… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Australia has a new National Cultural Policy, and Creative Australia’s Music Australia, led by CEO Adrian Collette and the ACA Board, and Executive Director of First Nations Arts Dr. Franchesca Cubillo, is charged with building Australia’s music making capacity, and attracting investment to the full scope of the Australian arts sector. As a primary pillar of this new policy, the Arts Minister Tony Burke has announced a “First Peoples First” priority.

So who are the music makers who will produce a better future for Australian music? There seem to be three kinds.

1. Australian First Nations Musicians: First Nations people who have birth and ancestry from a named, well defined Australian Country, who maintain and express their identity in uniquely Australian Indigenous customs, organizations, languages, arts, music, and choose to maintain either apartheid or mixed kinship relationships.

2. Australian Expatriate Musicians: Immigrant origin musicians with birth and ancestry from a foreign country, whose families have travelled to and settled in Australia, and retain their right to maintain an expatriate identity, expressed in expatriate customs, organizations, languages, arts, music, and apartheid or mixed social relationships.

3. Australian Kriol Musicians: Culturally diverse musicians of mixed Australian First Nations and Australian Expatriate birth and ancestry, who have formed diverse intercultural and corporate alliances, created intercultural customs, organizations, languages, arts and music, and have generated uniquely Australian cultural identities and relationships.

Equitable Investment in First Nations, Expatriate and Kriol “Songs of Home”

From a commercial viewpoint, Music Australia needs to know what skills, value and products Australian artists, musicians, dancers and craftspeople can supply, what their accreditations are, and what financial returns their products can bring to the country. To research this, the ACA Board sought submissions from arts practitioners and organizations across Australia. The submission findings showed that Australian arts, particularly First Nations arts. are currently under-resourced. This will not change until 1 July 2024, when the $35 million allocated to supporting First Nations arts will be deployed. Artist Blak Douglas has advised First Nations artists to guard against misappropriation of these funds by non-indigenous arts administrators, and has proposed a generic government grant for all graduating Australian First Nations artists.

How arts producers and their works are valued by Australian communities, may be quite different to how arts sponsors and investors assess the current and future potential of these artists and their products. At the moment, Arts Council Australia believes that the investors they attract, value Australian arts primarily as exportable commodities whose value can be translated into GDP dollars. But that’s only part of the story. Judging who are the best artists to represent Australia, and which is the best Australian music repertoire to invest in, requires a broad knowledge of the full scope and social capital of Australian arts, music, dance and crafts, what is needed to support the Australian musicians who produce it, and what uniquely Australian features attract Australian and foreign consumers to it.

Australia prides itself on being a multicultural country whose citizens tolerate cultural difference, respect each other, and work hard at maintaining peaceful intercultural communities. One reason for the boasted success of multiculturalism in Australia, is generous Australian government funding of immigrant music making, arts and social events. This pro-expatriate arts strategy aims to maintain social harmony. Meanwhile Australian First Nations, who are culturally and linguistically distinct from immigrant and coloniser communities, and from each other, have been expected to raise our own funds, and compete with government funded displays of immigrant and coloniser culture. Australian First Nations musicians can register as First Nations cultural suppliers, but may not be able to access corporate funding. Under pro-expatriate arts policies, Australian Kriol musicians have been pressured to abandon inherited Indigenous Australian musics, comply with global secular consumerism, and become imitators or adoring fans of foreign music stars and genres. Up to now, ACA’s music policies have supported Australian Kriol musicians conditionally; i.e. if they collaborate with non-indigenous expatriate partners and administrators.

Nevertheless, Australian Kriol communities have continued to privately create and develop fusion customs, arts and music that are distinctly Australian. The combined resurgence of Australian First Nations and Australian Kriol arts and musics offers an opportunity to forge a rightful place for these uniquely Australian musics, and the First Nations and Kriol musicians who produce them. This reaffirmation may enable alienated Kriol Australians and Expatriate Australian musicians to form stronger ally relationships with Australia’s First Nations musicians.

The Australian government supports and generously funds many expatriate communities, including (among many others) communities who have emigrated here from England, China, Russia and Ukraine. Many members of these communities have integrated into neocolonial Australian society. At the Australian Citizenship Ceremony they are also required to acknowledge and state their respect for Australia’s First Peoples. However, many expatriates have failed to follow through on their commitment to learn about and befriend Australian First Nations communities, through no fault of their own. They, and Australian First Peoples’ communities, are not supplied with sufficiently regular government support or education, to connect immigrant cultures and communities with First Peoples’ cultures and communities. So when government funds are received, they are much more likely to be used to preserve strict cultural apartheid, rather than promoting respectful enculturation into Australian First Nations host Country cultures.

