Change is Gonna Come: Aboriginal Music and Activism

By Sylvie Leber

“You can’t change the rhythm of my soul,
You can’t tell me what to do,
You can’t break my bones by putting me down
Or by taking the things that belong to me.

‎We have survived the white man’s world

And the hurt and the torment of it all,
We have survived the white man’s world,
And you know you can’t change that! “

“We Have Survived” – No Fixed Address 1979

In the mid-1990’s I was privileged to work at AUSMUSIC alongside the passionate, smart and dynamic arts manager Jacqui McCoy (Geia). She worked tirelessly, often for no money, assisting Aboriginal musicians to tour across the country and was one of the founders of Victoria’s Songlines Aboriginal Music Corporation. Her work was a vehicle for social change. Sadly she passed away in 2007. A memorial concert was held to honour her which was a Who’s Who of the Aboriginal music scene, its supporters and musical collaborators. In the years following her death, the establishment of NITV and its music programs Fusion and Volumz, the creation of many black music organisations and small businesses, and the flourishing of Indigenous hip-hop and its powerful and sometimes confronting lyrics would have done her proud.

But Jaqui would not have been pleased by the Australian Government’s decision last year to defund the long running, high profile and televised Deadly Awards, which included the Deadly Music Awards. She would have been heartbroken. Deadly Vibe, the independent non-profit indigenous business organisation that organised the Deadlys, had a mission “to support all Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people in reaching their full potential by providing positive imagery, identifiable role models and quality information to improve community and quality of life.”

Could the defunding last July have been due to a lack of vision or worse still, due to a backlash against the strengthening of Australia’s Aboriginal people?

Before the late 70’s Aboriginal music was described as either traditional, ballad or country and western. This changed rapidly when rock and reggae came into the mix as well as the lyrics of protest. Despite the evolution of music genres, making a distinction between contemporary and traditional is not useful. In a non-written culture, it is through spoken word, music, dance and art that Aboriginal history and knowledge is passed on to future generations. Contemporary music is an extension of the songlines of old. The music speaks of connection to land and the natural world, the significance of family as well as white man’s oppression, attempted genocide and ongoing racism. Importantly, the music has a powerful healing force which is not often understood when heard by non-Indigenous audiences.

In 1979 an Aboriginal band from Adelaide called No Fixed Address (NFA) formed while members were at Adelaide’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). They played reggae-influenced music with political and social lyrics describing the plight of their people.

Members went on to be in a string of other bands. Their song We have Survived has become an anthem for Australia’s Aboriginal people. Their drummer Bart Willoughby said in an interview that the more songs he wrote the greater the healing was for him.

In 1980 the multi-award winning movie Wrong Side of the Road was made featuring NFA and Us Mob, another Aboriginal rock band from South Australia. The semi-documentary showed the life of an Aboriginal band on tour around the country, the discrimination and other bad treatment they faced, as well as the positive responses from the black communities they often played to. This movie was a powerful wake-up call about the plight of Aboriginals and their treatment in contemporary Australia. The musicians, especially those from NFA, went on to gain a wider audience and were played on mainstream radio.

The list of Aboriginal musicians who perform songs of power and protest is long: Yothu Yindi, Warumpi Band, Coloured Stone, Ruby Hunter, Joe Geia, Shellie Morris, Christine Anu, Tiddas , Kevin Carmody, The Pigram Brothers, Gurrumul, Dan Sultan, Emma Donovan, Kutcha Edwards, Blakbela Mujik, to name just a few. Archie Roach’s song Took the Children Away is possibly the most beautiful protest song of all time.

Collaborations with white musicians such as those from Goanna, Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly & John Butler, Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning, Red Gum, and David Bridie soon became commonplace as more non-Aboriginal musicians joined the political struggle of their black brothers and sisters.

The Black Arm Band Company has comprised of many of Australian music’s most prominent black musicians along with white artists. Their various music theatre stage shows are masterpieces in film, music direction and performance. Murundak – songs of freedom, a multi award-winning documentary follows The Black Arm Band taking their songs of protest on the road. Amongst the film’s many awards is the United Nations Media Peace award. The company’s name is highly indicative of its politics, referring as it does to former Prime Minister John Howard’s statement that Australians should not have a black armband view of Australian history – the implication being that it is time to stop examining the genocide of Aboriginal communities after white colonisation. The Black Arm Band’s music and art’s exposes Australia’s bleak history preventing its being hidden by Howard’s “white blindfold”.

At this year’s Adelaide world music festival, WOMAD, I saw Gotye, (Wally De Backer) of Somebody That I Used to Know’s massive international fame, performing with legendary Northern Arnhem Land elder and cultural custodian, Djalu Gurruwiwi with younger dancers and musicians from his community. It was a beautiful fusion of the contemporary and traditional. Gotye seemed humbled by Djalu’s quiet but powerful presence. A documentary film is currently being made in Djalu’s country about his mob which also features Gotye.

In more recent years electronica by groups such as Oka from Queensland and indie hip hop music by the likes of Melbourne based duo Yung Warriors are carrying on the songlines. The now established musical traditions of pride, survival and fighting injustice are getting across to younger audiences. Yung Warriors’ song Family Love gives me goose bumps whenever I hear it. Tjimba and Danny are cousins who are very proud of their highly acclaimed painter grandfather, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari (Burns). Tjimba’s dad is the renowned Selwyn Burns of Coloured Stone, Mixed Relations, No Fixed Address, Blackfire and more. Yung Warriors are standing strong and proud, representing three generations involved in Aboriginal art, music and activism. They regularly run workshops across Australia inspiring youths to continue the songlines.

At WOMAD I went to two interview sessions: one with the indigenous activist and singer/songwriter Buffy St Marie of Canada and the other with Youssou N’Dour, former Minister of Culture of Senegal and one of the best known musicians in Africa, of 7 Seconds fame. They both stated that music is the first and most universal language of all people. During question time I asked Buffy if she thought that music could bring about social change.

Smiling, she replied, “It’s a lot better to learn about what’s happening by listening to a three and a half minute song than to read a 400 page book.”

The title of this article, Change is Gonna Come, is taken from the title of a song written and recorded by Ruby Hunter about domestic violence.

A “Jill of All Trades”, Sylvie Leber’s most enduring work and passion has been music. As a teenager she worked in distribution at Go Set Magazine, and later as a bass player and songwriter most notably in the all-girl band Toxic Shock. She has researched, written and directed education modules for AUSMUSIC, including History and Styles of Australian Rock Music. She was also a presenter of RRR’s Give-Men-A-Pause show. 

Feature image: Mark Roy/Flickr.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.