The first time I witnessed the bright light that is Danzal Baker was back in 2016. It was a hot summer afternoon on the streets of Brunswick in Melbourne's inner north, where a crowd of young families and hipsters gathered for the Sydney Road Street Party.
In a scene that resembled a New Orleans street march, Danzal and his fellow performers emerged from the crowd. Heralded by a group of Carnival-style dancers, Danzal appeared dressed in a white suit with tails, banging a drum in the percussive parade.
He's the type of hype man you'd want at your party; a high-energy showman with killer dance moves and a contagious smile.
Almost five years on, Baker Boy is now one of the country's most promising hip hop talents, with a Young Australian of the Year title under his belt, and a possible MTV EMA award, too.
What's more, the 24-year-old amassed these accolades before having released his debut album. "I've been working on an album for a while now – I've had it there for like two years – and I'm building more songs... I'm just waiting for mix and mastering," Baker tells MTV Australia.
"There's a couple of tracks that I was going to release this year then COVID happened... but I think it's pretty good to hold onto music and listen to it over and over to be confident [enough] to release it to the world."
Baker Boy hails from the Milingimbi and Maningrida communities in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and describes himself as a "straight-up bush kid".
As a Yolngu man, Baker Boy takes pride in his ability to connect people when rapping in both English and his mother tongue, Yolngu Matha. Much of his desire to keep his music bilingual is about being a role model for the children in the communities he represents.
"I think it's pretty cool because all of the family and all of the kids back home speak Yolngu Matha," Baker says. "It's funny because when I go back home to visit my family some of the kids run up to me and say, 'Hey Baker Boy!' and start rapping a verse to tease me in a cute way, and it's just so cool to go back to my own community and hear my songs being played as the school bell."
Like so many others this year, the pandemic has meant less trips back home for Baker Boy, who is currently based in regional Victoria.
"My family have been living the good life and teasing me non-stop when they go fishing, sending me photos of the things they catch. I'm just like, 'That's not fair, stop making me hungry' – you know eating fish, seafood and bush tucker," Baker laughs.
On the upside, Baker Boy has used Victoria's drawn-out lockdown order as an opportunity to explore a more vulnerable side than before.
That vulnerability pours out of his new single, "Better Days", featuring long-time collaborator (and friend) Dallas Woods and ARIA Award-winning rapper, Sampa The Great.
"I've been admiring what Sampa does for a while now and I was really keen to work with her, so I reached out … Dallas has been a long-time collaborator with me, so it just made sense to bring these voices together and make the track to get everyone in their feels, thinking about the struggles but most importantly the better days that come afterwards," Baker says.
"It's a lot different from my normal jams that are usually really hype, high-energy and really positive, but I think it's good for me to show everyone this side of my story and that I'm human too … there's always downsides in life and we all go through that struggle."
When asked about what winning an EMA would mean to him, Baker Boy pointed to his humble beginnings and the irony of growing up in a remote community without access to a TV, to recognition on a global stage; the birthplace of music television.
"We were kind of cut off from the rest of the world where I grew up and we operated off the power of a generator.. straight up bush-kid," Baker laughs. "So I would be super humbled to win an EMA, especially to represent Australia on a global scale, which is huge," he says. "I think it would help break down some barriers in terms of perceptions of Australia and would be massive exposure for First Nations Australians."
He is nominated alongside the likes of G Flip, Tones And I, Hayden James and fellow Indigenous hip-hop rising star The Kid Laroi – a 17-year-old artist Baker has had his eye on for a while. "I've always listened to [The Kid Laroi's] music, he's got it all sorted at such a young age and I give him so much respect," he says. "Seeing my name next to these musicians is really big for me and that's already an award itself – it just makes me feel blessed."
Despite the deluge of attention that comes with awards – and even a cameo in the True History Of The Kelly Gang featuring Russell Crowe – Baker stays grounded by remaining connected to his culture. When time and money permits the epic flight back to Arnhem Land (a ten-hour drive from Darwin), Danzal likes to go fishing with family along the pristine blue waters of the Gove Peninsula.
"It's always about being true to myself. For me, the best award is to see the kids smiling, laughing and having a good time."
Danzal has become an ambassador for a new generation of aspiring Indigenous creatives looking to make their mark on the world.
"Recognition in the form of awards is always really cool … but for me it's about education and sharing my story and language. Hopefully that helps someone out there realise that they can follow their dreams and connect back to their country and language."
The 2020 MTV EMAs will air live on Monday, November 9 at 7am AEDT (that's Sunday night over in Europe). If you're wondering where to watch the 2020 MTV EMAs, you can tune in to the show via all the usual places on Foxtel (channel 124) and Fetch (104). Follow along with all our live coverage right here at mtv.com.au.
Written by Jedda Costa – A proud Aboriginal, Cape Verdean-Portuguese journalist and contributor for MTV, based in Eastern Victoria.