From the Vault: Black, Loud and Proud

11 July 2014 Melissa Cranenburgh

From the Vault: Black, Loud and Proud

Jessica Mauboy

In 2010, a new generation of indigenous musicians were making waves with their talent. As part of this years' NAIDOC Week, we revisit Melissa Cranenburgh's piece, and celebrate these indigenous artists who have proven themselves in their longevity.

Jessica Mauboy, sitting in the lobby of a five-star Melbourne hotel, is looking glamorous in an R’n’B diva sort of way. It’s a stretch, now, to see her as she was four years ago: a 16-year-old from Darwin singing a Whitney Houston track at an Australian Idol audition. Her hair pulled back in a school-girl ponytail, sweet yet gutsy voice ringing out over the Alice Springs desert. 

Now, Mauboy – hair loose and tinged with blonde – looks every centimetre the pop starlet. In fact, several extra centimetres the part. When she stands, she is suddenly tall and leggy. “It’s these shoes,” she says, leaning down to pull off some seriously steep heels, explaining that the extra platform bit makes them easier to walk on. Her footwear is a universe away from the thongs that one of the Idol judges ripped into her for wearing during the series (which she finished as runner-up).

Yet, for all the carefully applied grooming (down to the subtle line of white eye shadow), Mauboy’s manner is friendly and unaffected. Yes, her second studio album (Get Em Girls) was recorded in the US, with the help of well-known producers, songwriters and guest stars. But her feet, although encased in designer heels, are still firmly rooted in the red dirt.

Mauboy is one of a number of talented Australian musicians with Indigenous heritage who are garnering public attention. She is proud of her culture and background, but these are not what she wants to be defined by. For Mauboy, as with many of her contemporaries, the priority is the music.

Still, when she was in LA this year making a music video with rapper Snoop Dogg for her album’s eponymous single (oddly, an ode to high-heeled shoes produced by Shondrae ‘Bangladesh’ Crawford), she found herself playing lighthearted cultural ambassador. Snoop – whom her older sisters idolise – turned up at the shoot with an entourage of 20 people he had picked up from a Mexican takeaway joint on the way. The group was fascinated with Mauboy’s blend of Indigenous and Indonesian heritage, and ploughed her with questions.

“They were all asking, ‘Do you hunt your food?’ And I was saying, my uncles do…it’s a normal thing,” Mauboy laughs as she recalls their disbelief. “And I’m, like, telling them you should try and taste this and this. ’Cos back at home we go fishing and we’ll eat turtle and, y’know, stuff like that. And they’re freaking out. They’re, like, ‘TURTLE?? Euerrr!’”

Mauboy laughs again, then sucks her breath in and changes tack. “I mean, I still get so happy when I go back home fishing or I’m out in the bush and I’m in the dirt. Or helping Dad…
I just smile. I just appreciate it so much. But on the other side of the world, they have no idea.”

Mauboy still feels there aren’t enough Indigenous musicians making it in the industry. She hopes to start a school to help the talented young ones from communities back home in the Northern Territory – kids who don’t lack the confidence, but the opportunity to succeed. And perhaps, one day, a sense of ‘home’ will also creep into her lyrics.

“I think gradually, I will really kind of start talking about that. But now I’m just having a bit of fun with it.”

Naomi Wenitong

Naomi Wenitong has a very different ambition for her songwriting. For the 28-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in Cairns, story is everything. And the  story of her people, her culture and herself has become central to her music. “People kind of say to me you’ve gone all political and stuff, and I’m like, ‘No I  haven’t!’ Y’know, I write about whatever goes on in my life,” she laughs. “If people change the way they act towards me now, I’ll write about it.”

