If it was up to police, ONEFOUR wouldn't be making music. That much is clear from ONEFOUR: Against All Odds, a new documentary that charts rappers J Emz, Spenny, YP, Lekks and Celly's unprecedented rise, and the relentless intimidation tactics intended to silence them – which included a noticeable police presence outside the film's SXSW Sydney premiere.
What is ONEFOUR: Against All Odds about?
Hailing from Mount Druitt, ONEFOUR began creating music at the recording studio in Street University. The group has always maintained that they rap about what they see, so if their lyrics happen to contain violence, that's only because it reflects their environment. However, across the years, the drill rappers have become unjustly targeted by police for their confronting verses in songs like The Message, due to the belief that it could incite further gang violence across Western Sydney. So much so, Strike Force Raptor, a specialised squad known for cracking down on outlaw motorcycle gangs, has switched to investigating the musicians.
In his directorial debut, Gabriel Gasparinatos testifies to the constant police presence and harassment across four years of documenting ONEFOUR. The group's manager at Sony, Ricky Simandjuntak, surfaces with stories of cancelled tours, trouble with New Zealand border patrol, non-association orders, and frequent raids, all told against the backdrop of hand-recorded footage. These stories are jarring, particularly alongside interview scenes with Former Detective Deb Wallace, who justifies the extent of police intervention, which aims to censor the group and stop them from performing.
Gasparinatos also captures the rappers in their homes, at family functions, away from their adrenaline-pumping music videos, teeming with bodies, flares and high-octane antics. ONEFOUR talk about music being a way for them to claim back power, to tell their own story, and to create a livelihood outside of the limited options they've grown up believing were available to them as Pasifika men: "football, factories or prison".
In one scene, YP leans down and kisses his mother, in another the group play cards in their backyard. At one point, we see YP being released from prison, withdrawn and despondent, and collected by his family. During a joyful moment, a social worker at Mount Druitt Street University recounts ONEFOUR promising to renovate the centre's recording studio, and the camera shows the group holding true to their word, piling in with newly-bought equipment.
Above all else, Against All Odds provides a rounded portrait of ONEFOUR as sons, brothers, loyal friends, musicians, entrepreneurs – basically, the human piece that's missing from mainstream media and police narratives which only enforce the rappers as criminals and instigators of violence. It's punchy, funny, and full of heart, and will leave you feeling an overwhelming sense of injustice at the way our country is prepared to snuff out real talent when what they have to say makes us the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Who else is involved?
There are cameos from The Kid LAROI, who proudly recounts sneaking ONEFOUR into his Sydney concert, Scooter Braun, Skepta, ASAP Ferg, and other international acts energised by ONEFOUR's sound. Elsewhere, radio presenter, producer and label-owner Hau Latukefu appears, as does Jioji Ravulo, Professor and Chair of Social Work and Policy Studies at the University of Sydney, and Christopher Kevin, AKA 24 Karat Kev.
Meanwhile, talking heads such as culture journalist Osman Faruqi and investigative reporter Mahmood Fazal ground the relationship between ONEFOUR and the police in its broader pop cultural context, drawing comparisons to hip hop in the US during the 80s and 90s.
What has been said of the documentary?
Following the film's premiere at SXSW, the festival held a panel featuring Spenny, J Emz, Celly, Gasparinatos, and Simandjuntak. Spenny was asked if he was surprised to learn about how deliberate the police harassment was. "Honestly, no," was his response. "It's quite normal for us to go through all of the police pressure, and everything that was going on. For us, we just got used to it. So I wasn't surprised."
Following this, Simandjuntak added: "It's a sad day when young kids are used to that sort of thing. Unfortunately, there are people in our society who do go through that. This documentary helps to show things that maybe you don't see. You don't see when boys come out of jail, what kind of condition they're in and what their families have to do to hold them up. You don't see the pressure it puts on the families when the boys go into jail and how much support they need when they're in there."
"I hope you can see why it's so important to look for untapped potential because a lot of people would've looked at boys like ONEFOUR"... [and written them off], Simandjuntak continued.
"There's a corner over here [gesturing to ONEFOUR friends in the crowd] and there's so much potential waiting to add value to society. When you look and see the potential in people, rather than focusing on their mistakes, you might find something beautiful. I feel like this documentary shows that; it shows that beyond being artists they're entrepreneurs, they're leaders, within the community they come from they're inspiring more leaders to come forward and share their story and share their truth. Us as a nation, we should look to that and nurture that."
The conversation concluded with a statement from Celly, who was largely absent from the documentary. "Seeing our story, especially what my brothers here have gone through while I've been gone, is actually a different insight. It was more thoughtful. I just want to say thank you, to the boys and to everyone that's telling our story, and to the platform that we can share it to."
Is there a release date?
The film is slated for a global release with Netflix on October 26, and premiered at SXSW Sydney on October 16.