Critics Lab

Hip Hop, Her Story, and how Michelle Grace-Hunder learned Female Competition is Bullshit

by Ruby Mountford

If you’re a fan of Australian hip hop, chances are you’ve seen Michelle Grace-Hunder’s photography. Entirely self taught, Michelle has been capturing the local hip hop scene for the last eight years. Working out of a studio space in North Melbourne, her photo lab is set up on a small landing, only accessible via a vertical black wooden stepladder. The walls are papered with portraits of the musicians she works with, and a sleek silver desktop and tablet sit on her desk next to a row of potted succulents.

Though Michelle says that 2017 was the biggest year of her career to date, this year is already looking to eclipse it and we’re only in February. She double checks the date of the panel she’s speaking on as a part of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival, confirming everything’s in her Google calendar and I can see that no day is clear of appointments.

“It’s good to be busy,” she says, then, with a slightly manic laugh; “I’m so busy!”

 Music photographer, filmmaker and radio host Michelle Grace-Hunder

Music photographer, filmmaker and radio host Michelle Grace-Hunder

Michelle works as a music photographer, and co-hosts a weekly hip hop show, The Scenario, on Kiis FM community radio. In 2014, she firmly established her place as Australia’s most well-known hip hop photographer with the release of her first project, Rise. The first photo-book on Australian hip hop, Rise features portraits of over 180 artists and took two years to produce.

She refers to many artists by first name only, leaving me frantically trying to piece together my woefully small knowledge of hip hop. Adam Briggs, who she’s known from childhood, is a clear source of ongoing inspiration and mutual support. There is delight in her voice when she talks about shooting the cover A. B. Original’s most recent album, Reclaim Australia, and its unexpected success, as well as the new wave of intersectional voices that are coming onto the scene.

“I was really ignorant to the Australian hip hop scene,” she admits when I ask where the idea for Rise had come from. “I’d been immersed in hip hop since I was 12 and I feel very connected to that culture and community, but not the Australian side of it. When Briggs showed me some of his stuff, I was blown away, it was incredible. When I discovered that there was this beautiful, really incredible local scene filled with so many talented artists, I became very passionate about shining a light on that.”

It was working on Rise that lead to Michelle working with filmmaker Claudia Dalimore on Her Sound, Her Story, a documentary featuring interviews with over 40 of Australia’s female musicians. “I had worked with 182 artists for Rise, and only ten of them were female,” Michelle says, adding that she had made a conscious effort to find as many women as possible.

The sheer scope of this gender disparity prompted Michelle to do further research, and she details the digging into statistics and demographics that lead to a startling discovery; while women make up 55-60% of students studying music at a higher level, only 30% of artists registered with Australian Performing Rights Association are women.

“I saw that drop off and wanted to know the reasons why,” she says. “That’s when it sparked a bit of interest. There was something going on here, and I could do a portrait series, that’s fine, but this conversation was bigger. And that’s when I decided to bring on my project partner Claudia. We had collaborated a lot, she’s a beautiful filmmaker, she works on incredible music videos and we had a really great friendship and relationship so I thought I’d bring her on board. I’ll take her along to all the shoots, and we’ll do an interview with all these women.”

After a lifetime of working in male dominated industries, Michelle admits she and Claudia found being surrounded by women very foreign and uncomfortable at first.

“Throw me into a group of 50 men and I’m incredibly comfortable, I’m not intimidated at all,” Michelle explains. “It took a long time for me not to be intimidated by a group of 50 women.”

But during the process of speaking to women and hearing about particular incidents of sexism that had happened, Michelle and Claudia started to feel differently. “Those things had definitely happened to us as well, and I don’t think we had consciously taken them on board.”

It may have taken a long time, and some serious introspection, but Michelle says she’s come around and wants to support and champion other women. She’s especially focused on younger artists who may be lacking in confidence, and hopes Her Sound, Her Story will resonate with them, and the music community.

“Women supporting other women is the most important thing. Don’t see each other as competition. Don’t see men as competition either. That’s the trick we fall for, and that is bullshit. If there was one single thing I could tell people, it’s that, because we are so powerful together.”

Catch Michelle on the Side by Side: Gender Equity in Film and Music panel on Saturday February 24th at 2pm at ACMI, where she’ll be part of a conversation about women’s participation as creators and producers across the sound and cinema spectrum. Her Sound, Her Story is being later released this year and will tour nationally.

Whitney Monaghan