“Our stories will be documented and remembered”: Mojo Juju on Resilience, Racism and Truth.
Mojo Juju and I sit on a small deck in her front yard in Melbourne’s north, drinking coffee from a percolator that’s wedged between apricot pastries and blueberry muffins. It’s a cold winter’s day but sunshine breaks through the grey sky and flickers over our faces. Magpies sit on a nearby power-line as we overlook the suburban streets.
The 35-year-old singer, known offstage as Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga, has been in the music industry for over a decade, but her latest album Native Tongue is perhaps the best example of what she’s always wanted to do: be as honest as possible with herself and others. “There was definitely authenticity to the work I’ve done before, but I was more interested in hiding truth amongst fiction,” she says calmly, with her hands buried deep inside her jumper. “For Native Tongue I just wanted to stop hiding my truth. I wanted to step away from all the bullshit and say all the things that for so long I wanted to write but the industry was telling me it would be too ‘confronting’ or wouldn’t sell.”
Juju speaks gently but with assurance about both her hardships and achievements. “There’s a lot of people wearing masks in the music industry,” she tells me. “I wanted to leave mine behind.”
Was there a catalyst moment in your decision to open up about your sense of heritage and identity in your third album Native Tongue?
It was a combination of multiple moments. In general I felt like the timing was right—these conversations around identity and politics in music have been more and more prominent lately. They inspired me and made me feel ready. There was also this moment when I was on a plane, sitting next to a white lady and her daughter, and they started talking about the Adam Goodes controversy. At first I couldn’t be bothered, so I just put on my headphones and disconnected, but when I switched back, I heard her daughter exasperatedly saying that she couldn’t believe that people can’t say even the slightest racist thing without it becoming a big deal.
In that moment, I realised I never wanted to be made to feel small and stay quiet ever again, so I actually interjected and engaged in a conversation with them and explained to them why racism was not okay. This was an important moment were I realised the importance of being vocal and not just visible.
Was the songwriting process of this album any different than the rest?
It was certainly more immersive. I went away to Broken Hill with my brother—who I usually co-write music with—and we locked ourselves in a little caravan. We spent that time feeling isolated from the world but also we were connecting in a special way because this album is about our story as a family. We hadn’t really explored a lot of things about our family before.
How come you picked Broken Hill?
This is a place that really highlights the idea of White Australia and it’s ‘true blue’ identity. I wanted to be submerged in it but also locked away from it. I think a lot of times you can get quite comfortable in Melbourne because you are surrounded by work and people who get you. I wanted to challenge myself and push myself out of my comfort zone.
I imagine the process of looking within your traumas in order to tell your story would’ve been quite hard.
It was. There were a couple of times when writing this album where I just broke down. It was a very cathartic process. I guess in a way Native Tongue is like these tapes reflecting my therapy sessions [laughs].
Sometimes it feels like in Australia the talent is there, the audiences are eager but the local media refuses to acknowledge narratives by artists that aren’t white.
Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been doing music for so long and I’ve had a strong following over the years, but the local industry has not paid much attention to me until recently. I think things are changing because over the years more artists of colour have gained so much popularity. There’s artists like Sampa The Great, Kaiit, Kira Puru, Remi and so many more who have been growing so much and the industry is finally paying attention to them. Even with little support from the local music industry, those artists have gained so much popularity locally and internationally.
Going back to Native Tongue, I noticed that the production of this album revolves a lot around the theme of oral traditions. There’s collaborations with spoken word artists, choir arrangements, recordings of your father and grandmother...
Yes, there’s a lot of elements of oral traditions and storytelling. For the single ‘Native Tongue’ I remembered showing the track to [producer] Joelistics, who is Chinese-Australian, and he got really excited about it and was like, ‘I totally get this’, and we worked on a sound that would feel both traditional but modern. We wanted it to feel well produced but emotionally raw. I mean, that song in particular is pretty much just beats and human voices doing the storytelling. For that track we worked with the Pasefika Vitoria Choir to bring more of that human element into it but I also wanted as many voices who have similar stories to mine to be present in the song.
What about the recordings of your family speaking as interludes?
During the process of recording this album my grandmother passed away. This gave me a strong sense of urgency to preserve the stories of my family whilst they are still alive. In one interlude my father speaks in Tagalog and it’s the story of how he migrated to Australia. In the other one my grandmother speaks about her father’s story. I guess this is a way for me to represent my connection to ancestry as much as give voice to those who mean the most to me.
There seems to be a strong sense of self-documentation in this album. Do you think this album also works as a way to challenge the way in which colonialism purposefully erases the voices, stories and traces of many diasporas?
It wasn’t something that I was specifically aiming for, but I see how this album works in that way. There’s been a lot of trauma for many migrant groups as well as Indigenous people in Australia. A lot of knowledge and cultural narratives have been erased and many people don’t even know their history because of genocide and the ongoing effects of colonisation. I guess in a way this album is like a documentation of my family history. It’s my way of saying that at least going forwards in time, our stories will be documented and remembered. Not erased.
Do you feel like in anyway your music is an artistic weapon against White Supremacy?
I’ve never thought about it but I guess it can be. I mean, I want this album to bring visibility to the stories of people of colour, queer women and the marginalised. I would’ve loved to grow up hearing empowered voices speaking about similar struggles to mine in the media, but that’s not in the agenda of most people controlling Australia’s media. They always try to erase the voices of First Nations—or any person of colour who has anything to say that doesn’t fit their agenda.
I like how Native Tongue strongly fuses together feelings of both struggle and empowerment. It’s a common sentiment for diaspora people.
Yeah, I think growing up being bullied was awful, but it also taught me about resilience. Since I was very young I was bullied and I felt like I was never enough to fit into any community. I wasn’t Filipino enough , Indigenous enough or white enough so I always felt isolated and un-belonging. I also find it hard to navigate the boundaries in terms of my Indigenous heritage and where I belong in that space. I was not brought up in the culture and this is something that needs to be given to you.
What have been some recent moments in your music career that have made you feel like it was all worth it?
Since releasing this album I have received so much support and love from so many different people and communities. So many people have opened up to me about their own stories that are similar to mine and it feels a lot like a healing experience. I also remember this moment when I was up in Dubbo playing a show and my grandmother was in the audience. I was singing my songs to her and knowing that she could see me tell these stories made me so happy. She was crying, I was crying, and the whole thing was so emotional. The room was full of people, but it was as if I could only see my grandmother. I’m glad I got to experience that.
This interview was conducted by Triana Hernandez and photos are courtesy of Alan Weedon.
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