“Music will always survive. Because it has and it will”*. My takeaways from BLAKSOUND 2021

This time of the year, BIGSOUND – the Australian music industry’s annual conference – would normally be taking place in Brisbane. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus developments Down Under in the last couple of months, it was cancelled in mid-July. But it made room for something way more important.

BLAKSOUND was a 100% First Nations youth-led music conference. What that meant for me was three sleepless nights spent trying to absorb a wealth of knowledge shared by all its amazing speakers. And I cannot stress enough how valuable an experience it was.

So here is what went down.

PART 79 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

As I’m typing these words, BLAKSOUND’s closing party has just started. Hip hop artist Nooky is performing right now. Since June 2021, this Nowra-born artist has had his own show called Blak Out on triple j.

It’s kind of a big thing and a result of years of hard work put in by the Indigenous community in Australia to reclaim their rightful place in the music industry. Asked in the chat before the performance, whether he reckons the business has changed for the better since he started in 2010, Nooky admits, “It’s definitely changed for better. It’s more colourful right now”.

But the work is far from over. Hence, my interest in the BLAKSOUND event.

“Imagine an all-Indigenous conference”, are the words of Loki Liddle, one of the young curators, when he’s reminiscing about a project he was researching back in 2020. What was still only a dream then has come true in 2021.

At first, it might not sound like something special to us, white folks with privilege. We are used to organising and curating industry events where we control the narrative. But it’s an important step for the First Nations musicians in Australia.

To my knowledge, there had never been a 100% Indigenous-led, and -owned music industry event of this kind in the country before. So, for the first time in a very long time, Indigenous artists were able to tell their own stories the way they felt fit. And it was an incredible honour to be their guest on that occasion.

Having said that, the conference was open to anybody interested, regardless of their skin colour. It was presented by Digi Youth Arts and Vyva Entertainment, and supported by BIGSOUND and QMUsic. Now, let me decipher what those names stand for, so you can grasp the conference’s concept a bit better.

QMusic is a “music industry development association” that organises BIGSOUND. Digi Youth Arts is a non-profit Indigenous organisation based in Queensland that “shares the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.” And Vyva Entertainment combines education, advocacy and empowerment with music and event management, broadly speaking. Their cooperation resulted in three days packed with so many insights I don’t even know where to begin.

Firstly, there were the key yarns, or eye-opening conversations about the First Nations legacy, also in relation to the music industry Down Under. And the chats between two generations of artists were the best part here.

Sycco chatted with Christine Anu. Jem Cassar-Daley spoke to her dad, Troy Cassar-Daley. And DOBBY connected with Aunty Marlene Cummins. It was also fascinating because a rapper spoke to a blues singer, a singer-songwriter interviewed a country artist, and two pop performers had an exchange about their experiences in the industry.

Within that segment, I found the conversation with Alethea Beetson, the Artistic Director and Founder of Digi Youth Arts, particularly insightful. She talked about creating spaces for First Nations musicians, including funding for Indigenous-led initiatives, the Aboriginal artists’ “quotas” at music events and dismantling the whole music business In Australia as it is today. It felt like I was back at school all over again because, sadly, I wasn’t aware of many of those issues.

From a music blogger’s perspective, I was especially looking forward to the panels with the First Nations artists, many of whom I admire and whose stage names you’ll often see on my playlists.

They sat down with well-known journalists and broadcasters to discuss the obstacles they face in their lives and the industry on a regular basis. They talked about being ashamed to perform, feeling unsafe in the spaces where they are asked to appear, not having the same opportunities whilst being on Country or the lack of equal representation in the business overall.

Primarily, though, they focused on imagining the way forward. The titles of those conversations speak to the content they covered, i.e. “F#$K THE SYSTEM, We own Our Stories” with Ziggy Ramo and Fred Leone or “Connectivity + Continuum: Our Vision for the (Blak) Future” with Alice Skye and Kobie Dee.

My fave panel was called “What does it mean to be the Youngest Generation of the Oldest Surviving Culture in the World?”. It was literally mind-blowing to listen to BARKAA, Emily Wurramara and Baker Boy share their thoughts on this great responsibility to carry the First Nations musical and creative traditions forward. I loved their stories! Especially when Baker Boy mentioned that people not only know the lyrics in his native Yolŋu Matha but also start to learn the language itself. How inspiring is that?!

What was really humbling was to see them all so positive and hopeful for the future, despite the many wrongdoings and injustices that have been happening to their “mob” over the centuries. I guess “bla(c)k joy” is a phenomenon that conquers all other painful feelings in the end.

First and foremost, however, BLAKSOUND was a gathering curated by young people for your people. It was frequently mentioned throughout the conference that up-and-coming First Nations musicians might find the industry a scary, confusing and/or overwhelming place. Many keynote speakers also admitted that they wished they’d had a helping hand or some guidance when they were starting in the business.

So I’m sure the workshops were the most useful part for the young generation of artists. Amongst them were a Spotify Masterclass, a talk about music distribution and playlisting with Ditto Music and a triple j Blak Out yarn advising on music submissions to the broadcaster. Those workshops were, naturally, reserved for young First Nations musicians only.

In that same segment, there was an element I welcomed with open arms as well. When I lived Down Under, I used to volunteer for Amnesty International in Melbourne. And I had the enormous pleasure to learn first-hand about Indigenous music, having curated an event with a First Nations hip hop artist. It was a life-changing experience for me. So it was great to see Amnesty International being involved in BLAKSOUND. They delivered a chat and workshop on anti-racism in the workplace.

Networking at the conference was another important aspect for me. If I’ve counted correctly, over 500 delegates registered for the event, from different backgrounds, industries and countries. There were music lawyers, journos and event managers from New Zealand, the UK and Europe. There were also artists and industry people from all over Australia. I made some invaluable connections that I’m hoping to learn from further in the future. So stay tuned – I might have more news on that soon.

Last but not least, I am grateful for having discovered SO MUCH new music and SO MANY new First Nations initiatives. For instance, Jimblah talked about BLKMPIRE that is all “about prioritising Music as a healing tool, to activate where Community is inactive, to transform this Country in a manner that only music can.” What has already been released under this project is beautiful. So I’m really keen on seeing where the South Australia-based artist will take this project next.

I would have loved to see more performances for the closing party. But I’ve already done my part on that front. And, as Alethea Beetson requested, I’m doing my bit in using the newly gained knowledge. So check out the below playlist, where I’ve included the First Nations artists that were a part of BLAKSOUND 2021.


Check out my other posts about the First Nations’ music:

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