Race war on the evening news: that’s how Logan’s suburb Woodridge was introduced to most of Australia. Two years on, and with Logan now the subject of a two-part SBS documentary, a pair of aspiring musicians tell John Birmingham about growing up there – and the storm in a teacup that was caught on camera.

It wasn’t much of a riot.

The TV news coverage, forever now just a click away on YouTube, looks impressive at first. The streets are full of huge, angry young men, some of them wielding clubs, one ripping a long, dark paling from a fence to use as an improvised staff weapon.

But viewed a few times with an eye to framing and editing, the Woodridge riots of 2013 shrink to the same eight or nine seconds of video. They are played over and over, often cut up and spliced into less kinetic scenes of police officers standing between rival groups of Aboriginal and Pacific Islander people, keeping them apart.

Australian news footage of the Woodridge riots of 2013

The confrontation, such as it was, blew up in the hot, slow weeks of January 2013, perfectly timed to fill rundowns on evening news bulletins otherwise bereft of content, during the annual silly season. Ethnic clashes, coloured gangs, race war: it was a heady brew. Comparisons to Los Angeles, the gold standard in these things, weren’t long in coming.

But Logan is not LA. “The Wood”, as locals refer to their ‘burb, is not Compton, or Watts, or South Central.

“My understanding,” says Mad Mike, “was that these blackfellas was doing something to a car.”

“They come out, said 'leave our car alone'. There’s some fisticuffs. It goes into the house. Back out on the street, because they lived just up from each other. But not everyone in the fight lived in the street.

“One mob calls their mob. The other mob calls their mob. So, you got Murris and Polys everywhere.”

Mad Mike grew up with Murris (Murri, meaning Queensland Aboriginal people) and Polys (Polynesians). Africans, too. He’s cool with everyone, but this was a hard time.

“They weren’t even locals. Never seen them before. They didn’t grow up here. Seemed they come from outside. But it goes down in Woodridge, so now it’s all Woodridge.”

Mad Mike’s partner in rap, Junior Finau, says he had nothing to do with it.

“I saw it as an issue between some people and it blew out of proportion, because it was encouraged by other people standing on the outside, with lenses looking in,” Junior says.

Mike is 25 years young, a local Aboriginal man. He looks trim and wears glasses that give him a responsible, even studious air. Junior is a Tongan man, five years older and maybe three Mad Mikes wider.

Mad Mike

Mad Mike

“The tension started trickling down to the school,” Mike recalls. “I had some young Murris come to my house, kinda fearful of what might happen. You’re walking down the street, you see someone on the other side, and it’s fearful, but then you think, ‘hey, I know all their cousins’.”

“So it lingered for a bit, but the true community always perseveres. All of us who know each other, the younger ones see that harmony and they learn from it. Everything went back to normal.”

Junior nods in agreement. A former representative footballer, he now works for Queensland’s Department of Justice, where he runs award-winning training programs. Where Mike seems hesitant, even shy in conversation, Junior is a loud, happy, Falstaffian presence.

Junior Finau

Junior Finau

The demands of the conflict narrative would make enemies of them, but they are colleagues and contemporaries and now friends. Jamming on a guitar and riffing out lines in the driveway and backyard at Junior’s place, they so delight in each other’s word flow that the rhymes break down in their laughter.

Fist bumps and high fives celebrate the crackle of creative energy passing back and forth between the musicians. It is hard, even impossible, not to be drawn in to the rhythms of the impromptu jam session, a kickin’ little number that would do Jurassic Five proud.

Mike and Junior writing music

Later, sitting across the table from me at Al Sahara, a Middle Eastern restaurant attached to the Logan City Motor Inn, they exhibit a little nervousness at the kibbeh and sambousa (which neither has ever encountered before), but happily strip grilled lamb and chicken from their skewers. I talk Junior into trying an Arabic coffee in a tiny cup. Mike sticks to soft drink, but hazards the mysteries of a grilled fish under a tomato dressing.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before, eh?” He is pleased to have discovered it.

The received wisdom about The Wood is that it’s some sort of howling suburban wasteland, riven by turf wars fought by the tribal forces Mad Mike and Junior represent. The reality, not so much. Woodridge, a half hour’s run down the M1 from the glass and steel towers of Brisbane’s CBD, is a working class suburb squeezed between the freeway and the thousand hectare nature reserve of Karawatha Forest.

On the streets of Woodridge

On the streets of Woodridge

Its architecture is pure Antipodean Banal: a few small concentrations of light commercial and industrial development, a sprawling net of streets and cul de sacs which can never quite organise themselves into a grid pattern, a few tired postwar fibro shacks, some unremarkable 70s brick bungalows. The human architecture, however is colourful and vibrant.

English is spoken less at home here than is normally the case in Australia, but not much less. It is still the dinner table language of nearly 70% of the suburb. Samoan comes in second. Arabic, third. Unemployment is higher out here, and educational levels lower than the national average.

Sometimes the colours of the The Wood do clash, but mostly they stitch together a lively mosaic that works in spite of itself. Popular weekend markets offer produce, foodstuffs and small handmade goods from all over the world, which is to say, from all over the suburb, where over a hundred languages are spoken.

Sport, especially rugby league, draws all of the clans together. Cameron Smith, late of Melbourne Storm, the Queensland Origin team and the Australian national team, is a son of The Wood. Music is likewise a binding force. Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes kicked out his first tunes here and every Sunday the voices of local congregations drift over the suburb from the churches, which are an especially important part of Islander culture. They sometimes waft along on the smell of crackling pork, for wherever two or more are gathered in His name, there shall be a roasted pig.

“Being Polynesian,” explains Junior Finau, “those three things, people and land and spirit, they’re everything.”

