JamarzOnMarz is used to wearing many hats. There's JamarzOnMarz the rapper: fiery, forceful, commanding. There's JamarzOnMarz the saxophonist: electrifying, sultry, refined. Then, there's JamarzOnMarz the political activist: ambitious, sturdy and unable to be deterred from his goals for betterment of the world no matter how much bullshit politicians give him.
But, under all that lies James Emmanuel. In a chat with MTV Australia, an incredibly expressive and open Emmanuel ranged from energetic to empathetic, spirited to sullen, angry to afraid. Yet in amongst all that, James Emmanuel is driven to do, and to be, better.
"I just need to get out of my own head," he shares. "Starting to let that go now and realize the more you do, you know, the better you get."
Emmanuel's latest endeavour of political activism has seen such a sharp and startling surge of interest in not only him, but a cause he's determined to fight for – the erasure of discriminatory and racist independent school uniform policies, with particular attention to traditionally African hairstyles.
While he did live through that discrimination and was aware that it was racist, he wasn't compelled to make tangible change until he saw New Zealand rapper JessB criticise her old school for removing Black Lives Matter posters that students put up in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
"I had this like immediate flashback to just being requested, all the time, to shave the Afro to a number one or two," he says, while also noting that a one or two buzzcut is a typically Australian (see: white) hairstyle.
He makes note of one particular experience of having his 4A/3C Afro-textured hair braided into tiny twist-braids at a local salon in Nairobi where he was visiting his sick grandmother while he was in Year 10, before having his school ask him to remove them because it wasn't in the dress code.
Emmanuel started documenting his stories across his social media, and to various publications throughout the country. Meanwhile, rather serendipitously, hairstylist Chrissy Zamura had started a campaign for Cert III Hairdressing courses at TAFE to start educating students on styling and maintaining textured hair.
"If I'm going to present a problem," Emmanuel says, "I need to create a solution."
So, taking Chrissy's cue, Emmanuel started a petition on change.org titled "Stop Independent schools restricting Afro-textured hair & protective styles".
In two months, Emmanuel's petition has gained over 23,000 signatures.
"I knew I had the platform," Emmanuel says. "I knew I had the right people following me, and I had the lived experience which is most important … I knew there's an opportunity to actually do something here, and that everyone in Australia is now open to listening."
Unfortunately, it would seem that not everyone is willing to listen to Emmanuel's cause, as he's received at best lacklustre responses from politicians – i.e. those who can actually legislate change.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell gave an ultimately dismissive response to press about the issue, saying "While I do not control the uniform policies of non-government schools, I encourage students at non-government schools to have discussion with their school about their uniform policy if they are advocating for change."
Anyone who has ever attended high school would have a clear idea of how those discussions would be received, if they were received at all. Emmanuel knows this well – having attended a Catholic school in the regional NSW town of Orange, where he was the only Black student until he hit his final year.
"My concern for Black students and just Black males in general is that now they're just so conditioned or climatized to having to shave the head that some of them don't even want the Afro," Emmanuel says. "What they think is acceptable is like a clean-up short shaven head."
Emmanuel elaborates on how that way of thinking has infiltrated his own life throughout previous jobs. "I went and did braids and cornrows straight after school as a reaction to not being allowed to do it while I was there," he says.
"I got a job at EB Games shortly after and I was like 'Do you need me to get rid of my hair?' They said 'No, it's fine the way it is'. I was shocked because I would be wearing a collared shirt at work, like I was at school, and I genuinely thought that I couldn't have the braids or that they weren't acceptable."
Referring back to the dress codes, he says that "it's like conditioning us to the subjective white standards of presentability because at the end of the day, it is subjective. But the codes are made for a one size fits all white Australia."
While cut and dry political activism is a new hat Emmanuel is wearing, that doesn't mean politics hasn't permeated his music since his debut. In just a few short years, he's made music referencing the homophobia of rugby player Israel Folau with the brash and comic 'Israel Falafel' and the death of First Nations teenager Elijah Doughty with the confronting and powerful 'Complexion 4 Protection'. He even admits the thought has crossed his mind to make a track referencing the Education Minister as well.
"I'm playful but I'm just gonna take a step back and see whether that is an appropriate move to make," he says, "because I actually think I may want a career in politics at some time."
After that, he says that he may become "the first rap Prime Minister", before bursting into a giggle. But there's an element of sincerity in his voice that hints this is something he could actually achieve.
However, Emmanuel does explain that there's a struggle in making sure that if he's going to get political with his music, he's got to do it right. "The problem with music and being political within the music is there's that fine line between like being corny and being impactful," he says.
"If you don't leave just a little room for interpretation with music, that's when it becomes kind of corny and people tune out. Sometimes it's just more impactful to use your voice voice."
"Having launched this campaign, I'm thinking on how best I can integrate these messages into the music," he continues. "I'm realising I have to visualize the change that I want. I can make the music fit the voice, rather than making the voice fit the music."
That's an art he's working to perfect, weaving in politics and real messaging within tracks that, at surface level, might just seem like a great dance song. "Within the lyrics, I'm always turning like clichés and tropes on their head. Moving forward as a songwriter and as an artist, that's my style of political statements that I want to make within the music and then I can still say what I really have to say outside of it."
It can be argued that Emmanuel's mere existence, as a queer Black person in this country, is political – many aspects of his daily life are, or have been, politicised at one point. Ergo, the urge to continue fighting against loads of dated policies and stubborn politicians can be exhausting.
"I can't escape that. Just being in these intersections – the body, my body, my being, my identity, my existence – is just inherently political."
"I just have my little secret trick that I learned the other day," he says, when asked how he manages to unwind without losing steam. "Take a week off, you know, don't be too loud all the time because then my own circle of supporters are probably going to tune out."
While James Emmanuel and JamarzOnMarz are one and the same, the hats they wear vary and are subject to change at any moments. Speaking to Emmanuel, you can tell his mind works at a million miles an hour, which might not seem immediately compatible in a political landscape that barely moves at all.
But, on closer inspection, his brand of ferocity and fervour might be exactly what we need.
Emmanuel is more than his hair, of course, but after learning to love it, he's fighting to make sure other kids around the country can love theirs too.
You can sign James' petition to stop Independent schools restricting Afro-textured hair here.
Editor's note: Since this piece was first published in September, JamarzOnMarz released his music video for "Tomorrow", which has nabbed accolades at home and round the world. Check it out here:
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