And Wenitong holds her music to a high standard. She not only co-hosted this year’s Deadly Awards (which celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  achievement in music, sport, entertainment and community), but she also took home two music awards herself. The first was for Female Artist of the Year. The  second, Outstanding Achievement in R’n’B and Hip Hop, was for hip-hop trio the Last Kinection, in which Wenitong performs with her brother, Joel, and good  mate, ‘Jay Tee’ (Jacob Turier). The group toured last year with the pioneers of rap-with-a-conscience, Public Enemy.

But, in industry terms, Wenitong reckons she did things backwards. As a teenager, like Mauboy, Wenitong signed to a major record label as one half of a hip-  hop duo, Shakaya. She toured the US, had a hit single ( ‘Stop Calling Me’ went platinum in 2002) and received the sort of attention some artists crave. But after  a couple of years the frustrations started to mount. She wasn’t writing her own songs, or even being herself.

 “When you’re at a gig singing, y’know, ‘Cinderella’ [their 2002 single] and there’s all this stuff going on in our country, to do with our people and everything, and  you think, ‘I’m singing this?’ Like, it’s fine to do that, as long as you’re not ignoring what’s really going on as well.”

 Wenitong also felt that Shakaya was being shaped into a faux American hip-hop outfit: “What spun me out the most was that they were okay with us being black,  but not from here… You would do album signings and stuff, and people would go, ‘Welcome to Australia’. And I was like, ‘Are you serious? I welcome you’.”

Since starting the Last Kinection, which the bandmembers were determined to do “for the right reasons”, Wenitong has recorded songs she would never have dreamed of releasing with Shakaya. Among them is her version of ‘I Still Call Australia Home’. The opening lyric to this rap track is unequivocal and hard-hitting – the more so for being sung in Wenitong’s sweetly swooping voice: They invaded, degraded and polluted our land/stole all the children, and raped our women/But no matter how long or how far I roam/I still call Australia home.

The track was written before Wenitong left Shakaya, in response to a disturbing experience she had in her home town, Cairns, straight after performing at a Carols by Candlelight concert. Shakaya had been asked at the last minute to stay and sing the finale, ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, but the pair declined – they had other commitments. On the way home Wenitong stopped at a supermarket to pick up some ice-cream, only to be hit with a stream of racial abuse from the man behind the counter.

“And I’ve never had that to my face. I’ve had people say things and not realise where I was from. But he was saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re just drunk aren’t ya?’ I was just laughing out of shock. And then this other lady came in – another customer – and started joining in with him. And her daughter was, like, nine. She was going, ‘Mum, Mum, it’s Shakaya, it’s Shakaya…’

“I got into the car, and I was deafened by the silence, I mean by the anger. By everything. And I went home and I thought, you know what? I’m gonna do that finale. I’m gonna sing the finale tonight and record it. Why I still call Australia home.”

Despite this, Wenitong feels that, especially after the former prime minister’s official apology to the Stolen Generations, attitudes towards Indigenous Australians have definitely begun to change – for the better. But the music industry is lagging a little: “When it comes to music, things are changing a bit. It could be way more, but hopefully we’ll have a good part in that.”

Dan Sultan performs live

Singer Dan Sultan – who this year won accolades at the Deadlys for Best Male Artist and Single of the Year (‘Letter’) – agrees that there is a long way to go before Indigenous musicians have the same opportunities as their non-Indigenous contemporaries. But the 27-year-old from Victoria believes things are certainly better for the latest wave of musicians thanks to their predecessors: “Warumpi Band, the Pigram Brothers, Saltwater Band…they have hit the road and had these things to deal with…but because of the work that bands like this before us have done, they have made it easier for our generation. It’s now our responsibility to keep doing our best.”

As well as performing solo, Sultan has regularly played as part of the Black Arm Band, an all-star group with a shifting line-up that has included Kev Carmody, Kutcha Edwards and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Highly regarded artists Archie Roach and the late Ruby Hunter also performed with the Black Arm Band. The opportunity to play with ‘Uncle Archie’ – an artist he greatly admires –meant a lot to Sultan: “It is great thrill and a big honour to work with him. To be part of the Black Arm Band itself is very humbling.”