“Music was always a part of church. For me, growing up in a family where music was always around, you didn't quite take it seriously until you got a little bit older and you realised you could make a profession of it. A living.”

“People and land and spirit – those three things are everything.”

He shares with Mad Mike some quite conventional dreams of aspiration. His whole life, Mike has been preparing for his moment, studying the lives of the stars the way religious savants once studied the lives of the saints for inspiration and guidance. As we walk across the footy oval where Junior and his boy are kicking a ball back and forth, late one afternoon, Mike tells me he first came at music technically, learning production and helping out backstage. But it was watching performers living large in front of their audience that gave him the hunger.

“I wanted it too,” he said, and you can feel it coming off him in waves.

A guy who wants it so much, he built his own recording studio in a cupboard? You can trust him when he says he wants it. He is ready to go, to move on into the world.

“When I was a kid, it was all about community,” he says. “Sport and religion. And culture. I started playing football at four. I’m still playing.”

“You had that sense of community all the time; you’re playing with your people. It was real fun. There was always lots of events down the park.”

Woodridge is one of the most diverse and multicultural areas in Australia

Woodridge is one of the most diverse and multicultural areas in Australia

As a teen though, things change. It’s an old story you can hear as often as you care to listen – not just in Woodridge and Logan, but in the west and southwest of Sydney, where Junior’s family first settled in Australia. Or Ipswich, where I grew up. Or in a hundred other unremarkable places.

“When you become a teenager, things change,” Mike confirms. “Toys and little kid stuff isn’t your thing any more.”

“It can become dangerous then for young people. Especially because you don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives. The Wood was still deadly and fun. You still had a lot of community stuff going on, like youth groups, sport, basketball. I loved it. But I’ve been here for 25 years. It’s my time to move.”

“I’ve experienced everything there is to experience here, except for two things: jail and death,” he laughs, “and I’m not gonna do either.”

“I’ve experienced everything here except jail and death. And I’m not gonna do either.”

Of the two, Junior probably sailed closer to that side, running wild in the freedom of the years immediately after he graduated as school captain from Woodridge High.

“When they gave me that bit of freedom, they were probably the worst years of my life,” he says. “One friend was murdered. A couple of the boys committed suicide. I got locked up a few times, helicopters and police dogs after me.”

“I was stupid, man,” he shakes his head.

“I tried to avoid getting locked up. Our parents were always telling us we didn't have shit, eh. We were a poor family. Nobody had ever gone to uni or anything like that. I didn't even know the way Woodridge was seen from outside. Only after I’d been here a while. And then I was like, whoa, shit, this is the ghetto!”

He laughs at the idea. “This is the hood.” Even funnier.

Mike smiles. He has always lived here and only recently left the hood for the first time, to travel to Cairns after winning a prize as best new talent.

Junior Finau and Mad Mike

Junior Finau and Mad Mike

Junior’s parents were forever reminding him of the sacrifices they had made to get the family to Australia, of the opportunities and future that awaited him now he was here. He repaid them early, with a 10-day suspension from school for fighting in the car park. He explains that he was protecting his cousin and his rep. Yes. He understands it was dumb.

During the interview to talk his way back into school, he told the deputy principal he was going to be school captain. Everyone laughed at him, but he turned that back on them in his final year, when he was duly elected to the position.

He heard the same laughter a few years later in court, during those wild years, when he was explaining to judge why he should go free after he’d been pursued through the city by helicopters and police dogs.

He’d gone to Southbank looking for a fight. Some homies had told him some other homies, who’d done this thing, that disrespected the other thing, they were in the city, in the tourist and entertainment precinct. Payback time. Junior was up for that, but the cops had his number. And they had helicopters and dogs. Junior’s backup was missing in action. He laughs it off, now that he can.

“People be like, ‘yeah, you a legend, bro, I got your back, I got your back for life, bro’. And I’m looking around thinking, ‘well, where the fuck are you now?’.

I thought, ‘I’m smarter than this. Why am I acting like this?’ I really, really had to reach rock bottom.”

So there was he was at rock bottom, standing in his Sunday best, explaining himself to the bench. He was studying, he told the beak. Trying to improve himself.

Studying what?

Nursing that tiny coffee cup and smiling at his youthful foolishness, Junior Finau told me, “I should have said arts or some shit, but I said criminology. The whole court room started laughing. My parents were there. It was embarrassing.”

“And because I was embarrassed, when the judge asked me why I was behaving this way, I cracked a joke. I said, ‘Your Honour, I think in order to be be the best case worker, you have to do both the theoretical and the practical work at the same time.”

His poor parents.

But everyone gets a second chance – or should – and with no conviction recorded, Junior pulled himself out the dive he’d been in. Like the Hilltop Hoods, he thanks his family and music for keeping him sane. He has all that now, and his work for the Justice Department. It turned out his early head start in theory and prac’ did come in handy.

He’s worked within the system for eight years and speaks with pride about the job he does and the people among whom he moves. It gives him a unique perspective on the occasional hysteria which can blow up, out of a place like Woodridge.

“I’ve worked with a lot families the last eight years,” he says. “People living in big houses on top of hills, they have the same problems as people in commission flats in the Wood.”

The colour of the problem might change with money, but the shape underneath remains the same.

“It’s all a struggle, eh?” says Mad Mike. “Real relationships are based on sharing the struggle, not comparing it.”

“Even if it’s black or white. It’s all the struggle. That’s why people feel alone, even though they’re all going through the same thing. They think their struggle is unique. It’s not.”

Photographs by Daniel Hartley-Allen
Additional photography by Yan Chen

The Logan Project is a two-part documentary series airing January 26 on SBS