For many years, spurred on by pro-colonial policies, Federal and State Australian governments have prioritised apartheid expatriate “Songs of Home” repertoires, apartheid music composition based on foreign music pedagogies, and apartheid music teaching. In effect, pro-colonial Australian governments have encouraged expatriates to undervalue Australian First Nations cultures, and silence the songs of the Countries they live on. Proudly imitating and praising non-Australian music and global music stars, while remaining completely ignorant of Australian First Nations musics, is still common in Australia. But as the Australian Citizenship Oath states, those who are awarded Australian citizenship, and the freedom to enjoy their own “songs of home” on First Nations Countries, still have a responsibility to respect, befriend and promote the music of the Australian First Nations that have provided sustenance for them.

In Australia, it should be remembered that certain inflammatory expatriate “songs of home” (e.g. “Rule Brittannia”) symbolize colonial terror campaigns to exterminate Indigenous people, erase our identities, and force assimilation on us. English “songs of home” were, in fact, deployed as a hostile propaganda arsenal, that tried to usurp the sovereign authority of Australian First Peoples languages and musics. Those who admire these “songs of terror” should think twice about the potential negative effects of re-endorsing and re-promoting colonial editions of them. It makes more sense to re-compose them in healthy ways, with reformed lyrics that assert and promote Australia’s emergent democracy, and its self determined independence.

The act of walking cooperatively and peacefully together into the future with Aboriginal Elders, may be, for many immigrant Australians, a step too far. Immigrant origin Australians often assume that this “walking together” requires them to utterly reject their inherited “songs of home”, which is simply not true. Everyone has a right to a peaceful musico-cultural inheritance, and first generation immigrants often find it hard to recover from the shock of cultural exile. “Songs of home” ease the pain of removal from Country, for all, when they are not censored. Disoriented and shocked by trauma and homesickness, expatriate communities often withdraw into “songs of home” for comfort and a substitute sense of identity. Australia’s First Nations were denied the comfort of “songs of home” for over two centuries, but by our own efforts we have now regained it. Immigrants to Australia eventually realise that the colonial regime that hosts them, has a history of attempting to exterminate its coloured First Peoples. Reactions to this revelation vary. Some coloured immigrants to Australia offer their own cultures to Australia, as an acceptably coloured substitute for supposedly exterminated or irretrievably weakened First Nations cultures. Others may reject Australia’s First Nations as uncivilized and unworthy.

When immigrant Australians treat First Nations Elders with ingratitude and rude disrespect, by prioritising expatriate cultures of origin in what they have been incorrectly told is the land of terra nullius, what should happen? Correcting the terra nullius lie can only be done by a coordinated mass cultural education program, across alll age groups.

Research shows that third generation immigrants are able to enculturate fully, if their host Country has a stable, widespread national cultural identity. Stable national cultural identities are supported by affirmative education programs, that immigrants are assisted to enculturate into. In the absence of well coordinated cultural transition programs, immigrants cling together, and maintain their familiar cultures, in linguistically and musically isolated ghettoes. Since Australia has welcomed many immigrant communities, and will welcome many more in future, finding ways to work together, despite everyone’s past traumas and our cultural diversity, is crucial to maintaining Australian social coherence. Australia’s First Peoples are looking for, but not always finding, long term, trustworthy friendships with the immigrant communities they have Welcomed.

There are other reasons to ask these questions about over-attachment to foreign music cultures. Australian music fans are subject to constant media pressure from global media, to prefer imported music. Taylor Swift’s mass global fandom is only one example, among many. Australians often choose to listen to imported music. Fans of foreign music stars are usually unaware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tracks, that are not necessarily registered on the apps they use, and are habitually tokenised on mainstream Australian radio playlists. Digital ghettoes flourish in Australia.

In Australia’s current social, cultural, economic, diplomatic and geographic situation, excluding equitable representation of Australian First Nations music from mainstream consumer playlists and apps is not reasonable, balanced, or constructive. No one is proposing to silence imported music altogether, but it is increasingly clear that exclusive, unbalanced consumption of foreign music supports overseas music markets, not Australian music or the Australian economy. This unbalanced consumer bias disadvantages the iconic Australian Indigenous song economy, and it offends Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, who have a right to sustain, revive and promote their songs. It also offends immigrant descendant Australians who have partnered with Australia’s First Peoples at their own cost, to forge recognizably Australian music genres. As my Dharawal Inuit colleague Sonya Holowell asked in her moving choral lament “Never Extinguished” – “how long! how long!” How long must we wait for justice, a fair hearing of our voices, and a better future? Another of Sonya’s Songs from the Heart pieces, “If You Can” casts a cynical eye on the hope of salvation, but concludes with the hope that the spark of fire in all Australian hearts will one day burst into a living flame.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: