“From Little Things Big Things Grow”. Music and advocating for social change in Australia

For the past two weeks, I have been thinking long and hard about ways of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia on my blog. Whilst there are limits to what I can do to be an ally of Aboriginal people, music always seems to be the best answer to advocate for positive change. That’s why this week I’m dedicating this space to Indigenous Australian music and performers.

PART 41 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE


WARNING for readers: this post might contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


First Nations’ music in Australia is rich and diverse: from didgeridoo players to pop singers, from songwriters to rappers. I’ve dedicated a few posts to the Aboriginal cultural legacy already, but there is so much more to share. Below is just a small selection of the artists I have come across, wanting to educate myself about the Aboriginal heritage. But I’d like to encourage you to give all the musicians I’ve mentioned below at least one listen.

PROTEST SONGS

Ask any Australian where the quote “From Little Things Big Things Grow” comes from, and they’ll instantly know. It’s the title of a song about standing up for your rights. This story of Aboriginal people’s fight for their land has become symbolic in the country over the years, making it one of the most important protest songs in Australian history. But it’s not the only one because, sadly, First Nations in Australia have way too many reasons to protest. This version by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly is probably the most familiar one Down Under.

One of the peaceful forms of manifesting the need for wider dialogue and societal change has always been through music. Especially in Australia, many inspiring and educational songs have been written. They are a great insight into the Aboriginal people’s perspective that is, otherwise, frequently overlooked and ignored in the national “white” narrative.

But instead of me talking about it, here is a video that mentions incredible acts, like Yothu Yindi, Bart Willoughby, Briggs or Mau Power, and their powerful musical statements.

MUSIC FROM TOP END

In Australia, there are hundreds of Aboriginal tribes who speak different languages and have unique traditions and rituals. What brings them together very often is music.

In my humble opinion, one of the best places to experience Aboriginal art and culture is Top End – the Far North of Australia, where Darwin is the biggest city. The plethora of artists who come from that region is impressive, i.e. Ziggy Ramo, Yirrmal, Jessica Mauboy, Emily Wurramara or Caiti Baker.

There is even a record label in the Northern Territory (NT) whose mission is “to maximise the positive impact that music can have on people’s lives while providing a window to the richness of Indigenous Australian culture”. Amongst its artists, Skinnyfish Music boasts Lonely Boys. This band from remote Arnhem Land supported QOTSA in 2017 when the Americans played a show in Darwin. The Great Dr G Yunupingu, better known as Gurrumul, was also on the label’s roster. (If you are interested in getting to know more about Gurrumul, I refer you to this post, where I discussed a beautiful documentary dedicated to his story).

Top End is also the best place to begin understanding the deeply traditional, ceremonial and ritualistic aspect of Aboriginal music, whose history dates back thousands of years. Not everyone gets access to it, though. That’s why authentic performances, like the one below, are a true gem to watch.

Additionally, traditional Aboriginal music is perhaps most associated with playing the didgeridoo. I dedicated an entire post to this famous instrument here. There have been many notable didgeridoo players in Australia to date. But if you’re curious about their craft and playing techniques, spare a moment to listen to Djalu Gurruwiri, David Hudson or William Barton.

ICONIC ABORIGINAL SONGS & PERFORMERS

Many Australians will also know names like Troy Cassar-Daley, Jimmy Little or Kutcha Edwards. But they won’t be very familiar to anyone outside the country.

In 2017, NITV shone a little more light (in this article) on some of the most iconic Aboriginal artists. They performed songs close to their hearts in unique locations around Australia. Musicians like Christine Anu, Dan Sultan, Archie Roach or Joe Geia also shared what those songs meant to them and how they came to be. And what stands out in all those stories is an incredibly moving pride and resilience of the Aboriginal community.

ABORIGINAL RAP

Hip hop stems from Black Culture. That is why most rappers in Australia are of Aboriginal origin. Artists like Tasman Keith, Jimblah, JK-47, Dallas Woods, NoKTuRNL or The Last Kinection actively use their voices to uncover and deplore the many injustices Indigenous community faces on its turf. Their music is the only way they can openly express their rage and anger. And sometimes it’s the only possibility to “educate” and bring awareness to what it means to be an Aboriginal person in Australia.

Everybody Down Under knows Briggs. He is one of the most vocal activists and rappers, often perceived as the spokesperson for the Blak Community (different spelling used on purpose). He also runs a Melbourne-based record label, Bad Apples Music. You will find only Aboriginal musicians on their roster. And most of them are hip hop artists, e.g. Nooky, Birdz, Philly, Kobie Dee and A.B. Original.

Not all Indigenous rappers use their platform the same way, though. Baker Boy, for example, has chosen “a path of positivity and light”, not wanting “to speak politically with [his] platform”. But even he recently penned a powerful post on Instagram in response to the #blacklivesmatter protests. He expressed how he felt about being pressured to add to the conversation in this difficult time for his community.

