Titan Debirioun came to Australia as a four-year-old with no parents. Today he is one of the strongest voices fighting for social justice for his community.
Laying down tracks at his home studio in Melbourne’s west, Titan Debirioun is determined to change the way the country sees colour.
His efforts to rewrite the narrative around South Sudanese refugee communities in Melbourne have earned him the title of a social justice advocate.
But the 21-year old wears a lot of hats.
“I have a few different hustles, two or three day jobs at any one time,” he tells SBS News as he arrives for his interview in a heavily insulated boilersuit and snow jacket he wears for moving boxes in freezer storage units.
Titan recently moved into a share house in Point Cook after living in Tarneit, outside of Melbourne, with his grandmother. She had raised him since he was four years old.
While furniture is sparse throughout the house, the garage boasts an impressive studio set-up complete with industry-standard microphones and recording equipment.
His smooth voice hits every beat.
“Open up your eyes, see the greatest that is black already … greatness that is us already,” he rhymes.
Titan describes his music as his source of therapy.
“I don’t want to say ‘I want to be a rapper’ because that’s corny,” he says. “But if I’m lost, I can write, I can speak to myself, and I get that out. It’s crucial.”
His school teacher encouraged him to write haikus in Year 5 and he went from there.
He takes his inspiration from his lived experiences of trauma, adversity and learning how to fit into a society that can treat you as an outsider.
“I knew what it feels like to have this skin. It’s beautiful skin but people don’t see it in the same way I do, right.”
After performing live he is often approached by audience members who can relate to his songs, he says.
“When you see people vibing with words you wrote in your room, it’s indescribable.”
Separated from his parents
Titan was born in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya during the second Sudanese civil war.
He got out in 2004, but his parents didn’t.
“When the war happened we got separated,” he says.
“I don’t know what happened so my grandma raised me.”
Together, they began a new life in Australia.
The experience was put into poetry, and laid the foundation for one of Titan’s best-known tracks, ‘Dreams’.
He later made contact with his mother and is now trying to help her come to Australia. It is a long and difficult process, he says, and in the meantime his family in South Sudan rely on him for financial support.
“Other kids can just be kids, but I know people back there are relying on me when I grow up, so I have to be successful – I can’t play around like other people.”
He says maintaining a cultural connection to his South Sudanese roots is essential, even though he considers himself Australian.
“You still know you’re different, and at times when it’s like ‘who am I, why am I hearing stuff?’ You know where your house is, you know who your tribe is, you know who your people are.”
Fighting racist narratives
It was his people he says he felt he had to speak out for when the so-called ‘African gangs’ crisis began dominating headlines in Australia in 2018.
“A lot of the stuff that was on the news, I was there, I was in those rooms. I saw what happened from the start and I knew who was involved. Then I go home and see inaccurate information being broadcast on the news.”
He says the consequences on the South Sudanese-Australian community were harsh and long-lasting.
“It affects people’s employability, access to jobs, kids going to school … people come up to them and say ‘did you see the news last night, what’s up with your people?”
He organised a protest in response to what he called biased and inaccurate news reports, leading hundreds of people as they chanted “enough is enough” through Melbourne’s Docklands.
He says it was the impact of the narrative on the next generation of South Sudanese-Australians that made him speak up.
“They shouldn’t have to deal with these things at such a young age, you shouldn’t have to represent your entire community at school because of people you don’t know.”
Jemal Ahmet from the Centre for Multicultural Youth says voices like Titan’s are crucial when it comes to the success of Australia’s migrant communities.
“Young people, especially people from multicultural backgrounds, are often talked about and talked to,” he said.
“He’s able to say ‘enough is enough’ around those things, but he does it in a way that unifies people, he presents a solution as well as challenges that negativity.”
Now, Titan is equipping more young people to be able to tell their own truth through a music program for multicultural youth in Melbourne’s west.
Working with fellow artist Rockstar Bo-La and producer Simba Andrews, he mentors teenagers, teaching them to write, record and perform their own compositions.
He says the very act of bringing young people together is creating bridges across cultural divides.
“We can create dialogue and it’s our way of solving things that are happening, why wouldn’t we do it?”
And it provides them with an opportunity, he says, to write their own description of what it means to be Australian.
“It’s changing every day, it’s still changing, I don’t know what it means to be Australian, but we’re figuring it out together.”