Public Enemy urged fans to ‘Fight the Power’. N.W.A said, ‘Express Yourself’. Big Daddy Kane was a ‘Smooth Operator’, and Queen Latifah and Monie Love put ‘Ladies First’.
It was 1989, and I was a nine-year-old girl, spellbound by hip-hop.
I wrote my first rap, ‘The Beat’, at the year’s close. This is the opening verse:
Do you ever feel the beat,
When you’re walking down the street?
You’ve got the urge in your feet,
Like you want to do a dance.
So come on, baby, let’s take a chance!
The subject matter and rhyme pattern didn’t precisely match the edginess and complexity of my inspirations above. Nor did the snappy lyrics capture my innermost thoughts. Still, it was a heartfelt salute to my budding obsession with the music.
Hip-hop poetically reflected the Black American innercity experience, and I was dazzled by the truthfulness and brilliance of its artists. My family, who, thank the stars, did not bear any of the anti-Black racism many Middle Easterners historically and deplorably exhibited, adored R&B, funk and disco. These sounds were hip-hop’s predecessors; still, rap was not a genre my relatives passed on to me. Instead, I had discovered it on my own, through the pages of music magazines I begged Mum to buy me as soon as I could read.
Those magazines were some of the first things I packed when, in January that year, my newly single mother – freshlooking at thirty-six with a glowing tan, shaggy pixie cut and sparkling chocolate eyes – uprooted me, my four-year-old sister, Julie, and our beloved Sita from Sydney’s cosmopolitan Inner West to the Central Coast. I was snatched from a rainbow coalition of friends and hurled 90 kilometres north into a panorama of chalky faces, a churlish reception, and the bullseye of culture shock. Since it was a time when balmy hits like Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘One Summer’ and The Bangles’ ‘Eternal Flame’ reigned supreme on Australia’s pop charts, it should be no surprise that the rapping ethnic girl couldn’t find her feet. Feeling like an outcast, I turned to the one thing grabbing my imagination that provided an escape from my disorienting existence.
That was hip-hop. It became my lifelong friend.
My parents’ divorce was a driving force in our Central Coast move. First, though, let me give you some backstory. In 1976, Mum used every cent saved from menial gigs to enjoy her first trip overseas: a summer in Europe with a girlfriend. While in Athens, she met my father, George Kapsalides, when they were both twenty-three.
My dad was born and raised on the tiny Mediterranean island of Cyprus. He was a charismatic bartender whose face was a composite of Sly Stallone and Billy Joel, topped with perfectly coiffed black curls, and who wore unbuttoned shirts and tight flares. After three dates, he duped Mum into losing her virginity by creating fake love bites on himself with a vacuum cleaner to make her jealous. Mum came home after their holiday romance, and they stayed in touch with letters. Since Mum’s younger sister, Patricia, was already hitched, my mother thought it might be time for her to do the same. After a couple of years as pen pals, she agreed when George suggested he move to Australia.
In July 1979, they were married in a civil ceremony with a low-cost reception at Sita’s home on Parramatta Road, Summer Hill, where they also lived, the semi-detached house nestled between the fountains and sundials of Menduni Garden Artistry and the seedy Marco Polo motel. Less than a year later, when my mother was six months pregnant with me, my dad’s troubled past reared its head. One day when he was at work, waiting tables at a chic seafood restaurant called the Cyren on Broadway, the police showed up at Sita’s and told Mum that Interpol had tipped them off and they were charging him with bigamy. Mum didn’t even know what bigamy was. The male officer explained that my dad was still married to a woman in Cyprus and had left two children behind. ‘Don’t bother arresting him,’ Mum yelled, ‘I’ll fuckin’ kill him!’
During his court case, in which he narrowly avoided being deported, my dad explained how, when he was fifteen, his older sisters arranged for him to marry a local woman who was nearly thirty and wanted children. They had two, a boy and a girl, when he was around sixteen and seventeen. Not long after, he hightailed it, abandoning them. He never returned, and his wife never stopped searching for him.
Mum didn’t kill him, but as soon as she discovered this truth, she made my dad send money to his kids. Then, against her better judgement, she stayed with him. They continued living with Sita, who, despite everything, had taken a liking to my father and felt sorry for him. Dad continued to work though we never seemed to have any money, and Julie was born.
When I was seven, a number Sita called the age of reason, my parents separated. My sister was three. I wasn’t fussed because Mum played the lead role in our lives. If my dad wasn’t working, his spare time was reserved for the TAB, where he betted without restraint on horse and greyhound races. This left him with no dough and no time for his daughters, which suited him fine. It also left Julie and me unattached to the notion of a father figure.
Soon after the ink dried on the divorce papers, my father took off for Cyprus. We continued living in Sita’s house in Summer Hill. Sita had the front bedroom, facing the congested thoroughfare, Julie and I were in the middle, and my parents had been in the last bedroom at the other end of the hall. Now it was just Mum in that room, and she seemed relieved to be rid of my dad. My grandmother’s favourite pastime was fussing over my mother’s carefree ways. Since Mum’s early teens, when her father forced her to leave school and join the working class, she barely made ends meet by doing odd jobs like sewing bras at clothing factories, waitressing at cafes and cleaning hotels. One of Sita’s nicknames for my mother, Slippery Dip, referred to her wasteful spending and inability to hold a job. In her trademark snark, Sita would explain the nickname: ‘Life for Helen is a fun ride to the bottom.’
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