Baker Boy & Tones and I
Succeeding soccer star Sam Kerr as Young Australian of the Year in January was a guy named Danzal Baker, also known as Baker Boy, and sometimes referred to as “The Fresh Prince of Arnhem Land” – an emerging hip-hop artist who raps in his Yolngu Matha language as well as English. Martin Boulton, editor of The Age’s EG and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Shortlist, says the Indigenous musician from Milingimbi and Maningrida in the Northern Territory has a message of “positive blackness” to share, but it’s the way he shares it that stands out.
“His stagecraft is amazing: highly choreographed and genuinely entertaining,” Boulton says. “It’s athletic, skilful and energetic. Uninhibited, too. He has a natural flair.” Baker Boy is bringing people along with him, guiding younger acts through the world of festival stages and recording studios. “For a guy who’s only 23 himself, he’s really looked up to by his peers. He has been nominated for three ARIAs this year.”
Toni Watson, also known as Tones and I, is the other young story in Australian music, landing a whopping eight ARIA nominations, which is staggering considering the 26-year-old has only released six songs. Perhaps it’s less eye-popping considering one of them – Dance Monkey – recently became the longest-running No. 1 song in ARIA chart history, at 16 weeks at the time of writing. It’s just gone platinum in the UK, too – one of 16 countries where the song has topped the charts.
The catchy track is about the bad side of busking which, remarkably, is what Watson was doing a year ago, while living in a hostel in Byron Bay, having driven a van there from her home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. “Tones and I has come literally out of nowhere, from playing on street corners to touring the US with the world’s biggest song,” says Boulton. “It’s a phenomenal rise. The only question is where she’ll go from here.”
Over the past 18 months Trent Dalton has lived every fledgling fiction writer’s dream: his debut novel has been critically acclaimed, a sales bonanza, optioned for stage and film, and sold to 34 territories internationally. “There was a period when it seemed as if everyone you met was reading Boy Swallows Universe, or talking about it,” says The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald books editor Jason Steger.
“There have been a few books like that, but the big one was The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.”
Steger is quick to note, however, that Dalton’s is a literary novel, and thus has more in common with the popular works of Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan. (Dalton scooped this year’s Australian Book Industry Awards, winning Book of the Year, Literary Fiction Book of the Year, Audio Book of the Year and New Writer of the Year.) “The writing is terrific: funny and tender and big-hearted,” says Steger. “And hugely engaging for a book that’s 500 pages long.”
Since its 2018 Australian release, Boy Swallows Universe has sold more than 200,000 print copies and another 100,000 audio/ebooks, making it, according to publisher HarperCollins, the “fastest-selling Australian fiction debut since Nielsen BookScan records began [in 2002]”. Set in Brisbane and based loosely on Dalton’s childhood, it is being adapted for the Queensland Theatre Company stage in 2020, and has been optioned for film to a group including Hopscotch Pictures, with Joel Edgerton attached.
As if Dalton weren’t already the envy of wannabe novelists, he appears to have avoided the second-book blues; HarperCollins has announced it will publish his next novel, All Our Shimmering Skies, next June. “Clearly he has a store of good stories,” says Steger. “I remember our reviewer, John Collee, noting that his characters are largely low-lifes, but that was his point: that Dalton can lie in the gutter and still describe the stars.”
Adut Akech Bior
Adut Akech Bior made her debut as a model at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney in 2016, began walking for designer Karl Lagerfeld not long after, and was voted Model of the Year by her industry peers for Models.com in 2018. Yet 2019 is the year Akech, 19, truly stepped up to the mantle of “supermodel”.
“Not a supermodel in that 1980s ‘I won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day’ sense,” says The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald fashion editor Melissa Singer, “but in the sense that she’s arrived. She’s very quickly become one of the most sought-after models in the world.”
Akech – who was born in what is now South Sudan, spent a number of years in refugee camps, grew up in Adelaide and now lives in New York – was the cover model for the traditionally all-important September issues of Vogue in Britain, Germany and Japan this year. A wonderful year, were it not marred by a hurtful editorial mix-up in which Who magazine printed a feature about the young star, but with a photo of Ugandan-Australian model Flavia Lazarus. “Akech wasn’t going to take the mistake lying down,” says Singer. “She came out swinging.”
A detailed Instagram post by Akech labelled the error “passive racism” as well as “unacceptable and inexcusable”. She had talked in the Who story about the discrimination models of colour face, including being commonly mistaken for one another while backstage at fashion shows. Who apologised, and Akech used the moment to start a conversation. Melbourne Fashion Week, which had been trying to promote diversity, suddenly became a pseudo-political news event.
“This highlighted for me the idea that the model is no longer just a canvas,” says Singer. “Akech has told me that all sorts of people – anybody who represents ‘the other’ – have contacted her and told her that her story inspired them. She sees her profile as a platform to do good, but also a responsibility to speak out.”
Konrad Marshall is a senior writer