydney

“A lot of people were embarrassed to say they were from Mounty growing up. I never was though, I wore it on my sleeve,” J Emz tells me.

“It’s home, it’s family. Everything I do in life refers to where I’m from.”

OneFour formed in 2014. Their name is a nod to that year and – police allege – the notorious Mount Druitt street gang NF14, which has been in an ongoing war with 21 District, a rival gang from the nearby suburb of Parramatta.

But it was a local Mormon church choir that first brought them together as kids, J Emz explains.

And it shows up in their music – which often juxtaposes heavy rap verses with soothing gospel-like vocals.

Their breakout moment came in 2019 with The Message, a high-octane track that went viral within days, earning the group praise from rap titans including Dave and A$AP Ferg.

In the track’s video, dozens of young Pasifika men rally around OneFour at Mount Druitt’s courthouse. Smoke billows as lyrics like “retaliation is a must, ain’t no maybes, ifs or buts” slap in time to the beat.

But one now-infamous line also caught the attention of police: “21 what, but one got knocked, ha! I guess that makes them 20.”

Police said it referenced the recent murder of a 21 District member and argued that OneFour’s lyrics were inciting violence.

A photograph from a OneFour photoshoot
Image caption,OneFour’s songs have been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify

The group was soon being monitored by two elite police units – Strike Force Raptor, created to hunt underground criminal networks, and Strike Force Imbara, which investigates gang feuds.

“I’m going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable, until you stop doing what you’re doing,” Sergeant Nathan Trueman from Raptor told the ABC in 2019, in a recorded voice memo addressed to the rappers.

A years-long campaign to block OneFour from performing has followed, leading to the cancellation of a national tour, repeated raids on the artists’ homes, and pressure on streaming services to shun their tracks.

“Just as police do not tolerate public acts of violence, they also won’t tolerate any behaviour – including music – that clearly incites and provokes retribution and other violent behaviour,” NSW Police said in a statement to the BBC.

OneFour maintain their lyrics “spread awareness of what life is like in western Sydney” and that social commentary is not a crime.

“We make music about our life experiences and what we’ve had to go through,” J Emz says.

“It’s [frustrating] that people that don’t even know you or want to understand your story, want to shut you down.”

But a series of violent incidents involving several of the group’s members have complicated the picture and increased police scrutiny.

All except Spenny have criminal records for drug, robbery, or assault charges. In 2019 Lekks, Celly and YP were jailed for a pub brawl in which YP wielded a chair leg and Celly hit a man with a hammer – an incident allegedly triggered by a racist slur.

J Emz and Spenny
Image caption,J Emz and Spenny were the only members not in prison when OneFour launched their EP

The three were ultimately given maximum sentences of between four and eight years.

It’s not something the group shies away from though, instead using songs like Welcome to Prison to explore the cycle of violence and incarceration that has plagued their community.

“I was taught from young that I’d get caught up in the system didn’t listen, and that’s how I got done,” YP raps in one verse.

J Emz is convinced that music is their only path to a different life. “It’s a type of therapy… after releasing certain songs, there’s a burden, a weight off our shoulders.”

And criminologists say the argument that the group’s music incites violence doesn’t stack up.

“The idea that we can draw this correlation that people are more likely to offend because of these lyrics is a bit ludicrous – it’s simply not played out in the statistics,” says Professor Murray Lee from the University of Sydney.

“The way police are approaching OneFour is completely counterproductive because it feeds into the narrative of them being outlaws. And it’s that authenticity that sells their music.”

‘This ain’t Home and Away’

Some of hip-hop’s most iconic artists have butted heads with police.

NWA’s run-ins with US law enforcement in the 1980s inspired their critically acclaimed album, Straight Outta Compton, but it also led to a cease-and-desist order from the FBI.

More recently, the UK’s Metropolitan Police has blamed London’s drill scene for fuelling gang crime, and requested the removal of hundreds of music videos from social media.

But in Australia – where rap artists have often failed to find success – there has “never been a campaign targeting musicians like this”, says culture journalist Osman Faruqi.

“It’s a similar situation to what NWA experienced. The key difference being that the US grappled with these questions about music and censorship 40 years ago, and has largely arrived on the side of artists.”

Faruqi argues that OneFour’s struggle cuts to the core of a bigger debate about who is permitted to tell stories in Australia “and make a living out of it”.

It’s even become the subject of a Netflix documentary about the group, called Against All Odds, after their EP.

Director Gabriel Gasparinatos says OneFour’s raw talent first drew him in, but it was police efforts to “shut them down” and the competing narratives about what the group represented that kept his camera rolling.

J Emz from OneFour
Image caption,J Emz says the group is keen for new artistic challenges

“Australia loves to celebrate an underdog or a criminal – Ned Kelly is a national icon, our unofficial anthem Waltzing Matilda is about a sheep thief. So, it was kind of fascinating that the public didn’t get behind OneFour in the same way,” he explains.

“There’s an element of it motivated by race, part of it is class. There’s also a stigma around a place like Mount Druitt – maybe people wanted to avoid promoting that version of this country, but it’s a far more accurate depiction of Australia today than the surfy, sun-kissed lifestyle we market.”

It’s a conversation OneFour is also having through tracks like This Ain’t Home and Away – which contrasts the idyllic beach-loving lifestyle of Australia’s most popular soap with the neglected corners of Mount Druitt.

Faruqi adds: “There would be people now in parts of south London, or Chicago who know more about Mount Druitt than they do about Bondi Beach, and that is a fascinating by-product of the success of Onefour.”

The next chapter

On the set of OneFour’s new song – Freedom of Speech – J Emz, Spenny and Celly are the only members present. YP is still serving his prison sentence and Lekks has recently been deported to New Zealand.

The mood is polite yet focused, as the three quietly rehearse their verses. Extras arrive dressed in police uniforms, for a scene involving the burning of a mock-up cop car.

Their manager Ricky Simandjuntak is nearby, as are creatives from Mount Druitt running everything from the cameras to the choreography.

“We’re not competing with other Australian artists, we’re competing with Drake, BTS, Blackpink – that’s the standard we’ve got to work to,” Simandjuntak tells me.

OneFour on the set of their new music video
Image caption,Celly, J Emz and Spenny are fronting OneFour’s new music video

His gaze returns to Celly, whose voice has long appeared on OneFour’s tracks in the form of prison phone calls. Now Celly is learning to adjust to his newfound fame while also trying to integrate back into society.

“People see gangs as reckless groups who come together to commit crime,” Simandjuntak continues. “Often these are kids who are getting picked on or hurt who band together to protect one another. That mentality served them when they were younger, but now they’re learning a different way.”

But there are reminders that not everything is in their control. A few weeks after I visit OneFour on set, headlines are made when Sydney police arrest two men who had allegedly accepted a contract to murder all the group’s members except Lekks.

Police said an “organised crime network” that had “conflict” with the rappers could be behind the plot, which had been foiled. They did not elaborate further and OneFour declined the BBC’s request to comment on the matter.

On the day of the arrests the group posted a cryptic video on Instagram set to 50 Cent’s track Many Men (Wish Death), before later removing it.

But for now, OneFour’s next step is to support rapper The Kid LAROI on his Australia tour next month.

It will be a chance to test the limits of their relationship with police, which the group says is slowly improving.

With the group’s sound having given life to a thriving drill ecosystem across Australia, J Emz says OneFour is now ready to evolve and extend themselves artistically.

“Everyone’s seen and heard our drill music. We’re capable of more than that,” he says.

“We’re artists. We’re musicians. And I feel like the world will know that soon.”

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