“It’s been fun to explore all these different parts of myself… I'm just hoping people come along for the ride, honestly!”
Kee’ahn sits in the corner of their cosy Naarm/Melbourne bedroom, the laptop nestled on their thighs shaking a bit whenever they sheepishly chuckle through a sentence (which is often). They exude warmth and amity – our videocall feels less like an interview and more like a casual chat with an old friend. But this is our first time meeting the Kuku Yalanji, Jirrbal and Zenadth Kes up-and-comer; they're just effortlessly personable.
Kee’ahn was virtually born to be a star: their name, endowed unto them by the Wik people, means to dance and play. And although they were quite shy as a child, music gave the mononymous luminary an outlet to express theirself. As they explain to The Music, performing has “always been so intrinsic to communicating” for Kee’ahn: “I grew up very quiet, but I was always the first to get involved in anything to do with singing. It’s been my vehicle to take up space since I was small.”
Culture is innately linked to Kee’ahn’s creativity, they continue, branding their personal connection to art as “a generational gift” passed down from their ancestors. “Music and singing have been a part of my cultures for generations,” they tell us. “My matriarchs weren't able to practise their culture or Language, but music – the song that came from country – it flowed through them and now it flows through me. And I feel like that’s how I've gained the power to speak in general: I’m a very anxious person by nature, but over the years, singing and being able to make music, it’s become so much easier to voice with my thoughts and opinions.”
In May of 2020, Kee’ahn debuted theirself with Better Things, a stirring soul track about their earnest endeavour to find their place in the world. That journey has been ongoing – since releasing the tune at age 21, they’ve embraced their identity as queer and non-binary, connected more with their heritage and blossomed into a found-family of likeminded creatives in Naarm. Three years on from their debut, Kee’ahn is a changed person. They’re confident. They’re defiant. They’re on a mission.
That mission is reflected on Take No More, a collaborative single with Emma Donovan that landed on July 2 (coinciding with the start of NAIDOC Week for 2023). It’s the first preview of an upcoming EP being issued by the Archie Roach Foundation, named for and produced by members of its mentorship program Singing Our Futures. The late, great Roach – better known among his peers as Uncle Archie – pioneered the effort in his final years, working closely with Jill Shelton and Candice Lorrae (of The Merindas fame) who keep it thriving in his honour.
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The inaugural cohort of mentees includes Madi Colville-Walker, Ridzy Ray, Kiwat Kennell and Maylene Slater Burns – and, of course, Kee’ahn. Donovan was linked up with Kee’ahn as their personal mentor, but their inimitable chemistry instantly shattered any semblance of a teacher-student dynamic. “From the very start, just talking to sis, it felt like we were already good friends,” they say, beaming. “We initially weren’t meant to write a song together – it was meant to be her giving me feedback on a song that I put forward. But [the creativity] just kind of flowed [between us], and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Well, I guess we're writing this song together!’
“It was just so fun to be in the studio with sis, writing the lyrics with her and Candice, figuring out the instrumentation, and just having cute cups of tea. Whenever she came over to my house, it felt like proper Aunty energy – just really, really nice vibes. And we’d been working on it since January last year, so we've had the opportunity to gig it a couple times before it got released. Whenever we’d be on the same festival lineup, I’d be texting her like, ‘Do you wanna jump up during my set!?’ I’m really excited to be putting it out there and having other people experience it.”
Wholesome as its journey was, the reggae-tinged Take No More is rooted in raw, poignant and impassioned conviction – a rallying cry to galvanise First Nations peoples sick of being thrown around by their oppressors. Kee’ahn and Donovan sing powerfully on the hook: “We show up / Take no more / Blak to the core / Take no more / Here all alone / Take no more / Still here, standing strong.”
The story, Kee’ahn says, began on January 26, 2022, when they and Donovan pondered between themselves, “How can we create an anthem for our community, which reminds us of our strength and our power on a day that is so traumatic?” They continue: “We were talking about a lot of the protests we’ve seen, how staunch our community leaders are, and how across so many different pathways, there have been First Nations leaders fighting for our communities. And that kind of inspired this image of carrying the torch forward, passing down that spirit to future generations.”
