For Juice Rap News founders Giordano Nanni and Hugo Farrant, rapping the news has become a full-time job after Russia Today began syndicating their videos at the start of this year. The duo rose to national prominence briefly during the 2013 election, when they convinced Julian Assange to sing “You’re the Voice” in a Game of Thrones-themed election wrap video. But apart from that, Nanni and Farrant have enjoyed only limited success in Australia, their adopted home. Their largest audience by far is in America.
But then, Nanni and Farrant are unusual media entrepreneurs in a number of ways. Neither has a background in the professional media. Both recent immigrants (Nanni from Italy and Farrant from the UK), they combined their talents in 2009 to produce a series of satirical rap videos riffing on and explaining the broader themes in the news.
Separately, they’d dabbled in online video-making before. Nanni, a history academic, was engaged in trying to give indigenous Victorians a greater voice on the internet by filming interviews, events and rallies and uploading them to his YouTube channel, Juice Media. Farrant is a rapper and comedian who’d had a few of his satirical raps go viral on YouTube.
They met in Melbourne and hit off, partly over a belief something was missing from the news they were consuming. As Nanni puts it, “the news doesn’t tell us where we’re heading. It’s very local, very provincial. There’s very little joining the dots, or providing historical context. I know that’s not what all journalists can do. But I felt we needed more of that. We wanted the news to be a bigger discourse.”
“Oh — and the news was missing beats, obviously.”
“The music at the beginning of news programs is pretty good,” Farrant piped up, humming an evening-news opening. “But then, well, it just goes.”
But how do you make money to support yourself and your efforts from satirical current affairs rap videos? The Kremlin-funded Russia Today, or RT, was frequently in touch from the show’s early days, but Farrant and Nanni say they were reluctant to jump straight into a commercial arrangement with the network. Eventually they agreed to a one-year contract that gives them editorial independence. The licensing deal is also non-exclusive — Juice Rap News can still upload its videos directly to its YouTube channel.
RT has been a controversial employer of Western journalists, with several resigning in protest over the network’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis in recent months. Farrant and Nanni are well aware of the position this puts them in. They describe RT as a network keen to broadcast the flaws in American society, while turning a blind eye to the problems in Russia.
“You can say whatever you want I guess, as long as you make people laugh.”
“When they approached us a few years ago about wanting to collaborate, we said we didn’t want to be associated with any mainstream media, even if RT does do good work in balancing the narrative,” Nanni said.
But can they satirise Russia now that they take RT funding? They didn’t before, Nanni says. “But now that we have this agreement, we thought we had to start talking about Russia.” The first episode this year had a character called Ivan Sakamunev — an implicit reference to the persecution of gay and lesbian people in Russia. And when Russia invaded Crimea, Juice Rap News put Russian President Vladimir Putin in the show.
“We didn’t know how it would go down with RT… We thought we might not get our next pay cheque. But then, we thought that’s not why we got into this anyway.” The pay cheque, to their relief, arrived. Russia Today viewers are often shocked to see Putin lampooned on the network, Nanni says, but so far there hasn’t been any blowback from the network’s executives.
How do they get away with it? Nanni has a theory: “You can say whatever you want I guess, as long as you make people laugh.”
Another mainstay of their videos has been the idea of explaining the news through interviews with polar opposites. Their perennial anchor, Robert Foster, sits in the middle between a rotating cast outlandish characters spouting exaggerated justifications and explanations for what’s going on in the world. “If you want a real debate, you get the two extremes,” Nanni said. For example, an early episode pitted Al Gore against Christopher Monckton to debate climate change.
Juice Rap News’ style is far from that of traditional journalism. It bears more in common with the infotainment of the United States like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show than traditional news broadcasts (but with more rap).
It’s a controversial style for traditional journalists – one that eschews balance and doesn’t shy away from a political opinion. So are Nanni and Farrant activists, or journalists? They’re not sure there’s a difference. Believing something is worth covering reveals a personal preference anyway, Nanni says. But neither he nor Farrant see an ethical problem in taking a stand. “As far as I know, we’ve managed to avoid the accusation of being journalists at all,” Farrant said. “There’s got to be another term for what we’re doing. We’re taking the work of journalists and synthesising it into a cohesive narrative, and then adding a strong opinion, which is unique to the show. The show wears its ethos on its sleeve — it’s plain to see its agenda, and to mask it would be futile.”
Juice Rap News are performing a series of live shows in early 2015 in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. There’s more information on their website.