The Sound of Protest: Voices in the Charts
- Lucie Cutting
On January 26 of every year, many Australians tune into the most popular music countdown in the country – government owned triple j’s the Hottest 100. Like it or not, January 26 is also associated with Australia Day, and the two events have become a synonymous celebration of Australian culture and way of life. Like Australia Day, the Hottest 100 countdown has drawn criticism from various facets of the Australian population. Not only for its’ timing, but for a lack of cultural diversity amongst the ranks of the chosen few. In 2016 a public campaign was launched encouraging triple j to change the date of the countdown, in recognition of the negative connotations January 26 holds for Indigenous people. The request was delicately rebuffed by triple j, and within months another form of protest had arisen. Protest in the form of the very content triple j consumes, promotes and broadcasts. Australian-made music.
Music has long been used as a form of protest in Australia, and the world. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s the sound of protest was embalmed in the Australian rock movement and, while various themes have been broached such as the treatment of asylum seekers, a key focus of Australia’s musically fuelled retort to social and political issues has been indigenous rights. In the 1980s bands such as the Warumpi Band entreated audiences to move beyond skin colour to solidarity, ‘black fella, white fella, it doesn’t matter what your colour, as long as you a true fella’. In the 1990s Yothu Yindi fused djatpangarri [a style of Indigenous music] with rock in their collaborative track Treaty to remind us of a broken promise made on stolen land.
White voices were, and continue to be, a key feature of this form of protest and many listeners learned of Australia’s black history through music produced by the likes of Midnight Oil, Goanna and Paul Kelly. ‘Beds Are Burning’ and ‘Solid Rock’ are two tracks burned into the Australian psyche, who could forget the silhouette of a lanky Peter Garrett jauntily gesticulating against the backdrop of a full moon? Or the steady drumming of ‘Solid Rock’ and its evocative imagery of a land taken by force, ‘they were standing on the shore one day, saw the white sails in the sun. Wasn’t long before they felt the sting, white man, white law, white gun’.
In February 2014, arts and entertainment site Daily Review reflected upon the impact of Treaty, noting the songs popularity had allowed it to enter ‘mainstream white culture and made it something even red-necks and bogans could get pissed to’. As the Australian music scene has grown, and become less reliant on set avenues to reach mainstream audiences, the genres protest music is delivered in has widened also. In recent years, and almost unsurprisingly given its roots in America, hip-hop music has gained greater traction in Australia. Once a genre almost exclusively reserved for the likes of Hilltop Hoods, Bliss n Eso, and foreign imports from the United States, the Australian hip-hop scene has slowly emerged from its mould with the emergence of new talents who are too good to ignore. Within this voice, and alongside African-Australians, Indigenous rappers are creating music in recognition of the continued oppression and mistreatment of black Australia.
In 2016, duo Briggs and Funkoars of A.B. Original released their debut album Reclaim Australia. The title is intentionally provocative and indicative of the albums content: 12 tracks about Indigenous deaths, protest, racism, and inequality in Australia. The albums lead single, ‘January 26’ explains in simple terms why the date for Australia Day should be changed.
Reclaim Australia is laden with frustration and features many talents who have publicly called out experiences of inequality and racism; voices such as Gurrumul, Thelma Plum, Archie Roach and Briggs himself. Yet it’s also a well-crafted piece of musicianship and it’s this quality of content that gives the album its sustained popularity beyond the shock factor.
The stories that Briggs has chosen to share are important ones and the foreword by Archie Roach could easily be re-titled to a forewarning of what’s to come, ‘you have to get in their faces’ Archie Roach states. And Briggs does.
Following triple j radio stations decision to not change the broadcast date of the Hottest 100 in 2017, a new campaign was kicked off encouraging people to vote for A.B. Original’s 'January 26' in the countdown. The campaign is a protest hoping to deliver a strong message to the very heart of what it is against, the countdowns synonymy with Australia Day celebrations. There is no irony in this being a possibility; it’s protest plain and simple. Protest against oppression, racism, inequality, and Australia’s decision to continue to ignore its black history. Protest in the form of music.