NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The Indigenous voice in Australian popular music

By Pat O’Grady — My office in the ANU School of Music shares a wall with Yil Lull studio, one of the few studios in Australia dedicated to recording First Nations’ music. The walls are thin. I often hear the wonderful music taking place on the studio floor.

The music being made in this studio forms part of a growing Indigenous voice in popular music within Australia.

Popular music has a long history of providing a voice of resistance to social issues. In fact, the discipline of popular music studies has largely grown from cultural studies analyses that have augmented traditional musicology. These analyses have developed to an understanding of the way popular music can speak to power; it joins protest movements that challenge racism, sexism and class divides. Here, popular music provides a voice to advocate for change and leads this change through practice.

When we think of an Indigenous voice in popular music in Australia, some look to the release of “Solid Rock” by Goanna. This year marks 40 years since its release. It is an instance where in the early 1980s, a white band was moved by discrimination faced by Indigenous people and sought to articulate these feelings in a protest song.

Not everyone was pleased. As Matt Neal (2020) writes, some Indigenous people were not sure about white people speaking about their experiences.

40 years on, the Indigenous voice in popular music now forms part of that popular music approach to social justice. Popular music is a voice of Indigenous concern, and the presence of Indigenous voices in mainstream popular music is now well established.

The internet – across music streaming services, traditional press and blogs – provides, for those who seek it out, a snapshot of this body of Indigenous artists in popular music.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Martyn 2020) provides the list “21 top Indigenous acts to tune into.” NITV offers a list of “26 songs about survival, protest, reconciliation and truth-telling” (Brisco 2019). Spotify, despite its well documented problems around royalties, has proven to be a really good way of collecting Australian Indigenous music. One playlist provides 16 hours of material.

Collectively, these lists remind us of the established artists ranging from Archie Roach, Yothu Yindi, and Yabu Band. But they also showcase some of the more recent voices like Emily Wurramara, Kaleena Briggs, Electric Fields and Thelma Plum, to name just a few.

Yet, it’s also important to note that, depending on our definition of popular music, the voice has a much longer history. Work such as by Clinton Walker (2012) and Tony Mitchell (2006) show the Indigenous voice in country music and hip hop traditions. There is more Indigenous music to celebrate in recent years.

So what does an Indigenous voice in popular music mean going forward? Perhaps it’s about ensuring more Indigenous people are involved in – and have control of – the production process? Perhaps it’s about ensuring access to the gear required to make music?

These questions speak to concerning divides in music production. I often think about those who are privileged to access large recording studios and the value they place on this style of work (O’Grady 2020). We need a more diverse group of people in music production, from people who work in large studios and the legitimacy of those to who record themselves. Similar concerns about the field have been raised by others. Leslie Gaston-Bird’s Women in Audio (2020) provides an account of the challenges faced by women who working in a field that has historically been male dominated.

The voice of First Nations people in popular music relies on places like Yil Lull and similar spaces dedicated to recording Indigenous music such as CAAMA Music. Why are these spaces important? Because popular music recording is seldom about simply capturing sound. One of the key points in music production scholarship is that this practice should be studied because it plays such an important role in what we hear.

In my office a couple of weeks ago, there was an acoustician examining my wall, and trying to improve the acoustics for Yil Lull. So it seems that my days of listening to this music on the studio floor while I work may be numbered. But it’s a reminder that this studio is going forward.

References

Brisco, L. (2019). ‘Enjoy this playlist of 26 songs about survival, protest, reconciliation and truth-telling. SBS NITV’ https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/enjoy-this-playlist-of-26-songs-about-survival-protest-reconciliation-and-truth-telling/haq4opyh3

CAAMA Music. (n.d.) https://www.caamamusic.com.au/

Gaston-Bird, L. (2000) Women In Audio. Focal Press.

Martyn, S. (2020). ‘Peter Garrett’s playlist : 21 top Indigenous acts to tune into’  Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/culture/music/peter-garrett-s-playlist-21-top-indigenous-acts-to-tune-into-20201021-p5673t.html

Mitchell, T. (2006). ‘Blackfellas Rapping, Breaking and Writing: A Short History of Aboriginal Hip Hop’. Aboriginal History 30: 124–37.

Neal, M. (2022) ‘Forty years ago, Goanna’s Solid Rock took Indigenous rights to the masses’. ABC. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-03/40-years-of-solid-rock-goanna-indigenous-rights/101375490?utm_campaign=abc_news_web&utm_content=mail&utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_web

O’Grady, P. (2021). ‘Sound City and Music from the Outskirts: The de-Democratisation of Pop Music Production.’ Creative Industries Journal 13(3): 211-225

Spotify. (n.d). ‘The Sound of Australian Indigenous’ https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6B9CpGm9IBQJzncRCPw0dG

Walker, C. (2014). Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music. Verse Chorus Press.

Yil Lull. (2021). ‘ANU launches Indigenous music recording studio’ https://cass.anu.edu.au/news/anu-launches-indigenous-music-recording-studio


Pat O’Grady is a popular music researcher, educator and practitioner, specialising in music production. He is a lecturer in music technology at the Australian National University.

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