“Emma came up with the phrase ‘take no more’, and it became this kind of chant for us. And I was inspired by this quote that a lot Blak Elders and queer leaders say: ‘Our existence is resistance.’ To bring those messages together and put them in a song... I feel like it sums up the energy that we felt during those sessions. And then to have all mob and Blak musicians recording it with us, it just made for such a beautiful piece.”
Equally fuelled by culture, but showing a different side of Kee’ahn, is their latest solo release, a single called Sunsets that arrived on June 22 (and was featured by The Music in that week’s Best New Music roundup). It’s a cruisy, tropical-tinged indie-pop tune about “pausing and connecting with spirit and country”, written to immortalise a long-overdue trip home to North Queensland.
“It was incredible,” Kee’ahn says of the experience, returning to their homeland for the first time since they moved away in 2019. “I got to go snorkelling off the coast of where I grew up in Marlborough Country, and visit Thursday Island in the Torres Straits with my mum for the first time as an adult. My dad and I went to western Yalanji Country – we're eastern Yalanji, but just hearing my uncle speak in Language for the first time... It felt like I was reconnecting with my roots, being really centred and grounded, and I guess just reintroducing myself to home after so many big changes in my life. [Sunsets] is kind of like a celebration of all that.”
Heading back home was something Kee’ahn had been keen on for quite some time: “I’d have a yarn with my friends,” they say, “and I’d be like, ‘I miss home!’ And they would go, ‘Are you calling family? Are you making sure you're connecting?’ And I’d just be like, ‘It’s different. I miss country, and all the things that come with it.’ I was imagining my home and being inspired by the feeling of country up there – the tropics, the beaches, the rainforest – and working with Annika [Schmarsel, aka Alice Ivy], trying to embed that into the music and the energy... That feeling of missing home and wanting to reconnect... I feel like we captured that pretty well.”
In the studio, Kee’ahn and Schmarsel found themselves “obsessed with things like sunsets and islands, and how attached all of that is to [the former’s] cultures”. The pair bonded over their respective memories from Gurambilbarra/Townsville, where Kee’ahn grew up and Schmarsel has frequented for gigs, and as Kee’ahn notes, they “were able to connect over that feeling of longing for rest and longing for home – for connecting with country”.
At its core, Sunsets was crafted to be a distinctly fun song in Kee’ahn’s catalogue. “We had such a strong vision for how we wanted this song to feel in my live set,” they say, that being “one where people can really let loose and experience joy. And it was so nice to embody that in the studio with Annika, because she’s just such an upbeat, positive, bubbly person – we were jumping around the studio and having so much fun with it.”
The entire journey Kee’ahn embarked on with Sunsets – from that yearning to revisit their homeland to their impromptu studio dance parties with Schmarsel – has led them to a turning point in their career: “I feel like I've gained so much energy and wisdom and grown so much,” they attest, pointing out how important it was for them “to embark on my own cultural journey too – being able to grow within my Indigeneity and learn more about my culture... That's what really filled my cup. Then coming back down here, so far away from home, knowing that I’ve made relationships and learned stories... You know, I’ve been able to practise Language down here on an app, but like, back home... It’s special.”
Looking to the future, Kee’ahn wants to continue honouring their heritage and embracing culture in their music. “I feel like that's the main strength I've gained through music,” they say, declaring their modus operandi as being “to keep collaborating with mob and connecting with younger people that want to make music.”
They add: “I got to sing a song with sis Breanna Lee a couple of weeks ago – we did Thelma Plum's Better In Blak, and that was so special. I had that privilege of being mentored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists that I looked up to when I was growing up, and it felt like that same thing: passing the torch on and sharing the space, and opening doors wider... I want to take down the buildings and burn them all to make room for more mob to come through.”
So what’s next for Kee’ahn? Well, after years of teasing, they’ve finally made it to the home stretch with their debut EP, which will be released later this year. They describe it as “a big expression of joy and freedom and connection”, where the primary focus was to conjure an “upbeat dance energy”. And the follow-up to that as-yet-untitled record is already being written – Kee’ahn says it’ll show a side of theirself that is “a bit more vulnerable”.
They say in closing, optimistic for what the future holds: “It’s been fun to explore all these different parts of myself and all these different subjects. I'm just hoping people come along for the ride, honestly! I'm really just excited to make stuff and put it out!”