Contemporary Aboriginal music can be a safe and approachable common ground for non-indigenous people to learn about Aboriginal culture, and share in public conversations about what Australia has been and could become.
Some songs and stories that illustrate this:
Took the children away. Archie Roach’s song spoke powerfully into truth telling about the stolen generations at the time it was released in 1990. It is a song of grief and loss but also hope which helped that painful story to become part of our shared cultural knowledge.
Advance Australia Fair. At an international Wallabies game in December 2020, school student and Wiradjuri woman Olivia Fox updated the national anthem by singing it in the Eora language, along with the team.
This simple act started a public conversation about the phrase “for we are young and free”. Many pointed out that it excludes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Within weeks the government moved to change the phrase to “we are one and free”.
For anyone who knew the song as a child, the hip hop version sounds like a modern update. But all may not be as it seems.
Baker Boy came from a remote island community in Arnhem land, and did not learn English until he was sent to boarding school in his teens. But hip-hop music has been his family tradition for three generations. His grandmother introduced VHS breakdance tapes to Arnhem land in the ‘80s, and his father and uncles formed a Baker Boys breakdance troupe (Baker is their family name).
Baker Boy has not commented on the song, but it is fair to assume that hip-hop is a lot more “traditional” in his culture than English nursery rhymes. His backstory is an insight into Aboriginal and Islander values around family, dance, language and community.
Treaty Yothu Yindi. In 1988 Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty. In 1991 this song said “...promises can disappear just like writing in the sand”. Baker Boy added a verse to the 2018 version in which he says “still no treaty, it’s killing me!”
The children came back Collaboration between Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs and Gurrumul, Gumatj clanman of the Yolngu. Part of a precious 2014 live set. Gurrumul was Australia’s most commercially successful Aboriginal musical artist till his death in 2017 at 46, after a lifetime struggling with preventable and treatable illnesses such as hepatitis B.
Educators could use any of these songs to discuss Aboriginal culture through contemporary Aboriginal music with children. As Briggs put it in his song January 26:
"If you ain't having a conversation, then we startin' it."