Sultan made his big-screen debut with Mauboy on the 2010 film adaptation of Jimmy Chi’s 1990 musical, Bran Nue Dae (the first musical that employed Indigenous languages in its lyrics). Sultan’s music blends soul, country and rock’n’roll, and his hip-swinging stage antics led folk musician Clare Bowditch to dub him ‘The Black Elvis’. There’s no doubt that Sultan is an incredibly versatile musician, whose voice can strike the moody lows on soul tracks and screech out in fine rock’n’roll style. And yet, as an Indigenous artist, he recalls being booked to play at a festival’s world music stage, after an African drumming band – as though his ancestry were a genre.

This kind of lumping together of disparate musicians under the general ‘Indigenous music’ label, is a source of frustration for the founder of Skinnyfish Music record label, Michael Hohnen. For around 15 years, Hohnen has been working with artists from the Northern Territory’s top end. “Some of the serious artists we work with are constantly battling this: ‘Yeah, sure I’m Indigenous, but that’s not necessarily what I’m projecting, I’m projecting just as an artist’.”

Hohnen admires musicians who push beyond the boundaries of what others are doing. “There’s an [Arnhem Land] artist who I’ve got an eight- or nine-year relationship with, called Tommy Lewis… He writes songs that cross between Nick Cave, Tom Waits...and Bob Dylan. He and I have just finished recording an album with Ross Hannaford of Daddy Cool [released next year]. And I think that will have a lot of integrity and I think it will have some sort of critical interest.”

Hohnen also produces, performs and works closely with one of Australia’s treasured artists, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The 40-year-old singer from Elcho Island (off the coast of Arnhem Land) has a voice like an angel, speaks little English and is famously media shy. Hohnen explains that one of the striking things about Gurrumul when he started performing was people would listen to him and not know that he was Indigenous – they just knew his voice sounded special.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

Gurrumul’s local success has been undeniable. The singer, who has been blind since birth, released his first solo album, Gurrumul, in 2008. Although Gurrumul was not a newcomer to the music industry (he was a member of Yothu Yindi and still appears with the Saltwater Band), his solo album exposed audiences to the transcendental beauty of his extraordinary voice. The album, which features Hohnen playing double bass, went on to garner two Arias in 2008 (Best Independent Release and Best World Music Album) and a swag of Deadlys.

But success overseas still eludes Gurrumul. Although he has toured internationally, the process is not one he relishes. Earlier this year his planned US tour, which included a sell-out concert in New York, had to be cancelled when the singer fell ill. Now some of his US promoters have started a Facebook campaign to get Gurrumul on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show while she is in Australia – a move guaranteed to raise his profile in the US.

The question is, though, would Gurrumul want that level of recognition? Hohnen believes that while Gurrumul is not driven by a desire for fame or great wealth, there are some attractive benefits. For one: the ability to buy a house for his family, something that not many people in his remote community have been able to achieve. Most importantly, finding fame in the US would mean having his talent recognised.

Some of the artists Hohnen works with have more modest ambitions – for example, groups like Wildflower (a band from Arnhem Land), which Hohnen explains are “not striving to do anything big and tour around or anything, they’re just really happy doing what they’re doing… They’re getting somewhere, but that’s not part of their drive.”

The most important thing for Hohnen is that artists are judged primarily on the quality of their music. Mauboy, Sultan and Wenitong all agree on this: the music comes first. Background is important, but Wenitong believes that the primary thing is that musicians are good at what they do.
“I want people to say: she’s a good songwriter, and, on top of that, she’s Aboriginal Australian.”

But, Wenitong adds, there is one particular advantage to being an Indigenous musician: she has a long and rich tradition of music and storytelling to draw from.“We’ve been doing it for so long…it’s just that other people want to hear it now.”

Melissa Cranenburgh is Deputy Editor of The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#409 of The Big Issue magazine.