View this post on Instagram

I have had a number of people ‘call me out’ for not publicly sharing my rage about what is happening right now. As my Baker Boy persona I choose a path of positivity and light and choose not to speak politically with this platform. I’m also unsure that I have anything new or insightful to say. I don’t feel like it is anyone’s place to push guilt or question the activism of a First Nations person during this traumatising time. But I will say; I am a Yolngu Man from North East Arnhem Land. I am angry. I am scared. I feel every negative emotion that there is to feel about what happened to George Floyd. I feel these emotions EVERY DAMN DAY not just right now when it’s big on the news or trending on twitter and Instagram. This is my life and I am scared, I have anxiety about going to unknown places like a different cafe from my usual, not to mention the challenge of touring from the fear of racism, that, yes, is still rampant here in Australia too. For all of my balanda (non-indigenous) brothers and sisters I hope what you’re seeing in America right now is opening your eyes to the stolen land that you live on here in Australia, to your privilege, to those ‘jokes’, to those ‘jokes’ that you don’t call out, to your racist uncle or aunt or cousin or friend or coworker and, most devastatingly, opening your eyes to the over 400 deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians without a single officer charged. As your eyes open and you slowly awaken to the realities of what it is like to be a Person of Colour, an African American, an Indigenous Australian, I truly hope your activism goes further than your social media. Activism starts at home, with hard conversations. Please think about the way you are communicating with POC around you, especially at this time, as those who reached out to me considered themselves allies whilst amplifying my trauma, anger and sadness. Love and Peace, Danzal.

A post shared by Baker Boy (@dabakerboy) on

STRONG FEMALE REPRESENTATION

Aboriginal women proudly contribute to various genres of music in Australia as well. Apart from the already mentioned ones, there are popular singers around the country. Many have won awards and the Australian public’s hearts. Amongst them are singers-songwriters Alice Skye, Tia Gostelow, Thelma Plum, Leah Flanagan or Casey Donovan; opera singer Deborah Cheetham; pop duo The Merindas; jazz icon Wilma Reading; R&B queens Becca Hatch or Miiesha; hip hop artist Lady Lash or The Central Australian Women’s Choir. And many, many more that I’m sure I’ll get to discover one day.

ABORIGINAL ARTISTS’ PLACE IN THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY

I wrote about the perception of Indigenous artists in this post. It was based on my interview with Briggs in October 2019.

Today, I still think that music created by Indigenous artists doesn’t get the recognition it deserves on the national level. For instance, Thelma Plum became the “highest-ranking Indigenous artist ever in the Hottest 100” (triple j’s annual song ranking, voted on by the public) only in 2020 (!). Her song “Better in Blak” was voted at no.9. And there were just 4 other Aboriginal musicians’ tracks (two by Baker Boy and two also by Thelma Plum) in the whole countdown. This is simply not right. Because it has nothing to do with Indigenous artists not being popular. But it has everything to do with the fact that their access to the biggest platforms for showcasing musical craft in Australia is widely limited.

The ARIAs (the Australian Record Industry Association’s Awards) for 2019 only saw one Aboriginal artist take the Gong. It was Dan Sultan, for Best Children’s Album (!). And in all the music that Indigenous artists collectively released in 2019, only a handful of them were even nominated (Thelma Plum, Jessica Mauboy, Briggs, Electric Fields and Baker Boy). This proves my point again.

Thankfully, there are the NIMAs. The National Indigenous Music Awards – have been held annually in Darwin for over 16 years. And their mission is to “showcase the rich musical landscape of Australia and highlight the music coming from all corners of the country.”

THE YOUNG GENERATION

If I can leave you with a few more names, it will be the new generation of artists. They are tirelessly trying to build a bridge between their culture and the 21st century Australia. You should definitely check out Mitch Tambo, Robbie Miller, Aodhan, Kuren, The Medics or Sycco.


This post was meant to bring a little more knowledge about the music created by Aboriginal artists in Australia. I wrote it based on my observations, previous experiences of talking to Indigenous performers and the industry insights that I have. My intention was to respectfully acknowledge Aboriginal music’s legacy in Australia and present a few artists from different genres. However, I recognize that this is only a very small percentage of Indigenous artists and my knowledge is limited. So I’m not pretending to “know it all”.

As a white person, I also understand that I will never understand the Black Community’s perspective. But this is what I can do to stand united and amplify Aboriginal voices on my platform.


Another way of helping the Aboriginal community in Australia is signing petitions or donating to causes. Here are just a few of them:

Petitions

Prevent Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
https://www.change.org/p/prevent-another-aboriginal-death-i…?

Indigenous Lives Matter
https://www.change.org/p/scott-morrison-indigenous-lives-ma…

Donations

Bridging The Gap Foundation For Indigenous Health and Education: https://btgfoundation.com.au/

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance: https://natsiwa.org.au/

Justice for Tanya Day: http://au.gofundme.com/f/day-family-fundraiser

Justice for Yuendumu: Inquiry on Police Shooting
https://www.gofundme.com/f/justice-for-yuendumu-inquiry-on-…

Justice for David Dungay Junior https://www.gofundme.com/f/d9qkb6-justice-for-david

Grandmothers Against Removals http://au.gofundme.com/f/paytherent-to-grandmothers-against…

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