Mawunyo Gbogbo- Hip Hop and Hymns | Sydney Writers’ Festival 2023

interview by Josefine Ticic and Thierry St. Quintin

We had the pleasure of sitting with ABC pop culture reporter and author of her new memoir, 'Hip Hop and Hymns', Mawunyo Gbogbo. Her book is a fascinating look into her past, exploring ideas of identity being all tied together with a killer soundtrack. There is an ease that permeates Gbogbo’s writing, in both how she delves into her past and explains it, making ‘Hip Hop and Hymns’ an excellent read!


To begin, your book is titled Hip Hop and Hymns, and I have to ask, who are some of your favourite hip hop artists or musicians of note?

OK, you're putting me on the spot here. Let me have a look at what's on repeat at the moment on my Spotify playlist. 

So right up the top, my number one song is ‘Rap Saved Me’ by 21 Savage. It's not even one of his latest songs, but I just love it right now. And then I've got two afrobeat songs, then the next rap song is ‘Princess Diana’ by Ice Spice. She's just blowing up right now, right? 

And then we get to a rap song by DDG featuring Gunna called ‘Elon Musk’. ‘Dancing’ by Kylie Minogue, and then ‘Vigilante Shit’ by Taylor Swift are next. But if we’re talking rap artists I love, it’d be people like Rick Ross and Pusha T.


You write for the ABC about pop culture and music, but your current book is a memoir. So, what is it like writing a memoir in comparison to what you usually write and can you tell us a little bit about your process?

So what I do at work is very different from writing a memoir, because I generally don’t write about myself at work. I write pop culture stories for ABC News, from Eurovision to the latest court case featuring a celebrity. 

I guess once I had my book deal with Penguin Random House, I had deadlines so that was very journalistic. Also, I did do things like interview all the people in my life, which I probably wouldn't have done if I wasn't a journalist. I wanted to see how other people viewed certain events that we've been through together. 

I guess my process was that I worked very closely with my editor at Penguin Random House, going back and forth. I'd write a slab of stuff, an entire draft and send it to him, and he would come back with questions and all sorts of stuff, and then we just kept going back and forth. And so it's very, very different to writing an article especially if it's a breaking news article, you‘ve really only got an hour or two to write the thing. 


Did you find it challenging going back to your past and reliving some of those experiences? How did you choose what to keep and leave out?

Yes, so it was quite challenging because as you've read, it's quite an emotional story, there’s a lot that happens. 

But it was also a really great process because when you ask about what I left out and what I left in, well, it all came together in the end because, you might pick up my book and read something on page 14 and think ‘ohh, why did she put that in there’ and then you Fast forward to page 250 and you're like ‘ohh that's why that was there’. So, everything is there for a reason but there was a lot that I did end up having to cut out.

There was a trip to Jamaica that didn't really serve the story. It didn't move the story forward in a way that other events in my life did so that was cut. There were a few significant things that happened in my life that were cut because they didn't fit in this particular story.


What could you say about the intent behind writing the book? Was it to explore your past and history, or to offer a resource that could teach?

All of the above! Having written this book made me realise, that everything happens for a reason. As I said, there are different things that connect to different things, and when you're going through it, you might be thinking, ‘Why do I have to go through this?’ And then later on down the track, you feel like ‘well, if that hadn't happened, this wouldn't have happened’. 

I never used to understand those people who would say if I was to live my life over again, I'd never change a thing until I became one of those people. Because even the really horrible stuff that's happened in my life, it all kind of served a purpose in a way.

So for example, I experienced a mental health breakdown for the first time when I was 21 and that was such a devastating, horrible experience. But because of that experience, I get people in a way that I don't think I would necessarily get people had I not gone through that. And as a journalist, having that sense of empathy, I think, is really helpful because I'm able to ask the right questions when I'm interviewing people in a way that I don't think everybody who hasn't lived the life that I've lived can. 


You mentioned that you had to interview people who were along your journey. And that must be challenging as well. How did you approach that? 

So I interviewed everyone from my mum and dad and brothers and sister to the bosses that I had when I was in New York. I spoke to so many different people and that process was really, really helpful. 

When I was a teenager, I wrote about a particular scenario in which I lost my virginity. The guy I lost my virginity to, he's no longer living. His sister read that passage of the manuscript. Prior to reading it, she was more than happy for me to write about her brother. She said he thought the world of me and she was happy for him to be included in the book. But after she read it, she said ‘I don't want him to be in the book’, and I said ‘Well, it's not up to you. He was a big part of my life and therefore he's going to be in the book whether you like it or not. But what's your problem with this passage?’ And she told me that she felt that it didn't ring true to the person he was, in a roundabout way. You know, she didn't say it in those words, but that was essentially what she was saying.

So I went back and had a look at my diaries from around that time and what I hadn't realised was as a 17-year-old teenager who had just lost her virginity, I had written in my diary that night. That diary was running out of pages, right, and I've written about how excited I was and how I couldn't wait for this guy to call me and, you know, couldn't wait to see him again. I've written that and then I ran out of pages in that diary. 

So you know, I had this new diary, which I've written in three weeks later, OK, after he hadn't called me, and so I was a 17-year-old who was upset about this guy who hadn't called. 

Now I forgot all about the first diary. Completely forgot about the first diary and based what I'd written on the second diary, the tone was obviously a lot different. You know, it was three weeks later, he hadn't called me. He was never going to call me. I was devastated because, you know, I'd given myself to this guy who I thought I was going to see again. 

And so when I went back and found this other diary and realised what I'd done, I was absolutely mortified. And I rewrote that chapter with both diaries in mind, trying to take myself back to what it was actually like being in that moment.

So I think the fact that I did go to all that trouble to contact people and speak to them, it paid dividends for sure because it's a far more authentic story. I stand by everything I've written in there because of the trouble I went to.

There are periods where, and I mentioned this right at the beginning of the book, where I didn't keep diaries because I was going through the most traumatic of circumstances and I didn't want to remember those traumatic circumstances. But they’re actually the easiest to write about because they just stick in your mind, right? 


What could you say about your relationship with music?

Obviously, naming a book, 'Hip Hop and Hymns' means that music has been a part of my life, especially because It's a memoir. 

There's a soundtrack that permeates my life like most people, you know, there are certain songs I think of, and it takes you back to a time and place. 

I grew up singing church hymns and then as a teenager I got heavy into hip hop and hip hop had both a negative and a positive influence on me. 

To be honest, initially it was the artists that drew me to hip hop because there weren't many people who looked like me in town, and being able to see myself reflected back at me in terms of the black artists I was listening to was very positive because, you know, they're all out there doing big things. 

But the negative impact it had on me is that I wasn't listening to artists like Common, who were all about black empowerment and conscious rap, as they call it. I was listening to artists like Snoop Dogg, who was rapping about bitches and hoes, and as a 16-year-old, 17-year-old, I really couldn't differentiate between a hoe and a girl. You know, they're all the same thing as far as I'm concerned.

I didn't really believe artists like Boyz II Men when they were singing about loving a woman and making love to her the way that she wanted to be made love to. 

It was a really confusing and really difficult time for me and so music has had both positive and very negative impacts on my upbringing and that's all types of music.


Do you have any closing words?  

At the end of the day, I think one of the things I set out to do is to provide an entertaining read.

And I think I have achieved that because I listened to the audiobook, which is read by a black actor here in Australia, Chantelle Jamieson, and she does such a fantastic job. And listening to her read it, I find it entertaining myself. And I wrote the thing. 

I was laughing, I was crying. And you know, it's good when you can say that.

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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