The issues surrounding January 26
While much of the country celebrates Australia Day as a national holiday with barbeques, beer and friends and family, the day is regarded to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a Day of Mourning.
The January 26 debate needs no introduction but considering one of its most significant protests was held back in 1938.
The protest held by Aboriginal people on 26 January 1938, the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of Australia. It protested against 150 years of callous mistreatment of Indigenous people and the seizure of their lands, and purposefully coincided with the Australia Day celebrations held by the European population on the same day. The protest became a tradition, and annual Days of Mourning have been held to this day.
When considering the historical events that Aboriginal people have borne the brunt of since 26 January 1788, know fondly known as our national day, it's understandable why many Australia's might not commemorate the occasion with a party or barbeque.
Music as a social and political tool
When we think about social movements through music many tend to look at countries like the US in the 60s and 70s and the role music played in overcoming the social injustices. Hit songs like Sam Cooke’s Change is Gonna Come about hope and desperation and Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit about lynching black Americans were fundamental in the civil rights soundtrack. These would be sung during the Freedom Rides across the US. Australia had its own Freedom Ride movement in 1965 lead by Charles Perkins.
In Australia, white artists dominated the music scene during this time. Despite Australia being home to world-class People of Colour singers like, Georgia Lee, Wilma Reading and the Sapphires, it wasn't until the 80s and 90s where non-white artists were being celebrated for their diversity.
Socially conscious music in Australia
By the late 80s something began to change in the Australia music scene, social consciousness had entered the mainstream. Also, prominent musicians at the time like Shane Howard, Peter Garret and Michael Hutchins along with international touring acts began to speak out about the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
In 1982 the band Goanna lead by Shane Howard released a thumping Oz-rock beer song Solid Rock. The song took Aboriginal dispossession and placed it centre stage of white Australia. By the mid 80s Aboriginal groups were on the rise and combined with the hard-hitting sounds of heavy rock and the political voice that was reminiscent of what punk is about resonated with audiences and people began to listen.
One group that descended on the scene with a strong social message in the 90s was Yothu Yindi. 'Well I heard it on the radio / and I saw it on the television’ sang Dr Yunupingu in the hit song Treaty. This song was about the Hawke government’s broken promise to Indigenous people in his famous response to the Barunga Statement (1988). Archie Roach gained popularity as he summed up the emotional experience of the Stolen Generation with his song Took the Children Away as children forcibly removed from their families in the 50s.
Although Australian music and its genres had changed a lot over time, the social and political messages were still strong and continue to highlight social and political issues that are relevant in the country today.
For example, by the 2000s and hip-hop groups Local Knowledge, Brother Black, The Last Konnection, Mau Pau, Indigenous Intruders and Briggs burst on the scene. Hip-hop was about self-expression and as it was built out of the ghettos it allows the social issues to be heard and with hip-hop dominating the global music market and its influence on youth culture, Australia was confronted with proud, black and deadly musicians that spoke their minds and their truth.
Of course this is just a small selection of the continuation of Indigenous culture and identity in Australia through contemporary music and a mere snapshot of social and political movement through music. However, these are the anthems that can address what 26 January means to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.